Embedded in Afghanistan: “All you can do is give a snapshot”

September 15, 2010
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Embedded journalism in Afghanistan is on the agenda at the Frontline Club this evening. Several journalists are on the panel including Caroline Wyatt, (BBC), Tim Marshall, (Sky News) and the Club’s founder Vaughan Smith.

While they’ll be discussing Afghanistan and embedding tonight, The Independent‘s Defence and Diplomatic Correspondent, Kim Sengupta, will be heading back to Afghanistan for the 25th time.

Yesterday he spoke about embedded journalism at the Global Media and ‘War on Terror’ Conference at Westminster University.

Sengupta said that when he travels to Afghanistan, most of his time is spent embedded with British forces. He has also joined up with U.S. forces.

He said that ideally a journalist would also spend some time unembedded but argued that a journalist "can’t just rock up to a place" in Helmand province in the middle of an insurgency. A number of Sengupta’s media colleagues have been kidnapped and held for ransom in Afghanistan.

There are other difficulties for the embedded reporter. Freedom of movement is obviously limited, and there is a "fine line" between what a journalist can and can’t report.

Sengupta said that he would put up an argument if he felt the military was not allowing him to report something which did not breach operational security. But he admitted that there is a tendency to identify with the unit and subconsciously self-censor; a journalist relies on the military unit for support and shares in the experiences of the soldiers.

He acknowledged that he is never entirely sure which side is telling the truth, suggesting that NATO pronouncements are not challenged in a sophisticated manner by the insurgents and that stories in the Afghan news media are often based on unverifiable rumours.

The view of Afghanistan that Sengupta can access and, hence, the one he can offer his audience, is consequently limited: "All you can do is give a snapshot".