Generous Orthodoxy  

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Carlotta Gall of the New York Times beaten up by Taliban sympathizers

Who are our heroes today? For whom do we pray aloud every week in church? Whose support is trumpeted with yellow ribbons on thousands of cars? Not newspaper reporters, that's for sure. Yet Karl Barth used to make a point, in his prayers, to intercede for "the writers of newspapers."

In today's America, journalists are very low on the totem pole. Newspapers are read less and less, "the media" is widely reviled and mistrusted, reporters are vilified as diggers of dirt. But as a longtime member of The Committee to Protect Journalists, I know that the life of a foreign correspondent is filled with danger. 93 people involved in journalism have been killed in Iraq since the war began, according to the exceptionally interesting and informative CPJ website

I have long admired Carlotta Gall, who has done extraordinary work from her post in Kabul. For instance, she is the one who uncovered the death of an innocent Afghan farmer in US custody, one of the most shocking episodes to emerge from our engagement in Afghanistan. Here is a brief synopsis from the Internet:

"Dilawar, the Afghan farmer who was detained by US troops on December 5 (see December 5, 2002), is found dead in his cell at Bagram. The pathologist who records his death, Maj. Elizabeth A. Rouse, writes on Dilawar’s death certificate that he died from 'blunt force injuries to lower extremities complicating coronary artery disease.' She marks 'homicide' as the cause of death. Months later, New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall learns of and investigates Dilawar’s death and confirms the death certificate’s authenticity with the US military. She also interviews Dilawar’s family and friends who describe the 22-year-old farmer as being young and inexperienced. 'He had never spent a night away from his father and mother,' his brother says. Dilawar was married and the father of a 2-year-old girl. [New York Times, 3/4/2003; Washington Post, 3/5/2003; BBC, 3/6/2003; Guardian, 3/7/2003; Independent, 3/7/2003; New York Times, 9/17/2004] A military investigation will later find that after his arrival at the base, he was shackled by Sgt. James P. Boland, a guard from the Army Reserve’s 377th MP Company from Cincinnati, with his hands above his shoulders, and was denied medical care. [New York Times, 9/17/2004] Dilawar was then beaten by guards and interrogators, some of whom stood with their full weight on top of him, concentrating on his groin." [Knight Ridder, 8/21/2004]

Ms. Gall's diligence was a chief factor in bringing this story into the open. In recent months, she has been concentrating on something else: the resurgence of the Taliban on the Pakistan-Afghan border where Osama bin Laden is thought to be lurking still. Here is what happened to her in Quetta, Pakistan, just a few days ago:

"My photographer, Akhtar Soomro, and I were followed over several days of reporting in Quetta by plainclothes intelligence officials who were posted at our respective hotels. That is not unusual in Pakistan, where accredited journalists are free to travel and report, but their movements, phone calls and interviews are often monitored.

"On our fifth and last day in Quetta, Dec. 19, four plainclothesmen detained Mr. Soomro at his hotel downtown and seized his computer and photo equipment. They raided my hotel room that evening, using a key card to open the door and then breaking through the chain that I had locked from the inside. They seized a computer, notebooks and a cellphone. One agent punched me twice in the face and head and knocked me to the floor. I was left with bruises on my arms, temple and cheekbone, swelling on my eye and a sprained knee. One of the men told me that I was not permitted to visit Pashtunabad, a neighborhood in Quetta, and that it was forbidden to interview members of the Taliban.

"The men did not reveal their identity but said we could apply to the Special Branch of the Interior Ministry for our belongings the next day. After the intervention of the minister of state for information and broadcasting, Tariq Azim Khan, my belongings were returned several hours later. Mr. Soomro was released after more than five hours in detention.

"Since then it has become clear that intelligence agents copied data from our computers, notebooks and cellphones and have tracked down contacts and acquaintances in Quetta. All the people I interviewed were subsequently visited by intelligence agents, and local journalists who helped me were later questioned by Pakistan’s intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence.

"Mr. Soomro has been warned not to work for The New York Times or any other foreign news organization." (NYT article, 1/21/07)

Somebody does not want Carlotta Gall and her photographer making discoveries about what the Taliban is up to.

Here are a couple of paragraphs from the story that led to her being beaten:

"Western diplomats in both countries and Pakistani opposition figures say that Pakistani intelligence agencies — in particular the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence and Military Intelligence — have been supporting a Taliban restoration...
"More than two weeks of reporting along this frontier, including dozens of interviews with residents on each side of the porous border, leaves little doubt that Quetta is an important base for the Taliban, and found many signs that Pakistani authorities are encouraging the insurgents, if not sponsoring them.
"The evidence is provided in fearful whispers, and it is anecdotal. At Jamiya Islamiya, a religious school here in Quetta, Taliban sympathies are on flagrant display, and residents say students have gone with their teachers’ blessings to die in suicide bombings in Afghanistan." (NYT 1/21/07)

As I travel around the country, I hear many scoffing remarks about The New York Times. Many people think of it as a wildly left-leaning, irresponsible, unpatriotic--you name it--propaganda machine. Other people do not bother to scoff at it simply because they do not read it and consider it irrelevant. But how can we not take note of the brave journalists who are investigating the activities of the Taliban? How can their activities be anything other than in the best interests of American security and, even more important, American ideals? And what of Mr. Soomro, the photographer, who risks his life just taking pictures? Wouldn't it be a good idea to pray once in a while, not only for our troops, but for these others who are on the front lines?

PS. A new book called The Race Beat (Knopf), which is getting excellent reviews, tells the story of the reporters, editors and publishers who covered the Civil Rights Movement. Without some of these, conspicuously Claude Sitton, the white Southerner who stayed on the beat for six years, the movement could not have gained the momentum that it did.