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Perils of Reporting in War Zone Examined

September 10, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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Jeffrey Brown and guests discuss the dangers of reporting from a war zone following the rescue of a New York Times reporter.
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TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: And to Jeffrey Brown.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we pick up on some of the issues raised by all this now with Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post. He just returned from Afghanistan yesterday.

And Bing West, a Marine combat veteran of Vietnam and assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, he’s author of several military histories, most recently “The Strongest Tribe,” a history of the Iraq war.

Rajiv, you were just in this area looking at the same story, an important story, a dangerous story. So how do you weigh the balance, the risks?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, it’s a balancing act that every journalist who operates in places like Afghanistan and in Iraq has to engage in, in almost a daily basis.

When I was out there last week and we first got word of this, I weighed the risks of going up there, first, the drive from Kabul, then, of course, the trip to the scene, and concluded initially that this was going to be a little too dangerous for me. I chose not to do that.

I, fortunately, was able to get a ride out to the northern city of Kunduz with NATO forces and then spent some time at a German base right there not more than about four miles from the scene and was able to, in the course of about 36 hours, go and talk to witnesses and survivors at a hospital, go and talk to the German forces who actually ordered the strike, to local officials.

And so what I tried to do there was to find multiple ways to get at some of this information, because it was very clear to me when I was out there that the local officials were saying, “This is way too dangerous. It is an area that we don’t feel comfortable going.” And even the German forces, troops with armored vehicles, machine guns, didn’t feel comfortable going into that area in the aftermath of the bombing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Bing West, there are a lot of facts here that we still don’t know about. But when you have this kind of tension between the media and the military, from the military perspective, are there rules of engagement when the decision has to be made of a rescue attempt like this, when they’re put in a tough position like this?

Military commander acted rightly

Bing West
Author and former marine
The military commander made the decision he had to go in. But he didn't go in just for the sake of a fight; he went in order to get both journalists out.

BING WEST: Oh, absolutely. Once you go on a battlefield, the military commander is in charge, period. And everyone else, including journalists, are his guests, if you will. They're accredited. They sign a certain set of rules that are fairly reasonable.

But in return, the military will do their best to protect those journalists. And at some point, the military commander made the decision he had to go in. But he didn't go in just for the sake of a fight; he went in order to get both journalists out.

And I think the Afghans have it exactly wrong when they're saying, "Well, our fellow was killed." Those tragedies are going to happen. But the commander did what he felt was the right thing to try to extract both the Afghan journalist and the British journalist.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Rajiv, the rules of engagement, from your perspective, I mean, can the journalists reasonably expect that the military will come in, if you are put into danger like that and kidnapped?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: I never operate with that presumption. When you're in a war zone and you are operating in an unembedded capacity -- that is, not traveling with the military forces, as Steve Farrell was doing when he went up there, as I do quite a bit when I'm in Afghanistan -- you can't have the expectation that, if you get into trouble, somebody is going to come and save you.

Now, Steve was fortunate in this case that the British military decided to mount this operation. It's unfortunate that his translator and a commando and some of the civilians in the area were killed in that. But I never go into it with that presumption, that, oh, there is somebody that is going to pull me out of this if I get into trouble.

But to follow up on what Bing was saying, you know, Afghanistan is a unique battlefield, because NATO troops are not everywhere. It is not always an active war zone, and there are parts of the country where Taliban militants operate where there are actually few foreign forces.

And so, you know, journalists to get stories actually have to get out and travel often on their own. And there's a real value to that, to get the story from outside the military perspective, to get out there onto the field, see things with your own eyes.

And so I think that's what Steve was trying to do. And, again, we all are better informed by some of these acts when journalists are able to go and to understand all the perspectives to a story.

The merits of dangerous reporting

Rajiv Chandrasekaran
The Washington Post
If not for their work, you wouldn't be seeing stories about Afghanistan and Iraq on the front pages of major American newspapers.

JEFFREY BROWN: You want to come back on that, Bing West? I mean, the issue is the need to get out there beyond the control of the military, but then possibly getting into a situation like this.

BING WEST: Well, Rajiv has it exactly right. It's a question, how much risk are you willing to run? And a lot of that has to do with how mature you are. Some civilian journalists don't have enough sense to come in out of the rain. Others do.

But in any event, they are American citizens. And our military will do their very best -- even if they're out there by themselves -- to try to get them back.

But Rajiv's right. You don't go wandering off somewhere and hope that the U.S. military somehow is going to be able to extract you. So this British journalist was very fortunate in this particular case.

JEFFREY BROWN: Rajiv, Sultan Munadi, the Afghan journalist who was killed, I understand you didn't know him, but explain for our viewers the role that a local journalist like that plays in allowing you and many other Western journalists to do their work.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: If not for brave journalists like Sultan -- and I know many of them in Afghanistan, many, many more in Iraq from my years there -- if not for their work, you wouldn't be seeing stories about Afghanistan and Iraq on the front pages of major American newspapers. You wouldn't see reports on television.

They are essential to helping foreign journalists in those countries operate. They're not just translators. They're not just fixers who line up interviews. They're journalists in many cases in their own right who are able to chase down stories, who have a keen sense of what is happening in their country.

I, you know, can't think of the number of times that I've actually wound up getting out of potentially hairy situations because of the sixth sense of my local journalist colleagues.

The safety of native journalists

Rajiv Chandrasekaran
The Washington Post
They are in much more danger, because they go home to sleep at night. They don't live in the fortified compounds that foreign correspondents live in.

JEFFREY BROWN: But at the same time, I mean, this is another tension, I would imagine, for you in the responsibility you have to those people...

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Oh, indeed.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... because they're in more danger, in some sense.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: They are in much more danger, because they go home to sleep at night. They don't live in the fortified compounds that foreign correspondents live in. They're subject to threat and retribution. They're known in their communities. In some cases, they're at even greater risk because they're seen to be collaborating with foreign journalists or infidels.

And so I'm always very cognizant of that. When I was running the Washington Post bureau in Baghdad, I was actually in a position of having to relocate a number of them because of the threats that they faced.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Bing West, thank you both very much.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Thank you.

BING WEST: Thank you.