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December 24, 2003

Thoughts on the Killing of a Young Correspondent

This is a memorial speech I gave at services for a young journalist of Dutch origin, Sander Thoenes, killed on assignment in East Timor four years ago. The original title was "Four Stories You Have to Tell to Tell the Sander Thoenes Story."

Since it is holiday time—Christmas Eve—when even weblogs get quiet, and when “peace on earth” is to be on our minds, I decided to re-publish, with some minor editing, a speech I gave memorializing a young journalist for the Financial Times, killed in East Timor in 1999 during dangerous times there.

His college—Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts—had arranged the memorial service, and asked me to speak, not as an intimate (I had never met Sander Thoenes) but rather to his intimates (family, college friends, teachers) about journalism ethics and freedom of the press. These subjects, in this setting, were quite the opposite of abstractions because Sander had clearly given his life for them.

Four Stories You Have to Tell to Tell the Sander Thoenes Story
Memorial Service for Sander Thoenes
Hampshire College; Nov. 1, 2000

by Jay Rosen

When Professor James Miller called to ask if I would speak here today, I did not know Sander Thoenes. I hadn’t heard of his death, or his life. Then, as we say, Jim told me the story. And here I am. This is an important event for family, friends, fellow students, former teachers, the big Sander circle that was left behind when he floated through your city and scene, connecting with all kinds of people who now find themselves connected by loss. They’re here to recall him— and in a sense to recover him.

Sander Thoenes was a Dutch journalist, and young man of conscience, killed on assignment in East Timor on September 21st, 1999. He died trying to find out what was happening. And that is one way of telling his story.

I didn’t know him. Have only heard or read. Seen his photograph. Looked up his work on the Web. Talked about him with colleagues. Emailed some of his friends for their impressions. Started forming my own.

Then I realized that I didn’t need to “form” an impression. Sander Thoenes had left one. As he did with many others, everywhere he went. This is an important thing to understand about the young man. But it is such a cliché: “he made an impression.”

Well, a printing press makes an impression each time press strikes paper. Sander struck people that way— leaving imprint. Or, softening the metaphor, we might say he touched them. And now, like writing on hotel walls, they all say: Sander was here.

On me he made a clear impression, but it is second order— a reaction to what I have read. For several weeks, as the date for this memorial drew near, my ideas about journalism, democracy, freedom, violence, and responsibility, the sort of things I’ve reflected on for twenty years, have seen written all over them: Sander was here.

Which is my way of saying: I have been thinking about this guy. Since I can’t tell you what I remember, I will tell you what I think. And I have a title for my thoughts: Four Stories You Have to Tell to Tell the Sander Thoenes Story.

The first is about world citizenship. The second is about the university tradition. The third is about colonialism— Dutch Colonialism. And the fourth is about the media, as distinct from journalism— in fact so distinct that the media today threatens journalism, which is the thing Sander loved and died doing.

Journalist as Citizen of the World

My first story goes like this: Sander Thoenes was a citizen of the world, unusually so, and this is part of what qualified him to be a journalist. You must tell this story to understand who was shot one year ago, trying to inform that world about terrible events.

On the day he was killed, Sander Thoenes was a Dutchman, educated in the United States, employed In England, published in America, the UK and Holland, stationed in Jakarta, reporting from East Timor. He was fluent in Dutch, English, Russian, and Bahasa, the main language of Indonesia. He also spoke spotty French. He had lived in Moscow and Kazakhstan. He had friends all over the world; and there have been memorial services for him in Australia, Holland, Indonesia, England and now the U.S. The White House, the Secretary General of the U.N., the Dutch Foreign Minister, officials of the World Bank— all made statements condemning his death.

That is part of what I mean by a citizen of the world. But it goes deeper. As a matter of law, there is no such thing as world citizenship. Legally speaking, you’re a citizen of a particular country, perhaps two, never the globe. But Sander knew how to live anywhere. He could talk to people, anywhere. He could have fun wherever he was. If he found a way to hook up his computer, play his piano, phone his friends, he was home. As a traveler, the opposite of a tourist. He had no fear of the foreign, and no felt need for protection against it. Maybe it’s true that he had a gift for learning languages. As likely, he saw other languages as a gift to him.

Among foreign correspondents, there is a phrase: “parachuting in.” That’s when a reporter drops into foreign territory during an emergency, without much preparation, staying only as long as the story remains big. The high profile people who might parachute in are called Bigfoots in the jargon of network news. The problem with being a Bigfoot, of course, is that it’s hard to walk in other people’s shoes.

Here we come to the moral beauty behind Sander’s global citizenship. I am speculating, but I believe he thought it wrong to report on a population when you do not in some way live among them as people. When you operate by this code, you learn their language. You hang out with them. You invite them over. When you walk the streets you begin to see through their eyes. If later, people take to those streets for a revolution, as they did in Moscow and Jakarta (or recently Belgrade), you can understand the event from below as well as from above.

Sander did a lot the typical lot of reporting from above— news stories about governments, military leaders, central banks, and currency panics. He was, after all, a correspondent for the Financial Times of London, a journal read by the business classes. He believed, according to friends, that a business reporter could write truthfully about politics and freedom, because the rule of law and the transparency of politics in a given country, the freedom people have there, amount to important facts a smart trader wants to know.

Behind his simple belief there was a kind of faith— faith in editors and readers, but more than that, faith in what the philosopher Karl Popper called “the open society.” Which means, in general, a society willing to hear the truth about itself, rather than stifling free expression, suppressing the facts, keeping problems secret, letting crimes go unexposed.

An open society, which is of universal value, and a market society, which is a universal fact, are, in Sander’s thinking, compatible with one another. The market breeds openness, transparency, maybe even reform. Now Sander was not an apostle of global capitalism. I doubt he had many illusions about it. But he was willing to entertain one illusion, which I have also called his faith: while truth might be the first casualty of war, it is also the first condition of smart business— to know what’s going on. That’s one reason he found himself reporting on East Timor for the Financial Times.

Here are the words of Mark Baird, an official of the World Bank in Jakarta, who wrote a letter to the Financial Times after Sander was killed: “Journalists like Sander have been a tremendous catalyst for change in this country, and the role that Sander played in that change is something for which we can all be grateful.” What change does he mean? How can a reporter be a catalyst for change? It turns out he can inspire small movements toward an open society, just by asking the right questions, and encouraging people to be “open” in their thoughts and public statements.

Sander knew about injustice, violence, arrogance, corruption in the societies he reported from. He was determined to practice a kind of moral decency that required him to know the people he was reporting about, down to speaking their language, knowing their social codes. The great anthropologist Clifford Geertz called this “local knowledge.” Sander had this moral maxim: No international news to flow to the Finanical Times without first passing through local knowledge the author was busy gathering. All correspondents do this. He was more serious about it.

One reason Sander got on that motorbike on the day he got shot, then, was that he didn’t need to find a translator in East Timor, just a driver. Another reason: he wasn’t willing to parachute in. He wanted to see for himself the damage caused by arrogant men with guns. Maybe it’s embellished, maybe not. But they say when his body was found, there was a reporter’s notebook next to it.

Sander was doing his job, but the point to remember is how he defined his job: citizen of the world tries to tell the world what goes on in the struggle for an open society. If he looked for the facts on the ground, he lived by some abstract and universal values. To understand his story, you have to see the poetry in that. Feet on the ground, eyes on the horizon.

The University Tradition in a Journalist’s Life

A second tale we need to tell about Sander involves the university tradition. I call it that because I teach at New York University, but it is equally the tradition of Hampshire College. Sander was an educated man who believed in enlightenment—- his own and for others. He drew a moral lesson from his schooling, the one we hope students will get. All good journalists want to educate the public. Sander thought it important to educate himself, first.

From his point of view, you have an obligation to keep on learning, even when your previous learning qualifies you to inform others about the facts, the truth. I am obliged to tell that story because I am a journalism educator. Without it, we cannot understand why we gather here, on the grounds of a liberal arts college, for his American memorial.

We know he was a Hampshire grad. But he was educated in the school of the world. While others clung to expatriate communities in Moscow or Jakarta, finding the comforts of the known away from home, Sander was famous among his friends for having so many friends who were Russian, Indonesian, Canadian, British— or just people unlike himself.

When Sander died he was permanently enrolled in the humane college of ordinary life, and he took his education there more seriously than many of his peers did. They admired him for that. Now they remember him for that.

There is a story that captures this, I believe. After visiting the country with a friend, he more or less insisted that the Financial Times send him to Jakarta as his correspondent. He was stuck on this idea, and kept pestering—hounding—his editor, Quentin Peel, who already had a correspondent in Indonesia. Lest we make of him a saint, and dishonor the real person, we should recognize that there’s more than a touch of arrogance in this demand, as if Sander knew better than the Times where the Times should send its own people.

“When are you sending me to Indonesia? When?” Impatient with the answers, he took action. According to an obituary in the Financial Times, he “suddenly announced that he was going home to the Netherlands, at his own expense, to prove that he was the right man for Indonesia.” There he would study the language and the history of the country, in preparation for the day when his editors finally came to their senses. And eventually they did.

Sander knew modern literature well. He knew classical music, and he played it on his piano. (He loved Kate Bush, too.) He knew five languages. I have read his undergraduate thesis on glasnost in Russian journalism, and it shows a deep understanding of Russia, and journalism. He was a smart guy, even a bit arrogant on occasion. But he was humble enough to keep on learning. He lived by the university tradition, he even bet on it, and we honor that tradition today with this campus memorial.

Echoes of Dutch Colonialism

The third story we need, in order to tell about Sander Thoenes, can be found in the library here. It is a story about the history of the West, and therefore all the West calls East. A common name for the period and events is colonialism, a more specific name, Dutch colonialism. There is no Sander story, the events make no coherent sense, unless you understand this history and its hovering presence today. Colonialism isn’t over, although in most forms it lies deep in the past.

When I started researching this life, something puzzled me. Why was Sander so intent on going to Indonesia, a demand he took up well before the fall of Suharto, well before the country’s upheavals became news? Why there, of all places? So I asked around among friends and colleagues. First, he had visited the country, and found it beautiful. He liked the food. He liked the people. His family, I understand, had roots there.

Indonesia is a former Dutch colony. In an earlier era of world history, starting in 1596, the arrogant men with guns had been Dutchman. They extracted wealth from the islands (mainly spices) and also brought “civilization” there— though there were many civilizations already there. The whole idea of an archipelago of islands imagined as one nation is a direct consequence of colonialism in its 19th century form. There would be no Indonesian nation, were it not for the Dutch. And the troubles the country has today in hanging together, finding peace and freedom for all its people, cannot be separated from the long history of colonialism.

Sander Thoenes understood the implications for his own life and work. I am speculating a bit, but only a bit, when I say that he wanted to go to Jakarta so badly because he felt personally connected to Indonesia’s fate by historical threads. According to Quentin Peel, his editor at the Financial Times, the two places Sander wanted to be sent were Indonesia, his first choice, and South Africa, where the Dutch also had, let us say, a history.

My guess—and it is only a guess—is that Sander wanted to confront the observer in himself. He wanted the challenge of reporting on a country whose history was entangled with his own. In an odd way, he wanted things to be messier at their roots, which also means richer, realer, more personal, more challenging.

Maybe (I can only guess), he wanted to see if he could do some good in a place where his country had done many things good and bad, and some things powerfully wrong. From this perspective, going to Indonesia as a reporter meant a confrontation with being Dutch— thus, with himself. And South Africa would have meant the same thing.

Sander Thoenes found himself in East Timor because, being educated and Dutch, he thought himself implicated there. This is what I think, though I may be wrong. If I am right, that’s another reason we honor him at Hampshire College. For to know your own history—and where it connects to the world’s—is a right, a duty, of every student here.

Journalism vs. The Media

My final tale is about the media, as something vastly different from journalism. Sander’s life and death matter for many reasons. A large one for me is that he perished doing what the media no longer privilege— and that is serious journalism, especially on-the-ground reporting from distant and troubled lands. We need to tell that story, too, or we fail to appreciate the meaning of his unintended and unwelcome sacrifice, if I may call it that.

For years I have been struggling with how to put this distinction, between the media, on one hand, and journalism, on another. I think of media as the attention production business, a global project of immense reach and cultural power. It comprehends everything— newspapers, magazines, television, movies, advertising, publishing, the selling of images, the trade in information and of course the Interent. Attention is the media’s true product: your attention, my attention, the attention of our fellow citizens. Once gotten, it can be rented out and that is what advertising is.

The point of having journalists around, and the point of sending them to Jakarta, is not to produce the commodity of attention, but to make our attention more productive. The “product” of sound journalism is actual public understanding— not just an audience of sufficient size and purchasing power.

But these are the words of an academic, struggling in his own language games. Now I see something simpler. One of the strange things about journalism is that people are willing to die doing it. That is not true of the media. No one would, as a matter of principle, give his life for the media— other than a lunatic like John Hinckley, who shot Ronald Reagan in order to get the attention of movie star Jody Foster. That is insanity. Sander didn’t want to die, and he did not take foolish risks. But he knew danger, and what he was doing when he got on that motorbike.

Good people are willing to risk death doing honest journalism. But the media puts honest journalism at risk for the sake of other imperatives. Ann Cooper from the Committee to Protect Journalists is here. This noble organization, as needed as any I know, sponsors a dinner in New York every year, to honor heroes and fallen colleagues. Three years ago, Ted Koppel of ABC News addressed the crowd, and told of a bitter irony.

He noted the courage shown by reporters and photographers who document the horrors of the world. The dinner was held in honor of such people, who risk their lives on behalf of truth. “We, on the other hand,” Koppel said, “tremble at nothing quite so much as the thought of boring our audiences.” That “we” meant Koppel and his American colleagues. It meant the companies that employed them, and the executives who ran those companies. It also meant, we: the media.

An executive at ABC News might worry about getting killed, sure— but it would be getting killed in last week’s ratings. Which is precisely the pressure forcing cutbacks in the foreign bureaus of major networks, when they should be expanding the locations from which original reporting can come.

Journalistically, there is little argument for this pullback. In media logic, it may make perfect sense. A vast gulf separates the two, and this is what Ted Koppel talked into. Congratulations to him for having the courage and sense to say it. But for real flesh-and-blood courage, and moral sense, both Koppel and I would look to journalists like Sander Thoenes..

I said earlier: He was a Dutch journalist, and young man of conscience, killed on assignment in East Timor on September 21st, 1999. That is one way of telling his story. I have given you four more: Sander as world citizen, Sander as dweller in the university tradition, Sander and the scruple of post-colonialism, Sander as soldier in journalism’s conflict with the media. Others will tell their own tales today, different from mine, and that is all we can do.

If we tell the story well, what he did well matters, but even more than that, big things matter. You cannot handle the story of Sander Thoenes unless you care about something big, worldly and real. Which is the whole meaning of ritual and narrative in human life. They reconcile us to the world and its sufferings, not by suggesting that either is good, but by persuading us that both are meaningful— the world and what we suffer because of it.

Jay Rosen is chair of the Journalism Department at New York University and the author of What Are Journalists For? (Yale University Press, 1999).

Speeches at the London Memoral for Sander Thoenes.

For an archive of Sander Thoenes’s reports for the Christian Science Monitor, go here.

Posted by Jay Rosen at December 24, 2003 1:42 PM