Melissa Fung and Graeme Smith talked about their respective experiences in Afghanistan and the conditions under which Canadian reporters work there at a Canadian Journalism Foundation event on Tuesday.
Fung is a CBC reporter who got snatched there by criminals while on her second assignment in the conflict-ridden country. Smith spent three years in Afghanistan with The Globe and Mail. He’s now on leave, working on a book.
Fung’s kidnapping shocked the nation and prompted immediate, sweeping changes
in the system. Canadian journalists in Afghanistan are now on full lockdown,
only allowed to travel with military escorts.
“We have green zones, orange zones, red zones,” said Smith. “Places that are
safe. Places that are semi-unsafe. Times of day when we think there’s going to
be a suicide bomber. Particular convoys we should stay away from. But at the end
of the day it’s all meaningless. You can hedge your bets, but you don’t really
138 Journalists have been killed in Iraq since 2003, more than twice the
number that were killed over 16 years of reporting during the Vietnam War. 6
were killed in Afghanistan. Dozens more have gone missing. And there are still
ongoing cases of kidnapped journalists kept hidden from the public by media
blackouts according to both Fung and Smith.
But Fung still dreams of going back. Getting the story out has never been
more important, she says. People who want to stop sending Canadian journalists
to Afghanistan, “Just don’t understand why we do what we do.” …
While Mellissa’s firm, but soft-spoken, Smith’s both earnest and
An audience member asks if safety issues make it hard to get information.
“Yeah, I can’t tell you how annoying it is to set up an interview with a
source and he gets killed in the meantime,” Smith replies drily.
“Graeme… enough.” The interviewer titters nervously. There’s a few glances.
No one else laughs.
Neither the Globe and Mail, the National Post nor the Toronto Star covered the event. Nor did CBC, although CBC executive editor of news ops Esther Enkin columnized on kidnapping. Only Now covered it (that I can see).
I’m not finding a ton of blog stuff on the event, even though it was full (viva citizen journalism!)
Here’s some tweets:
I’m very moved hearing Graeme Smith & Melissa
Fung‘s experiences from reporting under fire. #CJF
Appreciate your foreign correspondents.
Sally Armstrong, Graeme Smith (G&M), & Melissa
Fung (CBC) at CJF event, discussing reporting in conflict zones. http://twitpic.com/3qgxb
- BCerInToronto: Melissa
Fung safety training was if in trouble offer them money and, if you’re a
woman, cry a lot. Unfortunently she forgot to cry #cjf
- BCerInToronto: Sally
Armstrong moderates #cjf panel on conflict zone reporting with Globe’s
Graeme Smith and CBC’s Melissa Fung http://twitpic.com/3qgl7
If the CJF pops up a webcast, I’ll see if there’s anything further to be extracted.
Jeffrey Dvorkin, a former CBC/NPR news exec and now a visiting prof at Ryerson, penned something for j-source.ca. A lengthy excerpt:
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.
She did admit that while she got assigned many ‘soft’ features about Afghan women and children, she saw those stories as important. In addition, given the realities of Afghan culture, a male reporter wouldnt’ be able to do those stories, Fung said.
J-source also posted a story talking about kidnapping stories and news blackouts.