Journalists risk life and limb to cover Afghan conflict
On Monday the family, friends and colleagues of a journalist who was killed doing a job she loved -- and one that came with risks she was well aware of -- are gathering in Vancouver for her funeral.
Michelle Lang, a reporter with the Calgary Herald, was killed in Afghanistan on Dec. 30 when the military vehicle she was travelling in was hit by a roadside bomb. Four Canadian soldiers were also killed.
While Lang's death hits home for Canadians -- and her colleagues in the media -- she is just one of a growing number of journalists who have been killed, injured or kidnapped while covering the conflict.
Over the weekend British journalist Rupert Hamer, a 39-year-old defence correspondent for Britain's Sunday Mirror, became the first British journalist to die in the conflict. His photographer Philip Coburn was also injured in the attack.
They were riding with a patrol of U.S. Marines when their vehicle struck a roadside bomb. The powerful blast also killed an American and an Afghan soldier.
Scott Taylor, the editor and publisher of Esprit de Corps magazine, has reported from numerous war zones including Afghanistan, and once spent five days held by a radical Islamist group in Iraq. He said the recent deaths show that being embedded doesn't guarantee safety for reporters.
While 'embed' status is typically safer than reporting with no military protection whatsoever, the notion that it is a bullet-proof defence is simply wrong, Taylor told CTV's Canada AM.
"(IEDs) are indiscriminate weapons and if you're with the soldiers, no matter how much armour you've got on you etc., you are still a target just like those soldiers are. If we can't protect our soldiers 100 per cent then we certainly can't protect those journalists that are with them," he said.
CTV's South Asia Bureau Chief Janis Mackey Frayer agreed. The most pressing threat to all media working in Afghanistan is the ever-present danger posed by IEDs.
"They're indiscriminate and they're everywhere. It's not that the technology is more sophisticated, but the components being used and how they're assembling them have evolved to challenge the military's tools to find them," Mackey Frayer said.
Aidan White, general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, said Hamer's death proves embedded reporters still face serious danger.
"His death shows that Afghanistan remains one of the world's most dangerous reporting assignments," she said in a release
"Travelling with the army does not lessen the risk to reporters. Indeed, as this tragedy shows, it can put journalists directly in the firing line."
While embedded journalists risk being killed in attacks targeted at troops, those who are unembedded often face different threats, such as kidnapping or murder, Taylor said.
As a result, Afghan journalists or 'fixers' are being recruited to gather story elements. They are often sent with cameras to shoot pictures and conduct interviews, before bringing the data back to a Western reporter who assembles the story from a safe location such as a guarded international hotel.
Mackey Frayer said Afghan journalists -- many willing to risk their lives to earn a living -- are often targeted for offering that kind of help to Western journalists.
"Afghan journalists working with international news media are often viewed as collaborators so they are not just 'at risk,' but hunted," she told CTV.ca in an email interview from Kabul.
Taylor agreed, saying Afghans gathering news or working as 'fixers' for foreign media, are often labelled as traitors -- dangerous status to have in the war-torn country.
"They are seen as turncoats, which is far more dangerous than being a Westerner," Taylor said.
"I remember one of our bodyguards when we were outside the wire in 2007, he turned to me and said 'if we get taken, if the Taliban show up, promise you'll kill me, because for you as a Westerner you'll probably be tortured but released.' But he said if it happened to him, they would kill him very, very slowly. It was a strange request from your bodyguard and not very reassuring," Taylor said.
Risk has always been a part of conflict coverage, however, and journalists like Michelle Lang and Rupert Hamer know that going in, Mackey Frayer said.
She said some journalists will always push the boundaries and venture outside the safety of fortified bases in order to tell the real stories from the front lines. Others will play it safe and stay inside the wire.
"In a place like Afghanistan, every story brings decisions: when to go, where to go, how to get there, what is the best route. Each decision warrants thought, logic, and an assessment of risk. And everything requires luck," she said.