Afghan reporter arrested for talking to the Taliban

An Afghan reporter was arrested, apparently because of his contacts with Taliban representatives. For local reporters, covering the war is a minefield.

Rahmatullah Naikzad/AP/File
This 2009 photo taken by Afghan reporter Rahmatullah Naikzad shows Taliban militants stand beside burnt trucks on the Ghazni- Kandahar highway in Ghazni, west of Kabul.

The Associated Press reports that Afghanistan reporter Rahmatullah Naikzad, a freelancer who contributes video to the AP and also works for Al Jazeera's Arab language service, was arrested by a NATO forces in the troubled province of Ghazni yesterday.

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the umbrella for the US-led NATO mission in Afghanistan, provided few details beyond a brief statement that the journalist had been detained because of suspected ties to the Taliban.

The AP reports that Mr. Naikzad, an ethnic Tajik, cultivated ties with Taliban and other militant leaders as part of his job, and that his family strenuously objected to any suggestion he might have been providing assistance to the Taliban. The vast majority of Taliban members are ethnic Pashtuns, and most Tajiks are sworn enemies of the Taliban (Tajik hero and anti-Taliban commander Ahmad Shah Massoud was assassinated by an Al Qaeda agent posing as a journalist two days before the 9/11 attacks on the US).

If recent experience is anything to go by, it could be months or years before the allegations against him are dealt with and he's either cleared and released, or evidence of wrongdoing is forthcoming. Reuters photographer Ibrahim Jassam, for example, was arrested by US and Iraqi forces on allegations he was a "security threat" and detained without charge for 17 months, until he was released this February.

While foreign reporters take risks covering the Iraq and Afghan wars (and other conflicts – today is the 11th anniversary of former Monitor contributor Sander Thoenes's murder at the hands of Indonesian soldiers in East Timor), and a number have paid with their lives, the conflicts have proven far more deadly for the local reporters who do much of the legwork in the war zone. This paper's Iraqi translator Allan Enwiya was murdered during the kidnapping of reporter Jill Carroll in 2006, and a security guard for the Monitor was later murdered on his day off, though the motive for that murder was unclear.

While their language skills and backgrounds allow local reporters to blend in and go places that would be suicidal for Western reporters, they occupy an uneasy space between the US military and local insurgents, interacting with both sides, but trusted by neither. They often live in their own communities and are easily identified as working with foreign organizations. Over the years, local reporters in Afghanistan and Iraq have told me that knocks on the door in the middle of the night are a fact of life.

Naikzad has been detained before. The AP reports that in 2008 he was held for two days by Afghan authorities after taking pictures of a Taliban execution of two women. He said then that the Taliban had summoned him to witness a trial and the he didn't know anyone would be killed.

Such close proximity to violent events often casts suspicion on local reporters in the eyes of the US and other foreign forces. In Iraq, commanders would often complain that local cameramen were on the scene of attacks on US forces "too soon" – implying that they had advance knowledge of those attacks.

With propaganda videos as much a tool in the modern militant's arsenal as IEDs or Ak-47s, such suspicions make a certain amount of sense. But it's also the case that reporters sometimes have advance knowledge, but don't necessarily know precisely what's going to happen. For some, refusing an insurgent summons can be more dangerous than heeding it.

In 2004, a cameraman in Fallujah for an Arab-language satellite television station explained to the Monitor how it works: A militant called him, told him they'd just attacked a US humvee, and told him to get footage. When he arrived, he was arrested by US forces. As the Monitor reported at the time: "After he was let go, he dispatched the tape to Baghdad. But his editors decided not to use the film. That evening, the reporter was paid a threatening visit by local insurgents complaining that their attack didn't make the news."

I once experienced the phenomenon myself. After a suicide car bomb attack blew out the window of the old Monitor bureau in Baghdad, I was on the street taking pictures, wearing Iraqi clothes and the mustache I favored when in country. When US military police arrived at the scene, one of them tried to knock my camera from my hands, only backing off when he heard me speaking in American-accented English.

"Sorry ... but you were looking all durga durga there," he said, using a then-popular phrase for Iraqis among US soldiers borrowed from the movie "Team America: World Police." He said photos were "real moneymakers for insurgents." As a reporter, I was annoyed, but I also understood where the soldier was coming from. The vast majority of the time reporters are legit. Sometimes they're not. Is there a sure-fire way to tell the difference? No.

(This story was edited after posting to correct the date of Massoud's murder.)

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