The end of bang-bang? The risks of reporting from the frontline

After the death of a reporter in Helmand, will government pressure and a loss of nerve by editors mean new restrictions are imposed on journalists embedded with troops in war zones?
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The Independent Online

The death of reporter Rupert Hamer and the severe injury suffered by photographer Philip Coburn in a roadside bombing in Helmand shocked and deeply saddened those of us who knew them and was a reminder, if one was needed, about just how dangerous it has become to cover the conflict.

On Wednesday executives from news organisations will be meeting Ministry of Defence officials about reporting the war in Afghanistan. Some editors have been asking whether risks of being in the frontline are getting too high to justify sending their staff; some have even enquired of their defence correspondents whether there is another way of providing coverage without exposure to bombs and bullets.

The answers to both the questions are "no". Safety measures will reduce the risk to life and limb, but there is no foolproof answer to bombs and mines. Similarly, one can write about knowing Afghanistan, after all dozens of columnists do it every week, but even they would need some reporting on the ground on which to base incisive analysis of the conflict. In reality, if one has any pretensions of attempting to report what is unfolding – either embedded with the military or working autonomously – then one simply has to be there.

Most journalists who cover conflicts know the hazards involved and are not sanguine about them. I had dinner with Rupert and a mutual friend, Chris Hughes of the Daily Mirror, before all of us went back to Afghanistan discussing what can be done to minimise the danger. We concluded that at the end of the day what we needed most was to stay lucky.

Rupert was killed while embedded with the US Marines at Nawa in Helmand. His death came a few days after a Canadian journalist, Michelle Lang, embedded with her country's forces in Kandahar, was killed by another roadside bomb. On both instances, soldiers were killed as well, both deaths took place during routine patrols and not specific military operations, illustrating how almost any road movement in rural areas of southern Afghanistan can now draw an improvised explosive device attack. The nature of the Afghan conflict is such that it is extremely difficult to report some aspects without being embedded with either the Western and Afghan military or the Taliban. Attempts to do the latter have led to kidnappings as happened with David Rohde of the New York Times and the broadcaster Sean Langan. Although Western correspondents have been freed, sometimes after the payment of large ransoms, that has not always been the case with their Afghan colleagues. The Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo was released supposedly in return for payment, but his driver Sayed Agha and interpreter, Ajmal Naqshbandi were beheaded.

It is, of course, imperative that one carries out as much independent reporting as possible. But that too can be extremely hazardous as can be seen by what happened to Stephen Farrell, a British journalist working for the New York Times, and his Afghan translator Sultan Munadi. They had gone to Kunduz following Nato air strikes, requested by German forces, on two petrol tankers in which around 100 people, many of them civilians, were killed. It was, by any journalistic standards, a legitimate story to pursue.

Mr Farrell and Mr Munadi were abducted and, in a subsequent rescue attempt, Mr Munadi and a British soldier, Corporal John Harrison, were killed. I was in Afghanistan at the time and it was only on my return to the UK that I saw the vilification in the media directed at Mr Farrell, who was being blamed for the death of Corporal Harrison as an "irresponsible journalist".

Blaming Mr Farrell distracted attention from what lay behind the botched rescue attempt. We were told in Afghanistan by those involved in negotiations with the kidnappers that the two journalists were close to being freed. Mr Munadi 's father, Karban Mohammed, told me that his son had called him 90 minutes before he was shot to say that he was confident that he and Mr Farrell would soon be freed. Back in London, Gordon Brown had basked in limelight when the news of the rescue broke. Downing Street insisted that Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, and Defence Secretary, Bob Ainsworth, had ordered the raid – both the men categorically denied the claim.

There is apprehension among some journalists that the Government may try to use Mr Hamer's death to restrict access to the frontline through the military. No 10 did its best to keep the media out of southern Iraq prior to the handover of Basra to local administration in the hope that its line that the place was safe and stable – when in fact it was being overrun by militias – would go unchallenged. The futility of that position was exposed when the Iraqi government sent in forces backed by Americans to retake the streets from the Mahdi Army in "Operation Charge of the Knights'"

The British Government, along with other Nato nations, has been keen to get journalists outside the defence field to visit Afghanistan in an attempt to push stories about reconstruction and governance and away from the "bang bang". They are taken to Helmand and Kandahar and generally tend to stay in the main bases away from the combat zones.

But this does not guarantee immunity from danger. Michelle Lang was the health correspondent of the Calgary Herald. The harsh climate can also take its toll. One reporter from a regional newspaper had to be medically evacuated after collapsing in 45C heat. After that the MoD requested a minimum fitness standards for deploying journalists.

"I think across Whitehall there is a view that we do want to show what is going on in Afghanistan not least because we believe that progress is taking place there," says James Shelley, the head of news at the Ministry of Defence. "We were very sorry to hear about Rupert Hamer. I understand that this tragic incident may have generated some concern on the part of some of the editors and that is why we have asked for this meeting. Obviously we will continue to look at the type of journalists who go out there under our auspices and some of them may not be familiar with the risks involved. But we are keen to continue with the embedding process and it is up to the news organisations whether they want to be part of it."

Other friends had died covering conflicts over the years. I was in Sierra Leone when Kurt Schork, an American journalist, was killed in a rebel ambush and in Iraq when Terry Lloyd, of ITN, died on the road to Basra. On those occasions there was grief and soul searching. Most reporters carried on, but a few others were persuaded to call it a day from covering conflicts.

The Mirror's Chris Hughes had spent the last few days speaking to his late friends' family, helping in the process of repatriation of the body. Mr Hughes has reported extensively from Afghanistan as well as Iraq before and after the invasion. Would he go back to Helmand now? "I haven't got any trips planned, when it does come around, I'll think about it and decide," he says.

Thomas Harding, of the Daily Telegraph, feels it is imperative to carry on. "Surely it would be an insult to the memory of Rupert Hamer for us to stop covering the war from the frontline?" he asks.

"I think it's essential that we are where the soldiers are, following in their footsteps, showing what they're facing in Helmand. It's because we do build up a rapport with them in such places that we can expose things which went wrong in the past such as lack of equipment. I have had lots of embeds in the last five years, and that's the way I would like to continue. I believe that stopping us from being with the troops would be a victory for the Taliban."