Veteran war reporter Marie Colvin was killed last week in the besieged city of Homs probably because she was a journalist - and her murder is part of an alarming trend.
The award-winning war reporter, 56, died alongside French photojournalist Rémi Ochlik, 28, when the house where they were staying was shelled by Syrian government forces.
Sunday Times photographer Paul Conroy and French reporter Edith Bouvier, of Le Figaro newspaper, were also injured in the attack. They are today reported to be safe in Lebanon after being smuggled out of Homs. French TV reporter Gilles Jacquier, 43, was killed in Homs last month, and New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid, also 43, died of an apparent asthma attack two weeks ago as he was leaving Syria.
Their deaths are a tragedy, as are those of the 465 people reported to have been killed over the past few weeks in Homs, according to Amnesty International.
But Colvin and the other journalists were apparently targeted by the regime because they were journalists.
Syrian activists accused Assad's forces of deliberately targeting the journalists in rocket and shell attacks on the city last week, and French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, called the journalists' deaths "an assassination".
Syria is not the only country targeting journalists. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) compiled a list of 106 journalists killed last year - many for being journalists – and singled out Pakistan, Mexico and Syria as the most dangerous regions for journalists. The trend is so alarming that the federation are urging the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to take drastic action against governments of the most dangerous countries for media. (See my previous post on the subject)
“We are enemies of the state and the deaths of Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik show we are being treated as such,” wrote Guardian’s foreign correspondent Martin Chulov a few days ago. And Lindsey Hilsum from Channel 4 News commented: “The rise of satellites TV has made journalists more of a target, because every dictator, general or rebel commander can see that we’re uncovering what they are trying to hide.”
Colvin’s final dispatches sought to alert the world to the human tragedy unfolding in Homs, which she described as "absolutely sickening”. “There's just shells, rockets and tank fire pouring into civilian areas of this city, and it's just unrelenting," she said.
Speaking at a church service 15 months ago for colleagues who had lost their lives in conflicts , she said: "Our mission is to report these horrors of war with accuracy and without prejudice.
"We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story. What is bravery, and what is bravado?
"Journalists covering combat shoulder great responsibilities and face difficult choices. Sometimes they pay the ultimate price." She herself hadn't been spared. She wore a distinctive black eyepatch after losing an eye when she was wounded by shrapnel while covering Sri Lanka's civil war in 2001.
She added: "It has never been more dangerous to be a war correspondent, because the journalist in the combat zone has become a prime target."
At a time when journalists are being examined as never before, when allegations of sleaze and crime around the phone-hacking scandal and the Leveson Inquiry are rife, it’s good to recognize that there are journalists who fearlessly report what they witness and make a difference.
They are crucial to making the news and informing the world. And they need protection.