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Afghanistan: Journalists Caught In Crosshairs

  • Bruce Pannier

Eight journalists have been killed in Afghanistan this month, making the country the most dangerous place to practice this profession. Even veteran correspondents say there is a great need for caution. Many news organizations pulled their reporters out of northern Afghanistan after a Swedish cameraman was robbed and killed earlier this week. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier looks at the risks and rewards for journalists covering the Afghan war.

Prague, 30 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Thus far, journalists have suffered more casualties than any of the foreign forces presently in Afghanistan.

The United States says one employee of the Central Intelligence Agency was killed in northern Afghanistan on 25 November, its only admitted casualty so far in-country.

British troops in Afghanistan have reported no fatalities.

United Nations aid agencies and the International Red Cross are at work in the impoverished nation, but not since a U.S. bomb went astray in the early days of the campaign in October have any humanitarian workers been killed or injured.

But for the army of foreign journalists in Afghanistan, the war has been costly indeed. Eight journalists have been killed covering the hostilities over the last month. There is a growing realization that, not only is the profession dangerous to practice in war-torn Afghanistan, but journalists themselves appear to be prime targets.

Alan Davis of the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting describes some of the dangers confronting journalists in Afghanistan.

"Those people [journalists] who have continued to use the roads have reported increased instances of attack and attempted murder. But certainly, not knowing who the enemy might be, not knowing what might be hidden around the next rock -- that's the problem basically in Afghanistan. The challenge for journalists is not simply the Taliban or some trigger-happy friends of the Northern Alliance, but it's basically banditry, unexploded ordinance, all matter of things."

Anthony Lowstedt of the Vienna-based International Press Institute agrees.

"It's very hard to report from Afghanistan today. It's an almost lawless country, and there are just physical obstacles to getting there at all. And once you're in, if you're lucky, you face the real danger of getting killed."

There are about 1,000 U.S. Marines stationed in Afghanistan and as many as several hundred British troops. Journalists do not have ready access to these soldiers, and there are no official press briefings in the country at which journalists could find a few moments of relief behind well-guarded walls.

Still, Afghanistan is the biggest story in the world, and journalists often take risks in an effort to be the first on the scene of the latest battle or liberated city.

Three of the journalists killed this month were traveling atop an armored personnel carrier, heading toward the northern city of Taloqan shortly after the city fell to Northern Alliance forces. They were caught in an ambush by Taliban forces. It is still unclear if they were killed in the battle or if some were caught and executed by Taliban fighters.

Four other reporters from Western press outlets were killed on the road from Jalalabad to Kabul shortly after the fall of the capital. Their convoy was stopped by what is believed to have been a rogue Taliban unit. The four journalists were executed.

And earlier this week, a Swedish cameraman was robbed in the house where he was staying in Taloqan and shot and killed by the thieves.

And then there is this latest disturbing news for journalists covering the war in Afghanistan, which Lowstedt pointed out in a British newspaper today.

"The Taliban today, according to one report in the 'Guardian' newspaper, have put a price on the head of Western journalists of $50,000 for each journalist killed. These are atrocious conditions to try to report under."

Many news agencies have pulled their people out of northern Afghanistan due to the near-total lack of law and order there. Despite the dangers, however, there are still reporters who will risk it all to go into the field to find the story.

Why? Davis of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting gives one reason.

"I know from my experiences going into Cambodia and Yugoslavia in 1991, as a free-lance [journalist], you go to developing wars to actually make your name. And a lot of well-established journalists have done precisely that."

And Davis said it is important for journalists to remain in Afghanistan, to report the facts as they see them, and not simply to repeat what the U.S.-led coalition spokespeople want the public to know.

"If there aren't journalists doing what they're doing at the moment in Afghanistan, a lot of great information that we're getting out -- a lot of the first-hand reporting, especially surrounding the battle for the fort [outside Mazar-i-Sharif] -- would not have come out."

The Afghan factions currently meeting near Bonn, Germany, have agreed to allow UN peacekeepers into Afghanistan -- a reality that may, in the end, help journalists practice their craft more safely.

But there is no fixed date yet for when such a force will be deployed, or even where. And neither is there peace yet in the country. The Taliban is still battling anti-Taliban forces in the southeastern part of the country.

For the time being, journalists must still decide which stories to cover, and whether such stories are worth risking their lives for. For reporters, covering the war in Afghanistan is giving new meaning to the term "deadline."

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