Katherine Butler: The terrible price of freedom

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The Independent Online

Sultan Munadi thought he had already seen the darkest hours. In a now poignant last entry to his New York Times blog, the 34-year-old Afghan "fixer" explained that no matter how bad things are now in Afghanistan, under the Taliban they were worse. He wanted to dedicate his life to rebuilding his homeland, he wrote, even if it meant "cleaning the streets of Kabul".

Munadi's death during the raid that freed his colleague Stephen Farrell is a reminder both of the courage of those who report wars and the grim realities of the task. His bullet-ridden body was left behind in a ditch until Afghan journalists went to fetch it yesterday.

Attacks on foreign correspondents were still a rarity when John McCarthy and Terry Anderson were taken hostage in Beirut in the 1980s. Now, being kidnapped or killed, either by ideologically driven militias or gangsters seeking money or the release of prisoners, is a daily risk in conflict zones from Somalia to South Ossetia. Editors can warn staff to stay well behind the front line, but in modern unconventional warfare, there is often no front line.

But the local journalists, photographers, interpreters and drivers, who provide the foreign media with a vital service, also pay an intolerably high price in the pursuit of giving Western readers a free and balanced account of what is happening. At least four Afghan journalists have been killed in recent years while many more have been attacked, arrested or forced to flee their homeland, accused of being spies.

In the wake of Farrell's rescue, Afghanistan-based journalists will have to factor in a new consideration. Will militants, who might have negotiated, bother to keep their hostages alive if they think Western troops are on the way, guns blazing? Few war correspondents will be deterred. They know "embedding" is not the answer. They will need to exercise more caution, but ultimately they want to be where the action is, and an "embed" is rarely it.