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PCDN Interview with Edward Girardet

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    Craig Zelizer
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    PCDN Interview with Edward Girardet, writer and journalist reporting on humanitarian and conflict zones in Africa, Asia (especially Afghanistan) since the late 1970s

    Edward Girardet is a journalist, writer and producer who has reported widely from humanitarian and conflict zones in Africa, Asia and elsewhere since the late 1970s. As a foreign correspondent for The Christian Science MonitorUS News and World Report, and The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour based in Paris, he first began covering Afghanistan several months prior to the Soviet invasion in 1979. Girardet is a founding director of the Institute for Media and Global Governance in Geneva, Switzerland. He is also editor of Crosslines Essential Media Ltd (UK).

    Girardet has written widely for major publications such as National Geographic MagazineThe Christian Science MonitorInternational Herald TribuneFinancial Times and other media on humanitarian, media and conflict issues. He has also written and edited several books, including his newest book, Killing the Cranes: A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan (2011). Other titles include, Afghanistan – The Soviet War (1985), Somalia, Rwanda and Beyond (1996), Populations in Danger (1996), and The Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan (1998, 2004 and 2006).

    I feel privileged as a young professional in communications and international development to be able to talk to Ed more about what it’s like to report from humanitarian crises. It’s not every day I get to speak with someone who has decades of overseas experience for major European and North American broadcasters covering issues from the war in Angola to lost tribes in Western New Guinea and environmental issues in Africa. I spoke to Ed from his home in France and we talked about everything from good journalism to the war in Afghanistan and advice for youth professionals working in conflict areas.

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    Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me Mr. Girardet. I was watching your recent TedxLausanne talk on reporting from Afghanistan and you speak about how challenging the global reporting environment is right now. Perhaps you could talk to us about that and how you see this changing in the coming years.

     

    There has been a real dramatic downturn in international reporting. This is for several reasons, one being the fact that the media landscape has changed. A lot of the big newspapers are seeking a new business model to cope with a broadening media platform, with the Internet and so on. And to make reporting sustainable – how will you pay for it? There was always, in a sense, a gradual reduction by mainstream media in international reporting but it really sped up with competition from the Internet coupled with diminishing revenue. Another problem is that some of the publishers simply do not see the importance of international reporting, often in contract to what their own journalists think. Virtually every newspaper or news organization in North America, and many in Europe, which used to have overseas bureaus or at least foreign correspondents, have cut back on these.

     

    When I began reporting in the 1970s, it was a lot easier. You would go to Paris, get picked up off the street, get a job, work as a freelancer in Africa or Asia and make a living. Now it is really difficult for young people who want to get a job in journalism and cover stories abroad – whether it’s humanitarian crises, emerging conflict, etc. – they cannot afford to do so. What we are now seeing is more surge reporting when there is a major crisis, when you get people ‘parachuted; in to places like Libya. In Haiti, so many journalists were ‘parachuted’ in but didn’t know the complexities of a humanitarian operation. It used to be that most of the journalists knew each other and the aid agencies. The aid agencies knew them and they all sort of protected each other because in some countries or situations you have to be very careful about sources.

     

    Nowadays, journalists, especially in TV, don’t do their research and are there for very short periods. The result is very poor quality reporting. This also means that when you have a conflict or humanitarian crisis, you don’t have the necessary questioning or background into the way humanitarian operations are conducted A lot of  (aid) organizations are there not just to help, but for fundraising purposes. Many agencies will focus on children because children always look good on TV for fundraising, but other issues are rarely profiled because they don’t look good on TV, such as sanitation. Many journalists out there now are not qualified because they haven’t got the experience or they are turning stories into infotainment. Medecin Sans Frontieres was saying that you don’t have time to do this – either you’re a humanitarian or you’re a journalist. A true relief worker is there for 16 hours a day to help and some of these journalists just come in to do a ‘show.’

     

    There is a lot of local capacity in journalism in developing countries, what kind of new partnerships can emerge from this to ensure quality reporting?

     

    What we are looking for are real models of how we can make international reporting sustainable. How can we enable young journalists to get out there and do the reporting they need to do but also to make a living with good reporting. We’re also looking more at working with local and regional journalists from around the world, such as Africa and Asia. Some are very good but they also need to gain  more global experience. They need training to learn how to report for more global audiences but still giving the point of view from the ground up, which is often lacking. It’s vital to know what local populations think and to provide their perspective.

     

    I have been involved with human rights, climate change and humanitarian response workshops with the Institute of Media and Global Governance/Media21. We try to have a mix of journalists from around the world because often they only see their side of the story, what’s happening in their own countries. When you can get journalists together one can really help to improve the quality of their work when they know that they aren’t alone out there. I think these trainings are absolutely crucial. East African media are doing extremely well, but journalism in West Africa is weak with a lot of political or business interest control. The journalists can’t report independently, so you see a lot of them expressing themselves with blogs using pseudonyms.

     

    I think partnerships and trainings involving journalists from within a region can enable these individuals to share stories and reporting tactics, such as Rwandan journalists sharing their experiences to help train Kenyan journalists on reporting their upcoming elections. So I think we’ll be seeing two channels. One is better use of local and regional journalists worldwide. The second is finding ways of making mainstream, western media more sustainable so that people can have the information needed to make informed decisions about their lives.

     

    How have you seen local media developing in Afghanistan in the 30 years that you have been reporting from there?

     

    Ironically, media support in Afghanistan has probably been one of the best programs in the last 10 years or so in the country. It actually began in the 80s when there were one or two organizations such as the Afghan Media Centre who were training photographers and cameramen to go into Afghanistan to get footage. A number of Afghan culture and poetry magazines were also set up – in a country where the level of passion for poetry is unbelievable. In 2001 and 2002, a lot of programs were set up by InterNews (mainly radio), the Institute for World Peace Reporting (general reporters), BBC Trust (national radio and TV) and Media Action International, which was training up young journalists. We got together and decided there was a lot to be done, so each of our organizations should focus on different aspects, which is what we did. I think the result is that you have some really good Afghan reporters who are doing an excellent job but also a very dangerous one. Some have been been killed, others beaten up or threatened. Afghan journalists, in a way, realize how crucial their reporting is. They have always listened to programs such as the BBC World Service and Voice of America. You are seeing elements of pretty good investigative journalism, plus a willingness and a thirst amongst Afghan journalists, particularly the younger ones, to do really good reporting.

     

    You talk about the dangers of reporting from humanitarian conflict areas, especially somewhere like Afghanistan. How do you balance getting a good story and your own personal safety?

     

    Afghanistan is a story that I have followed for many, many years. I have had more of an advantage over other journalists and commentators because I was able to cover it during the 80s, which meant that the only way that I could report it was going in with the mujahideen (guerrillas) and French doctors and just walk in. We would be inside for weeks on end, staying in villages or with the guerrillas. I always made the effort to change groups which gave you a broader picture of what was happening. This ‘inside’ approach gave you an indication of what was really going on in the rural areas, such as farming problems with the destruction of irrigation canals or fruit orchards by the Soviets. Or the lack of fertilizers. You walked in and you walked out, and you walked between 14 and 16 hours each day. It was a privilege and would enhance the quality of your reporting since you couldn’t file right away. You might have to wait weeks before getting out of the the country. During the 1990s, I tried to get out to the countryside but in the 2000s it became more frustrating. You could drive around to more parts of the country, which made things easier, but I always felt as if I was cheating. I was missing out on the ground realities which you can only see if you walk through the villagers and farms. At the same time, it is much more dangerous to report now. This doesn’t mean you can’t do good reporting, but it is more difficult.

     

    One of the problems with Western journalists is that so many do the story from a military perspective, travelling embedded with their own armies. I am totally against the idea of embeds because it means you sign away your independence. During the Vietnam War, they did not embed. They would get up and go with the military for the day, or several days, but they had the freedom to go elsewhere. A lot of the journalists only report with the soldiers, so they see or understand the Afghan side. No Afghan is going to tell you what they think when you have soldiers standing near you with guns. When I went in with the military as a partial embed, I felt that I was not seeing anything to do with reality. I think the journalists that do it from both sides get a better picture.

     

    Afghanistan is an extremely diverse country – its geographically diverse and culturally diverse, an extraordinary country. What is happening in one area does not reflect what is happening elsewhere in country. We often see a lot of arrogance in generalizing what journalists are seeing as “Afghanistan” when all they are seeing is that one particular part of the country. The country differes from valley to valley, region to region. It is absolutely vital to get out there and get as broad a picture as possible to try and understand what’s going on. Personally, whenever in Kabul, I walk wherever possible. I also head the other direction if I see a military convoy heading my way because it’s a target. You have to be aware of what’s going on, change your routes and know that anything can happen.

     

    So what can you recommend then for individuals who are living and working in conflict regions to maintain that level of sanity to feel refreshed and contribute positively to the situation?

     

    First of all, I fault no one for not wanting to take risks. It is dangerous and that’s the reality. Far more dangerous than during the Soviet war which was more of a calculated risk. In Afghanistan it is important to see the military side but also to understand that there is no military solution there. But you should also make the effort to go in and visit the rural areas with a good aid agency. They work mainly with Afghans, such as engineers or health workers, and very few expats.  Most Afghans are farmers, or rely on the land for survival, so trying to explore what’s going on in agriculture, is important. In Somalia, for example, it is very dangerous to move around. You have to almost pay for protection, particularly if fighters approach you with the view that either you let them protect you or they kidnap you. It becomes very difficult and you have to use your gut sense.

     

    Regardless of the war or humanitarian zone, I try and talk to as many different aid agencies as possible. Given that they work closely to the ground in different parts, they have a better sense of what’s going on, even if only in their particular area of operation. By talking to different groups, you can obtain a more expansive picture. Many aid groups have people who have been there before and know the situation, so it’s worth focusing on them to find out what’s going on. And to see how things have changed since before. When I went to Eastern Afghanistan, I went to places I knew previously. I would see Afghans who were Taliban or at least affiliated with the Taliban. As part of traditional Afghan hospitality, they would offer to take me around but they also warned that they could not guarantee my safety.

     

    Having made all of these contacts and cultivated so many relationships with Afghan people over those 30 years, did you ever feel compelled to intervene in any situations?

     

    The message that really comes through, as I describe in my new book Killing the Cranes- A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan (Chelsea Green Publishers, 2011), is that Afghans are very aware of the role of a journalist. They will often do everything possible in order for you to have access to a situation. They would say: you have to go out and tell the world what is happening. So in a sense you were intervening purely by reporting and telling the outside world what was going on. That is really an interesting role of empowerment for these communities. I think we see this in Syria now where many are extremely keen on having journalists so that they can tell the story. These Syrians are even willing to risk their lives to help the journalists get the story out. Several of these journalists, French and Spanish, were recently able to make their way back to Lebanon and Turkey and quite a few people were killed helping them. Even with all of these mobile telephone and video shots with other social media of the shelling; it’s not enough. Social media can serve as a source for witnessing, but it’s not journalism. These Syrians clearly want credible journalists to vouch that this is really what’s happening. That is where you have the chance to intervene but with credible information as a tool.

     

    Some journalists carry weapons to protect themselves, but they clearly don’t understand what it means to report in a war zone. It may seem cool, but it’s not. I would never carry or even be photographed with a gun. You have to be very careful. You’re not a fighter or an intelligence operative, which is what being seen with a gun might suggest. With experience, you realize what your role is as a journalist and why it is extremely important to remain credible. If you lose that credibility, then you are useless as a journalist. My editor always said it’s not worth dying for a story because you’ll just end up as a paragraph and you help no one. At least make sure you come out alive, because you can always go back.

     

    Social media can create an avenue for informing more people in conflicts and issues going on around the world – but are we in a way sacrificing quality for quantity?

     

    Information can be easily manipulated. Good journalism steps up to fill that void of credible and impartial information. Journalists can provide the context. This was clear with last year’s events in Egypt and Libya. You need historical perspective and context. North Africa showed that we really need good reporting despite all the “coffee shop” social media type outlets, which in a sense act more as witnesses than reporting. I think training can do a long way to ensuring that credibility. Journalists with experience, such as myself, have something to give back. We should be helping journalists, especially in emerging countries. It’s just the ethical thing to do.

     

    In Syria, there are a lot of images coming out of social media. But this is where good journalists can put it all to context, such as reminding audiences that Assad (the son) is not unlike his even more ruthless father, Assad senior, who also killed thousands of people. That is the key – good journalism can put all these big issues into context, which you cannot do just by viewing Facebook and Twitter and so on. You need to remind people what happened, why it happened and where it’s all going, which you saw with Libya and Egypt. I think that the role of a journalist is really to provide the information to enable the audience to make informed decisions. There is a much greater need now for quality international reporting because our lives, our jobs depend on it. In a global economy, it matters what goes on with the exploitation of mineral resources by the Chinese or taking over of farmland in Africa, etc. This was not as evident 20 years ago so it really is in your interest, whether you’re a plumber or a bank manager, to understand what’s going on in the world.

     

    How do you balance having a family with reporting overseas and in these conflict areas?

     

    I think you become a much better journalist when you have a family and kids. For many years when I was a bachelor reporter, I was travelling 60-70% of the time and covering horrendous things. You put on this defence that you’re a tough journalist and nothing will happen to me. Just having kids I find I have become much more of an angry journalist. When I meet warlords or politicians who abuse women and children or civilian populations, I feel that they have no right to do that. I have had to interview murders who have killed friends of mine and I have to bite my lip very tightly but at least I got the information out of them. My wife and I have taken our children to places like Pakistan, Swaziland and Lesotho, to live and to visit, which has been a pretty good experience as well. I definitely took many, many stupid risks when I was younger.

     

    Having a family has really even helped with my reporting. Now, when I visit a refugee camp or to talk to people in villages, you see a totally different side. You  become more emotional and in turn, more human.

     

    Since we recently celebrated International Women’s Day and you have undoubtedly spoken with many people, particularly women, in the last 30 years of reporting from Afghanistan, how have you seen women’s rights change in the last decades?

     

    A lot of highly conservative rural families used to oppose the education of girls but since they were refugees in the Pakistani camps, they had to send their kids to school. So they became aware of the need for education. Now you are seeing girl schools in parts of the country, whereas before (when the communists tried to force them to educate girls) they refused to have them.

     

    Leading up to the collapse of the Taliban in 2001, we were running a program to homeschool girls, who couldn’t attend school, through radio that was called Reach Radio Education for Afghan Children. We distributed a small textbook to accompany the program and we even had Taliban commanders come pick up copies. But more girls are now going to university and women have become much more outspoken. I spoke with many Taliban who oppose the education of girls, but then you ask them who will treat your wife when she is sick. A male doctor? And they reply absolutely not. But then you ask them how female doctors will be training without school. They concede that they don’t mind if they go to school to become doctors and teachers, but they didn’t want them to become bank managers or pilots. You have far more people who are educated now. The World Bank claims that 85% of Afghans have access to health care, however I do not think this is accurate as most health care in the country is private. Can they afford to send women for neo-natal care? The answer is no. A lot of women are still dying unnecessarily because people cannot afford health care. I think there are a lot of areas where statistics are being put out that really do not reflect what’s going on. The education statistics state that over half the kids (7-8 million and 2-3 million girls) go to school but are they getting a quality education? Do they have access to books? On the one hand, there has been a lot of “paper progress” but on the other; it doesn’t really mean that things have realistically improved in the countryside. Overall, things are much in many ways then before. People are demanding health care and education. The insurgents won’t be able to walk over women the way they used to because things have changed.

     

    Do you want to leave any last words for our network?

     

    The bottom line is that if you’re going to have a functioning democracy and a functioning society, you need good journalism. It’s the key to transparency, the key to accountability, and it’s key to halting corruption. You can have as many wonderful NGOs dealing with governance and transparency, but you have to make the public aware of what’s going on and that’s where journalism comes it. In many ways, the whole international community needs to invest more in good journalism but who is going to pay for it? Particularly the developing world, you need the reporting to counter both local and Western corruption. We see this in Afghanistan and Iraq where you see millions of taxpayers’ dollars being misspent by companies contracted who have no understanding of the local situation and taken massive overhead costs – up to 90% – and highly paid consultants, but achieving very little. Especially now, we have to ask questions about what changes need to happen with reporting to keep it sustainable and beneficial.

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