Few people take more risks than the locals who help foreign correspondents in conflict zones, writes Mustafa Qadri. So why don’t the Western media give credit to their fixers?
Investigative journalism can be a dangerous profession because, by its very nature, it seeks to uncover the lies and scandals that someone, somewhere, is trying to suppress. As work descriptions go, few civilians face as many life-threatening situations as those who aid foreign investigative reporters in conflict zones.
Generally known in the profession as “fixers” — but very often respected local journalists in their own right — these brave reporters are asked to arrange anything and everything required by a foreign media outlet: from interviews with hostile governments and militants in hiding, to transportation and accommodation. They risk their lives not only by working in dangerous situations but by virtue of fact that, being citizens of developing nations, the western media outlets that employ them generally place little value on their lives.
There was no more stark reminder of the dangers of the job than the recent murder of Afghan journalist Sultan Munadi as British forces sought to rescue the New York Times reporter Stephen Farrell, whom Munadi was working for. Both had a week earlier been kidnapped by the Taliban in a remote part of the northern province of Kunduz while investigating a NATO bombing that reportedly killed scores of civilians. To its credit, the New York Times gave some coverage to Munadi’s work while he was alive, and another NYT reporter, the American David Rohde, who had himself escaped Taliban captivity, wrote him a stirring obituary.
Yet NATO officials initially ignored Munadi’s death, only releasing a statement acknowledging his passing after many of his Afghan colleagues accused British forces of murdering him. Munadi’s death has caused a stir in Afghanistan, affirming the sentiment held by many that foreign forces place little value on Afghan lives.
Unfortunately, Munadi is but one example of the pitfalls for fixers in conflict zones. The Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan routinely kill fixers employed by local and international media to report from areas controlled by insurgents. It is not unusual for them to murder local journalists accompanying foreign reporters. Unlike foreign reporters, who are usually kept alive as valued bargaining chips, their local counterparts are considered traitors and of little value.
That is certainly the case for several of the journalists I’ve met who work in the Pashtun tribal frontier of Pakistan’s north west, where the Taliban are most active. “I [do some] work for Voice of America,” one veteran reporter, who cannot be named because it would endanger their life to do so, told me in the safety of a hotel room in Islamabad. “Even now, I do not tell [the Taliban he interviews] that. It would mean certain death.”
The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists adds that, as of July this year, 45 journalists had been killed since 2001, the year when the current conflict first started.
Sometimes governments also kill journalists for reporting on wars they’d rather people forget. A particularly harrowing example of this was the murder of Musa Khankhel, a journalist from Pakistan’s Swat valley who mysteriously disappeared while covering what was meant to be a peace rally in February. The rally had been organised by an ultra-conservative religious movement after it brokered a peace agreement between the Taliban and Pakistan authorities. Khankhel’s corpse, with hands and feet bound, was discovered the following day riddled with gunshot wounds to the body and head. Although no conclusive investigations have ever been held into the murder, it is widely believed that state intelligence agents murdered Khankhel because they believed the young journalist, who was noted for his fearless and independent reporting, would expose the reality that the peace agreement was actually aiding the Taliban’s advance into the region. Khankhel had previously survived two assassination attempts by what he had claimed were state security forces.
In occupied Palestine, local journalists are routinely imprisoned or abused by Israeli and Palestinian security forces who act in full knowledge that they lack a foreign passport or, more specifically, the protections of a powerful government that will stand up for their rights. When working in occupied Palestine last year, for example, I met a young Associated Press photojournalist in the West Bank city of Nablus who’d had his nose broken by Israeli soldiers on at least four separate occasions. Hundreds of Iranian journalists have been arrested following the disputed presidential elections held last June. Some, like the Iranian-American Roxana Saberi were lucky enough to be released. But most local journalists don’t have the luxury of dual citizenship and continue to languish in prison.
For other fixers, the risks are derived solely from being in the wrong place at the wrong time — and having the wrong skin colour. Abdul Aziz, a journalist reporting from Pakistan’s Swat valley, was killed after jets pounded a remote Taliban compound where he had been imprisoned by insurgents. “Journalists are the targets of violence and intimidation by all the belligerents in the Swat valley and the neighbouring Federally Administered Tribal Areas,” noted Reporters Without Borders. “We point out that, under the Geneva Conventions, combatants are obliged to protect civilians including journalists.”
Al Jazeera cameraman Sami al Hajj was kidnapped by pro-US forces in Afghanistan in 2001 and spent the next six years in Guantanamo Bay where he was brutally tortured but never charged. His ordeal, vividly recorded on the Prisoner 345 website, gruesomely reminds us that powerful, developed nations can be as dangerous for journalists as any other.
Yet the power dynamic when foreign journalists employ local fixers is hugely unbalanced. In the most dangerous environments you become totally reliant on the fixer for everything because, after all, it is his or her country, language, and contacts that make the story. The credit, unfortunately, is all too regularly attributed to foreign journalists with their money and connections to big media. Although more senior fixers can command around $US500 a day for their services, most make a fraction of this. Added to that, foreign journalists have the freedom to leave whenever they feel like — often leading to what some veteran correspondents call “parachute journalism”.
But many fixers — journalists whose home lands happen to be war zones or whose nationality means they do not garner the same protection or recognition as their Western counterparts — remain unfazed by the risks of their profession. One such journalist who spoke to New Matilda and who routinely ventures into Taliban-controlled areas to get first-hand accounts from the insurgents in the knowledge that the militants, or the state’s security agents, may kill them if their reports are considered to be too critical.
It is these brave and usually nameless reporters we must thank for shining light on the crimes the powerful would much prefer we ignored.