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December 2016 Heroes of the Month: The Journalists Who Risk Their Lives Every Day Reporting on Events in the Middle East Conflict and Russia

Two circumstances converged to prompt this month’s tribute:
   • The tenth Anniversary of my work with Dr. Judea Pearl seeking to defeat the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement against Israel in the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), and
   • My daughter Veronica’s gift of Lawrence Wright’s latest book: The Terror Years, From Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State.

Dr. Judea Pearl and his wife Ruth lost their son, Danny Pearl, an investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal, in Pakistan in 2002 when he was kidnapped and then beheaded by Al-Qaeda. Danny was assassinated not only for his American and Jewish heritage but, most importantly, for his fearless reporting on events in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Lawrence Wright is a very talented journalist who is perhaps best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. Wright dedicated his sequel, The Terror Years, to several extraordinarily courageous young people who risked their lives to report on middle eastern conflicts and the enormous humanitarian crisis those conflicts have generated. Those courageous journalists include James Foley and Steve Sotloff, both of whom were kidnapped, held hostage for long periods, and then beheaded by ISIS in August and September 2014.

To this month’s heroes, I have added one other reporter whose courage and legacy deserves mention. Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated in Russia in 2002 for her fearless reporting of the despotic regime of Vladimir Putin and the atrocities his regime committed in the Second War in Chechnya (1999-2000). Anna’s story is representative of the 150 journalists who have been assassinated in Russia since Putin’s ascendency. They have lost their lives for telling the truth about the ongoing corruption and human rights abuses of the Russian government under Putin’s leadership.

The type of Investigative reporting that these brave souls provided is critical to the survival of democracy and western civilization as we know it. In response to their horrific deaths at the hands of Islamic terrorists and despotic regimes, these reporters’ loved ones have created powerful legacies that will not soon be forgotten.

Danny Pearl

Daniel Pearl graduated from Stanford in 1985 and then learned his craft as a reporter in western Massachusetts for the North Adams Transcript and the Berkshire Eagle. In 1990, he joined the Wall Street Journal; in 1999, he was appointed its South Asia Bureau Chief. Working from his headquarters in Mumbai, India, Danny made numerous trips to Pakistan to report on Islamic fundamentalism and Al-Qaeda’s role in the region. As mentioned above, while he was working in Pakistan, he was captured and then killed by Al-Qaeda in 2002. Danny was just 38 years old, but in his work he had experienced as much as someone twice his age. His only child, Adam, was born four months after his death. Angelina Jolie produced, directed and starred in a feature length film that told his story from the perspective of his wife, Mariane.

I had the privilege of getting to know Danny’s father, Judea Pearl, in 2006. From Judea I learned about his family’s commitment to preserve Danny’s legacy in a way that is both healing to them and beneficial to mankind. Dr Pearl is a long-time tenured professor at UCLA specializing in the research and development of artificial intelligence. After Danny’s death, he and his wife Ruth established the Daniel Pearl Foundation, dedicated to promoting cultural understanding through journalism, music and dialogue. Judea regularly travels around the country with a Muslim Iman; they speak together about the need for religious and cultural tolerance. Those talks have reached thousands and been very well received. In addition, the Foundation established a Danny Pearl World Music Day that thus far has held over 1500 concerts in 60 countries, again for the purpose of promoting understanding and respect for different cultures and religions. These are but a few of the many efforts to honor Danny.

To appreciate the magnitude of their impact, check out Danny’s and Judea’s biographies on Wikipedia.

Anna Politkovskaya

Over the last twenty years Russia has become the deadliest country in the world for journalists.

Anna Politkovskaya was the daughter of two Soviet (Ukrainian) parents who worked as diplomats at the United Nations. She graduated with a journalism degree from a Moscow university. When she was assassinated in 2002 at the age of 48 she was famous throughout Russia for her biweekly column in the Noraya Gazette, a newspaper well known for its investigative journalism and fearless reporting of the despotic post-Soviet Russia dominated by Vladimir Putin.

Anna survived nine assassination attempts, including two poisonings, before she was gunned down at point-blank range in the stairwell of her Moscow apartment. She left behind two adult daughters.

Anna was known for her reporting from the battlefields of the Second War in Chechnya, in which she depicted a conflict that brutalized both Chechnyan fighters and conscript soldiers of the Russian Army and created a living hell for the civilians caught between them.

Of her coverage of Putin and his mafia/thug henchmen, she once said prophetically: “We are hurtling back into a Soviet abyss. If anybody thinks they can take comfort from a more optimistic forecast, let them do so. It is certainly the easier way, but it is a death sentence for our grandchildren.”

No one was convicted of her murder until twelve years later, but the Russian prosecutors showed no interest in trying to find out who ordered or paid for her contract killing.

The director of a biographical film of Anna’s life eloquently stated at its preview: “Hers was a lonely voice for victim’s of Putin’s government, but loud enough for the entire country to hear. It was too loud for her own safety. We desperately need more people with Anna’s courage, integrity and commitment to tell the truth.”

For further information about Anna, please see her biography on Wikipedia, read her book “A Russian Diary” (published posthumously by Random House) or watch one of the several outstanding documentaries about her life that include interviews with her daughters and ex-husband Alex. Many video interviews with Anna and/or her supporters are also available by searching for Anna Politkovskaya on YouTube.

James Foley

Jim Foley was born to a devout Catholic family in Illinois. At the time of his death at age 40 he had spent a long and distinguished career in journalism covering the middle east for several major news organizations. For five years, he had reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, often under exceedingly dangerous conditions. He was once captured and held hostage for 44 days in Libya by Gaddafi loyalists who resented his coverage of that regime in the months leading up to Gaddafi’s fall.

Before he was murdered by ISIS in Syria, Jim had been held hostage for almost two years.

After his death, Jim’s parents and friends rallied to preserve his legacy. They established the James W. Foley Legacy Fund to provide resources for families of other Americans held hostage in the middle east and to support American journalists reporting from conflict zones. Jim’s alma mater, Marquette University established the James Foley Scholarship at their Diedrich College of Journalism. An excellent documentary about Jim’s life was released in 2016.  For his acclaimed 2016 album, Sting wrote a song titled “The Empty Chair” in James’ honor.

For more information about Jim, please see his biography on Wikipedia or the documentary: “Jim: The James Foley Story” made by one of his childhood friends and shown on HBO.

Steven Sotloff

Steven Sotloff was born in Florida and held dual American and Israeli citizenship. He was 31 when he was murdered by ISIS while serving as a free lance journalist in Syria. He had previously spent time in numerous middle eastern countries, including Qatar, Turkey, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and Egypt.

Steve was best known for reporting that the 2012 Benghazi attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stephens, and two brave American soldiers (Tyrone Woods and Glen Doughtery) was not in response to a protest over a video, as repeatedly asserted by President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice, but rather was part of a well- planned attack by Islamic militias. Steve also foresaw the massive Syrian refugee crisis as he reported on everyday civilian suffering in Syria, earning him the reputation as “The Voice for the Voiceless.” He was described by those who worked with him as a gentle man who was devoted to covering the humanitarian tragedy of the middle east conflicts. He humbly referred to himself as “a stand-up philosopher from Miami.” He had been held hostage for over a year before his death.

Like the families of Danny Pearl and James Foley, his parents and friends also rallied to preserve his legacy. They created the Steven Joel Sotloff Memorial 2LIVES Foundation in his honor, to help train journalists in war zones to better protect themselves and to promote freedom of the press in the middle east.

Once again, to fully appreciate his life and his story, please turn to Wikipedia for his biography.

In conclusion, these were four of the very best and bravest, who risked their lives as civilians to help others by exposing the truth about what ordinary people were enduring in conflict zones throughout the middle east and Russia. They are my heroes of the month and serve as worthy representatives of hundreds of other journalists still serving in the these regions. Let us resolve never to forget their sacrifice, the nobility of their parents’ response, and the ongoing need to protect their colleagues.. — Jim

On October 23, 2017, a very brave young Russian journalist, Tatyana Felgenhauer, was attacked. She worked for the largest remaining independent radio network in Russia, Echo Moskvy; it had a long history of challenging Vladimir Putin. Tatyana was stabbed by an unknown assailant in her Moscow studio and is presently in a drug induced coma. Her story has become all too familiar as Putin proceeds to assassinate all of his opponents in and outside the media. My heartfelt prayers for Tatyana and her family.

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