NY Times Stephen Farrell

NYT reporter shares what he learned from his experience as a captive in Libya last month.

New York Times reporter and videographer Stephen Farrell is committed to his profession. Last month, he was one of four journalists kidnapped in Libya. All four were released after six days. This was the third time the London-born journalist has been held captive. In '09, he was taken by the Taliban while covering the Afghanistan conflict and rescued by British commandos four days later. In '04, he was held for eight hours while on assignment in Iraq with The Times of London. Farrell is also co-author of the text Hamas: The Islamic Resistance Movement.


Tavis: Stephen Farrell is a reporter and videographer for “The New York Times” who was recently abducted and beaten in Libya by forces loyal to Moammar Qadhafi along with three other colleagues from “The New York Times.” He was released after a harrowing six-day ordeal. Stephen Farrell joins us tonight from New York. Stephen Farrell, good to have you on this program, sir.
Stephen Farrell: Pleasure to be here.
Tavis: Let me start by asking how it is or why it is that having been abducted twice before in your career, having obviously survived both of those abductions, being freed at later points, you’re still doing this. This is now the third time this has happened to you, so let me just start by asking, why are you still doing this?
Farrell: Actually, that is a conversation I’m having with my family and colleagues. I think realistically for it to happen three times within a few years, I’m definitely going to take a step back from now on. I think it would be slightly perverse to continue tempting fate by going back to the same places and doing the same sort of thing.
I was doing it up to now. I’ll continue to work in the Middle East, I’ll continue to do stories in the Middle East, but I think front lines, for the moment, is probably unwise for me to go back there any time soon.
Tavis: Define for me more what you mean by “tempting fate” with regard to this particular ordeal in Libya.
Farrell: Well, this one was slightly – this one was unusual, but effectively, what we do – we know the risks when we do the job. What we’re trying to do is we’re trying to get beyond he-said, she-said journalism, go roughly in the vicinity of the area, say the government of Qadhafi or whoever are telling you this, the rebels are telling you this.
We don’t really know. Make up your own mind, move on – bland, blancmange journalism. What we’re trying to do is cut through that and get through to the scene, so you can say look, these are what this side is saying. It’s not true. This is what this side is saying; it’s partly true. What is going on on the ground, because we’ve seen it and we bear testament to it, in this case, in print and in video and in still photographs, is this.
You’re trying to cut through the fog of war, to use the old cliché, and bring a bit of clarity to these situations. At a time when a large portion of a country is seeking freedom from a dictator that they’ve been under for 40 years and at a time when our own countries and western countries are thinking about bringing blood and treasure to bear on this conflict, it seemed to me, it seemed to us, and it still seems to me an entirely valid exercise in journalism to try and get through to the heart of these issues.
Tavis: Tell me more about your personal journey and what makes you so committed to this particular cause that you put your life on the line this way on multiple occasions.
Farrell: It wasn’t something I started off in my teens or early twenties thinking I want to be a war correspondent. I still don’t think of myself as a war correspondent. I’m not. I’m a foreign correspondent. Conflict is part of being a foreign correspondent; spending long hours talking to politicians in capitals is another part of it.
Speaking to American troops in Iraq is another part of it. Spending hours and hours in Tahrir Square in Cairo during the Egyptian revolution – not particularly dangerous – is another part of it. War is part of what I do, it’s not what I do. It’s certainly not what I am and who I am.
I suppose it started off because of historical accident. I’m Irish and I was working for British newspapers, and they just basically said, “You’re Irish, you understand what’s going on over there. Go over to Northern Ireland.” Northern Ireland sort of rolled into go to Kosovo, that’s quite similar, rolled into go to Kashmir, India, Pakistan. Then I was posted to Jerusalem in the Middle East and I was there when the Iraq war began in 2003.
So it happened on my watch, on my patch. It came to me, as it were, and I had the choice, I could have walked away, but I didn’t. It just felt wrong to train in journalism, to spend years learning shorthand and law and libel law and all these things and gaining experience of the language, the culture, working in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Iraq, Kashmir, and then just to walk away and say, “You know what? I don’t fancy this. Would somebody else mind coming in and doing the dangerous stuff? I’m happy to shoulder the lighter burdens.”
Tavis: Speaking of the dangerous stuff, for those who have been following the story enough to know that there were some “New York Times” journalists who were captured and beaten but don’t know the details, can you in short order tell me specifically what happened?
Farrell: Yes. We were covering the eastern part of the country that isn’t under Qadhafi’s control. We went right down to the front line, because the rebels had started to lie about where the front line was. They started to say we’ve retaken this town, we’re on a roll, and it was impossible just to stay back in a town 100 miles back from the front line and credibly know what was going on.
So we went down to the front line and Qadhafi’s forces rolled much quicker than we expected into the town, around the town, to the back of the town, and they cut us off as we were trying to get out the back entrance and back to safety.
Tavis: You made a statement a moment ago that makes me want to ask this as a follow up. There’s an old adage, as you well know, Stephen, that says that the first casualty in war is usually the truth – the first casualty in war is usually the truth. In Libya and all the other places you’ve reported, how true have you found that notion to be, or not true?
Farrell: I haven’t government in peacetime to particular prone to telling the truth, either. (Laughter) it is true, it matters. The stakes are far higher in war for both sides concerned. Let me give you an example.
We were talking on the front line – the day we were captured we were talking to a fighter in (unintelligible) and he said to us, he said, “See, the problem with you journalists,” he said, “Is that you are a two-edged weapon. You’re useful to me and you’re useful to my enemy. You’re useful to me -” we explored it at some length.
Effectively, the way he parsed it was if we’re showing rebel casualties of Qadhafi’s forces, if we’re in hospital, if we’re showing that the rebels are being effective, we’re useful to them. But if we’re showing them on the retreat, if we’re showing morale broken, if we’re showing them breaking ranks and fleeing back, as indeed we did, suddenly we’re not useful to them. We’re a morale-damaging force and they didn’t want to surround – and in fact, the morning and the day before we got captured I was seriously worried we were going to get shot by the rebels, who seemed to think that every little video camera was beaming their positions live and that we were giving away their positions live, whether intentionally or not.
So it’s a dangerous environment you’re working in and the truth is sometimes useful to one side or the other, and sometimes not useful to them.
Tavis: So help me understand this as best you can. Is the fear that you feel when you think you’re about to be shot, as you just mentioned, is that fear like energy for you? What do you do with that fear?
Farrell: No, there’s no thrill here. I have been on the end of this three or four times, and obviously you’re at risk whenever you go into these situations. My colleague, Anthony Shadid, has actually been shot in the West Bank some years ago. There’s no thrill, there’s no excitement there. It is not a situation I like.
Funnily enough, me personally, I don’t tend to feel fear so much, but my mind is just going so fast. You’re just calculating, you’re constantly calculating, and when a guy’s pointing a rifle at my head I’m thinking, what’s the best way to deal with him? What’s the best way to talk him down?
We’re throwing words at him; we’re throwing the word “sahafi,” “journalist” in Arabic, not working. Throw American at him, maybe that’ll have more impact on him. Maybe that’ll make him pause the trigger. Again, it’s a cliché, but your mind really is racing at a different speed and you’re just calibrating. What will work, what won’t? What’s going to get me out of this, what isn’t? Right up until the moment when the trigger is pulled you’re just trying to work it on the grounds that there’s kind of no point in being afraid.
If you freeze and panic, you’re certainly going to die. If you don’t, if you keep trying to work it, you’re possibly probably going to die. So obviously, possibly probably is better than certainly.
Tavis: The example that you gave a moment ago of what happened to you specifically is underscored by the fact that whether we’re talking Libya or Egypt or a number of other places, just over the past few months, in fact, there have been any number of stories that indicate that these persons who are involved in these uprisings have an issue with foreign journalists. What’s this tension that exists with these engaged in these uprisings and foreign journalists in particular?
Farrell: Yeah, well, to take the word “foreign” loosely, I would say that probably the most dangerous thing to be in Libya is a Libyan journalist or a driver. Our own driver – let’s not forget our own driver was with us when we were abducted. He’s still missing. We do not know what’s happened to him. I have spoken to others of Libyan background who say that they are much more prone to hit them hard and come down harder on them than others who fortunately have foreign passports that may make them think twice about beating us.
But to take that point about foreigners, first of all, westerners, they’re deeply suspicious. Two or three days ago a story broke that the CIA, I believe it was, or some sort of intelligence agencies, have people on the ground in Libya. I am really, really thankful that story broke after we’d been released, because that’s the suspicion in their mind anyway.
I heard them, I heard them shouting the words (speaks in Arabic) at us on the ground. That’s “spy” and “spies” in Arabic, and we’re screaming back, “No, journalists, journalists.” So there’s that fear, that they don’t know who we are. They believe we may be agents of a foreign government.
That’s being stoked by, in this case, the Qadhafi regime. We saw Libyan TV in custody – involuntarily; it’s all we had – and they were constantly using the words “colonial Christian conspiracy, colonial Christian conspiracy.” “The no-fly zone is the colonial Christians.” They’re trying to stoke up a population. Now, if you’re exposed to that for 30 or 40 years, some of it’s going to permeate, even if you don’t necessarily support the regime.
One final point – it’s not just foreign journalists in the sense of western. Al Jazeera, Arab journalists, Egyptian journalists, Syrian journalists, journalists from the Arab world but who aren’t Libyan are treated with even more suspicion, because they know they can speak Arabic, they know they can read maps, so they have a deep, deep suspicion of them.
Tavis: Stephen Farrell, I’m delighted that you are alive, I’m delighted you took time to talk to us tonight, and I’m delighted, most importantly, that you’re talking to your family about what you will do going forward given that you’ve survived this now three or four times. Honored to have you on. Thanks for sharing your insight, sir.
Farrell: Thank you.
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Last modified: April 28, 2011 at 12:47 pm