A guesthouse near the village of Astana has been a hideout of mine on several occasions in the past – a getaway from the mad pressures of Kabul, a city distorted by war, violence, immense population pressure and, in recent years, the influx of large amounts of money and the ubiquitous presence of foreigners, SUVs, armed men on hire and barriers separating out those who are in need of protection. In Astana, in contrast, the Panjshir River rushes swiftly past orchards sloping down from the guesthouse, the green grass shadowed by the branches of fruit-laden trees.
Until he died, I did not know that Sultan Munadi was from Astana. In fact, I did not know Sultan very well at all. He was another young Afghan journalist I would meet, on occasion, at press conferences and stakeouts while we waited for dignitaries to come and speak to us. As happens on such occasions, one whiles away long hours by chatting with colleagues, exchanging news and gossip, and berating the authorities for delaying the events. My interaction with Sultan was no more and no less – until early September, the week he died, while working as an interpreter for the New York Times reporter Stephen Farrell.
I had not seen him for many months. By a rare chance, I happened to be in the New York Times office and met him four days before the fatal kidnapping. Seeing an old colleague after so long always feels like bumping into a friend – even more so in Afghanistan, where roots are tenuous and the changeover of people very quick. I greeted him warmly and stopped to chat. I learned about his studies; that he had come to Afghanistan for a short break, and had been asked to help out with the New York Times at a time when the volume of news emanating from Afghanistan had meant that big media organisations were rushing in large number of staff writers to cover breaking stories.
I was curious about what he felt about Afghanistan after being away, and Sultan talked about how little had changed. He was critical of the lack of progress, saying he felt it was the same people in power who were failing to deliver. He had voted, of course, and had voted for Abdullah Abdullah, the candidate whose roots are from Sultan’s province. Whether it was ethnic allegiance or not, Sultan said he had voted with the hope of change. I asked what he was studying, and he mentioned public policy and good governance. I expressed the hope that these would prove useful when he returned to Afghanistan.
Days later, I awoke to the news report that a British journalist had been freed in an early-morning operation. The news that an Afghan journalist was killed was not in the headlines. I was not surprised. Years of journalism teaches you very clearly that some lives are valued more than others. I was not surprised, but I was angry. Angry about the double standards; angry that Sultan, who had been carving a different life for himself, had been caught in a chain of happenstance starting with his holidays coinciding with the elections in Afghanistan. I was angry too at the lack of information and the unwillingness of the establishment to part with the facts.
As Himal goes to press, we do not know whose bullet killed Sultan – the insurgents? The NATO rescuers? Who actually ordered the military operation, and what negotiations took place before the rescue attempt? The days between the kidnapping and the ‘rescue’ were marked by a news blackout. It was not the first one. Journalists working in Afghanistan have previously been asked to refrain from writing about the kidnappings of their colleagues. There was a marked silence around the kidnapping of New York Times reporter David Rohde, abducted in November 2008. Usually, the request comes from individual journalistic organisations, but it is also backed by international organisations such as the UN. The line of reasoning is always the worry that such reporting would endanger the victim’s life. Under the combination of peer pressure and emotional blackmail, most of the media has fallen in line.
But several questions have yet to be answered about such an approach. Does secrecy actually help to save the life of every kidnap victim? Yes, the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was killed in Karachi after a much publicised kidnapping; but the BBC’s Alan Johnston was rescued from Gaza precisely because of a well-orchestrated public campaign. Certainly, organisations may find that it suits their aims to maintain secrecy about such instances; but unlike most other cases, in which journalists will often work to expose the facts, in the case of journalists being kidnapped it is the media that has agreed to censor itself, a self-censorship without adequate logical basis.
It is time that journalists, their employers and other journalist bodies spent some time thinking about this, rather than reactively moving from episode to episode. This is certainly not an easy subject to write about, since it invites the charge that one is endangering colleagues in the lust for a story. So I write this at a time when the blood has already been spilt.
But Afghan journalists – do they have a choice?