The Steven Vincent Foundation
The Steven Vincent Foundation has been set up to assist the families of indigenous journalists in regions of conflict throughout the world who are killed for doing their jobs, and to support the work of female journalists in those regions.
Reporting from strife- and war-torn areas would be impossible without local contacts, colleagues and assistance. Since the Iraq war began in April 2003, more than 100 journalists and photographers have been killed while reporting in-country, as well as an undetermined number of local translators and ‘fixers’. A few were Westerners affiliated with Western media companies whose families would have received some kind of compensation, but the majority, those working for local news organizations, died without health or life insurance, or benefits of any kind. They relied on the paychecks they received to support their families; when they were killed those paychecks stopped, leaving the family bereft of not only a son/daughter, brother/sister, husband/wife and/or father/mother, but what was for many doubtless the main, if not the sole, means of support.
The Foundation will ensure that these families of local media workers receive financial aid to help them through a time of shock and devastating grief. In addition to providing somewhat of a safety net, it will also send an important message to the recipient(s), namely, that the sacrifice both they and their loved one made has not gone unnoticed, that there are people in the wider world who acknowledge, mourn and honor their loss, and who appreciate the danger these brave men and women put themselves in while attempting to report the truth. Financial aid will not be limited to one particular country, region or conflict, but will be provided on a worldwide basis as needed and as is feasible. With that purpose in mind, the first grant made by the infant Foundation was a donation of one thousand dollars to the widow of Fakher Haider, a New York Times stringer killed in Basra, Iraq, in September 2005.
Following are some examples of the assistance the Foundation has been able to provide:
It honored a request for the family of Yasser Salihee, an Iraqi doctor-turned-translator. In June 2005 Salihee, an Iraqi special correspondent for the Knight-Ridder US newspaper group, was shot to death in Baghdad, apparently by a US military sniper, although there were Iraqi troops in the area at the same time who may also have been shooting. Salihee, 30, was driving alone near his home in the western Baghdad neighborhood of Amariyah when a single bullet pierced his windshield and hit him in the head. The US Army continues to investigate the incident. Salihee left a wife and young daughter, to whom the Foundation provided a donation of one thousand dollars.
2006 was an equally bloody year for the journalist trade, notable for the kidnapping of American freelancer Jill Carroll, during which her translator and friend Allan Enwiyah was brutally executed. Enwiyah, 32, who was still in the car when it was driven away by the abductors, was later found dead not far from where he had been snatched; he had been shot twice in the head, according to local sources. He left behind a wife and two small children, as well as an extended family he was also supporting. Working with the bloggers behind Iraqi in America and Treasures of Baghdad, the Foundation contibuted one thousand dollars to a fund for Enwiyah’s widow.
In February of that year, the triple murder of Al-Arabiya reporter Atwar Bahjat and her sound- and cameramen Khaled Mahmoud al-Falahi and Adnan Khairallah, employed by Wasan Media, shocked the world. The trio had been covering sectarian violence in Samarra, specifically the bombing of the Golden Mosque, when they were ambushed and kidnapped by two gunmen in a pickup truck, who shouted, “We want the correspondent,” as they shot in the air. Despite crowd efforts to help them, the three were bundled into the truck and taken to an unknown location. Later that night, their bullet-riddled bodies were found dumped near the town of Dawr near Samarra. Bahjat’s mother and sister, as well as the wives and children of al-Falahi and Khairallah, each received one thousand dollars.
Afghanistan’s Helmand province was the site of the recent brutal beheadings of journalist Ajmal Naqshbandi and driver Sayed Agha. The duo had been employed by Italian reporter Daniele Mastrogiacomo of La Repubblica; all three were kidnapped by Taliban forces and held as ransom in exchange for the release of imprisoned senior Taliban figures. In an attempt to pressure Hamid Karzai’s government into negotiations, Agha was beheaded not long after the initial abduction. Mastrogiacomo was released after five Taliban members were freed in exchange; Naqshbandi was beheaded when the government refused to release additional prisoners. He was married a mere four months before his death; thanks to people working with the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Foundation was able to donate one thousand dollars to both his 19-year-old widow and the Agha family.
The Foundation also supports women in volatile regions who defy local or religous tradition and risk their lives to report on what they see happening in their countries, who work to change official policies and try to better the lives of their fellow countrywomen, and who find themselves in jeopardy for doing so. The women below, both International Women’s Media Foundation (www.iwmf.org) 2005 ‘Courage in Journalism’ award winners, were the first of many that the Foundation will be assisting, with each receiving one thousand dollars:
Sumi Khan, 34, a reporter with Shaptahik 2000 (Weekly 2000) in Dhaka. Khan reports on politics, crime and corruption in one of the most dangerous countries for journalists in the world. Since 2000, nine journalists have been killed in Bangladesh and reporters are routinely harassed and beaten while trying to do their work. In 2004, Khan began receiving threatening phone calls after she published an article about local politicians and religious organizations and their ties to attacks on minority groups. The phone calls were followed by an attack against her during which she was stabbed and beaten by three unknown assailants. Khan was injured so severely that she was unable to work for three months. Most recently, she received a death threat from the student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami fundamentalist party after her reporting tied the group to gang activity.
Shahla Sherkat, 49, editorial director of Zanan (Women) in Tehran. Sherkat founded the monthly magazine in 1991, after she was dismissed from her position as editorial director at Zan-e Rouz, a government-owned weekly women’s magazine because she wanted to change the way it depicted women. The Iranian government has threatened to close Zanan many times because of the daring way the magazine covers women’s rights and feminism. Zanan faces continuing financial difficulties because it is privately owned and funded. It has also been attacked by fundamentalist gangs and Sherkat has been repeatedly summoned to court to defend the articles she chooses to publish in Zanan. In January 2001, she was fined and sentenced to prison for four months after attending a conference in Berlin where discussions on the future of political change in Iran took place. She was not required to serve the prison sentence, but was forced to pay a fine equivalent to two months’ salary.
Women’s rights were extremely important to Steven Vincent; he wrote in Red Zone that without such rights, there could be no true democracy in Iraq, let alone anywhere in the world. The Foundation will channel financial aid to women at risk, thereby allowing them, for instance, the ability to hire a security guard, or, as in Shahla Sherkat’s case, the funds to continue publishing.
As time goes by and the Foundation grows, both its outreach and programs will expand. For now its initial goals are a vital use of donations, and send a valid and much-needed message to the recipients. Many dedicated, courageous and unsung media workers will forever remain unknown to us unless their lives are ended in the pursuit of truth, in which case they may get mentioned in an article or two before being swept away in the constantly changing tide of world events; we must do a better job of acknowledging the debt we owe to them, especially if they are lost because of their efforts.
By 2008 the Foundation also plans to institute the yearly Steven Vincent Award for Excellence in War Correspondence, which will award $5,000.00 to the journalist who produces the most compelling and important piece or series on a military conflict within a 12-month period.