Stephen Farrell, Sultan Munadi and a panel on war correspondence

Yesterday’s news that The New York Times correspondent Stephen Farrell was freed from captivity in Northern Afghanistan has been met with mixed emotions. His fixer, journalist Sultan Munadi, was killed in a raid of the compound where the two were being held.

George Packer at The New Yorker explains the often precarious position of fixers–the locals who help foreign correspondents with everything from translation to logistics–and expresses his frustration at what happened to Munadi in a blog post called, “It’s Always the Fixer Who Dies.”

In the course of the work, the fixer is relied on so heavily by the foreign correspondent that an observer who didn’t understand the system might assume that it’s the fixer who is in charge. After all, it’s the fixer’s country, and he or she knows it so much better. And yet the foreigner has the money, the name, the infrastructure, the power to hire and fire, and the ability to come and go, especially if things get sticky.

Packer’s post is exemplary of growing discomfort amongst foreign correspondents about safety for themselves and their fixers. Panelists in the first session of the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellowship 60th Anniversary Event, four seasoned conflict reporters moderated by CNN chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour, discussed the risks of reporting on wars.

The panelists did not always agree, but one thing they did say was that flying in and out of a country to report on a war is a recipe for disaster. Kim Barker, a Murrow Press Fellow this year and recently let-go South Asia bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune said many of the journalists who have been kidnapped in Pakistan and Afghanistan were “parachute journalists,” brave enough to do things that journalists on the ground know is dangerous. Barker says she gets people to come to her, to places that she feels safe. She also gets guarantees of safety and develops contacts over time.

Kathy Gannon, a special correspondent for the Associated Press, has covered Pakistan, the Taliban and the border since 1988. She was allowed into Afghanistan by the Taliban itself, with permission that was granted only after developing a long history in the country.

“I do believe there is a way to do the job,” said Gannon. “You limit the risks as best you can, but you don’t stop taking risks.”

Mohamad Bazzi, adjunct senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and an adjunct journalism professor at New York University, said that there is a new strain of Islamic militancy which kidnaps journalists and it is important that correspondents familiarize themselves with the various players in the conflict.

But this way of working takes time and money, both of which are dwindling in today’s media market. Bazzi says that although many young students are interested in covering wars, they do not necessarily have the institutional support to do it. Barker herself was a victim of cutbacks by the Tribune Company. She said that after leaving the Tribune, a major newspaper offered her $30,000 per year to cover Afghanistan, which she would pay not only her salary, but rent, a fixer’s salary and health insurance. She declined to name the paper, but said that they found a much younger reporter to take the job.

Christopher Dickey, Newsweek‘s Paris bureau chief and Middle East regional editor, said that journalists need to weigh the importance of a story to the audience against the risks of telling that story. “Nobody wants to go die in Eastern Congo when nobody cares,” he said.

But Gannon disagreed, saying that it is not good for reporters to be always thinking about what stories will sell.

The risks are high for war correspondents, and they certainly were for Sultan Munadi and The New York Times. Bob Dietz gives a nice description of Munadi at the Committee to Protect Journalists blog. He points readers to a post on a New York Times blog, where Munadi wrote about why he stayed in Afhganistan.

By the way, if you first learned about Farrell’s abduction yesterday, you’re not alone. Though the two journalists had been captive since Saturday, many media outlets have adopted news blackouts of journalists’ kidnappings. Editor & Publisher has a good discussion of the policy, its advocates and critics.

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