A British reporter who reported on an apparent cover-up of the killing of an Afghan family says the NATO-led forces in that country habitually lie about innocent civilians’ deaths.
Jerome Starkey, the Afghanistan correspondent for the Times of London, says the “embed culture” of reporting in war zones results in military censorship and self-censorship that allows military commanders to get away with falsehoods about civilian deaths.
In an article for Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism, Starkey explained he never would have discovered that locals in Paktia agree it was US and Afghan forces who killed two pregnant women, a teenage girl and two local government officials during a February night-time raid.
Starkey reported earlier this month at the Times of London:
The operation on Friday, February 12, was a botched pre-dawn assault on a policeman’s home a few miles outside Gardez, the capital of Paktia province, eastern Afghanistan. In a statement after the raid titled “Joint force operating in Gardez makes gruesome discovery”, Nato claimed that the force had found the women’s bodies “tied up, gagged and killed” in a room.
A Times investigation suggests that Nato’s claims are either wilfully false or, at best, misleading. More than a dozen survivors, officials, police chiefs and a religious leader interviewed at and around the scene of the attack maintain that the perpetrators were US and Afghan gunmen. The identity and status of the soldiers is unknown.
“The only way I found out NATO had lied — deliberately or otherwise — was because I went to the scene of the raid, in Paktia province, and spent three days interviewing the survivors,” Starkey writes at the Nieman Web site. “In Afghanistan that is quite unusual. … NATO is rarely called to account. Their version of events, usually originating from the soldiers involved, is rarely seriously challenged.”
Starkey says there is overwhelming military influence exerted on reporters in Afghanistan.
Some journalists in Kabul are hamstrung by security rules set in Europe or America … These reporters can’t leave their compounds without convoys of armed guards. They couldn’t dream of driving around rural Paktia, dressed up in local clothes and squashed into the back of an old Toyota Corolla, to interview the survivors of a night raid.
Ultra risk-averse organizations go even further and rely almost entirely on video footage and still images gifted by the entirely partial combat-camera teams or the coalition’s dedicated NATO TV unit, staffed by civilian ex-journalists who churn out good news b-roll. Others lap up this material because it’s cheaper and easier than having their own correspondents in a war zone.
Starkey says the problem is exacerbated by the practice of “embedding” journalists with the military, which — though it may help keep the journalist death toll down — compromises reporting.
“British troops will only accept journalists who let military censors approve their stories before they are filed,” he writes. “Ostensibly, this is to stop sensitive information reaching the insurgents. In my three and a half years in Afghanistan, the British invariably use it as an opportunity to editorialize.”
Starkey notes that, despite the fact the UN corroborated his story about the killings in Paktia province, he continues to be the target of a NATO campaign to discredit him.
But he says it’s important that his sort of work continue. “NATO lies and unless we check them, they get away with it. If we check them, they attack us. It’s unpleasant but important. There’s no doubt in my mind that we must continue to question what the soldiers want us to know.”