Viewpoints

Markos Kounalakis: The risky business of a foreign correspondent

Nightmares of abduction and confinement disrupted my sleep the night before I left for Afghanistan. It was Dec. 1, 1991, and I was working on a freelance piece for The Los Angeles Times Magazine, flying into Kabul from Uzbekistan on a Soviet military transport on my birthday. My best friends were foreign corresponding colleagues and together we made a pact over shots of vodka that if anything happened to us in the field, we would immediately mobilize media and the U.S. government to aid and rescue us.

But we also knew that if anything happened to us back then, there was likely nothing much that could be done to save us. Coldly aware of the bad odds, I agreed with my friends to start a foreign correspondents’ scholarship if any of us fell. Moscow correspondents Mark Bauman of ABC News and Terry Phillips of CBS News and I always reminded one another – sometimes jokingly, usually cavalierly – that the creation of this fund was a solemn commitment before one of us headed into another dicey reporting situation or war.

My original nightmares were grounded in my knowledge that Afghan mujahedeen actively practiced kidnapping in the battlefield and countryside, hoping for ransom or political concession from a failing Soviet Union – a country that dissolved weeks later, on Christmas Day.

It is unclear what concessions or cash the U.S.S.R. may have made or paid, but 119 Soviets reportedly made it back home. Moscow’s reputation and official position, however, was that it never negotiated with kidnappers or terrorists.

My very real fears about heading to Afghanistan were firmly founded. I had been detained against my will on a previous reporting assignment during the early stages of an evolving Yugoslav war. My short house detention in the town of Knin came after entering that well-armed, road-blocked Serb enclave in the heart of Croatia.

Militias looked at car license plates to determine whether the driver was from a Serb or a Croat part of Yugoslavia. In the eyes of the militia, license plates determined a driver’s political sympathies. License plates starting with letters BG stood for Belgrade – good; ZG stood for Zagreb – bad. I was taken from my car with ZG plates to a house, fed, kept comfortable and reminded by the gun-wielding Serb homeowner that I was not allowed to leave his residence. When tensions outside eventually eased, I regained my freedom of movement. I quickly left town.

My few, but long hours of detention all occurred at a time before readily available Internet access, social media and Wikipedia pages that would have given those militias a much better and instantaneous understanding of my work, affiliations, previous writing, ethnic background, nationality, images, schooling, social class, political connections and overall hostage value. To those in pre-smartphone Knin, I was mostly an anonymous, Greek Orthodox journalist who rented the wrong car and was invited for a shot of Slivovitz before departing. Beheading was never in the cards.

Now, there are fewer established battlefronts, more non-state actors, a greater proliferation of lethal weapons, and an Internet-enabled, 24-hour unblinking global eye that doubles as an effective fear-provoking and sympathizer-recruiting propaganda broadcasting platform.

Today, the brutal images of the recent barbaric acts against my colleagues Steven Sotloff and James Foley are only the latest reminder of the conscious risks we take in my profession and the limited protection we receive in our work.

We are unarmed. We are non-combatants. We often do not receive special training for hostile environments. We operate without a safety net. Sometimes we feel – or pretend to feel – invincible and that invincibility is reinforced every time we return intact. We also know correspondents only get to say “no” to reporting assignments only once. After that, it is time to consider another profession.

During our difficult reporting tasks, locals often accuse us of representing foreign powers and willingly participating in disinformation wars. They accuse us of being intelligence agents and combatants. Increasingly, we are seen as valuable pawns in a sick asymmetric game of hostage-taking for profit, PR and policy pressure.

The Sotloff and Foley families must be experiencing unimaginable private pain. President Barack Obama has pledged to seek justice. There is little left for the rest of us to do other than to understand the multiple personal, societal and policy complexities and pressures of hostage-taking and ransom demands. We also need to continue to appreciate the inordinate risks taken by individuals who believe that telling a true story from a far away and dangerous place is valuable. We want and need people to continue to bear witness.

For my part, I am going to start by donating to a new foreign correspondents’ fund at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. To contribute, contact dboleary@asc.usc.edu.

Unfortunately, the fund won’t stop the nightmares.

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