KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – Journalists and soldiers alike paused for a moment of silence Monday to mark World Press Freedom Day by honouring a Canadian war correspondent who died last year while covering the conflict in Afghanistan.
At precisely the same moment, newsrooms across Canada briefly fell silent in memory of Michelle Lang, the Calgary Herald reporter who died in December while on assignment for Canwest News Service.
Monday’s tribute at Kandahar Airfield began with a poem by British war correspondent James Fenton called “Memorial,” read by Globe and Mail reporter Sonia Verma.
“We spoke, we chose to speak of war and strife – a task a fine ambition sought,” Verma recited.
“And some might say, who shared our work, our life: that praise was dearly bought.”
Master Cpl. Claude Arsenault, the public affairs officer who helped Lang get acquainted with the base in the days after she first arrived, placed a plastic flower arrangement at the foot of her memorial.
Arsenault remembered how Lang expressed the same misgivings most journalists have before they leave the relative security of the base to travel with Canadian soldiers.
“She said she didn’t want to risk it if she didn’t have to, but she said, ‘I have to do my job,”‘ he said.
Lang and four Canadian soldiers died Dec. 30 when the armoured vehicle they were in struck a roadside bomb.
Ethan Baron, who’s currently on assignment in Kandahar for Canwest, said it’s important to acknowledge the risks some journalists take to inform the public, particularly in dangerous places around the globe.
“I think it’s extremely important that the people of the world know when other people in the world are suffering under war, under oppressive governments, in natural disasters,” Baron said.
“All of those situations put the people who gather the information in danger on a frequent basis.”
In a country such as Canada, it’s easy to forget the dangers some journalists face, said Scott White, editor-in-chief of The Canadian Press.
“Canadians and Canadian journalists take it for granted the freedom that we actually have in this country,” White said.
“There are people around the world who, every single day, it’s a struggle for them to get the truth out. As a profession I think we have to honour that.”
Reporters at Canadian Press bureaus across Canada shut off their printers and let their phones ring during the moment of silence at 12:05 EDT.
There have been 42 journalism-related deaths in 22 countries so far this year – a pace that is already outstripping last year’s numbers, which turned out to be one of the worst years on record, with 133 deaths.
Lang’s sacrifice was posthumously honoured Sunday with the Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom Award, which includes a cash prize of $2,000 and a certificate of honour from the Canadian Commission for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Committee president David Gollob said Lang “paid the ultimate price” for her job, adding that her “courage and sacrifice are an inspiration to all.”
In a statement, Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan said World Press Freedom Day is an opportunity to note the growth of a more “vibrant” media industry in the country.
But William Crosbie said it was also a time to remember those members of the media who have died while telling a story.
“The past year has been a particularly difficult one for the journalism community in Afghanistan,” Crosbie said in a statement.
“We sadly remember those who gave their lives – including Sultan Munadi of the New York Times, Canadian journalist Michelle Lang and British journalist Rupert Hamer – to bring the stories of Afghanistan to audiences both here and around the world.”