Today marks the first anniversary of the death of my cousin, the journalist Christopher Allen, who was killed while covering a battle between rebel and government forces in the town of Kaya, in South Sudan. He was 26 years old.
Some months ago, his parents, friends and I gathered in Ukraine to memorialise him, to try to contribute to the canon of remembrance that attempts to ensure a person is not forgotten, that a legacy can be established and his death is not the end of his story.
Since my cousin was killed, the lack of action by government or media actors to seek justice has left us feeling paralysed. Fear of offending the only parties that could possibly investigate has caused well-intentioned letters and articles to sit unsent and unpublished. Time passes and interest wanes. There remains a painful need for someone to care.
Chris had worked as a journalist in Ukraine before he went to cover the civil war in South Sudan. At the memorial gathering, local journalists and friends remembered how he cared about their stories and how that, in turn, helped them to feel that their voices would be heard.
It is profoundly sad to lose someone so young and promising, but even more devastating is the knowledge that Chris’ killing has confirmed his own belief that Western media does not care about un-sexy conflicts like South Sudan’s brutal civil war. How few people were listening then, and how few are listening now.
It might be comforting to write that his life’s work brought meaning to his death, but that would be untrue. Instead, it only highlights the increasingly dangerous work of freelance reporters like Chris and the lack of care often given them in these neglected conflicts by big media organizations.
Since his death, there has been no meaningful push from any government or international agency for responsibility to be taken for the killing. No call for an investigation. In South Sudan, the killing continues.
When Chris was killed in August, he became the first Western journalist to die in the conflict. He was embedded with the rebel South Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLM-IO), and had spent weeks in their company, working to understand the conflict, their structure in the bush, and their personal motivations in a war which is complex and has no clear good guys.
Chris first learned the complexities of war whilst reporting in Ukraine, and he intended to apply this experience in Africa and paint a truer picture of the war in South Sudan. But the South Sudanese Government have banned most foreign reporters, in a cynical attempt to keep the conflict out of the news. Those seeking to tell the stories of the thousands killed and displaced must enter across porous borders and embed in the country.
For the South Sudanese government, this fact of his entry helped to justify his killing. But in theory, as a precept of international law, we do not accept a country’s right to arbitrarily kill those in their country even if warned away. His killing whilst performing the necessary function of reporting the news should be understood in its proper context and appropriately prosecuted.
In the days after the skirmish in which Chris was killed, the South Sudanese ruled out any form of investigation. Government statements (and this) following the death began with justifications for his killing, portraying Chris as a rebel or mercenary. Their message was that he was a legitimate target. After a number of days the government conceded that it was “regrettable” that he was killed in the line of his work.
There has so far been no international pressure that would motivate them to deviate from their nonchalance.
In Ukraine, Chris spent much of his time in the Donbass region reporting on the separatist uprising and the ensuing conflict. He wrote extensively on the reverberations that followed the turmoil of Maidan. Chris, like many other young reporters, threw himself into freelancing as a way to snag by-lines. It paid off.
He was one of the first reporters on the scene when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down by Russian separatists over Ukraine. His sensitive recounting of the horror of the sitefor the Telegraph moved readers. He saw past the horror of the corpses, seeing humanity in the accoutrements of the dead, allowing for a humane journalistic treatment of that extreme act of violence.
This humanity would become a hallmark of his work. He was keen to hear and retell the stories of the nameless people in the shadows of violence and conflict. The voices of the unheard and the collision of ideologies mattered to him. They were the fundamental elements of humanity.
Chris unpacked the motivations of the volunteer battalions in eastern Ukraine for publications like Vice and Al Jazeera. Later, he explained some of the reasons he and his colleagues risk their lives to tell stories. He wrote that his aim was to “always to get close to active sites of conflict rather than report on the collateral damage left in its wake.” This dangerous desire was justified because he “believed that out [t]here in a place where humanity is at its most exposed and raw, [he] might better understand something key about the way the world works and the way history is made – about who people really are.”
There are many reasons why Chris should have stayed away from such dangerous places and stories, but most of them are precisely the reasons why he felt he had to be there. By dint of birth, he was safe in the West and had his rights assured. He understood his privilege and wanted to use his ability to create focus upon those less fortunate. For him, that was a special power he possessed.
None of the humanisation Chris gave to his writing could be seen in any of the reporting that came out about his death.
Chris had railed against ‘those assholes in the media’ for a long time, and in his death they abandoned him. The Independent never made reference to the fact that Chris had been writing for them in their reporting of the killing, or indeed mention the author of that article was embedded alongside Chris when he was killed.Vice didn’t mention his killing at all and the Telegraph took days to note that he had been published by them too. Reuters continues to sell pictures of Chris dead from the handover over to the US, despite family requests to stop. In fact, the macabre show of unveiling his body by the South Sudanese army for media to photograph was splashed on the Daily Mail and international news media.
Around the same time, the South Sudanese military released pictures of his body after they had killed him and another set after they had stripped him. Releasing such pictures is a tactic used to gain support for their actions at home and to intimidate the family from taking any actions against them for fear of what other photos may be deployed.
The media may have published these pictures to give the story an edge or get clicks. But the exposure to readers of such horrifying pictures only leads to desensitisation and shows a lack of empathy for the family of the dead. The Associated Press published pictures from the same handover event that wholly avoided pictures of Chris on display.
On top of the everyday dangers they face, the increasingly poor perception of journalists in war zones and at home can make reporting from conflict zones feel pointless. A lack of physical protection and labour rights means that freelancers compete dangerously to get published. In the unfortunate situation of injury, kidnapping, or death, no employer feels a responsibility to help.
The absence of support to the freelance journalistic community by publishers contributes to the dissociation between the public and the writer, made worse in an atmosphere where news is not trusted. Only the Committee to Protect Journalists and a smattering of reporters have called for an investigation (and here) into his killing. Even the statement by the Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, fell short of calling for any inquiry.
There is no diplomatic push for the truth from either of Chris’ home nations (he had joint US and UK citizenship) and without enormous pressure from his family and journalists there may never be any.
Presently there is no legal recourse for an investigation. South Sudan is not party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, so the Human Rights Committee is not an option. South Sudan has not ratified the African Charter and therefore there is no access to regional mechanisms of redress either.
The pick up in the media of stories about Chris’ death got his body home, and only the same pressure will propel an investigation that could bring any accountability to his killers.
An investigation into the killing and if relevant, prosecution, could push the South Sudanese military to become accountable for the deaths of civilians in war and protect those trying to keep the military and rebels accountable.
Forcing some responsibility for this death will contribute to forging a responsible nation state and a safer climate in the country. By pushing for justice, Chris’ death can serve a purpose: to highlight the conflict in South Sudan and to protect the crucial role of journalists there and in other conflict-zones.
Chris’ life has seemed cheap to those who used him for his words and then abandoned him. Forgetting him will mean that more such deaths will follow.
Jeremy Bliss is an entrepreneur, writer, filmmaker and lawyer from Melbourne and based in London. Christopher Allen was his cousin.
A memorial fundraiser for Christopher Allen can be found here.