Since the war in Afghanistan began in October, journalists from around the world have risked their lives to feed an increased appetite for news from the region.
“It”s pretty disorienting at first. It”s the most intense thing I know,” Sebastian Junger said. Junger spent time traveling with Northern Alliance troops in Afghanistan in November for an article in the February issue of Vanity Fair. Junger was also in Ann Arbor Saturday promoting his book, “Fire.”
Junger said the case of Robert Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter apparently being held hostage in Pakistan, is a good example of the unpredictability of reporting from unstable areas.
“He undoubtedly didn”t think he was in any sort of danger, but he wasn”t anywhere close to the front line,” Junger said. “What I learned is that the situations that look the most dangerous are not always the most dangerous. The times when I”ve felt most at risk, I wasn”t at the front line,” he said, recalling a situation in Sierra Leone about a year and a half ago when he met some particularly hostile armed rebels. “You calculate what the risk is and what you”re getting for it. If you”re just going to get another photo of a tank shooting, then it”s not worth it.”
University journalism fellow Javed Nazir also understands the risks of reporting in a war zone. Nazir is the former editor of the Frontier Post, a “progressive and democratic” newspaper in Lahore, Pakistan.
“Covering a war has always been a hazardous assignment but I think before people take these jobs they know what they are getting into,” Nazir said. “It gets the adrenaline flowing.”
Nazir said he”s disappointed there has been little investigation into the deaths of journalists in the region. “Journalists are not expendable.”
University communications studies lecturer Anthony Collings recalled being held at gunpoint in Beirut, Lebanon. “It was extremely dangerous for journalists. They risk their lives trying to bring us the truth,” Collings said.
Getting the story
In situations that do not present physical danger, the greatest challenge journalists face is often access to areas and information, especially when there is tension between two governments. Nazir faced it anytime he covered anything in India and said Indian journalists had the same problem in Pakistan.
“Journalists on both sides face a mutual suspicion,” of spying for one country or the other, Nazir said. “People like me have been fighting for more freedom to report from India and Pakistan.
“It”s true to some extent that some journalists did have links to Pakistani and Indian intelligence agencies,” he said, adding that when he would travel to India, the first thing he had to do was report to police “so they can put someone on my tail.”
“In the wake of September 11, some Indians wanted to go to Afghanistan through Pakistan, and they were prevented,” Nazir said. Pakistani officials feared “the Indians might misreport and try to report that Pakistan is as hopeless as Afghanistan.”
Nazir faces a possible death sentence if he returns to Pakistan. His newspaper was burned down last year for printing a letter to the editor the Pakistani government considered blasphemous. “There”s a big price to be paid for being a journalist in my country, and some of us are quite prepared to pay that price,” he said.
In the case of the war in Afghanistan, Collings said there has been more access for the media than in past conflicts. “Compared to the Gulf War, the American media have had more access in a number of cases because the Pentagon didn”t control as much territory in Afghanistan as they did in the Gulf War,” he said.
Collings said the role of the media in the Vietnam War has also shaped the way the U.S. government has since granted media access in conflicts.
It was the lack of American control in Afghanistan that allowed Junger to travel freely to the front lines.
“The northern alliance was completely open. Sometimes what they said was wrong, but physically there was no restriction on access, and we could go anywhere we wanted, including places that were quite dangerous,” Junger said.
A job well done?
Reporting from Afghanistan in the last months has been by no means uniform, especially in the case of American television news networks, which scrambled to send reporters to Afghanistan after Sept. 11.
“I think generally American news media has done a good job covering the war in Afghanistan and the tension between India and Pakistan,” Collings said. “There were quite a few stories that didn”t get covered despite the freedom of American media. No American news media actually witnessed the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif, so we essentially don”t know from an independent witness what really happened in a major battle,” he said. “Journalists are relaying a lot of information directly from the Pentagon.”
The number of civilian casualties during bombing in Afghanistan has also been a point of contention. Some estimate that as many as 3,500 civilians were killed through the beginning of December. The actual number is far from clear, and tallies are often not even discussed on network newscasts.
“The full extent of civilian casualties is unknown. I think some American news media have made good efforts to find out, but I think they could do more,” Collings said. “The BBC did a lot more coverage of civilian casualties than the American media.
“If I had to speculate, it may come back to this insular approach that maybe the public doesn”t want to know how terrible the war is.”
The subject of civilian bombing victims has been Nazir”s largest problem with the American media. “If you want to be objective you have to watch the European media,” Nazir said, adding that there is some backlash in the region toward the way news is reported on American stations. “The American media has been very jingoistic.”
Junger said he thought the American media has done a good job covering the conflict, but he did take issue with what he felt was a misrepresentation of the army with which he traveled.
“Probably the most notable thing is that many of them had a pretty clichd opinion of the northern alliance that was already formed they seemed very ready to write them off as a “bunch of warlords.” That”s a great insult to the leaders over there who are very responsible, kind men. It really pained me to see them dismissed like that,” Junger said.