Being a Journalist is not Enough

The rescue of kidnapped New York Times journalist Stephen Farrell is a stark reminder of the dangers of reporting from the frontline in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia where Amanda Lindhout and Nigel Brennan are still held hostage one year on.

Although Mr Farrell was rescued today by NATO forces, his colleague, journalist and interpreter Sultan Munadi and two other Afghan civilians were killed. One of the British commandos involved in the rescue was also killed. Mr Farrell was kidnapped on Saturday 5th of September with his Afghani interpreter Mr Munadi, whilst reporting on the NATO air strikes that targeted hijacked fuel tankers killing up to 125 people. They were kidnapped and taken from a village near Kunduz and held for four days before the NATO rescue operation freed only one of the two journalists.

Stephen Farrell is a committed journalist who takes all necessary precautions when reporting from such danger zones. He also has a great amount of  respect for the people and  the cultures he reports on.  He previously reported from Iraq for the London Times and was well aware of the dangers faced by foreign journalists and their local staff. In April 2004 he was kidnapped near Fallujah in Iraq. He was released on the same day having negotiated his way out. He and his colleague were unharmed and there was no armed rescue, no bloodshed.

The family of Sultan Munadi, a 34 year old father of two young sons, will sadly be reeling from the consequences of this day forever. Mr Munadi had worked regularly with news organizations, and was also studying for a master’s degree in public policy in Europe.  He had briefly returned to Afghanistan and resumed his journalism work. In his first and sadly last post for the New York Times three days before he was kidnapped, Mr Munadi said he would never leave Afghanistan permanently.

“Being a journalist is not enough; it will not solve the problems of Afghanistan. I want to work for the education of the country, because the majority of people are illiterate… I am really committed to come back and work for my country.”

Mr Farrell described seeing his colleague’s body during the rescue.  “He was lying in the same position as he fell. …That’s all I know. I saw him go down in front of me. He did not move. He’s dead. He was so close, he was just two feet in front of me when he dropped.”   Mr Farrell blogged his account for the New York Times AtWar Blog which he runs. He said he did not know whether the shots killing Mr Munadi had been fired by their rescuers or the kidnappers.

Mohammed Nabi, owner of the house which was raided, told Reuters  that the troops left with the westerner, but not his Afghan colleague. His body was found outside the house in the morning.  This seemingly purposeful abandonment of Mr Munadi’s body by the operational forces will draw criticism from the local Afghans. The head of the Afghan Independent Journalists’ Association, Rahimullah Samandar, has already voiced criticism at the actions of the international forces. Speaking to the BBC, he said the raid showed international forces did not care about Afghan reporters. Samandar also said it was not the first time a kidnapped Afghan journalist had been killed while a Western colleague was freed.

Questions are being raised about the role of rescue operations sanctioned from the top to save the life of journalists. Questions are also being raised about safety and war zone risk assessment.  One senior officer has already said,

“…it makes you really wonder whether he was worth rescuing, whether it was worth the cost of a soldier’s life.”

Those of us who know Stephen Farrell are relieved that he is free, but that joy is bitter sweet and mixed with the deep sadness for the innocents who have lost their lives. 

The New York Times has set up a fund for Mr. Munadi’s family . That money, along with funds contributed by the company and its employees, will be forwarded to his family in Afghanistan. For donations outside of the United States, the newspaper has set up a process for wire transfers: click here.  If you would like to contribute by post, please mail your checks here:

The New York Times
680 Eighth Avenue, 3rd Fl.
New York, NY 10018
Attn: Cynthia Latimer
Checks must be made payable to “The New York Times,” noting Sultan Munadi’s name in the memo field.

The Frontline Club also runs a fixer fund which was started following the murder of  Ajmal Naqshbandi.