Attacks on the Press 2001: Preface

By Anne Garrels 

ON NOVEMBER 19, 2001, I was at the border negotiating with officials to get across into Afghanistan. There was suddenly an unexplained problem, yet journalists arriving from Afghanistan said they had no trouble along the way. I was frustrated.

None of us knew that a caravan of our colleagues had just been attacked on a deserted stretch of highway between Jalalabad and Kabul, a few hours away. Gunmen forced four foreign journalists and an Afghan guide from two of the lead cars. One of the drivers described how his passengers were pushed down to the riverbank and shot dead. He said the gunmen claimed to be members of the Taliban militia, though their identity has never been confirmed.

I saw the gunmen using stones,” said an interpreter who also escaped. “I heard the sound of Kalashnikovs three or four times.”

The slain journalists were Harry Burton, 33, an Australian television cameraman for Reuters; Azizizulla Haidari, also 33, a Pakistani photographer for Reuters; Julio Fuentes, 46, a journalist from El Mundo newspaper in Madrid, and Maria Grazia Cutuli, 39, a reporter for Corriere della Sera newspaper in Milan.

I made it to Jalalabad shortly before Thanksgiving. A dozen or so journalists who had survived the attack organized a dinner. Collecting the ingredients for this traditional meal took on a new meaning, as well as providing sanity amid madness. Everyone at the hotel, no matter what his or her nationality, was invited.

Pamela Constable of The Washington Post raised a glass to her dead friends. Many of us hadn’t known the four journalists, but we knew what they had been doing, and why they were in Afghanistan, and we knew that any one of us could have been receiving this unwanted and untimely tribute.

The next day I made the same journey from Jalalabad to Kabul on a public bus. There had been a lot of discussion about organizing another convoy, this time armed, but I decided any convoy was a bad idea. I would be safer alone, I figured–it was my choice. Along the road, the Afghan passengers pointed out the place where the murders had taken place. My trip was uneventful, and had I not known about the murders I would have thought it was a starkly beautiful place. There was nothing to distinguish this curve of rock from any other.

An Italian journalist has since placed a plaque at the Spin Gar hotel, from where the four journalists set off on their last reporting trip. No one will ever leave that hotel again with such innocence.

The lawlessness and chaos in Afghanistan have presented both a challenge and a threat to hundreds of journalists covering a conflict that involves shifting alliances and widespread banditry. Eight journalists were killed there in the line of duty last year. More than ever before in my career, I have received praise and sympathy for working in Afghanistan. Yet Afghanistan is only the most high profile of many dangerous places where journalists work worldwide.

And most of the journalists killed around the world last year were not covering combat. As CPJ executive director Ann Cooper has said, we should also remember “that journalists around the world who uncovered corrupt illegal acts and graft at high levels of power were murdered with impunity.” There are no plaques for them.

Then there are those who have not been killed, thank God, but who endure relentless persecution, prosecution, and psychological pressure. Day in and day out, Georgian journalist Akaki Gogichaishvili and his team from the investigative television program “Sixty Minutes” report on illegal activities and official corruption, despite constant threats of arrest and worse. He does not have to go to a front line to face a minefield. I can go home. He is at home.

Advised by CPJ staffers about Gogichaishvili’s situation, I stopped by to see him in his cramped offices while on a reporting trip to Tbilisi. CPJ cannot provide bodyguards, but Gogichaishvili says the support and publicity CPJ has provided at key moments are what he needs to carry on, for now.

For me as a journalist, the good news is seeing new colleagues emerge around the world like Akaki Gogichaishvili in Georgia. But as formerly totalitarian states, especially in the former Soviet Union, begin to allow press freedom, there is a rise in abuses which if not lethal are certainly frightening, and highly dangerous to these emerging democracies.

In the wake of September 11, many governments may be tempted to use the threat of terrorism as a pretext to crack down on a prying, inconvenient press. If they do, CPJ will be there to make a fuss–we owe that to our colleagues around the world.