British troops carried out a deadly raid against Taliban forces in northern Afghanistan on September 9, 2009, to rescue New York Times reporter Stephen Farrell. Although Farrell was successfully freed, a British soldier, an Afghan civilian, and Farrell"s interpreter, Afghan journalist Sultan Munadi, were killed during the rescue effort.
Taliban gunmen seized Farrell, a veteran foreign correspondent for The New York Times who has both British and Irish citzenship, and Munadion September 5, while they were working near Kunduz, Afghanistan. The journalists had been investigating NATO airstrikes that killed dozens of people, including an unknown number of civilians. After being kidnapped by the Taliban, Farrell and Munadi were held for four days by gunmen, who moved them from house to house and paraded them in the streets of Taliban-controlled areas southeast of Kunduz, according to a September 9 account of the ordeal by Farrell in The New York Times.
In a predawn raid early September 9, British special forces moved in to rescue Farrell. According to Farrell"s account, he and Munadi tried to escape the compound where they were being held during the chaos of the raid. Munadi, who was leading Farrell, was felled in a volley of gunfire despite both men shouting, "Journalist! Journalist!" Farrell said.
Relief for the safe return of Farrell was contrasted by anger among Afghans over Munadi"s death during the early-morning firefight, in which British Cpl. John Harrison and an unidentified Afghan woman were also killed, according to a September 10 story in The Washington Post. Afghan critics compared the rescue to a 2007 incident in which kidnapped Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo was freed in exchange for the release of five Taliban prisoners, while his Afghan interpreter and driver were killed.
"We are all very disappointed," said Rahimullah Samandar, the director of the Afghan Independent Journalists" Association, in the September 10 Washington Post story. "Why would the British forces rescue the British man and not his Afghan colleague? They were both running for help and shouting that they were journalists. He was shot in the head, and his body was left lying. This is wrong behavior that makes people very upset."
Munadi"s body, which was recovered by members of his village, was driven in a pickup truck to Kabul, where many Afghan journalists and others gathered on September 9 to pay respects, according to the September 10 Post story. A September 10 obituary in The New York Times called Munadi a "gentle stalwart" whose death illustrated two grim truths of the war in Afghanistan: "Vastly more Afghans than foreigners have died battling the Taliban, and foreign journalists are only as good as the Afghan reporters who work with them."
British journalist and foreign war correspondent Max Hastings wrote in a September 11 column in the London Daily Mail that military forces should not have intervened to rescue Farrell. "In most of the world"s war zones journalists are perceived by insurgents, especially Islamic militants, as hated infidels, as fit for death as Western soldiers.... Every media organisation [sic] and reporter knows this, and most respond accordingly," Hastings wrote. "In fairness to Stephen Farrell, he never asked anybody to risk their lives to free him from the tiger"s jaws into which he had walked. The real lesson of his experience is that journalists who report wars must do so at their own risk - and suffer the consequences of a misjudgment."
Others criticized the raid as premature. Both The Guardian and The Times of Londoncited unidentified diplomatic sources who said that fruitful efforts to negotiate the release of the two prisoners had been underway, and that they were within days of the journalists" peaceful release. But British defense officials, including British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, came out in support of the raid. In a September 9 statement, Brown praised the heroism of the British commandos and confirmed the death of one of them. "When British nationals are kidnapped, we and our allies will do everything in our power to free them," Brown said. His statement also expressed condolences to Munadi"s family.
On The New York Times At War blog, reporter John Burns - who was also once kidnapped in Afghanistan - wrote that many readers who contacted the paperwere critical of the risks taken by Farrell in the situation that led to his and Munadi"s kidnapping. Burns quoted a British woman who called him on the phone, "incandescent" with anger, arguing that it was appalling for The New York Times to endanger other people"s lives in pursuit of a story.
"These are issues that have been intensely debated at The Times for years, with resulting protocols, in our war bureaus, about the importance of weighing risk carefully before embarking on dangerous assignments," Burns wrote. "But just as we have to cover these wars, we have to go out of our compounds to experience the conflict at first hand if our reporting is not to quickly descend into 'hotel journalism." Some of that, indeed much of it, has been done on embeds, where our protection comes from the military units we cover. But an essential part, too, comes from going in search of the war that embeds don"t reach - the 'other side" of the war, often enough; the war as it is experienced by ordinary Iraqis and Afghans, the civilians who have done most of the dying. That was what Stephen Farrell was doing when he and Sultan set out on Saturday for the site of the fuel-tanker bombing south of Kunduz."
The Committee to Protect Journalists also issued a statement on September 9, saying that although they were greatly relieved at the safe rescue of Farrell, Munadi"s death highlighted "the growing danger faced by all Afghans and reporters, who are working and risking their lives to cover a story that is taking an ever higher toll on the country and its people."
Jill Abramson, managing editor of The New York Times,wrote in a September 11 column answering readers" questions that the newspaper"s mission necessitated the sending of correspondents into difficult and dangerous places. "If we did not venture out to see the effects of war directly, our journalism ... would be told through the lens of a hotel, or some other remote spot," Abramson wrote. "Truthful journalism that pierces the fog of war is vital to the free flow of information in our democracy."
The New York Times did not report on Farrell"s kidnapping until after his rescue, and asked other media outlets not to report the news, citing fears for Farrell"s safety. It was the second time in recent months that The New York Times had attempted to suppress a story about a Times journalist being kidnapped. Reporter David Rohde was held for more than seven months with almost no mention of his kidnapping in mainstream media between November 2008 and June 2009. (see "Ethical Questions SurroundTimesDecision to Keep Rohde Kidnapping Secret" in the Summer 2009 issue of the Silha Bulletin.)
In a September 9 interview with NPR host Neal Conan, New York Times executive editor Bill Keller gave his reasons for the Farrell news blackout. "In this case, we had some early word through intermediaries that this might be resolvable, and we wanted to just keep it as quiet and calm as we could in the hopes that we could persuade the captors that these guys were legitimate journalists doing important work and that they should be released."
Military commentator Bill Roggio refused to follow the media blackout and reported on the Farrell kidnapping on the Threat Matrix blog on September 6. "The media has not afforded the US military the courtesy of a news blackout when US troops have been captured in Iraq and Afghanistan," Roggio wrote. "The kidnapping of Farrell serves only to highlight the deteriorating security situation in the northern province of Kunduz (and neighboring Baghlan)."
- Ruth DeFoster
Silha Research Assistant