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Murphy reflects heritage of excellence with last story

The Baltimore Sun

Last Sunday, The Sun published a comprehensive article by Middle East correspondent John Murphy, reporting that since 2000 Israel has sent more than 5,000 Palestinian juveniles to jail under a largely concealed military justice system. Based on months of detailed work, Murphy documented how a number of juveniles have been arrested - often on trivial charges - and how they are receiving increasingly harsh sentences.

Based on statistics from human rights organizations, Israeli military documents and his own reporting, Murphy showed that many of the juveniles are detained for throwing stones and lesser offenses such as membership in a "banned organization" - a charge that can stem from such nonviolent actions as setting up chairs for meetings or putting up posters for militant groups such as Hamas or Islamic Jihad.

Murphy's most compelling example was 15-year-old Ayat Dababsa, who was arrested at a checkpoint for carrying a kitchen knife in her bag. After being interrogated, she signed a confession written in Hebrew - which she could not read - stating that she had planned to use the knife to kill an Israeli soldier. She has been jailed since January and likely faces a five-year prison sentence.

One thing that makes newspaper journalists proud, even in periods when their role and purpose seem somewhat uncertain, is a continued willingness to commit resources to telling stories that uncover possible injustices - whether in Baltimore or the Middle East. Murphy's report, "The young prisoners of the West Bank," was, in my view, one of these stories. He was able to offer a balanced report about an issue and a conflict that produces strong passions and disagreements.

A number of readers reacted.

Said Doris Rausch of Ellicott City: "Thank you so much for your article. Israel is guilty of a double standard in just about everything they do; likewise, the U.S. is guilty of a double standard in how they judge Israel. Please keep up your good work, as exemplified by this article."

Another reader, "Tired of The Sun" from Baltimore, had a different view: "It's amazing that in all these years of writing that John Murphy has never written about the camps the Palestinian Authority runs for kids, where 10-year-olds are blindfolded and given rifles to disassemble and reassemble and where they are given bayonets and practice stabbing stuffed large dolls depicted as Jews."

From Frank Smor: "Dear Mr. Murphy, Congratulations on your excellent article about young Palestinians in the West Bank. Its great to see there are still reporters that write objectively about conditions within the West Bank, even if their words might be viewed as critical of Israel. Please keep up the great work."

Alas, Murphy will no longer be doing good work for The Sun, because this story was likely his last for the newspaper. Murphy is leaving at the end of the month for a reporting position in the Tokyo bureau of The Wall Street Journal, and The Sun's Jerusalem bureau, which has operated since 1980, will close. This marks the end of almost 40 years of direct Sun reporting from the Middle East (previous bureaus were in Beirut and Cairo).

It is indeed the end of an era.

Murphy, 38, had been The Sun's South Africa correspondent based in Johannesburg for nearly five years before becoming the Middle East correspondent in 2004. During his time in the Middle East Murphy has covered a number of major stories, from Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian elections to the war between Israel and Hezbollah. As Sun Editor Tim Franklin said: "Between those stories, John wrote with great eloquence and sophistication about the people and issues in the region."

Murphy described the challenges of reporting from the Middle East in the context of the Palestinian juveniles' story. "This is such a bitter conflict that it's tough to move beyond the slogans we are all familiar with from Israelis and Palestinians. My prisoners story was an effort to take a closer look at the stories we often hear about young Palestinians who are arrested every day in the West Bank. I struggled to talk with Palestinian juveniles in prison but was denied access. I realized the only moment I could witness what was happening to these kids was at their court hearings, and even those were difficult to attend without special permission and a minder. Once inside the courts, a new dimension of the conflict opened up itself to me and became the inspiration for this story."

Murphy, who began his Sun career in the Carroll County bureau, said he always dreamed of becoming a foreign correspondent. "It always struck me as the most adventurous job I could have and that's proven to be true. The last seven years traveling to more than 30 countries around the globe have been challenging, at times frightening, but ultimately some of the most professionally rewarding, mind-opening and happy years of my life."

He is concerned about the impact of closing the Jerusalem and other Sun foreign bureaus.

"Baltimore Sun readers are passionate about the Middle East, and whether they agree or disagree with our coverage, they are grateful to have a local perspective on the conflict," Murphy said. "Not having a Jerusalem bureau and other bureaus is a loss for the readers and for the newspaper and its employees. The foreign bureaus have given readers another perspective on international events."

In my view, that is the most relevant point. The Sun will continue to publish articles from the Middle East and other places around the world, and will be continue to send individual reporters to write on international subjects that editors believe are most relevant to Sun readers. But not having foreign bureaus eliminates the daily context and direct flow of information into the newsroom and inevitably reduces the commitment to international news.

Given the current volatile and rapidly changing nature of the media business, I understand why newspapers such as The Sun and The Boston Globe will no longer have their own reporters based in their own foreign bureaus. But after reading "The young prisoners of the West Bank," I understand more than ever what we'll be missing.

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