Kathy Gannon is a special regional correspondent for Pakistan and Afghanistan for The Associated Press. She has covered the region for the AP as a correspondent and bureau chief since 1988, a period that spans the withdrawal of Russian soldiers from Afghanistan, the assassination of Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the Afghan civil war between Islamic factions, and the rise and fall of the Taliban. Gannon was the only Western journalist allowed by the Taliban to return to Kabul during the U.S.-led coalition’s assault on Afghanistan that began in October 2001, following the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
In April 2014, the day before nationwide elections in Afghanistan, Gannon was at a police compound in the eastern part of the country with Anja Niedringhaus, a German photographer for the AP, along with Afghan military and police on their way to remote villages to deliver ballots. A police officer walked up to their car, said “Allahu Akbar,” and opened fire on them. Niedringhaus was killed in the attack, and Gannon was seriously wounded. The police officer was convicted and is serving 20 years in jail.
Gannon has also covered the Middle East, including the 2006 Israeli war against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. A native of Timmins, Ontario, she was the city editor at the Kelowna Courier in British Columbia and has worked at several Canadian newspapers. She has lived in Israel, Japan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
Gannon is the recipient of numerous awards, including the International Women’s Media Foundation Courage In Journalism Award in 2002; the Overseas Press Club Award for Best Newspaper or Wire Service Reporting from Abroad; the AP Oliver S. Gramling Award in Journalism; the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression’s Tara Singh Hayer Memorial Award in 2014; and the 2015 Medill Jim Foley Award. In 2003, she was an Edward R. Murrow fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Gannon is the author of the 2005 book I Is for Infidel: From Holy War to Holy Terror, an examination of the Taliban and post-Taliban period in Afghanistan. The book was published by Public Affairs.
Gannon is the youngest of six children. She is married to Naeem Pasha, a highly respected Pakistani architect and artist, and has a stepdaughter, Kyla Pasha. Click here to follow Gannon on Twitter.
The text of Kathy Gannon’s acceptance speech, as prepared for delivery, is below.
Thank you so much and thank you Christiane. Such an honor. I am such a huge fan of yours.
Anja was as well, often remembering you in Sarajevo where she began her career. You give us all an example to follow Christiane, a goal to strive for. Thank you.
Receiving the Burton Benjamin Award is huge for me — because it has given me an opportunity to reflect on a career that has been filled with opportunities, people and places that still take my breath away and because it is given by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The CPJ does much but, for me, its greatest accomplishment is the voice it gives to the local journalists, the heroes of our profession. As well, the CPJ works together with news organizations to find answers to the difficult question of how to protect staff and freelancers, while still getting the news. They also work, chastise and sometimes even plead with governments to respect journalists. But they are never silent nor silenced when a journalist comes under attack.
It is a brutal time for journalists worldwide. We are being mercilessly targeted and executed by the likes of Islamic State, and we are being jailed by governments, who seek to control the flow of information. The assaults, however, are coming from both the developed and the developing countries.
Here in the U.S., the Justice Department can confiscate telephone records of AP staff in Washington without telling anyone.
In this year’s annual press freedom ranking, which is put out by Reporters without Borders, the United States ranked 49 among the 180 countries that are included in its World Press Freedom Index.
That put the United States alongside countries like Niger, Malta and Romania.
We the “press” – a term that embraces writers, photographers and videographers — have a job to do, and whether we are able to do that job depends greatly on a government’s commitment to, respect for, and protection of a free press.
For me press freedom is all about the right to do my job and the right of the public to know.
It is not about being an advocate, a torchbearer of human rights, or a crusader for some vaguely laid out set of values that is so often linked to the West, as if we have a monopoly on all that is good and right.
We — as journalists — are the champions and guardians ONLY of the right to ask questions, investigate, understand and disseminate information. As journalists, whatever our medium, our job is to inform and it comes with a price.
That price isn’t only about facing danger, it is also about choosing to dig deeper, asking tough questions, researching and understanding our subject. It is about refusing to be intimidated and having the courage to step away from that “good versus evil” precipice that has at times tainted reporting, and impacted how conflicts are covered.
We have a credibility problem, in part because 24 hour television news has blurred the line between information and entertainment. Social media, so-called “citizen journalists,” and Twitter all have served to cloud the public’s perception of the “press.” Trust in what people read and hear has eroded and that threatens press freedom because it is easier to attack, control, and manipulate the press when respect for the institution is lacking.
I believe strongly that the greatest thing we bring to our job is an open mind and a curiosity. Whether it’s a poor villager planting his poppy crop, a Taliban, a warlord, a would-be suicide bomber, a president or a prime minister, it’s the why of what they do that interests me. It’s spending time with them, talking to them, drinking copious cups of tea, trying to understand them and their story and then telling it. I love my job.
And I have been spectacularly fortunate in my career. I have also drank a lot of tea.
For me good luck and good timing has been as important as good news sense, often more important. When Benazir Bhutto was overthrown in 1996 I got a call early one evening from The AP desk saying there were rumors of a possible coup.
Cleverly I said: “The rumors are strong but it won’t happen overnight.” Sure enough at 2:30 that morning she was gone. Thankfully we had good contacts at the presidency, where Benazir’s firing was taking place. They got in touch to say that all the lights in the president’s palatial residence were on. Something was going down. Turned out it was Benazir.
Her overthrow came barely two months after I had gone to Kabul just to check things out. It was September 1996 and Ahmed Shah Masood – who would later be killed by two suicide bombers just two days before 9/11 — was still ruling in Kabul and the Taliban were on the outskirts of the city, in an area called Pul-e-Charkhi.
When I arrived in Kabul all the aid workers were piling into a plane, getting out of town, saying the Taliban were ready to take control of the city. I smiled knowingly and said it could be months if at all, before the Taliban would take control of Kabul, after all Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, another Afghan faction leader had been stuck at Pul-e-Charkhi for years.
True to form I was wrong. Sure enough that was the last flight in or out of Kabul for the next two weeks and the Taliban were in control of the city by dawn the next day.
I tell you I am grateful every day for so many things, not the least of which is luck.
Despite my obviously dodgy news sense I am so thankful to be able to do what I do, go to the places I have gone, meet the people I have met and see things that most people can only imagine.
Even before the shooting last year I remember so often getting up in the morning, the first light, soft over our back garden, and thinking how really lucky I am.
With that in mind I would like to take just a couple of more moments to say a few thank yous.
We talk about the courage shown by journalists but our job demands strength and courage from our family.
I have been blessed with an amazingly loving family both in Canada and in Pakistan.
My husband, who is here, has stood by me with each decision I have made — to go to Afghanistan, to Iraq, Iran, Yemen, and even south Lebanon, when battle raged between Hezbollah and Israel.
He has suffered separation, he still struggles with the fear he felt at the thought that I came so close to death. But he has silenced his pain, stayed strong, been supportive and helped me focus on the possibilities that tomorrow offers us. He continues to support me as I plan my return to work, to return to Afghanistan, to do those stories I believe need to be done.
After last year’s shooting when I came to the Hospital for Special Surgeries here in New York and Dr. Duretti Fufa I was a mess. At the hospital in Germany, where I was taken from Kabul, the head doctor was ready to write off my left arm, saying if I were still in Afghanistan they would just cut it off. But from the beginning Dr. Fufa gave me hope and then she gave me movement. After the very first of what would be several surgeries – some lasting 12 hours — she stayed at my side till I woke up. By this time it was 1 in the morning and she said: “I have a plan. It won’t be a sprint. It will be a marathon but we will get there.” And we have and at every step of the way – aside from being a genius at what she does — she has been humble and gracious, always crediting “the team.”
One of the members of the team, my therapist Emily Altman, has struggled to re-educate my brain. No easy task believe me. She has massaged, manipulated and ministered to my arms and hands. She has invented splints, come in on weekends, encouraged and inspired me to believe that I can make them work.
Thank you is such an in adequate word for “the team” whose work has made it possible for me to be able to say that I will soon be back at work.
And speaking of work I am not sure how to even begin to say thank you to The AP. Through all of this they have been so much more than my employer. The people at AP — Gary Pruitt, Kathleen Carroll, John Daniszewski, Sue Gilkey, Jessica Bruce, Vicki Cogliano, and Carol Joe Yen – they have been kind and caring.
Kathleen set the tone back at the beginning in Germany. Quickly seeing the need of the hour she went out and returned with some of the finest shades of nail polish to jazz up my toes. It made me smile, but more it made me, for a brief, wonderful moment, when I needed it most, feel “normal.”
It has been a long haul but every stylishly-polished step of the way The AP has been at my side, never faltering, always encouraging, always caring.
After the shooting, understanding that it would be a marathon, Gary, the AP president, so kindly said: “We know it will be long, but we will be there with you and with whatever you need. “ And they have and then some.
And finally I am grateful for every moment I shared with Anja. She was a gift. I miss her every day.