At a demonstration in Kabul, a photo of the slain Afghan journalist Ajmal Naqshbandi. (AP/Musadeq Sadeq)

Local “fixers” have been essential to foreign reporters covering the Afghan war. While they often do the same work as their international counterparts, they run greater risk and face a far more uncertain future. By Monica Campbell


In Afghanistan,
International Coverage Relies on Local Links

By Monica Campbell

In a decade of NATO-led war in Afghanistan, it was one of the highest-profile attacks. On the afternoon of September 13, Taliban insurgents in a high-rise building fired rockets and bullets at the U.S. Embassy and the headquarters of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, both in Kabul’s heavily fortressed “green zone.” Within seconds, U.S. Embassy personnel bolted for bunkers and passers-by fled the area.

At a demonstration in Kabul, a photo of the slain Afghan journalist Ajmal Naqshbandi. (AP/Musadeq Sadeq)

Sangar Rahimi of The New York Times rushed to the scene. As he took notes during the blitz, many things worried him, from whizzing rockets to nervous Afghan police. “I’m not sure what scared me most–the rockets or the panicked cops with their fingers on the trigger,” Rahimi said.

Throughout the war, foreign media have relied on Afghan colleagues–commonly known as fixers, although many are now seasoned journalists in their own right–to assist with things like arranging interviews and interpreting. Most crucial, these Afghans guide international correspondents’ coverage of the country’s evolving and complex war, helping determine whether a story is feasible or deadly.

If you happened to visit Kabul before 2001, you would have found Rahimi as a budding doctor. Following a path similar to those of many Afghans working with foreign media, Rahimi had graduated from Kabul Medical University but, with few job prospects, found himself offering English-language services to foreign journalists. The work meant a decent income that his medical degree would not have provided during wartime. And over the years, Rahimi and fellow Afghans earned increasing journalistic recognition, including bylines and greater responsibilities within their news organizations.

Bonds between these Afghans and their foreign counterparts have grown strong after sharing close calls at insurgent checkpoints, enduring threats from warlords, and surviving brushes with roadside bombs. “They are comrades, colleagues, and journalists,” said Jonathan Landay, a senior McClatchy national security correspondent who has reported on and off from Afghanistan since 1985. “You trust them with your life. If they say to me, ‘Look, this place is not safe and we need to leave,’ I drop everything and go.” And to be clear, Landay added: “It’s not a one-sided affair. These are smart, educated people. They do not take on jobs without knowing the risks.”

Still, with the partnerships come unsettled questions. While Afghan journalists, typically young and ambitious, perform much of the same work as foreign correspondents, they run greater risks. They cannot leave the country at will. Western troops can mistake them for insurgents. In great swaths of Afghanistan, their association with foreigners leaves them marked as infidels and spies. Some have paid the ultimate price for their work. Among the dead: Sultan Munadi, who was shot in 2009 during a British-led rescue mission that freed his colleague, New York Times correspondent Stephen Farrell, from Taliban captivity. There was also 24-year-old reporter Ajmal Naqshbandi, who was abducted by the Taliban with Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo in 2007. Mastrogiacomo was released; Naqshbandi was beheaded after the Afghan government refused Taliban demands to release imprisoned insurgents.

“We’ve lost many friends,” said Farouq Samim, who worked for years in Afghanistan for The Chicago Tribune and Al-Jazeera. Afghan journalists say that economic pressures–their income often makes them their family’s breadwinner–can compel them to accept risky assignments they would otherwise refuse. “I’ve seen young Afghans who felt pushed to go to places they should avoid, to meet people who were simply too dangerous,” Samim said.

There are also the inherent dangers of war reporting. On July 28, U.S. forces killed Ahmad Omaid Khpalwak, a 25-year-old Afghan working for the BBC in the eastern city of Tarin Kot. About noon that day, suicide bombers attacked the government complex, which included news offices where Khpalwak filed stories. As Khpalwak fled, U.S. forces shot him, mistaking him for a suicide bomber about to detonate his explosives. Twenty-one journalists have been killed in Afghanistan since the conflict began in October 2001, CPJ research shows.

Over the years, Rahimi, 30, has moved up the hierarchy of local journalists. Also in the established go-to club is 26-year-old Habib Zahori, who has worked with New Yorker staff writers and contributed to the McClatchy news service and The Washington Post. The two journalists earn a Western-sized salary and are increasingly reporting stories under their own byline, leveraging years of shadowing foreign correspondents. “A lot of these guys are just incredible, courageous journalists, pushing the levels of safety to get a story,” said Tim McGirk, a former Time bureau chief who has reported on Afghanistan since 1990.

But because of his work, Rahimi can’t go home. For the past two years, his family’s village in Laghman province, which neighbors Kabul, has been off-limits. Rahimi believes it was his reporting on the 2009 assassination of a high-ranking intelligence official in Laghman province by a Taliban suicide bomber that got him labeled as a “traitor and bad Muslim.” While reporting the story with Farrell of the Times, he went to the hospital to see civilians also wounded by the suicide bombing. Fellow villagers spotted Rahimi with Farrell. “They said, ‘Hey, what are you doing here with that foreigner?'” Rahimi tried to distance himself, saying that he was a doctor and was there to treat the wounded. “They knew I was lying,” Rahimi said. “I was standing there with a tripod. I panicked and only made things worse.”

Days later, a group of men approached Rahimi’s father at the village mosque. “They told my dad, ‘Your son is working with infidels,'” Rahimi said. Animosity for Afghans who work with Americans can run deep. “Powerful people in my village tribe see my work with foreigners as a major crime and that I’m more guilty for the deterioration of Afghanistan than any foreigner,” he said. “I’ll be targeted if I go back.”

Zahori said that when he walks the streets and bazaars of Kabul with a Western journalist, he hears Afghans whisper insults his way. “I’ve been called a spy and a shoe-licker of foreigners by my people,” he said. It’s a stigma that will not likely disappear. “I expect the work that these Afghans are doing now will be considered even more ugly if the Taliban come back to power,” said Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar, director of the Afghan media advocacy group Nai.

The dangers to the press in Afghanistan are unique worldwide in that international media have borne the brunt of deadly attacks. Two-thirds of those killed in Afghanistan since the war began were foreign journalists; of the seven Afghan journalists killed during that period, five worked for international news organizations. Elsewhere in the world, even in countries embroiled in conflict, local journalists working for local news outlets have had the highest fatality rates.

International news media rely on local assistance all over the world, but most heavily in hot spots such as Iraq, Somalia, and Afghanistan. These local colleagues–some established journalists, some not–serve as interpreters, guides, and conduits to sources. The work is extremely dangerous: CPJ has documented the deaths of more than 70 local support workers worldwide since 2003, with the heaviest fatalities coming in Iraq.

For Afghans based full-time in the provinces, danger is always near. Away from Kabul’s relative safety bubble, they live in areas where insurgent groups can hold sway. Any hint of their work with foreigners could prompt retaliation. Many give their Western colleagues Muslim-sounding names when adding their numbers to their cell phones. To keep their occupations hidden, particularly in volatile areas such as Kandahar, Afghanistan’s main city in the south, they lie to their relatives about their work.

“The vast majority of the country’s default position is to be suspicious or hostile toward Americans or anyone working with them,” said Quil Lawrence, Kabul bureau chief for the U.S. media outlet NPR.

Everyone takes precautions. “You must figure out the possible risks through long conversations,” said Alissa Rubin, Kabul bureau chief for The New York Times. She asks her Afghan colleagues many questions: Is it too dangerous for them to report from their home province? Would it be safer to report the story remotely, phoning a source instead of going in person? If they do head out to meet a source, is there a chance that, this time, he might sell them out to kidnappers? “And it’s not only the Taliban that I’m worried about,” said Rubin. “I get far more worried when we write about official corruption, the government, and links to organized crime. That’s extremely dangerous. We’re talking more about criminal networks, less ideological and more ruthless and daring.”

Indeed, Zahori said that after he helped The New Yorker‘s Dexter Filkins report on corruption within Kabul Bank, one of Afghanistan’s largest financial institutions, he expected reprisals, perhaps from the discredited, but still powerful, bank executives themselves. When the story came out in February, Zahori went underground. He changed his routines, altered his commute along Kabul’s dusty city streets, and turned off his cell phone for several days. When he restarted his phone, he didn’t answer unrecognizable calls. “I’m not worried about myself, but about my family,” Zahori said. Like many Afghans, he lives with his immediate and extended family in a compound in an unsecured area of Kabul. “If something happens, I might send the family to Pakistan. I don’t know what I would do, really.”

For many, the overriding concern is what will happen after 2014, when NATO forces are scheduled to leave and, with them, numerous foreign correspondents and bureaus. Add to this the possibility of the Taliban’s regaining power. “We’ve been working with foreigners and will be the first ones punished,” said Hashim Shukoor, a 27-year-old pediatrician who has worked since 2003 with foreign media, including McClatchy. “We’re extremely concerned about our future. We see it as dark with no light inside.”

Worried, some Afghans are searching for a way out. Local journalists said that conversations often revolve around visas, international scholarships, and other opportunities abroad. But no legal exit is guaranteed. “What’s clear is that it’s time to leave,” said Rahimi, “especially for those of us maligned or defamed by working with foreigners.” Rubin, his boss, is also worried. “What’s going to happen to the Afghans we’ve worked with?” she said. “This needs thinking through now.”

A small number of Afghan journalists have found safe havens, albeit temporarily, in Europe. One organization, Sweden’s Fojo Media Institute, has offered shelter to Afghan journalists, as it has to reporters from countries such as Pakistan and Colombia. Fojo also facilitates medical care and psychological counseling. “But we should be considered a last resort, a short-term solution,” said Johan Romare, Fojo’s international director.

Scholarships can be another way out. In 2009, Samim won a scholarship offered to Afghans to earn a master’s degree in communications at the University of Ottawa in Canada. More than 300 people applied for the five slots, which were offered in partnership with the Open Society Foundation. Samim’s wife and three children have since received visas and have joined him in Canada. But their visas came only after myriad letters of support from the foreigners Samim met during his work as a journalist, and with the direct backing of a Canadian member of parliament. “I got lucky,” said Samim, who is now applying for asylum with his family. “My kids don’t want to go back. They feel the danger that still exists back home.”

The path is less certain for Afghan journalists seeking U.S. visas. “There’s always this dubious question about whether they’re really a journalist,” Rubin said. Indeed, the Obama administration’s new, more rigorous background checks for visa applicants have lengthened backlogs. The process could take years. (In 2008, the U.S. Congress approved the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act, which allowed Iraqis affiliated with U.S. government agencies and media outlets to apply for direct resettlement to the United States. A special visa program has been established for Afghanistan as well, but it is not open to Afghan journalists.)

Some journalists said that U.S. news organizations should band together and apply pressure on Washington to expedite visas for their Afghan colleagues. “There’s an obligation on the part of Western news organizations to help their Afghan employees if things start turning for the worse,” Landay said. “It’s these very Afghans who have helped us do our jobs. They’ve been crucial in helping us inform Americans about the war.”

Zahori isn’t hopeful. “Look, my country has been labeled as a factory for terrorism,” he said. “It’ll take a lot to convince a consulate official that I’m not a terrorist. You have to be rich or politically connected to get a U.S. or European visa.”

Both Zahori and Rahimi are applying to U.S. journalism schools. Inculcated with the drive to report, Rahimi said: “I believe that working with the media, exposing the corruption, will help my people even more so than medicine. I know the dangers, but journalism is my passion.”

Monica Campbell is a San Francisco-based freelance journalist and former CPJ consultant. She reported from Afghanistan in early 2011.

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