Reporting Afghanistan's brutal war. Relief workers and diplomats find coverage too scant

For a war that has already cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children, and created the world's largest refugee population, Afghanistan remains one of the most under-reported major conflicts of this century. Much of the responsibility for keeping the world informed lies in the hands of Western journalists, as the press on the Indian subcontinent shies away from direct contact with the war in its backyard. Yet, no more than 100 Western journalists report from inside Afghanistan every year. (This does not include those allowed to visit Kabul, but whose movements are restricted.)

Diplomats, international relief workers, and journalists associated with Afghanistan are deeply concerned that this lack of coverage means the public is not receiving reliable information about the war's devastation and ruthlessness.

``This has always been very disturbing to me ...,'' says American film-maker Steve Olsen, whose documentary on Afghanistan broadcast by PBS last year. ``Afghans are considered to be too biased to report objectively, so without foreigners covering the war, these reports are rarely published.'' The main factors that limit coverage of the Afghan war are:

The physical dangers

Journalists reporting Afghanistan must contend with ambushes, aerial bombardments, mines, informers, extreme discomfort - and a Soviet threat to ``liquidate'' all journalists entering Afghanistan ``illegally'' with the resistance.

At least seven foreign journalists - including three Americans - have been killed on assignment since the Soviet-Afghan war began in 1979.

``It's a lot riskier now with the threat of spies informing on you or walking into ambushes,'' says Peter Jouvenal, a British cameraman who has made over 35 trips inside Afghanistan since 1980.

In September, Afghan government security forces captured French journalist Alain Guillo, in northwestern Afghanistan. He is held in a Kabul jail, accused of espionage, and is expected to stand trial. (On Tuesday, Kabul Radio said a French diplomat was allowed to meet Mr. Guillo.)

``What was Alain Guillo's crime? To report what was happening?'' asks French film-maker Christiophe de Ponfilly, who has made several TV documentaries on Afghanistan. ``He was taking risks which few are willing to do in order to report on a tragedy which too many people have forgotten. For me, that is what journalism is all about.''

Time and money

Many Western news organizations seem reluctant to invest the resources to send out correspondents on a regular basis. US military and humanitarian aid to the Afghan resistance was about $715 million in fiscal 1987. This fact alone, some observers feel, merits greater coverage.

In recent years, the quality of reporting has improved. But ``it has certainly not been what the story deserves as far as its importance in [world] events,'' says Kurt Lohbeck, a cameraman here.

US television news coverage has been sparse. Producers say they are pushing for more airtime. But it is so difficult to obtain the sort of imagery demanded by networks, that one or two cameramen have been accused of staging shots Hollywood-style.

A struggle for balance

Soviet efforts to deny entry to journalists, particularly those who have traveled with the Afghan resistance, have severely hindered attempts to present a balanced view. This reporter's eight applications for visas in recent years have been rejected or ignored.

``One cannot blame the Russians for what they are doing,'' says a European journalist, also pushing for a visa. ``It would not serve their interests to allow journalists to fly around in helicopters seeing Soviet jets bomb Afghan villages.''

On the other hand, says Gordon Adam of the BBC World Service who visited Kabul earlier year, ``reporting with the mujahideen has sometimes produced a similarly rosy picture, failing to point out problems of unity, infighting, or corruption.''

Further, one never commands a complete overview of the situation. ``What you're seeing in one valley or province may only be the case in that particular area,'' says Australian film-maker Christ Hooke. ``The situation might be completely different one or two valleys over. And then by the time you get out, everything has changed''

Meanwhile there appears to be no shortage of journalists willing to report on Afghanistan. Some set out on expeditions, with supplies carried on horse back, and solar battery chargers to run their television equipment. Others, disguised as Afghans have roamed for months through the country before returning to file their stories.

And Boston University-run Boston Media Center in Peshawar is an effort to train Afghan nationals as journalists and cameramen.

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