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Afghan journalists call for justice in Munadi's death

A large group of Afghan journalists met on Sunday in Kabul. They were angry about the death of New York Times journalist Sultan Mohammed Munadi in the September 9 British-led rescue attempt to free him and Times’ reporter Stephen Farrell, who survived unharmed, from kidnappers. After the meeting, they sent me a list of demands and a pdf of their signatures  on a statement they first wrote in Dari and then translated into English. The group also sent along a biography of Munadi.

Basically, the group calls for a full accounting of how and why Munadi was killed. They’ve called on the Afghan government, NATO, the U.N., the International Security Assistance Force, the British government, and international nongovernmental organizations to come up with the answers. They want the Afghan government to press for those answers. And they want compensation paid to Munadi’s family.

There is a history to this situation, a very ugly one, and an explanation about why Afghan journalists are angry enough to take such unified action. In Helmand province in March 2007, another Afghan-foreign team of reporters, La Repubblica reporter Daniele Mastrogiacomo, local journalist Ajmal Naqshbandi, and their driver, Sayed Agha, were kidnapped. Agha was beheaded a few days after the abduction. The Italian Mastrogiacomo was released March 19 in exchange for five Taliban prisoners. Afghan President Hamid Karzai was criticized for having made the deal. He said he did so because Italy has 1,800 troops in Afghanistan and because Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi had personally asked him to work for the release, according to international media reports. Despite an apparent agreement to release Naqshabandi as well, his captors eventually beheaded him too.

We covered that situation extensively, but a documentary, The Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi, goes into great depth about the role of Afghan journalists, really local journalists anywhere, who work with foreigners. Many resent calling Naqshbandi a “fixer” when he was a journalist in his own right, but the film gets many other things just about right.

The link to Munadi is chilling: In his account of the kidnapping in The New York Times, Farrell said they were given food, water, and blankets and not harmed while they were = held. But, as their capture continued, Munadi was increasingly taunted by their captors, reminding him of the case of Ajmal Naqshbandi.

No one inside Afghanistan called Munadi a fixer when word of his abduction spread. He was a well known and respected senior figure. (I have written a short remembrance of him from an earlier trip to Kabul here.) On Sunday, the BBC did an interview with Barry Salaam, a successful media business producer, maybe most famous outside of Afghanistan as for his “Good Morning Afghanistan” radio show. Salaam’s barely suppressed tone of anger in the interview captures the thinking of many Afghan journalists with whom I’ve been trading e-mail and phone calls.

One positive aspect of the Sunday press conference was the fact that Afghan journalists spoke with a unified voice. Despite several attempts, Afghanistan still does not have a journalists’ organization that encompasses all media across the country—in fact, it is quite diffuse, with several organizations vying for recognition and funding. When I was in Afghanistan and Pakistan in July, I encouraged Afghanis to consider organizing along the federalist model of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists. And when I spoke with union leaders in Islamabad, they said they would be glad to give advice to their colleagues in Afghanistan.

Maybe the remembrance of Munadi, who had a deep streak of sensibility, and the unified actions taken in response to his death can provide the impetus to begin bringing all of the country’s journalists together. It would be a fitting way to pay tribute to a respected senior figure like him. 

September 14, 2009 4:29 PM ET | | Comments (1)

Comments

I want to honor the memory of Sultan Munadi, a man who truly knew what journalism entailed and what it cost. Though he was not my "fixer," he twice enabled me to "get the story"--in 2004 when he got Carlotta Gall and my camera crew into a women's burn ward in a Kabul hospital and in 2006 when he put together a wonderful group of Afghan and Western journalists to discuss the current political situation for my camera.

Mature for his years, deeply sensitive yet witty, he was a wonderful journalist. We shall miss him.


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