Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Fung and Smith: Current kidnappings in Afghanistan aren't being reported

Last week I attended a very interesting Canadian Journalism Foundation event at the Ignatieff Theatre at the University of Toronto. The Globe and Mail's Graeme Smith and CBC's Melissa Fung took part in a panel called Kidnapped, Threatened, Under Fire: Three journalists confront the realities of reporting in conflict zones.

You'll recall that Fung was kidnapped in Afghanistan just before the 2008 election in October, and the news of the kidnapping was embargoed and not reported by the media until her release in November

Fung and the Globe's Smith, both of whom have spent several tours reporting in Afghanistan and embedded with Canadian soldiers, were on hand to speak about their experiences reporting in a war zone.

I'd hoped to hear Fung talk about the experience of her kidnapping and release, but she indicated she wasn't yet ready to talk about that. Understandable, but disappointing. There was still some very interesting insights and comments shared, however. I'll present my notes below (mainly expansions of my live tweets), followed by my comments.

*Graeme Smith on his prep for going to Afghanistan: He knew nothing going in, read lots of stuff on the plane, and the Globe also contracts safety training from British ex-marines.

*Melissa Fung CBC also provides safety training, advice was if you're in trouble offer them money and, if you're a woman, cry a lot. Unfortunately she forgot to cry.

*Smith every time he's on a plane landing in a war zone he asks himself if he's satisfied with his life if the plane crashes. It's dangerous work, you need to feel its worth it,

*When to leave in a dangerous situation? Fung says you rely on your local Afghan fixer, but no where safe. Smith says it's not what the fixer says but how wide their eyes are, are they afraid? If so, get out.

*Smith The Taliban are firing rockets at Kandahar Airfield, there's no aiming systems they just point them in the right direction and pray – literally.

*Fung you can't consider the danger of everyday life there and dwell on the risks or you'll be paralyzed by fear and unable to function.

*Smith I learned I'm not an adrenaline junkie. I've had rockets, bullets and RPGs fired at me and my office raided by masked gunmen. Its not fun.

*Fung Being there gave me new appreciation for the everyday lives of our soldiers. And the Afghan people live with this danger every day, it makes me appreciate how lucky we are.

*Fung Our editors always ask before the writer leaves the base is it safe? They do care about our safety.

*Smith He finds the editors asking is it safe to be a bit silly. Of course its not safe, its Afghanistan!

*Smith jokes their editors concern on safety is also partly HR management: he can't write them stories if he's dead.

*Fung You wouldn't be a good journalist if you're not impacted on some level by the people you cover. Yes we're objective, but we're humans first.

*Smith We can lessen conflict by reporting on it. The media did an investigative series on torture in Kandahar prisons and system was subsequently changed.

*Fung If people tell her 'you almost lost your life media shouldn't be there' she replies you don't understand why the media does what it does.

*Smith I'll give intelligence agencies background briefings but won't give them actionable intelligence "I won't be another Stevie Cameron" (this gets some moans from the crowd)

*Fung I'm not really ready to talk about my kidnapping yet.

*Smith They used to be a lot more free to move around Kandahar but since Fung was kidnapped the media have been locked down to base without a military escort.

*Fung When she was released from captivity she was surprised about the media embargo and that there was no reporting of her kidnapping. When she was in captivity she was thinking 'man this a helluva story for my colleagues.' She doesn't know if the embargo was the right thing or not, it was the CBC's call.

*Smith We're fighting a losing war right now and he wonders why we're there.

*Fung The government says we're there so young girls can go to school, but originally it was the Taliban and 9/11. The government's pr message changed.

*Fung You can really tell how a country is doing when you talk to the women and children and see how they're being treated.

*Smith He can only mainly talk to men because of Afghan cultural rules. As a woman, its easier for Fung to write on the private lives of Afghan families and talk to normal people.

*Fung Its hard to talk to regular people because you can't stay in one place for more than five minutes for safety reasons. You don't want people to know there's a foreign journalist at a certain location.

*Fung If there was a kidnapping of an NGO woke and the NGO asked the media not to report it because they're in danger they'd absolutely honour that request.

*Smith and Fung both say the media are honouring currently requests not to report on several unresolved kidnappings in Afghanistan, for their safety.

*Fung She'd like to go back if the CBC will let her. There's still stories to be told and our troops are still there We need to keep going back.

My thoughts

When I first head of Fung's kidnapping and release and of the media embargo on coverage of her kidnapping until after her release, my first thought was that's great, but isn't there a double-standard here? It's great the media were all willing to do this for one of their own, but I'd find it hard to believe that, faced with the kidnapping of a non-journalist, they wouldn't just fall back on the old public has a right to know argument.

I was somewhat heartened by Smith and Fung's assurances that, were they to receive such a request, they'd honour it. One of the audience questioners was from an NGO who had a worked kidnapped in Africa, and she was quite strong on this question. The key though is to be very proactive to put the lid on, because once it starts to come out, its hard for the media to ignore. And, of course, with blogs and the Web, its hard to keep these things secret.

I was also fascinated and surprised to learn that at least one or two current Afghan kidnapping cases are under a media publication embargo. Whomever they are, I hope they're safely released soon.

Meanwhile, within the journalism community the debate continues over whether such embargoes are a good idea or not. Myself, I tend to err on the side of the safety of the kidnapped person rather than on my right to know they're in danger. Of course, there may be cases where publicity is desired, or warranted; it's a judgment call. However, it's important that NGO or journalist, the media's standards be the same.

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