The military action to rescue a British journalist from the Taliban has once again raised a dozen moral and practical issues about foreign correspondents. The answers aren’t obvious, probably vary from case to case, and are influenced by the side of the debate you start on; but whatever you argue, two men are dead.
New York Times journalist Stephen Farrell had gone to investigate a Nato bombing where civilians had reportedly been killed and was kidnapped. In the rescue mission mounted by British forces, a British soldier, Farrell’s Afghan translator, Sultan Munadi, and two civilians were killed.
David Rohde, himself recently kidnapped and then freed, describes Munadi in affectionate terms on the NYT website. “Skinny as a beanpole, generous to an extreme and with an easy laugh, Sultan M. Munadi was an Afghan striver,” he said. (There are instructions on the NY Times site for how to send contributions to the family of Munadi, which I commend to readers.)
Mr. Munadi, 34, a father of two, worked as an office manager and reporter in the Kabul bureau; people like him get described as fixers, when in fact they are often much more.
“He and other Afghan reporters who work with foreign journalists are vastly more than interpreters,” says Rohde. “The death… illustrated two grim truths of the war in Afghanistan: vastly more Afghans than foreigners have died battling the Taliban, and foreign journalists are only as good as the Afghan reporters who work with them.”
Farrell also pays tribute to Munadi. He was “trying to help me right up to the very last seconds of his life”, he says on a blog post for the New York Times. The Guardian reports, however, that “some [Afghan] officials have threatened to declare Farrell, currently staying at the British embassy, as a persona non grata, effectively banning him from Afghanistan.”
Afghan journalists, the BBC says, “say the incident has revealed double standards among the international forces in the country. “This was a totally thoughtless raid resulting in the death of Sultan,” he said. Bari Salam, an editor for Afghan public radio, said there were “strong indications that Sultan was shot by the British forces” and that British forces had not aimed to rescue him. “We know now that he was not on the list of people to be rescued by this rescue operation. Simply, he was left alone,” he said. “Once again we see there is a big difference in terms of attaching value to human lives when it comes to Afghans.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Mr Farrell had ignored “very strong advice” not to travel to the area. He added that all those involved had been “determined to rescue both hostages”.
In the UK, the Daily Telegraph has also been concerned about the life of the soldier that died on the rescue mission. “One senior Army source told the Daily Telegraph “When you look at the number of warnings this person had it makes you really wonder whether he was worth rescuing, whether it was worth the cost of a soldier’s life.”
Cpl John Harrison, 29, of the Parachute Regiment was serving with the Special Forces Support Group. In the Telegraph, Cpl Harrison has been described as “a wonderful son, brother and a dedicated soldier” by his family, who said they were “heartbroken” at their loss. “His hallmark was an undemonstrative, yet profound, professionalism; he cared deeply about his work, and more deeply still about those he commanded and served alongside, ” said his commanding officer, whose name was not released by the Ministry of Defence due to the role of the unit. “He was an unflinching and inspirational man with a deep, deep pool of courage, who died as he lived – at the forefront of his men.”
The morals of the story are many and complex. Farrell had reportedly been warned not to go the area by Nato military; but do we expect journalists to heed such warnings? When the issue at stake was whether or not Nato forces had killed civilians? Some commentators have used the issue against Farrell, hinting that he is too gung ho. But if you know the guys that do this reporting, few are shrinking violets. A refined sense of self-preservation, luck and good fixers are what keep most out of trouble. And: should UK forces have acted to rescue him or left it to the negotiators? What would have been best for Farrell, for Munadi, for Harrison? Do we assume that any of those people don’t have interests that count here – and if so why?
The argument for a foreign correspondent is that they are reporting not from the perspective of the local observer, but are detached, professional and more objective. You can’t “crowd-source” from northern Afghanistan. We need to objectively verify the facts about Nato and Taleban actions (as objectively as we can). And the reporter needs, consequently, a high degree of autonomy. That is important; but what, in exchange, can he or she expect in support from the local community, international forces, their employer? Is it really right an outsider has some priviliged status? Does it make a difference if the organisation they works for makes a profit? Has a view on the conflict? What nationality they are? Is a foreign correspondent any different from a local journalist, an aid worker, an intelligence officer, an academic…
Which begs the question: do we keep sending these guys to war zones? (Who is we? Media organisations). To what end? With what protection, under what circumstances, with what results? What is the point of a foreign correspondent, and what are they worth? A life? Two?