Notes from Afghanistan – July 27, 2007

July 27, 2007

As I write this, the fate of the remaining 22 South Korean hostages remains uncertain. They were captured when their bus was stopped by armed gunmen on the main highway connecting Kabul and Kandahar. A few days earlier, 2 German contractors were kidnapped near the same location. A few days later a German journalist was also abducted.

This is our new reality, in Afghanistan. Unable to beat the coalition on the battle field, a desperate insurgent has resorted to cowardly IED and suicide attacks and kidnapping the innocent to try and scare the international community into leaving.

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History will show whether the tactics work or not. For now, the immediate result is a growing fear among those of us here without weapons.

Doing your job, whether you’re a journalist or aid worker, has never been easy in this country. Today, despite a heavy coalition presence, the situation has changed little.

I spoke, earlier this week, with a female Afghan journalist who lives in constant fear. She arrived late to our interview because she has been forced to mix up her daily schedule to avoid being followed. Not long ago, Farida Nikzad narrowly escaped kidnapping by jumping out of a moving taxi when the driver began making threats and driving in an unfamiliar direction. More recently, two of her female journalists were killed last month. Threats, in the days that followed, said she would be next.

While Farida’s situation seems extreme, it’s not rare. Female journalists are under constant threat due to intolerance at the fact Afghan women are trying to fight for rights they have long been without. But media oppression is not isolated to women. The industry, itself, fights for simple freedoms foreign journalists take for granted.

While in Kabul, I had the unique experience of being invited to cover the funeral of Afghanistan’s former King, Mohammad Zahir Shah. We arrived at the Palace and found that our names had been included on the invitation list. We were escorted to another check point where our names were checked off another list. At this point, we were asked to sit and wait for nearly an hour before being told to pile all of our equipment on the ground and stand in a straight line, shoulder length apart.

Security officials frisked me, with a thoroughness I usually reserve for my wife, while another guard went through all of our stuff. A police dog was then brought it for extra measure. Once cleared, we were jammed into a van and brought into the palace court yard where we waited for another 2 hours. With the additional security required for an event like this, none of this surprised me. What did surprise me was the level of physical and verbal abuse levied at reporters.

Presidential handlers had no issues with physically pushing or prodding journalists and cameramen who weren’t standing exactly where they were told to. 1 hour into the ceremony we were rudely ordered to move because we weren’t allowed to get pictures of the president and dignitaries, including a Canadian official, paying their respects to the King.

Journalists, like, me are used to standing up for our rights. Doing that here results in being aggressively pushed by a short militant Presidential Public Affairs officer in a fancy blue suit. I don’t take kindly to being pushed around so I instinctively turned and told him not to touch me again. From a North American perspective, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Unfortunately, the two soldiers pointing their automatic weapons directly at me, from their roof top positions, didn’t see things the same way. I decided to move on.

I saw a photographer wrestled to the ground for shooting without permission. Police batons were used to ‘encourage’ the group of journalists to keep moving into position. And reporters were sequestered on a bus unable to watch significant parts of the event they were sent there to cover.

The number of Afghan journalists at the King’s funeral is a sign of progress. There had to be at least 20 local news crews. But the government’s ability to control the local journalists is a sign that much more work needs to be done.

The association representing independent Afghan journalists says without a truly free media, Afghanistan will never be a truly free country. Like many of the rebuilding projects in Afghanistan, this will take time. Until then, Afghan journalists risk everything to report anything that may help the world understand their country just a little better.

Like the aid workers and soldiers who risk their lives to make a difference, journalists say dealing with restrictions and risks is a small price to pay for a better future. The end justifies the means.

I’m inspired by the commitment of the Afghan men and women I now proudly call my colleagues. I ask myself if I would be willing to risk as much for my country. My answer seems cowardly and embarrassing. Maybe I have a lot more to learn about journalism from them than they do from me.