The tragic cost of cov­er­ing Afghanistan

Pakistan Observer - - OPINION - Ali­cia Shep­ard — Cour­tesy: USA To­day

TO Don­ald Trump, jour­nal­ists are “dis­hon­est,” “scum,” “slime,” or “nasty guys.” To me, a life­long jour­nal­ist, the ma­jor­ity of my col­leagues are any­thing but. What would the pre­sump­tive Re­pub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee say about NPR pho­to­jour­nal­ist David Gilkey? He and NPR’s Afghan trans­la­tor, Zabi­hul­lah Ta­manna, were killed June 5 in a surprise, bru­tal Tal­iban at­tack in south­ern Afghanistan. Gilkey em­bod­ied the ethics, com­mit­ment and pas­sion for journalism that Trump con­stantly be­lit­tles.

The pair died the day be­fore the New­seum’s an­nual reded­i­ca­tion to hon­our 20 jour­nal­ists killed re­port­ing in 2015. The memo­rial bears the names of 2,291 re­porters, pho­tog­ra­phers, news ex­ec­u­tives and broad­cast­ers who died do­ing their jobs as far back as 1837. The Com­mit­tee to Pro­tect Jour­nal­ists (CPJ) says 13 more, in­clud­ing Gilkey and Ta­manna, have al­ready been killed in 2016. None of them is sleazy, dis­hon­est or scum. Be­fore the lat­est deaths, CPJ cal­cu­lated that 24 jour­nal­ists and one me­dia sup­port worker had been killed in Afghanistan since the 9/11 at­tacks. “There are too many jour­nal­ists who have given their lives to tell the Afghan story,” said Bob Di­etz, CPJ’s Asia pro­gramme co­or­di­na­tor.

I knew Gilkey when I was the om­budswoman at NPR. I in­vited him, Bow­man and their pro­ducer, af­ter rough­ing it in the field with Afghan sol­diers, for a meal of burg­ers and cho­co­late shakes last year when I worked at the US Em­bassy in Kabul. Gilkey was an hon­est, ded­i­cated, funny man, though his scowl could def­i­nitely in­tim­i­date. He was pas­sion­ate about cap­tur­ing the sto­ries of those whose voices too of­ten go un­heard.

The NPR crew flew to Afghanistan in May to re­port on the progress of the Afghan army’s strug­gle against the Tal­iban. De­spite Amer­ica’s best ef­forts to pro­vide fi­nan­cial and mil­i­tary sup­port, the Tal­iban grows more pow­er­ful. The only way to get the story was to go to one of the most dan­ger­ous parts of Afghanistan and live on the front lines with Afghan sol­diers. Trav­el­ling in­side Afghanistan to re­port any story — even with the mil­i­tary — presents dan­gers beyond com­pre­hen­sion when threat­ened by an en­emy that shows no re­gard for hu­man life. Hu­man life and cap­tur­ing all its com­plex­ity is what Gilkey did best, whether it was in Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza, Haiti or Liberia.

Re­flect­ing on his cov­er­age of the 2010 Haiti earth­quake, Gilkey cap­tured why he put him­self in con­stant dan­ger and took risks so many jour­nal­ists would avoid. “It’s not just re­port­ing. It’s not just tak­ing pic­tures,” he said. “It’s, ‘Do those prod­ucts, do the vi­su­als, do the sto­ries, do they change some­body’s mind enough to take ac­tion?’ “

Pow­er­ful as they are, I now won­der whether Gilkey’s pho­tos are ac­com­plish­ing what he hoped. I re­cently spent two years in Kabul — one in the city, the other safely be­hind the US Em­bassy walls. I grew in­ured to the al­most daily bomb­ings around the coun­try. Too many sto­ries com­ing out of Afghanistan show lit­tle progress or of­fer much hope for the fu­ture. Many of the best and the bright­est Afghans, who once of­fered the most prom­ise, are choos­ing to leave.

I ap­plaud NPR’s com­mit­ment to con­tinue telling the story of a for­got­ten war, but know­ing Gilkey and Bow­man takes this tragedy out of the realm of journalism and into the per­sonal. It raises a ques­tion I am deeply strug­gling to answer: Is Afghanistan, with the news year af­ter year barely chang­ing, any longer a story worth risk­ing your life for? There does come a time in cov­er­ing a war when you have to ask your­self whether it’s worth it. At what point do you stop cov­er­ing it? By the time I left in Fe­bru­ary, there were only a hand­ful of in­ter­na­tional press.

“The re­port­ing has to con­tinue, don’t you think?” said Mark McDon­ald, who re­ported along­side Gilkey in 2005 and 2006 in Afghanistan. “Even if the av­er­age Amer­i­can doesn’t care. We have to keep show­ing them why they should care. Get­ting wounded or killed should be an ac­cept­able risk in the journalism busi­ness.” I know in my heart he’s right, but it’s much harder to ac­cept when it’s per­sonal. The writer, a veteran me­dia writer, worked with Afghan jour­nal­ists and the US Agency for In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment dur­ing two years in Kabul.

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