Sunday, May 07, 2006


The Steven Vincent Foundation

About Steven Vincent

Steven Vincent (December 31, 1955 - August 2, 2005) was a respected New-York based writer and critic specializing in stories of art and archaeological theft, fraud and forgery, but a decade of covering the insular art world left him yearning for new and more meaningful challenges.

On September 11, 2001, from the roof of his East Village co-p, Vincent saw United Flight 175 strike the South Tower, watched the collapse of the World Trade Center, and knew the world had forever changed. Determined to be in the forefront of cataloguing America's new path, he gave up writing about art and methodically set about turning himself into a political journalist, covering the Iraq war and its aftermath. In September 2003, and again in January 2004, he went to Iraq as a freelancer, paying his own way, sans body armor, cell phone or hired security, unwilling to be beholden to any organization, and wanting the ability to freely report on the things he saw, heard, felt. These trips resulted in the well-received book In the Red Zone, published by Spence in November 2004.

In April 2005, Vincent set out on what would be his final trip to Iraq. This time he was planning to spend 3 months in the southern city of Basra, his intention being to write a history of the city. Basra, under British control, was universally considered to be much safer than Baghdad. Once he got there, however, Vincent discovered that, contrary to the generally-accepted view, and with the disengaged complicity of the British, Basra was, in fact, becoming a radical Shiite state falling under the influence of Iran, in which women were forced to wear full chador, Christians were persecuted, alcohol sellers were killed on the streets and operators of music and/or video stores had their establishments firebombed.

On July 31, 2005, The New York Times printed what would be Vincent's last piece, "Switched Off in Basra," in which he accused the British of turning a blind eye as the Basran police force was systematically infiltrated by Iranian-backed insurgents, Shia extremists and followers of the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and documented how elements of the three groups had set up "assassination squads" within the police department, operating unchecked, driving a white "death car" and killing their victims with impunity.

Two days later, on August 2, 3 months to the day he had arrived in the city, Vincent and his female translator were abducted off the streets of Basra in broad daylight by men in police uniforms, driving a white police truck, bound, gagged, beaten, driven to the outskirts of town, and shot in the back. The translator, Nour al-Khal, survived; Vincent died.

Six weeks later his friend and fellow journalist, Fakher Haider, a Basran stringer for the New York Times, wrote an article that built upon Steven's final op-ed piece. Several days later, men in police uniforms and driving police cars went to his house, and with his wife and three children watching, bound him, gagged him, took him away, drove him to the outskirts of town, and shot him in the head.

The Mission of the Foundation

Since the Iraq war began in April 2003, some 45 journalists and photographers have been killed while reporting in-country, as well as an undetermined number of translators and ‘fixers’. Some were Westerners affiliated with Western organizations, and their families would have received some kind of compensation, but those like Fakher Haider have no health insurance, life insurance, benefits of any kind. They rely on the paychecks they receive from the organizations they work for to support their families; when they are killed those paychecks stop, and the family is bereft of not only a son, brother, husband and/or father, but what is for many doubtless the main, if not the sole, means of support.

The initial purpose of the Foundation will be to see that the families of those fixers, translators, photographers and journalists killed while trying to do their jobs receive financial aid to help them through a time of shock and devastating grief. In addition to providing somewhat of a safety net, it will also send an important message to the recipient(s), namely, that the sacrifice both they and their loved one made has not gone unnoticed, that there are people in the West who appreciate, mourn and honor their loss, and who want to acknowledge the danger these brave men and women put themselves in while attempting to report the truth for our benefit. Financial aid will not be limited to one particular country, region or conflict, but will be provided on a worldwide basis as needed and as is feasible. With that purpose in mind, the first grant made by the infant Foundation was a donation of one thousand dollars to Fakher Haider's widow.

Another, and equally worthwhile purpose, will be to support women in volatile regions who are risking their lives to report on what they see happening in their countries, who try and change local policies, or who work to better the lives of their fellow women, and then find themselves in jeopardy for doing so. The women below, both 2005 'Courage in Journalism' award winners from the International Women's Media Foundation ( were the first of many that the Steven Vincent Foundation will be assisting, with each receiving one thousand dollars each in Steven's name:

Sumi Khan, 34, a reporter with Shaptahik 2000 (Weekly 2000) in Dhaka. Khan reports on politics, crime and corruption in one of the most dangerous countries for journalists in the world. Since 2000, nine journalists have been killed in Bangladesh and reporters are routinely harassed and beaten while trying to do their work. In 2004, Khan began receiving threatening phone calls after she published an article about local politicians and religious organizations and their ties to attacks on minority groups. The phone calls were followed by an attack against her during which she was stabbed and beaten by three unknown assailants. Khan was injured so severely that she was unable to work for three months. Most recently, she received a death threat from the student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami fundamentalist party after her reporting tied the group to gang activity.

Shahla Sherkat, 49, editorial director of Zanan (Women) in Tehran. Sherkat founded the monthly magazine in 1991, after she was dismissed from her position as editorial director at Zan-e Rouz, a government-owned weekly women’s magazine because she wanted to change the way it depicted women. The Iranian government has threatened to close Zanan many times because of the daring way the magazine covers women’s rights and feminism. Zanan faces continuing financial difficulties because it is privately owned and funded. It has also been attacked by fundamentalist gangs and Sherkat has been repeatedly summoned to court to defend the articles she chooses to publish in Zanan. In January 2001, she was fined and sentenced to prison for four months after attending a conference in Berlin where discussions on the future of political change in Iran took place. She was not required to serve the prison sentence, but was forced to pay a fine equivalent to her two-months salary.

Women's rights were extremely important to Steven; he wrote in Red Zone that without such rights, there could be no true democracy in Iraq, let alone anywhere in the world. The Foundation will channel financial aid to women at risk, thereby allowing them, for instance, the wherewithal to hire a security guard, or, as in Shahla Sherkat's case, the ability to continue publishing.

As time goes by and the Steven Vincent Foundation grows, we want to expand our outreach and programs, but for now, we think these two initial programs would be a vital use of donations, and send a valid and much-needed message. Within two years, the Foundation also plans to institute the yearly Steven Vincent Award for Excellence in War Correspondence, which initially will award $5,000.00 to the journalist who produces the most compelling and important piece of reporting on a military conflict within a 12-month period, and $1,000.00 each to three semi-finalists, although in time those amounts will increase.

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