Brent Renaud’s Death Reminds Us of the Costs of the Truth

Nearly eleven years ago, my New York City apartment received a call from a landline. I answered and learned that Tim Hetherington had been murdered in Libya. Tim was on his way to Misrata for the Arab Spring. He was struck by shrapnel by a mortar shot fired by the Libyan Army. The rebel pickup truck carrying him was able to carry his body, and he looked up at the blue Mediterranean skies.

Tim and me had been traveling for a full year in the Korengal Valley of eastern Afghanistan. We were there to capture the American platoon’s deployment. It was the result of this film. RestrepoHe made it all the way to the Oscars. We had been through a lot together and were both very lucky to be alive but now, suddenly, Tim wasn’t. My cell phone was constantly ringing so I hanged up the phone. It would be days before I was able to cry over Tim’s death, though once I started, I never entirely stopped.

The same devastating news was delivered to Brent Renaud’s loved ones a few days back. Renaud was working on the Ukraine refugee crisis when Russian soldiers fired upon the civilian vehicle he was traveling in. Renaud sustained a severe neck injury. Juan Arredondo (his colleague) was also struck but survived. Renaud was highly regarded and worked in freelance, documenting many of the most brutal and cruel conditions civilians can be subject to. He even visited Chicago’s very poor neighborhoods. Although journalists have taken risk to tell their stories, 48 others died in the same year as Tim. However, freelancers such Renaud were particularly at-risk.

However, without freelancers or local media, it would almost be impossible to cover international news. Established news organizations can’t possibly maintain enough salaried staff in the field to keep pace with world events, and no one—from hotshot TV reporters to gritty freelancers—can work safely and efficiently without the help of local journalists. These people’s courage and expertise have helped save the lives of many international journalists. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 90% of all journalist killed around the world are locals.

Reporters Instructed In Saving Colleagues was established after Tim’s death to provide training and support for local and freelance journalists. Staff reporters are sent to “hostile environment awareness training” (HEAT) by their employers, but few freelancers or locals can afford the $5,000 price tag, so RISC was completely free. The first four-day course was held ten years ago at the Bronx Documentary Center, in New York City, and Brent Renaud was one of the students—along with James Foley, who was beheaded by ISIS in Syria two years later. Matt Power, a third member of that class, succumbed to heatstroke while on assignment in Uganda. Renaud was a tall, slim man, with southern accent and a gentle Southern accent. He was also one of their most respected journalists.

Continue reading: A Brother of mine died giving a voice to those in need

RISC organized the first local-only course after the Maidan Square protests of 2014. The course taught 24 students how to prevent the same catastrophic bleeding that claimed Tim’s life, how best to treat a sore chest, immobilize broken backs, and how CPR can help keep people alive. There was already fighting in the Donbas region of Ukraine, and our young journalists were very clear about their priorities: “We are going to teach all of our friends what we are learning here from you,” one journalist said, “because we know there is going to be a war.” Some may now be covering that war.

Unfortunately funding for RISC ran out before it was available for funding wars. We have not been able a run since 2019. Three weeks after the Russian invasion, civilian casualties are likely to be in the thousands. Journalists have also begun dying. In addition to Renaud, a Fox News crew was fired on as they drove through the outskirts of Kiev, badly wounding Benjamin Hall—also a RISC graduate—and killing 55-year-old cameraman Pierre Zakrzewski. Oleksandra Kupshinova, a Ukrainian journalist of 24 years old was also shot to death. This war will lead to a rise in civilian deaths and increase the number of journalist casualties if it proceeds the same way that the Bosnian civil conflict. Cities could be shelled for many months, or even years. Bosnia saw 38,000 civilian deaths and 19 journalist killings between 1992-95.

Without the work of these brave people there could be no such thing as democracy or freedom in the world—elections would be stolen, war crimes would be denied, injustices would be hidden. Leaders like Vladimir Putin can claim any self-serving reality and be completely unaccountable. Some people in the U.S. have recently taken to calling journalists the “enemy of the people,” but is illuminating to note which world leaders have actually taken this idea to heart and started killing them: Vladimir Putin of Russia, Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of ISIS (deceased). Accusing journalists—or anyone—of being an enemy of the people is the first step in using violence against them, and no right-minded person should want to have anything to do with such nonsense.

The human costs of pursuing the truth are horrific—scores of journalists killed every year, worldwide—but the costs of living in an unfree society are even higher. Take a look at the citizens of Ukraine.

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