Good Reads: An Afghan periled, a Pakistani reporter killed, and journalism after 9/11

Among the legacies of 9/11 is a more dangerous world for journalists and civilians working in conflict zones such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. Here are a few stories that tell of the growing risks.

By , Staff writer

Foreign correspondents catch flak for quoting taxi drivers in their stories, but the truth of the matter is that we grow rather fond of the people we work with over time. Rushing to make appointments in downtown traffic, or driving directly into a conflict zone when hundreds of much smarter local people are driving away from that conflict, these experiences tend to bond us to the people who are making it possible for us to do our jobs.

In this week’s Foreign Policy magazine, Anna Badkhen writes a touching piece about just such a friendship with a driver in Kabul whom she refers to as B. Recently, B. called her to say, “Anna jan, I will be killed soon.”

Like many of the Afghans who take jobs with foreigners, B. has been targeted for attack by local Taliban sympathizers in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif. The reason is simply because B. helped local police to arrest a man that B. believed may have been behind the Taliban attack on a UN compound in Mazar that killed more than a dozen people.

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As with so many attacks on “the West,” or “the invaders,” it is Afghan nationals who end up being the victims. Now, it appears it could be B.’s turn. He gets threatening phone calls. The other day, men on a motorcycle threw acid on him in the street.

As a frequent correspondent in Afghanistan, I found Ms. Badkhen’s details of how her life had become intertwined with that of B.’s family to be most touching.

"I know the details of his family's life intimately – the Friday visits to the mosque to maintain appearances, although most of the brothers are not particularly religious; the ceremonial holiday sacrifices of a goat, which then is divided between poorer neighbors; the marital arguments; the after-dinner dancing. At a certain point I stopped being a guest and became a member of the household, someone who is invited to help prepare savory bolani pancakes for the family of 30, who is allowed to do the dishes after dinner. B. and his brothers call me khuhar: sister. His mother calls me Anna diwana, dokhtar-e-man: crazy Anna, my daughter. When I last said good-bye to them, two weeks ago, they joked that they would leave the dishes in the sink until I return."

It’s staggering to think that America has been at war, continually, for a decade. It’s a given that there are risks involved in covering those wars, something that war correspondents like the Monitor's Scott Peterson know all too well. (See Scott's story yesterday on how divisions among Libyan rebels are growing.) But what is different about the past decade is the way in which governments have used the rhetoric of national security to clamp down on the press.

In Pakistan, Syed Saleem Shahzad was well known for his scoops, and his ability to make and keep contacts with Islamic insurgents and with Pakistani security officials alike. It was a murky world he lived in, one that took courage and one that required great risks. And then, on May 30, Mr. Shazad was found dead, his body submerged in a canal outside of Islamabad. Friends immediately blamed Pakistan’s shadowy military intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI).

In this week’s New Yorker, Dexter Filkins – a former New York Times correspondent in Afghanistan – lays out what is known about Shahzad’s last days, and how his relationship with militants and with the ISI may have led to his death.

"Because Shahzad had relationships with a number of I.S.I. agents, he was one of a small class of reporters more likely to become targets of the intelligence agencies. Talking to the I.S.I. allowed him to get privileged information, and to verify information that he had picked up on his own. But maintaining a relationship with the I.S.I. may have created expectations of loyalty. Almeida, the Dawn columnist, told me that he refuses to talk to the I.S.I.: “Once you start talking to these people, that creates a relationship, and then they think you owe them. Then, if you do something they don’t like, they feel betrayed."

Shahzad’s case is a more extreme example of the growing risks that journalists now face in the ongoing war on terror. In addition to the normal risks of the battlefield, journalists also face political risks from their own governments, including charges of terrorism and treason. Joel Simon, executive director of the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists, writes in an opinion piece for CNN.com that it was the us-versus-them rhetoric of the war on terror’s early days that set the tone now employed across the developing world, as well as in the West.

"Anti-state charges and 'terrorist' labels have become commonplace and are used to unduly intimidate, detain and imprison journalists. Media blackouts and limited access to war and conflict zones have become routine, along with the uninvestigated killings of journalists.

"To put it starkly, 81 journalists were in jail around the world at the end of 2000. By the end of 2001, that number shot up to 118. Today there are 145, most held on state security charges. Abusive use of national security was the single greatest charge invoked to justify journalist imprisonments in 2010, the Committee to Protect Journalists found."

Yet if the world seems more dangerous these days, it may all be in your head. Statistically, the world is safer. There are fewer wars, not more, than a century ago, writes Joshua Goldstein in this week’s Foreign Policy magazine. Cellphone cameras, 24-hour news channels, and social media may inundate us with images of conflict, and their immediacy may shock us, but conflicts themselves are on the decline.

"Armed conflict has declined in large part because armed conflict has fundamentally changed. Wars between big national armies all but disappeared along with the Cold War, taking with them the most horrific kinds of mass destruction. Today's asymmetrical guerrilla wars may be intractable and nasty, but they will never produce anything like the siege of Leningrad. The last conflict between two great powers, the Korean War, effectively ended nearly 60 years ago. The last sustained territorial war between two regular armies, Ethiopia and Eritrea, ended a decade ago. Even civil wars, though a persistent evil, are less common than in the past; there were about a quarter fewer in 2007 than in 1990."

So take a deep breath. And get back to work fixing the world.

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