“Of course you have to go to Afghanistan or to Syria,” said French TV reporter Hervé Ghesquière, who was held hostage for 547 days in Afghanistan together with his cameraman, Stéphane Taponier, between December 2010 and June 2011.
However, he does not hesitate one micro-second when asked whether journalists should take risks to get the story. “I am not suicidal,” he said, “but if you are a journalist, you have to go. The ‘zero risk’ does not exist. The real question is how you can properly assess the dangers that you will inevitably have to confront.”
In the months since his release, Hervé Ghesquière, a seasoned reporter for the French public TV channel France 3 and a veteran of many wars, has been drawing and sharing the lessons from his abduction and captivity. On Monday, he was a keynote speaker at a conference organized at the Louvain-la-Neuve University (UCL) by Les Voies de la Liberté, an association promoting freedom of expression and human rights on the campus, and a guest of the University Radio.
He still resents the wild accusations that were thrown at him and his colleague by some top French officials who questioned the two journalists’ professionalism and criticized their “imprudence.” “Contrary to what some officials claimed, we never intended to meet with the Taliban. When we started on our ill-fated trip outside the French base in the Kapisa region we just wanted to report on how common people lived in an area under French army control. We wanted to assess on the ground the effectiveness of the ‘Afghanization’ of the police and military forces,” Ghesquière said.
“But why did you go without army protection?” a journalism student asked Ghesquière. “Because we knew that no one would talk to us honestly in the presence of French or Afghan soldiers.” he answered. “The French military are communicating on the war. They are determined to control how the story of the Afghan operation is being told. Very few journalists are allowed to embed with military units. They keep them inside the bases. Because they know that the mission has not been accomplished.”
Ghesquière repeatedly refuted any accusation of a lack of professionalism. France Télévisions, he insisted, never sends journalists on dangerous assignments without a serious assessment of the risks involved. “One of our colleagues who wanted to interview the Taliban spent one year preparing his reportage. He made sure that he would be under the protection of a Taliban leader who would vouch for his safety. But even with these precautions it was a close call for him because some Taliban, despite the pledge, argued that he should be detained and exchanged for a ransom,” he said.
“In any case in Afghanistan, there is always a risk even in areas allegedly under the control of the pro-Kabul forces. The Afghan army is undermined by informers who report to the Taliban. This is what happened to Stéphane and me. When we crossed an Afghan army checkpoint someone alerted a Taliban leader that we were coming.”
During his months in captivity, often in solitary confinement, Ghesquière developed a disciplined routine to avoid falling into depression. “It was like a military schedule. I dutifully respected the day and night cycles, I exercised regularly despite the exiguity of my cell, and I listened to the BBC broadcasts which helped me structure my day.”
Despite these very bad moments Ghesquière is ready to go back to the front lines, and he has advice for aspiring war correspondents. “Prepare yourself well. When I first went into a war, in the Balkans, I tended to rely too much on in-the-field journalism without giving enough attention to the complex background of the story. Now I devote much more time trying to understand the issue behind the story. I invest much more in collecting and digesting documentation. And thanks to that preparatory process I feel that I can much more quickly get to the essence of the story.”
Between conferences and his normal TV work, Ghesquière is writing a book on his 18 months in the Taliban’s jails. It is scheduled for release in early September and, he said, it will go beyond telling the story of this painful experience to reflect more broadly on the state of journalism and the existential challenges it faces in an era dominated by the determination of news makers — be they government, military, sports, or private companies — to frame and control the story.