“Working in a war zone is very hard,” commented Jawad Sukhayar, a reporter for The New York Times based in Kabul, Afghanistan, during an EWC Media Conference panel on “The War on Terrorism from the Journalists Who Report On It.” Though the statement might seem self evident, the panelists were there to describe just how hard it is to report on, and live, in an insecure region or state.
Sukhayar was the first to speak among the panel of four journalists from Afghanistan, India and Turkey, each of them presently navigating imminent danger and political resistance in their beat. He began by telling stories from the too-numerous incidents of violent extremism and targeted killing of journalists in Afghanistan, punctuated by the most recent twin attacks in Kabul on Sept. 5 that killed at least 24 and came within half an hour of each other. Sukhayar commented that “as a journalist, I try to make it to the scene as soon as possible, but this attack was planned in such a way that they would kill journalists that had arrived at the first attack.”
This disturbing trend echoed by his colleague and recipient of an East-West Center courage in journalism award during the conference, Habib Khan Totakhil, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal in Kabul. Totakhil, who was kidnapped by the Taliban for several days in 2009, described how terrorist groups track and actively interact with reporters. They are on “Twitter, WhatsApp, Viber and Facebook, and they reach out to us,” he said. Both Sukhayar and Totakhil agreed that while the violence perpetuated by these extremist groups is omnipresent in Afghanistan, it is the difficulty of dealing with the government that can make it that much harder to report on the situation.
Zaffar Iqbal Sheikh, Kashmir bureau chief of India’s NDTV network and another EWC courageous journalism award recipient, added further complexity to the issue by describing the challenges he faces in reporting on and from Jammu and Kashmir. Sheikh noted that “when you are working in a conflict zone, there is a major difference between the way a story is reported locally and nationally.” These differences in perspective can lead to either a hostile local environment, where the local officials and public do not want to share their stories, or the perpetuation of a malignant narrative at the national level. Sheikh’s opinions on the insecurity and risks faced by journalists in this region were underscored by his own personal experience of being caught in an attack by militants that put him in the hospital with three bullet wounds.
Turkish journalist Gonul Gezbul rounded out the session with a presentation on the current climate there. Though Turkey is not new to attacks from insurgents, such as the ongoing fight with the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, the recent attempted coup on July 15 that resulted in a sharp backlash against journalists has heightened tensions among the local press. Gezbul said the Turkish “mainstream media discourse has made a u-turn,” and that journalists are now pressured to adopt the official government line on everything from the Gülen movement to the PKK.
In all, the panel provided a harrowing account of the price that journalists in conflict zones pay to bring coverage to the public. In the words of Sukhayar, as a journalist such areas, “you are a soldier, but you are not armed.”