Threats, security in Afghanistan: Some responses

Last Friday’s post, “After bin Laden, a warning to foreign journalists,” generated several responses from Western journalists in Kabul. I also did two lengthy interviews on Monday with the U.S. government-funded broadcaster Voice of America, and fielded questions from several other news outlets. 

In the VOA interviews–one a group discussion with Rahimullah Samander in Kabul and Iqbal Khattak in Peshawar, two journalists who know a lot about reporting in dangerous areas–I took pains to reiterate the reality CPJ drives home every day: Our data show that 90 percent of all journalists killed worldwide are local journalists covering local stories. Even though the deaths of foreign journalists covering front-page stories garner a lot of attention, our day to day case load centers on reporters who might be recognized in their own country but don’t have an international audience.

Their international colleagues fully appreciate the importance of national journalists, who have local knowledge and contacts, along with the ability to move freely in places where foreigners do not go. But I worry that ordinary consumers of media do not. Local journalists, photographers, camera operators, producers, drivers, and translators are an integral part of the international news-gathering machine.

OK, point made.

Now, on to our followup on the alerts that at least two embassies sent out in recent days about threats to foreign journalists in Kabul. I heard from several international journalists who pointed out they are aware of the dangers in Kabul; while the possibility of an attack or kidnapping might have escalated after the killing of Osama bin laden, they said, the risk is always there.

“I never pay attention to them–I don’t think I have ever seen an embassy warning materialize into an actual act as described. And there are SO many foreigners tooling around Kabul that the focus on journalists is unrealistic,” one person with a long history in conflict zones told me when I asked about the warnings.

Another, who asked to be identified as “an American journalist,” told me:

It is very difficult to judge the seriousness of these threats. We have heard about them, but we assume that a kidnapping threat exists at all times. But we are doing what we sometimes become lax about doing–varying our routes, watching carefully for odd behavior by drivers behind us, and limiting our exposure whenever it’s not a necessary appointment. We can’t stop reporting.
It is very hard to tell in this environment which threats are being orchestrated to terrorize us and which are real. I worry everyday about how to do our job fully but safely. I think we have to be mindful at all times but never cowed. I worry most about correspondents who go out to restaurants frequented by Westerners because I do think those could easily be targets. We have a short list of places that we recommend that our correspondents avoid–sometimes they are the only practical place to meet someone, but mostly there are alternatives.

Jean MacKenzie, who writes for Global Post and who worked previously for the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, messaged us on Saturday: “A lot of people are keeping a pretty low profile. We won’t know until it happens how serious it is. Life here is a lot less fun than it used to be, believe me.”

The same day, she took on the issue in a piece, “Journalists in Afghanistan under siege.”

A journalist’s job is to go where the story is. Of course I take all proper precautions. I am not contemplating a trek into Taliban country any time soon. I am not looking for Mullah Omar, and the former and present Talibs I do talk to are all quite respectable. I do not entrust my safety to people I do not know, and I try not to make too many plans very far in advance.
But there is a limit to what a journalist can do to protect herself. Traveling with armed guards and in bulletproof vehicles is not conducive to establishing trust with an interview subject, even if such measures were not beyond the modest budgets of most news organizations.
I was escorted home from an interview a few nights ago and the driver’s companion had an automatic weapon casually propped against his knee. I was terrified the whole time that we would run into a U.S. convoy that would spot the gun and decide we were terrorists. That could have ended badly for everyone involved.