Afghanistan has always loomed large in the journalistic mind. This graveyard of empires has long been the cradle of many a brilliant career. Kabul may even lay claim to being the world’s most evocative dateline. This is a country, after all, where epic histories unfold, and where eras have drawn to a close. The Soviet withdrawal, which was completed in 1989, foreshadowed the end of the Cold War. America’s chaotic departure offers proof of its post-9/11 decline.
The fall of Kabul inevitably drew comparisons with the fall of Saigon. So no wonder journalists rushed into the country, hoping to reach the capital before the Taliban completed its rapier advance. When it comes to foreign reporting, this is a maximal country, where events of immense geopolitical consequence can be told through the everyday stories of the Afghan people. It is a fitting place to focus on for the launch episode of Journo, a new podcast from the Judith Neilson Institute.
I first reported from Kabul in 2003, after swapping the 9/11 beat in Washington for the sharp end of the Bush administration’s war on terror. In those days, Afghanistan was described as the forgotten war rather than the forever war. Even though the hunt for Osama Bin Laden was still underway, the original purpose of the mission in Afghanistan, international attention had shifted to Iraq. The Taliban continued to pose a threat, but US commanders believed they were a force in decline.
As the BBC’s newly installed South Asia correspondent, I had flown in to cover the Loya Jirga, a national assembly convened to hammer out a new constitution, and checked into the Kabul Inter-Continental, a brutalist structure on a hilltop overlooking the capital that over the decades had become one of the world’s iconic foreign correspondent hotels. Only the week before, the Taliban had fired rocket-propelled grenades at its lobby and the windows were still boarded up with plywood. But to remark upon the attacks, and to voice any concern for your personal safety, seemed tantamount to admitting that you shouldn’t really be there in the first place. And young correspondents like me were desperate to belong.
That kind of macho bravado, I’m glad to say, is no longer such a feature of the correspondent world.
War zones continue to attract thrill seekers and adrenaline junkies, but the best and often bravest reporting tends to come from journalists who have the most empathy and emotional intelligence.
There has been no shortage of that during these harrowing few weeks.
Back in my day, the Americans were determined to show reporters they were winning the Afghan war. The Pentagon happily laid on what are called ‘embeds,’ where reporters could join US forces on missions at the very tip of the spear. Sometimes that meant zipping over the mountainous terrain in Black Hawk helicopters. At other times it involved venturing into dangerous valleys in a convoy of American Humvees. We were granted extraordinary access, but the drawback of these embeds was that you spent too much time with your protectors, the US military, and could easily succumb to a journalistic form of Stockholm syndrome. Besides, it was always worth remembering that the most important story to tell was that of the Afghan people themselves, the central actors in their decades-long national drama.
A generation of Afghan journalists flee
As international reporters, we could never have told those stories without the help of local fixers, producers, interpreters and journalists. People who helped us decipher the complexities of the country. People who often acted as our guarantors. People who became not just colleagues but friends. So the first episode of Journo is dear to my heart. It tells the disturbing story of how, when foreign correspondents raced to Kabul, almost an entire generation of local Afghan reporters headed in the opposite direction.
As we watched those planes taking off from Hamid Karzai International airport, we were also witnessing a journalistic exodus. Many of those fleeing the country had been part of the 9/11 generation of Afghan journalists, young men and increasingly women who embarked on careers in the media in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11th.
The episode begins with the story of Bilal Sarwary. A carpet and antiques salesman at the time of the 9/11 attacks, his gateway into journalism opened up when the luxury hotel he worked at in Peshawar, Pakistan, was suddenly inundated with international news teams. Translators were in high demand, and Bilal, who is Afghan-born, decided to offer his assistance.
Over the next 20 years, he became a legend in Afghan media circles and a dear former colleague at the BBC. Often operating two mobile phones at once — one pressed to each ear — he seemed like a one-man news organisation. When in 2004 we covered the Afghan presidential election, we noticed that the indelible ink which was supposed to act as a safeguard against multiple voting wasn’t indelible at all. But the question we needed to find the answer to was whether the problem was limited to our polling station in Kabul, or if it was a nationwide issue.
Within minutes, Bilal had called up his network of contacts around Afghanistan, and established that everywhere was having the same problem. By the early afternoon, most of the presidential candidates had boycotted the election because of its obvious vulnerability to fraud. That night, Hamid Karzai, who ended up winning this disputed election, opened his press conference with an attack on the BBC for highlighting the disappearing ink debacle. The Bilal effect.
Alas, Bilal has now had to flee his beloved homeland, along with his wife and young daughter, after being told by the Taliban that his life was in danger. With his enforced departure, Afghanistan has lost one of its finest young journalists.
Dangers and disruption facing journalism
The media is coming under fire the world over, a theme we will revisit as the series continues. I have just left the United States, where the Trumpian idea that journalists are ‘enemies of the people’ has really taken hold. At the same time, it is becoming increasingly difficult to report from China, because of the expulsion from Beijing of so many foreign correspondents. News organisations are facing a Chinese catch 22. If they do their jobs properly, which is to report the country in its entirety, there is a strong likelihood they will be prevented by the Chinese authorities from doing their jobs.
Then there’s the danger posed by spyware, which has been used by governments to plunder journalists’ contacts lists and to turn their phones into listening devices. On Journo, we will examine all of these issues.
Also we will question whether some of the problems we face as an industry are of our own making.
How can we safeguard our impartiality as journalists, for example, when the lines are being blurred between news and opinion?
Is impartiality going to become as outdated and obsolete as typewriters in newsrooms, as politics and the media becomes more polarised?
I don’t claim to have all the answers. Nowhere near. But hopefully we’ll ask some of the right questions.
The podcasts that I generally enjoy listening to involve the presenter joining the audience in a quest for understanding, and making discoveries along the way. On Journo, I hope you will join me on that journey.
Nick Bryant is a foreign correspondent, author and writer, and hosts JNI’s new podcast Journo. He was the BBC’s Australia correspondent from 2006 to 2013. He has reported from war zones and trouble spots such as Afghanistan, Kashmir, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, and the Middle East. Most recently he was the BBC’s New York correspondent. Nick is the author of a number of bestselling books including, When America Stopped Being Great: A history of the present and The Rise and Fall of Australian: how a great nation lost its way.