Covering violence in Afghanistan: a reporter’s view


Jeffrey Dvorkin 

Jeffrey DvorkinAfghanistan might just be the most dangerous assignment going and on Tuesday, April 21, the Canadian Journalism Foundation brought together two reporters well known to Canadians for a conversation about the dangers of foreign reporting.


Graeme Smith of The Globe and Mail and Mellissa Fung from CBC News spoke to a full house at the George Ignatieff Theatre on the University of Toronto campus. While both are still young, their experiences and their thoughtfulness spoke volumes about what they have seen and why they believe the Afghanistan assignment and the Canadian military presence there is a story that must continue to be told.


Journalist and author Sally Armstrong moderated the discussion. She asked Smith and Fung how well prepared they were for this assignment. Smith felt that he was not given enough time to familiarize himself adequately. “Get on the plane now!” is how he described the order from his foreign desk.


Fung said she read a lot to prep herself for an assignment that was as demanding and as foreign as she could possibly imagine. Both journalists underwent a period of battlefield training by former British Marines who taught them the basics of emergency medicine, scenario training and what to do if, as journalists, they found themselves in a hostile situation.


For Fung, this training proved to be prescient as she was kidnapped and held for ransom in October 2008, held hostage in a hole in the ground for 28 days. Even though Sally Armstrong delicately raised the matter, Fung would not go into any details about the event, her time in captivity or the circumstances that led to her release. Both Smith and Fung said they were advised by their British trainers that if such a situation should occur, they should “be nice, offer cash, don’t fight back, and cry if possible.”


Both correspondents spoke eloquently about the challenges of reporting in a vastly different culture. Smith spoke about “inshallah” (“if God wills it”), invoked by Afghans in the most mundane daily activities. They also spoke warmly and appreciatively about their Afghan “fixers,” the local hires who translate, take notes, set up interviews and drive the cars. Correspondents like Fung and Smith are deeply dependent on their local employees (the CBC has engaged the same person for the past five years) who also act as political and military barometers, knowing when and where things might get dangerous. “We can’t do our job without them,” said Fung.


Both expressed appreciation that the Globe and the CBC have been highly involved in their safety in a war zone. Fung and Smith also spoke warmly about the Canadian troops on whom they both depend for many of their stories and their personal safety. Neither felt that their dependence on the military had made their stories less objective.


Had they become hardened by their experiences? Smith said that he hoped not. But he agreed that every experience – whether in Afghanistan or elsewhere – marks you in some way. Smith said that after one tour of duty to Kandahar, he saw a psychologist who declared that he did not have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).


Fung said that there were times when she was frightened. But she said that she has been moved and affected by reporting on the lives of the Afghan people, especially women and children. Both she and Smith felt that their employers have been rock solid in supporting them before, during and after each assignment.


Did Fung feel that because she is a woman her editor gave her so-called “soft” features about women? Yes, she said, because she could talk to an Afghan woman in a way that a male reporter could not. Smith agreed that he has difficulty getting access to those sorts of stories because of the nature of Afghan society.


Should Canadian troops still be there, asked one audience member? Both Fung and Smith answered that one diplomatically, saying that Canadian journalists should be in the field as long as the story is there and especially as long as Canadian troops are in harm’s way.


Fung insisted that without Canadian reporters on the scene, Canadians will not be able to have an informed debate over whether the Canadian military should stay or go.  


Jeffrey Dvorkin is the Rogers Distinguished Visiting Professor of Journalism at Ryerson University. He was CBC Radio’s managing editor, and VP of News and Information at NPR in Washington, DC, where he also served as NPR’s first news ombudsman. Dvorkin is on the Advisory Boards of the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma and the International News Safety Institute.