What is the cost of an independent press?

By George Brown

I have little in common with Amanda Lindhout.

We both lived in Sylvan Lake for a time.

We’re both journalists — although as different as you can imagine. You may be familiar with her frequent columns in our sister paper, the Red Deer Advocate.

I’ve waged battles with politicians for access to information you need to have about your municipal government.

I’ve had my life threatened and property vandalized by criminals who would rather you didn’t know their identity.

I’ve never been kidnapped, although I do have a vague recollection a group of town councillors holding me in the bar long after my curfew.

When I’m on assignment, I’m the one doing the shooting — from behind my telephoto lens. I don’t dodge bullets. I dodge hockey pucks and volleyballs.

Until her kidnapping in Somalia 15 months ago, Lindhout, 28, was just another pretty face in front of the camera, trying to bring a touch of caring and awareness to areas of the world bereft of humanity. Hers is a daring life to be sure: travelling through war zones, facing danger and persecution.

With the financial failure of the world’s major newspapers and television media, foreign bureaus have been shuttered, leaving the responsibility to fill that vacuum in our 24/7 thirst for information to fall on the shoulders of freelancers such as Lindhout and her associate, photographer Nigel Brennan.

Somalia is the most dangerous African nation for journalists, with more than a dozen reporters killed in the last few years. Foreign Affairs warns against travel in Somalia and advises all Canadians, regardless of their reasons for being there, to get out. The fact is, without freelancers putting themselves in harm’s way to tell the stories about poverty, abuse and violence, CBC, CNN and BBC wouldn’t know when to swoop in and take credit.

And of course Big Media with tight budgets doesn’t think twice about hiring cheap freelancers to do the reporting for them. The money saved not having to pay for safety training and insurance for staff reporters goes straight to the bottom line. Any freelancer will tell you: if you’re not filing a story, you’re not paying the bills. The more dangerous the locale; the higher the rate of pay.

Reporters without Borders says journalists from Somalia, Russia, Sri Lanka, Mexico and Pakistan have been fleeing their own country at a rate of six a month. If the free world wants to know what’s going on in these nations; if we want to pressure our government to intervene or to provide aid, it’s up to these freelancers such as Lindhout and Brennan to tell the stories and incite western civilization to action.

The kidnapping was not about politics. It was always about ransom.

Canadians have debated since Lindhout’s capture whether our government should be directly involved in negotiations to bring about her release Nov. 25 and whether we should pay her reported $700,000 ransom. We might never know what role, if any, Canadian officials played in Lindhout’s release. Somali Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Sharmarke, a Canadian citizen oddly enough, said the pair’s release followed intense negotiations with clan elders, businessmen and the kidnapper’s relatives.

Canada’s policy has been not to negotiate (publicly) with kidnappers and terrorists lest it open the floodgates to further ransom demands and empty the treasury. Admirable, to be sure, but you’d like to think there’s a Canuck version of Rambo champing at the bit to rescue kidnapped countrymen. That a private “agency” is contracted to arrange their release would now seem to be The Canadian Way.

Lindhout and Brennan deliberately put themselves in harm’s way in a lawless country known for kidnapping, piracy and torture. It’s like skiing out of bounds: it’s dangerous and exhilarating but you shouldn’t expect the ski patrol to jump to your rescue. At the very least Lindhout and Brennan were naïve to go into Somalia without negotiating local support. The freedom of the press we enjoy in Canada is not recognized around the world nor are international journalists’ motives seen to be honorable in nations such as Somalia, Iran and Afghanistan.

Lindhout is not likely to be the last Canadian journalist taken hostage.

What action do we want our government to take and what is the price we are willing to pay for free and independent news reporting?

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