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A dangerous obligation

What was Sander Thoenes thinking when he sped off with a motorcycle taxi driver in East Timor this week, headed for a ravaged neighborhood of the capital, Dili, that was not yet under the control of United Nations peacekeepers?

Was he a "cowboy," a journalist who thrives on the danger and adrenaline of covering horrific conflicts like the one that engulfed East Timor after its residents voted last month for independence from Indonesia?

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Or did he see himself as a witness, a small but critical player whose daily job was documenting atrocities in a distant land, for readers of The Christian Science Monitor and Britain's Financial Times?

Either way, why should a group like mine, the Committee to Protect Journalists, draw special attention to the assassination of Mr. Thoenes, the first journalist killed in the East Timor conflict, when so many hundreds, or thousands, of Timorese died the same way this month, at the hands of armed militiamen?

In singling out Thoenes - a young Dutch reporter, who was shot dead Tuesday by gunmen wearing Indonesian military uniforms - we do not seek to lionize him.

He was a reporter, doing his job, in a dangerous place. But he was also the target of a military-backed strategy to intimidate and drive out journalists who would report on the terror in East Timor to the outside world.

Journalists may not be able to stop terror. But if they're not even there to bear witness, no one else will stop it, either.

It's a sadly familiar strategy to those of us who monitor press freedom around the world. Drug lords in Colombia employ drive-by assassinations to get rid of pesky investigative reporters covering their intricate dealings with all parties in Colombia's civil war. Russia's mafia dons, used to getting away with the murder of journalists at home, have threatened the life of an American reporter who dared document their illegal operations abroad.

To date, we have documented the cases of 19 journalists killed because of their work in 1999, including Thoenes.

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The most dangerous place to be a journalist this year was Sierra Leone, where eight reporters were killed in a matter of weeks, most of them hunted down by rebels who didn't like the way they'd reported on the rebels' role in the civil war.

A new peace agreement in Sierra Leone looks shaky. Still, some journalists who fled into exile early this year have been persuaded to go back home and resume their work.

Why put yourself back on the line? The explanations we hear are often hard to comprehend in our cynical society.

One Sierra Leonean journalist who went back told us recently, "It is not easy for someone in my capacity to stay away from the country."

He had an obligation, he said, to help report on what was going on.

In other words, he had to be there to witness, and report on the news. Just as Sander Thoenes tried to do, before the thugs in East Timor put a stop to his life this week.

*Ann Cooper, a former correspondent for National Public Radio, is executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York City-based organization that monitors abuses against the press and promotes press freedom around the world.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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