Jennifer Bauduy

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.

Another 9/11 Media Scapegoat?

When author Susan Sontag and television talk show host Bill Maher disagreed with President Bush's assessment of the September 11th attackers as "cowards," they were chastised. Two columnists were fired from their papers for criticizing the president, and several newspapers pulled a political comic strip that noted Washington had trained Osama bin Laden. So when radio personality David "Davey D" Cook was fired after leading a heated anti-war debate on his program, San Francisco listeners were outraged. Was Cook the latest casualty of growing intolerance to independent views?

In early October, media conglomerate Clear Channel Communications fired Cook from its California affiliate KMEL, ostensibly due to budget cuts. The company -- which caused a furor for distributing a list to stations of songs it suggested not be played after September 11 -- dismissed Cook soon after he aired an interview with Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee. Lee was the only member of Congress to oppose authorizing Bush with sweeping war powers against terrorists.

Cook, 36, also invited a range of studio guests from the Muslim community on the show with Lee.

"That show was probably ... the first time people had heard individuals with other perspectives," said Cook, a community activist and hip-hop expert who had been working at KMEL for 11 years.

Cook later distributed the text of Lee's speech via e-mail to more than 100,000 people on a listserv, which he'd compiled over seven years from his two Web sites, Rapstation.com and Daveyd.com.

The following week on the radio, Cook led a debate on African American patriotism and the meaning of the American flag. Listeners, who were predominantly black, had reacted angrily when KMEL gave away scores of flags after the tragedies. Some perceived the flag waving as pro-war sentiment.

"That's where it became really heated and knock down, drag'em out," Cook said. "There were people that were very adamant and very critical of the station for giving out flags," he said.

"There are some people that have grabbed the flag because it gives them a sense of comfort now, because they actually belong to a group at a time when everybody's scared and feeling uncertain," said Cook. "Others still feel that the flag is something that symbolizes oppression. Others just see it as a fad."

A number of hip-hop songs have denigrated the flag, and performers have set the flag on fire in well-known music videos.

"That was really the debate -- the debate for the black community wasn't Barbara Lee, it was what the flag meant to them," Cook said.

It wasn't the first heated discussion to take place on the program. Cook regularly invited prominent figures such as Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Hillary Clinton, as well as black Republicans like Oakland NAACP leader Shannon Reeves.

This may not have pleased Clear Channel Chairman and CEO Lowry Mays, a major contributor to the Republican party.

A week later, Cook was fired. KMEL General Manager Joe Cunningham said Clear Channel, which owns 1,200 radio stations, simply needed to cut costs.

"David Cook's termination had absolutely nothing to do with anything said or done on the air nor is it some corporate attempt to hide behind a false excuse," said Cunningham. "Decisions were made strictly about business and finances and not politics. "

Even if it did have to do with politics, the station was not obligated to keep someone whose opinions it disagreed with, said Tom Rosenstiel of the Washington, D.C.-based Project for Excellence in Journalism.

"I don't think you necessarily have to build your programming day around somebody who believes in something that you fundamentally don't believe in," he said.

In addition to Cook, nine other employees were fired, according to Cunningham. None were as high profile as Cook, and none of the other dismissals raised the hullabaloo that Cook's did.

Hip-hop listeners in the San Francisco Bay Area were angered. Some began a letter writing campaign to the station and to local newspapers, others gathered in community meetings, some called for protests against the station. Cook's dismissal was covered in a host of newspapers including the Oakland Tribune, The San Francisco Bay Guardian and the San Francisco Chronicle.

"Davey D is a local institution," said Chauncey Bailey, who covered Cook's dismissal for the Tribune, and who also is news director for Oakland's KFBT-TV. "There have not been a lot of forums for people to speak out against the war effort. Davey D provided that with his program."

Bailey noted that Cook's programs clashed with the station's fervent patriotism and that a group of "very patriotic" disc jockeys remain at KMEL fueled listeners' suspicions about Cook's termination.

"The problem is perception drives reality, and if people perceive that this is a response to his activism then that's how people are going to perceive it, whether it's the truth or not," Bailey said.

Neva Chonin, a pop music critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, said that, in tough economic times, programs like Cook's are the first to go.

"I just think that in this day and age, where we are in a recession and everybody is looking at the bottom line, socially-conscious programming doesn't rake in the bucks," Chonin said. "Bigger, louder, faster is the operating paradigm and thoughtful analysis of the cultural landscape is just not a big money maker."

Chonin, who recently wrote an opinion piece in the Chronicle about Cook, said she doubted Clear Channel was in dire financial straights. In 2000, the company's net income was $248.8 million.

"I think they are still very lucrative. Radio stations have to turn a profit and I think they're just getting rid of anything that they consider superfluous and superfluous would be something that doesn't draw advertisers to it."

Certainly Clear Channel is known for draconian cost-cutting measures, according to a Salon.com investigation. The article, part of a series on the media conglomerate, also states that Mays, of Texas, is a friend of former President Bush.

"Right now knee-jerk patriotism is very popular and it's a sure-fire way to make people happy and make them want to listen to your radio station," said Chonin. "Questioning what patriotism means and what this war in Afghanistan means is not something that's going to be popular with the people who want to wave their flags and talk about nuking Osama bin Laden."

Jennifer Bauduy is the associate editor at TomPaine.com.

Preparing for the WTO

With just weeks to go before global trade ministers are scheduled to gather in Qatar for a World Trade Organization meeting, Premilla Dixit is laboring 16-hour days with scores of other anti-globalization activists to prepare a counter-summit in New York City.

Working on a shoestring budget from her tiny office in lower Manhattan, Dixit, 51, is busy fielding emails, faxes and phone calls to help coordinate the gathering against corporate-led globalization.

The WTO had scheduled its meeting in the far-off Middle Eastern nation to evade the street protests that have accompanied economic summits of late, but because of Qatar's proximity to the war-zone in Afghanistan, the organization may move or postpone its gathering.

In the wake of September 11, activists had decided to temper their plans. Still, Dixit and other organizers say their message will be heard: The domination of corporate power at the expense of the public interest has gone too far. Labor, environmental, student groups, as well as scores of nongovernmental organizations have joined together to prepare three days of actions in New York and around the world.

"We feel it's critical to draw attention to the quiet tragedy of what they inflict," Dixit said from her office on Bleeker Street, at the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), an 85-year-old group founded by Jane Addams.

By "they" Dixit means not only the WTO, the international organization founded in 1995 to regulate trade between nations, but other financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

Activists say the WTO emphasizes corporate profits to the detriment of social and environmental concerns, and forces individual nations to undermine the interests of their citizens.

Modern day trade deals are no longer limited to tariffs and quotas. Today, in the name of stamping out protectionism, they affect an array of issues including public health, energy and the environment. In the United States alone, WTO rules have confounded some important environmental protections, including pollution-reduction efforts and dolphin-safe tuna fishing rules.

From South to North

For decades people in developing countries have protested IMF and World Bank "structural adjustment" programs, which forced nations to cut domestic spending and squeeze social services, ultimately increasing poverty, in order to repay their international debt. As the effect of trade rulings began to reach northern countries, the movement against corporate domination spread.

Since September 11, anti-globalization activists have been regrouping to discuss the future of the movement within the new war context.

"We are already concerned about the threats from these new definitions of terrorism, some of our friends and colleagues had already been mentioned as so-called domestic terrorist groups even before September 11th, so there is a lot of concern," said Kevin Skvorak, a New York activist with the coalition Direct Action. "There's a strong commitment that we have to continue to move ahead."

Though press coverage has portrayed the activists as young white anarchists wearing black ski masks and smashing windows, in fact the mobilization is diverse and largely peaceful. There is no one single description that fits members of this movement.

Premilla Dixit, who comes from a Hindu Indian family of professionals, says she became involved because she was incensed by racial and corporate injustice, which affected her in very personal ways.

Dixit's mother is a botanist, and her father was an agricultural geneticist. Her father developed a specific strain of basmati rice, a rice that originated on the Indian subcontinent. He named the strain he had developed for Dixit's younger sister Jaya. Today, a Texas company owns the patent to several other strains of basmati, reaping enormous profits from a rice that hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers had cultivated for centuries.

"It's totally outrageous," she said. "My father worked on basmati rice for years. He named it after his daughter not to lay exclusive claim to it, but out of the sheer joy of having created something that could feed millions. It would never have occurred to him to take out a patent."

This aspect of globalization, dubbed bio-piracy, has outraged farmers around the world. The U.S. patent system has enabled corporations to take out countless patents on animals, plants, or seeds indigenous to other nations, granting them monopolies. Each country that belongs to the WTO is forced to adhere to this patent system.

While most plant resources and other forms of biodiversity are found in developing countries, those nations claim few patents. Industrialized nations hold 97 percent of all patents worldwide, according to the United Nations Development Program.

Becoming Politicized

When Dixit was in her early 20s, she met an American in India who was part of the wave of Americans that traveled there on a spiritual quest during the '60s and '70s. "I met one of those soul-seekers, and married him," she said. She traveled to the United States with him in 1973. The marriage didn't last.

In the United States, Dixit said she went into a deep shock. She had believed the myths she'd been told about America being the land of dreams and freedoms. "I came here truly believing some of this stuff that I'd been sold," she said. "And when I came here, I found that I was, in fact, a much more liberated woman than a lot of my fellow women in the USA, and also that blacks were terribly oppressed here, and that there were incredible amounts of racial bigotry and oppression."

She fell in love with jazz music, and spent a great deal of time at jazz clubs. She befriended jazz musicians like Sun Ra, Jackie McLean and Art Blakey. She said she was upset to see that these established musicians were so strapped for money. This she interpreted as a sign of racial injustice.

"I couldn't believe that artists -- because I knew about rock music, and I knew how big and well-fed and well looked-after rock musicians were -- and I couldn't quite understand why jazz musicians were so poor," she said.

"The only connection that I was making is 'okay, racism is not over in this country,'" she said, and she was prompted to look for answers.

Several years later, her father became ill. When she returned to India, Dixit was shocked by the rapid decline of a man she recalled as robust and healthy. She became convinced her father's cancer and death was caused by the pesticides he had used in his research and fieldwork.

"At that point I just thought to myself, 'you know here's a person who abandoned his own heritage in order to embrace modern science and it killed him most cruelly.' It was simply unacceptable," she said.

"That got me looking at the deeper questions -- 'what does this globalization mean to us...? And I started looking at my own reality -- that it had dispersed my family. We were all over the world. My mother was in India. One of my sisters was in Japan, another sister was traveling in Europe and I was here in the States," she said.

Even before her father's death, Dixit had begun to shun modern medicine. "I found everything about the chemical-pharmaceutical industry obnoxious. And so I had turned to herbal medicine," she said. But when she came down with tuberculosis, she was again faced with the dominance of corporate power.

Against her will, Dixit said, she was forced to turn to modern medicine because herbalists and Chinese acupuncturists practicing in the United States, fearing lawsuits, are severely restricted.

"I was forced to go modern medicine. And it was ... every bit the nightmare that I anticipated it would be," she said.

Now, still recovering from her illness, Dixit works almost around the clock either from her home in Brooklyn, or from WILPF's one-room office, to fight what she considers globalization's destructive trends.

"I don't take home much pay and I am barely able to survive, but the work I feel is so important that I am willing to take it on," Dixit said.

Jennifer Bauduy is the associate editor at TomPaine.com.

BRAND NEW STORIES

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.