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Are the Dangers for Journalists in Afghanistan Approaching Those of Iraq?

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Since the Canadian journalist Michelle Lang was killed by a roadside bomb on December 30 in Kandahar, I've been fielding a lot of interviews from Canadian news organizations about battlefield fatalities, the dangers to journalists, and the value of having them report from war zones. I've answered many questions like those before and had well honed responses, but the earnestness and sincerity of the interviewers made me think again about what we were seeing in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion started in 2001. And so many interviewers asked me if Afghanistan would be another Iraq for reporters, I took a closer look at some of our data.

First, let me say CPJ stresses that by far the greatest number of journalists killed in the world are local journalists covering local stories--not the foreign correspondents who seem to get all the attention in the western media. Starting from 1992, our database of 797 journalists killed for their work shows that close to 90% of those who were killed anywhere in the world fit that description. But in Iraq and Afghanistan that local/foreign distinction differs significantly. Globally, 70 journalists died in 2009 for their work -- the largest number in our data base that goes back to 1992. The number was driven skyward by the massacre of about 30 journalists in the Philippines in November.

Let's look at Iraq first. It is the deadliest country for journalists ever. To date, 141 have died there, though the fatality rate seems to be falling off rapidly as the nature of conflict changes -- our data shows that four died in 2009, compared to 11 in 2008, and 32 in 2007. Nineteen foreign journalists were among those killed in Iraq since the U.S. invasion.

From the outbreak of the second American led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, 12 foreigners were killed in action between March and August of that year. After that, the numbers for foreigners fall off quickly --eight in all (most were freelancers) were killed between May 2004 and May 2007, while the numbers of local reporters continued to rise steadily. I think it is realistic to say that with the dangers so apparent in covering the very hot Iraq war, many were pulled back to secure bureaus, and greater precautions were taken to ensure their safety when they did venture out. Local Iraqi reporters with the language and social knowledge were increasingly used to cover the conflict on the ground. Those locals paid the much greater price.

With the war heating up in Afghanistan, it is not surprising that attacks on journalists appear to be accelerating. On December 30, when Calgary Herald and CanWest reporter Michelle Lang was killed by a roadside improvised explosive device while traveling with Canadian troops in Kandahar, she became the 17th journalist to be killed in Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Eleven of those who died were foreign reporters. So, for now, we are seeing a pattern in Afghanistan similar to what we saw in the very early months of the post-9/11 war in Iraq: Foreign journalists are being killed more frequently than their local colleagues.

In a news stories with global significance like Iraq and Afghanistan, the numbers tend to become skewed because so many foreign reporters flood in to cover the story. But in Iraq, when casualties started to rise, the number of foreign journalists' deaths dropped sharply, while the number of Iraqi journalists continued to rise. Increasingly, foreign news agencies relied more on local reporters to take the risk of gathering news in Iraq. "Outsourcing risk" is what someone called it during a Nieman Fellowship seminar I led in 2007. It seemed harsh when I first heard it, but the phrase captures the reality of the way news is gathered in the modern world.

So is Afghanistan going to look like Iraq for journalists? The wars are vastly different with different aims and different strategies on all sides, and it is always dangerous to think by analogy in situations like this. But I think there is one pattern we can expect to see again: Increasingly, as foreign journalists are lost in Afghanistan (and as others are kidnapped, a whole other aspect to the story that I won't go into here), we can expect to see ground-level news gathering handed off to trusted local Afghan reporters, those who have proven to have the skill, reliability, and the bravery to go where foreign news agencies will no longer be willing to risk their foreign staff reporters' safety. For now, many foreign news agencies continue to operate in Kabul, fielding staffers to cover stories their bureau chiefs deem safe enough, but are much more cautious outside the capital city. We will see whether that will be the case by the end of 2010.

Bob Dietz
is the Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.