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Parachute Journalists

Ahmat Khan only had time to grab two shirts, two pairs of trousers and stuff them in a duffle bag before he fled his home in Afghanistan.

Just a few months ago, Khan was a successful businessman in the Afghan capital, Kabul. He and his wife, who was pregnant with their second child, lived with two dozen of his relatives. But soon after he met a foreign journalist who was covering the war in Afghanistan, Khan's life dramatically changed. Khan is not his real name, and certain details relating to his story have been omitted to protect his safety.

Late last year, Khan's acquaintance, a Wall Street Journal correspondent, got a hold of some sensitive documents through a looter. The looter had stolen the files from an abandoned Al Qaeda house. The documents turned out to be filled with valuable information, including the names of Al Qaeda members, according to Wall Street Journal reports. Having such information put the correspondent's life at great risk, and he quickly left the country with the documents.

While the reporter could fly away, safe from Al Qaeda, what about those in Afghanistan, like Khan, with whom he had associated?

Soon after the Wall Street Journal published reports on its findings, armed men began showing up at Khan's place of work and asking questions about him, Khan's colleagues told him. Although newspaper reports of the discovery never mentioned his name, certain details in articles and radio reports inadvertently associated him with the event, Khan told TomPaine.com.

"I felt scared," said Khan. "I couldn't stay in my house." The strange men continued looking for him for several days. He slept at a different location each night, until finally, though he had never been separated from his family before, Khan decided to flee.

Around the same time, in Pakistan, Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and later murdered. It's unclear whether the two events were related. Nevertheless, Pearl's death sparked a great deal of debate about the dangers of working as a foreign journalist. But what about those who are sources for, or who work with, foreign journalists in these countries? How often do journalists, and what they write, put others at risk?

Martha Honey, who worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa and Central America for more than two decades, said it is all too common that journalists accidentally endanger others.

“Oftentimes, even though you don’t name someone, for anybody who’s really looking into that story – really wants to know who the source is -- they can find out,” said Honey, who now works with the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies. “This is a huge problem, and I think it’s something that’s not adequately discussed.”

In Costa Rica, one of Honey’s sources was murdered because of her investigation into a network of CIA operatives involved in drug trafficking, she said.

“I felt horrible –- just absolutely devastated,” she said. She and her husband, Tony Avirgan, also a journalist, worked with Amnesty International to get the other source on that story out of the country.

Honey recounted numerous other instances where local residents had suffered the consequences of her investigative reporting: her Costa Rican office manager was arrested; a Mexican doctor she interviewed for a story on clandestine abortions lost his job; in Africa, a Malawian dissident was thrown in jail after Honey interviewed him for the BBC.

The movie “The Killing Fields” told the true story of Cambodian Dith Pran, who had worked as a ‘fixer’ for American newspaper reporter Sydney Schanberg. Schanberg was covering the civil war in Cambodia in the early 1970s. After Westerners were evacuated from the country, Pran was captured by the Khmer Rouge, imprisoned and tortured for having worked with Americans.

“These unsung heroes, the local people who make the story, who grease the wheels, they are really the ones who get the story out and then become cannon fodder for what happens,” Honey said.

Honey said she and Avirgan made a point of living in the countries they covered. She said they felt it was important to really understand the places they were reporting on. But this is not typical. More often, foreign correspondents may reside in the geographic region, and travel to specific countries when major developments occur. A journalist from the regional bureau, located in Moscow or New Delhi for example, swoops into a country like Afghanistan, writes a few stories, and flies out.

Jacqueline Ann Surin, a Malaysian journalist who works for an English-language daily in Malaysia, said that over the years foreign journalists have developed a negative reputation in her country.

"We call them 'parachute journalists,'" she said. "They come in, and either get the factual information wrong or color things in a way that is really inaccurate."

Surin detailed a personal experience she had with an international newswire. Last year, after several Malaysian opposition leaders were detained without trial, a group of journalists staged a 24-hour hunger strike to protest the law that allows for such detentions.

The reporters prepared a press statement, listing the names of the journalists on the hunger strike, explaining their mission, and including some quotes from striking reporters.

"In essence, the journalists felt compelled to go on hunger strike to speak out against the [law] because it is a threat to democracy," Surin said. Malaysia's government is a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarchy.

For security reasons, the group asked foreign reporters not to quote any one striker as a spokesperson, or organizer. The strikers knew that to be singled out in the press could put them at risk, either of being watched, followed by police intelligence, or of being detained without trial themselves. The government closely monitors the Malaysian press.

"The more attention you draw to yourself as being an organizer of a protest, the likelihood is that you'll get into trouble," Surin said, adding that the government, which controls the newspapers, could notify editors, who in turn could punish striking journalists.

"There could be repercussions either externally or internally in your workplace," she said.

Sure enough, what Surin feared became reality. The next day the Associated Press reported the event, citing Surin as a spokesperson for the entire group. It also falsely stated she was on strike to protest media constraints at her paper, which is owned by an ethnic Chinese political party in Malaysia's ruling government coalition.

"Obviously I was totally shocked," Surin said. She feared she would lose her job. When she called the AP reporter to object, he promised to run a correction. In the end, Surin did not lose her job, but the damage had been done.

"This has gone all over the world and it's on record," she said. "Some [intelligence] officer is going to have a copy of this, and not the updated version, and it's going to go into my file."

Joel Simon, deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a press freedom group, said he did not think cases where a journalist endangers others through his or her reporting were common, but he added such cases are hard to document.

"Everyone knows that the people who stay behind are more vulnerable," Simon said. "I think in most cases, sources understand that there's a risk. I suppose there are times, or misunderstandings about how they want to be identified."

Just two weeks ago, a Guatemalan man who works with several foreign journalists was temporarily abducted. He had been working with National Public Radio on some "sensitive" stories when he was kidnapped, according to Simon. The man later escaped.

For its part, the Wall Street Journal said they do not know for certain why armed men came looking for Khan. But nevertheless the paper said it made every effort to ensure his safety.

"It was clear he was in danger," said Bill Spindle, assistant foreign editor for the Wall Street Journal. "It didn't make a lot of difference to us why he was being threatened. We felt an obligation to help him."

And they did. But in the meantime, Khan has missed the birth of his second child, and he remains separated from his family. He does not know if, or when, it will be safe for him to return to his homeland.

Jennifer Bauduy is the associate editor at TomPaine.com.

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