reckless disregard

When she was young, Amanda Lindhout pored over the pages of National Geographic and dreamed of travelling to the places she read about. In 2007, the Sylvan Lake, Alberta, native, then 25, abandoned her waitressing job in a Calgary pub and her flirtations with becoming a beautician to globetrot. In Nepal she climbed to the base of Mount Everest. She helped pilot a small plane from Kandahar to Kabul for her 26th birthday and travelled across South America, the Middle East and Africa. In pictures from her adventures she dons cranberry- and coral-coloured headscarves, silver hoop earrings and a bright smile. In March 2008, she began writing a weekly column for the Red Deer Advocate that at times addressed the disadvantaged communities she encountered. With no previous journalism experience or hostile environment training, Lindhout reported from some of the most risky war zones for journalists in the world. Besides writing the column, she freelanced for Press TV in Iran and briefly for France 24, a French cable news channel, while submitting photos wherever she could.

Lindhout was determined to see every country in the world, including Somalia. In late August 2008, Lindhout and Australian photographer Nigel Brennan left Mogadishu, the capital, to investigate a displaced persons camp outside of a government-controlled zone. Somewhere along the stretch of road, their vehicle disappeared.

In the wake of Lindhout and Brennan’s release 15 months later, there was considerable speculation in the industry as to whether Lindhout was a brave journalist or a naïve thrill-seeker. Her detractors fail to make the connection to now-lauded Canadian maverick female war journalists like Kathleen “Kit” Coleman. Even before women could vote, she finagled her way into the Toronto Mail and Empire newsroom and covered the Spanish-American conflict in Cuba in 1898.

But to some, Lindhout was no Kit Coleman. Andrew Cohen, a columnist with the Ottawa Citizen, argued in a December 2009 column, “Amateur Hour,” that Lindhout was “an adventurer, a dilettante, a gutsy, friendly, chirpy naïf. She takes risks in the world’s hot spots without institutional support—all to publish pictures in Afghan magazines, appear on Iranian television and reach a small number of readers through the Red Deer Advocate, which seemed the limit of her influence.” While admitting Lindhout was well travelled, Cohen disagreed with the way Toronto Star staff reporter Katie Daubs referred to her as “a modern-day Hemingway in head scarves and mascara.”

Jonathon Gatehouse, a national correspondent at Maclean’s, who has reported from Ethiopia, tends to agree with Cohen. “Obviously, in Mogadishu, whatever precautions Amanda Lindhout and Nigel Brennan took weren’t enough,” he says. But precautions come at a price freelancers generally can’t afford. Journalists at major news publications often have insurance that includes extended health care and emergency evacuation coverage. Established publications, like the Star and The Globe and Mail, provide staff reporters with funds to pay for armed guards, fixers if necessary and hostile environment training that can cost around $7,000.

While Lindhout secured a fixer and two sets of guards—one from inside the Transitional Federal Government zone and one from outside—it is rumoured one group sold her out. Gatehouse tends to view Lindhout as a bit of a “cowboy”: “She went to perhaps the most dangerous place in the world and she didn’t even have a job. Frankly, that’s crazy. I don’t think there’s any doubt she was reckless.” This reaction differs from the way some people in the industry regard established reporters like Scott Taylor (a war correspondent with over 20 years of experience writing for his magazine Esprit de Corps, who was kidnapped in Iraq for five days in 2004) or CBC’s Mellissa Fung (who was kidnapped from a refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul in 2008 and held for just under a month), who garner more respect.

Michael Petrou, a Maclean’s reporter who has had experience in Africa, the Middle East and Europe, sees Lindhout differently. “I think she was a brave reporter,” he says. “She went out, she left her hotel room and she talked to real people. This is what good foreign reporting is about. It’s not about staying in your hotel or in a compound and reading news wires or going to press conferences and catching spit.”

Petrou, who has been in trenches metres away from American B-52s bombing Taliban soldiers, tries to prepare himself for potential risks but admits he can’t always foresee the outcomes. “You decide you are going to move from this rear position to another half-kilometre up. Maybe you’re going to leave the shelter of this village; you’re just going to cross this hill. You’re just going to go a bit farther, and then it’s too late. You find yourself huddling in the bottom of a trench, wishing you were somewhere else,” he says gravely.

In her last article before she was kidnapped, Lindhout wrote, “[Mogadishu] is called ’the most dangerous place in the world’ for a reason…Nowhere is safe.” It seems she knew the danger she was getting into.

Lindhout argues that thrill-seeking was not her motivation. Instead, she had “a want to see what happens not only in the beautiful places on earth, but also the places where people struggle to survive.” It was not even necessarily journalism that she loved, but “listening to someone’s story and then having a means to tell it.”