It is Graeme Smith’s 15th trip to Afghanistan. Though famous for his intrepid journalism, this time he’ll be spending more of his nights under a ceiling of impermeable cement. The Globe and Mail’s Afghanistan correspondent answers my e-mail from inside a concrete bunker. “We’re under rocket attacks again,” he writes. “Thank God for Wi-Fi.” But while Smith is safe underground, Afghan journalists are negotiating some of the most dangerous terrain in the world, serving as the eyes and ears of international news agencies. They are known as fixers or stringers, terms that are sometimes used interchangeably to describe those who coordinate interviews and offer transportation, reporting and translation services for international media outlets. Smith refers to them as journalism’s “unsung heroes.”
Smith’s predicament follows the kidnapping of CBC journalist Mellissa Fung, who was taken while reporting from a refugee camp in Afghanistan. Three weeks ago, Smith’s editors at the Globe put him on lockdown—he is unable to leave Kandahar Airfield without a military escort, unable to travel outside of the Canadian Forces’ orbit, and consequently unable to produce the innovative journalism that he’s known for.
Still, Smith sees this situation as an opportunity to be “more creative” in his reporting. For him, this involves training local Afghans to go out and gather information, conduct interviews and do research for him, a process that he describes as “painstaking” as “it takes a lot longer to produce a credible piece of journalism.” But he also sees it as necessary: “It’s just one of those situations where you have to put your own survival ahead of the story.” Smith offers similar advice to the local journalists that he works with, “I always tell my fixers it’s not worth dying for information,” he says.
But many still do. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that in 2007, 66 journalists were killed internationally. Ajmal Naqshbandi is the first name that appears on its list. An Afghan freelance journalist, Naqshbandi offered his services as a translator and guide for non-native reporters. On March 5, 2007, Taliban insurgents kidnapped Naqshbandi along with an Italian journalist, Daniele Mastrogiacomo, and their fixer (who arranged interviews and transportation), Syed Agha. Ten days later, Agha was decapitated. After two weeks and pressure from the Italian prime minister, the Afghan government secured the Italian journalist’s release by freeing five Taliban prisoners, but refused to do the same for Naqshbandi. On April 8, Naqshbandi was beheaded.
When asked to comment on this incident Smith says, “Yes, I’m concerned about the protections given to local Afghan staff. When a journalist is kidnapped while working for a foreign news agency, that outlet should take measures to win the journalist’s freedom—no matter what his or her nationality.” Smith talks of the public outcry that occurred among CBC correspondents when Afghan authorities detained Fung’s fixer after her kidnapping. “They continued lobbying for his freedom, and got him out. I wish other journalists would be so concerned when their local staff get into trouble.”
Kathy Gannon is familiar with the professional relationships between Western journalists and local Afghan media workers. Gannon was the Associated Press’s Pakistan and Afghanistan correspondent from 1986 to 2005. She talks about international media’s increasing use of Afghan and Pakistani stringers and fixers and the precautions that should be employed when hiring local journalists to travel to areas where Westerners might not have access. Gannon stresses that some areas that are too dangerous for Western journalists might not be as risky for some local Afghans, but that it is the responsibility of the journalist and the news organization to know what kind of environment a fixer or stringer is asked to travel to. “It’s incumbent on you to do your homework, and it’s also incumbent on news organizations to say, ‘Listen, that Afghan life or that Pakistani life is just as valuable as a Canadian life.'”
Although Afghan media workers play essential roles in international news organizations, they are seldom given the same benefits as staff reporters. Before Canadian Press staff reporters embark on a six- to eight-week rotation in Afghanistan, they undergo training to help them function effectively in a hostile environment and are provided with insurance coverage for the dangers they may face while working in a war zone. An Afghan media worker, however, is treated as a freelance employee, either paid by the week or given a monthly stipend, neither of which includes any kind of insurance or medical coverage.
Paul Loong, the Canadian Press world editor, says that CP has been using the same local Afghan interpreter “for quite a long time now.” The interpreter also fulfills the role of a reporter, but is treated as a freelancer and does not receive insurance or official training. Loong says the responsibility for training local Afghan media workers about the dangers of any given area falls to “the journalists that we have in the country.”
While there are no hard and fast rules regarding how much risk local Afghan reporters take, Gannon points out that there’s a difference between a local reporter being trained by a journalist familiar with the dangers in Afghanistan versus one who has just arrived in the country. “It’s different if you’re based here, you’re AP or Reuters, you have your Pakistani staff and they’re bound by the same rules as your foreign staff. ‘It’s not safe to go here, it’s not safe to go there.’ That kind of thing. But I’m talking about people who come in. They don’t have contacts and they send their local fixer to the tribal areas and something happens there, they get kidnapped…I mean, everybody wants a story: ‘I want to talk to bad guys.’ It becomes a dangerous thing to do, to ask a local person to find you the bad guys,” says Gannon.
Loong says that CP’s policy is to not risk lives for stories. “Freelance people on retainer out there-—they’re not employees-—they don’t have insurance, but they do have the understanding that if something goes bad we would do the best that we can to negotiate something. They know if something bad happened we would try to solve the situation.” Smith and Gannon both acknowledge that it’s not unusual for a news organization to lobby for the release of a local journalist who has been kidnapped or pay medical expenses if one is injured. But of course, none of this can be guaranteed without insurance or a contract.
It’s not surprising that many Afghan freelancers aren’t feeling very reassured. Freelance Afghan reporter Shukoor has worked for 12 years for Western news organizations, including the New York Times, The Economist and Der Spiegel. Like most of his colleagues, Western and non-Western alike, what Shukoor fears the most is kidnapping and what might happen to his family if he were injured or detained. Shukoor says that none of his employers has ever mentioned the subject of insurance to cover his medical expenses or support his family, should he be injured or kidnapped on the job. “News companies…besides giving insurance for their own correspondents [should] pay a little attention to those people who take equal risks in providing stories. I mean, they should [keep] in mind that Afghans are also human beings and that their lives are worth the same as a life of an American, Canadian or European.”
Afghan CTV cameraman and reporter Javed Ahmed highlights the risks faced by Afghan media workers, as he says that his status as a journalist, which required him to have contact with the Taliban and insurgents, was used as a rationale for his arrest and imprisonment. On October 26, 2007, Ahmed received a phone call from a man who claimed to be a U.S. military public affairs officer. “He wanted to see me for a journalism survey…. I said, ‘We usually don’t work on Friday, but it’s okay, I’m there.'” When Ahmed arrived at Kandahar Airfield he was met by a red pickup truck that drove him inside the Special Forces compound. After that, everything went terribly wrong. “At once around 20 people came up beside me and jumped at me like animals. They surrounded me, tied my hands with plastic handcuffs and closed my eyes with a black cloth. They took me to the prison.” The U.S. military imprisoned Ahmed for 10 months on the grounds that he was an enemy combatant, had Taliban contacts, and was selling weapons to insurgents, although this was never proved. Ahmed thinks his detention had a widespread effect on other local Afghan journalists: “They think, ‘If I get detained, the news agency will not work hard to get me released.’ They know that people will not do anything, so they decrease their efforts for international news agencies.”
One can’t deny that in a country stricken with poverty, pay from international news agencies can act as a powerful incentive for local media workers. “The pay varies wildly. The best fixers in Kabul can command $300 dollars a day and I know other guys who take $50 dollars a day,” says Smith. Of the full-time local staff employed by the Globe Smith says, “Their salary is about ten times higher than any other kind of work that people get in Southern Afghanistan. They do okay.” Many local media workers are aware of the risk they’re taking working for Western media, and that their job can increase their chances of becoming a target for insurgents. But when a seasoned reporter is paired with an adept local journalist, certain dangers can be minimized.
Smith says that in his experience, money does not embolden local media workers to take unnecessary risks to get a story. He explains that the pay is consistent whether a journalist chooses to stay in his office in Kabul or venture out into more perilous conditions. When asked if he thinks the salary and lack of insurance for freelance Afghans is fair when measuring the risk involved, Smith says, “Frankly, yeah. I think it is fair because they wouldn’t be doing it if it weren’t. Afghans have a keen sense of self-interest and a very good eye for when a bargain is no longer a bargain. They would immediately tell me if this wasn’t to their advantage and they felt like quitting.”
Gannon isn’t so sure. She believes it isn’t necessarily that easy for some local media workers to make that call: “The foreigner you’re offering $300 dollars a day, that’s hard to turn down,” she says. And the high demand from international news outlets for translators and local guides increases the likelihood that money could play an influential role. “I don’t think we could go a few weeks without an interpreter,” Loong comments.
It’s difficult to evaluate the risk that Afghan journalists are exposed to compared to that of their Western counterparts, as all journalists reporting from conflict zones face extreme danger. As Smith notes, “I know some Afghan journalists who do the majority of their work from the comfort of gated compounds in Kabul, and rarely take risks. I also know some Western journalists who foolishly gallivant across the Afghan countryside, crossing into extremely dangerous areas—sometimes without really understanding the risks they’re taking. So it’s hard to generalize.”
On the other hand, he says, “The majority of the journalists in this country are Afghans, so as a group they’re exposed to more risk. Afghans are also usually better equipped to understand the risks, and better connected to manage the security problems, so some of them take on assignments that are far more dangerous than anything a Westerner would attempt.”
But when two reporters work side by side, both facing the same life-threatening situations on a daily basis, it’s hard to accept that one has a higher salary, a safety net of an insurance policy provided by a news organization, and most likely a government that will lobby if a kidnapping or imprisonment were to occur. The other is left to question his worth in the eyes of both his own government and international media organizations. Double standards have already been established: remember the case of the Italian journalist being bargained for while his Afghan colleague was left to die. Javed Ahmed’s words are not unfamiliar, nor unreasonable. “If I’m working for an international news agency, they have to think about me the same way they’re thinking about any North American journalists. I’m the same human like they are.”