Media bring the good, bad and ugly to Afghanistan
By Mike Collett-White
Friday November 2, 10:43 AM
JABAL-US-SARAJ, Afghanistan (Reuters) - When hundreds of reporters began to descend on the small Afghan town of Jabal-us-Saraj six weeks ago, the locals were licking their lips at the prospect of an economic boom.
They have not been disappointed. Drivers, translators, restaurants, shops, carpenters, mechanics and officials have all earned sums of cash that hitherto would only have been a dream.
But as time goes on, the tensions and problems caused by the presence of the world's press have surfaced -- between the Afghan population and journalists, between the locals, and, of course, between the highly competitive reporters themselves.
U.S. air attacks on Afghanistan's ruling Taliban are in their fourth week, and the war on world terrorism focused on the hardline Islamic movement has regularly topped news bulletins.
The appetite for news and views from what was one of the world's most inhospitable countries has been insatiable.
The inevitable media frenzy this created has hit two main locations -- Khoja Bahawuddin near the Afghan-Tajik border in the very north and Jabal-us-Saraj, about 300 km (180 miles) south at the mouth of the Panjsher Valley.
They lie at either end of the small area of Afghan territory held by opposition United Front forces, also known as the Northern Alliance for the location of their tiny redoubt.
The remainder of the country -- more than 90 percent -- is held by the Taliban, which does not usually welcome foreign reporters and promises to deal harshly with any it finds without proper accreditation.
GETTING IN, GETTING OUT
The first big challenge for the media is getting into northern Afghanistan. The trip to Khoja Bahawuddin is made most often by road from the Tajik capital of Dushanbe.
Taxis charge $400 to get to the border, four times the rate before the September 11 attacks on the United States and resulting military campaign in Afghanistan.
The lucky ones get a ride in an ageing Soviet helicopter, although even that is no guarantee of landing where you want.
Many reporters promised a flight to Jabal-us-Saraj land instead in Khoja Bahawuddin, where they can wait for up to 10 days for another helicopter. Some take the road instead.
"It was the worst journey of my life," said one South African cameraman, a hardened war reporter not easily frightened.
The twisting, jarring dirt tracks wind around the side of stunning mountains, with steep drops and nothing but the skill of the driver and a little luck keeping passengers alive.
Getting out is another major headache. More than 100 people were on the helicopter waiting list in late October, with flights often postponed for days because of weather or because they are booked to supply opposition forces with ammunition.
LOCALS PLEASED, AT FIRST
Translators and drivers make about $100 a day each, a percentage of which goes to the foreign ministry, which registers reporters and gives them permission each day to visit the front lines to the south or head along the valleys to the north.
Before the boom, average monthly wages were $15-$20.
With the stakes so high, rival clans in the area have begun to clash over who should get the spoils.
The bulk of the business has gone to people from the Panjsher who live in Jabal-us-Saraj.
But those from the Shomali Plain further south, where the front lines cross, have pushed for a redistribution of the wealth, and media companies have been forced to change drivers.
The real estate industry has seen unprecedented growth, with large houses snapped up by the major news corporations seeking a few home comforts in a country where falling sick and getting tired are to be expected.
The going rate for a big house with a garden, cook, security guard and fixer is $200 a day.
Opposition commanders have been overwhelmed by requests to visit their front-line positions, from where cameramen and photographers get shots of the U.S. bombardments and of the ongoing, low-level civil war.
WESTERNERS NOT ALWAYS WELCOME
The influx of Westerners, with their lack of understanding of the local Muslim culture, is not universally welcomed.
Male media staff have been berated by the mujahideen for wearing shorts, and female staff for leaving arms uncovered.
Even in opposition-held territory, where the regime is less strict than in Taliban areas, every girl over the age of 15 is hidden behind a heavy burqa veil.
Shooting pictures and talking to women is frowned upon, although reporters regularly do so. One official in Khoja Bahawuddin stopped people from visiting a school after he discovered a photographer taking pictures of girls.
Women are always hidden behind closed doors before foreigners are allowed into a house they are thinking of renting. This is in keeping with local custom.
Drinking alcohol is forbidden, a major problem for some hardened hacks who have resorted to smuggling in vodka in plastic mineral water bottles for their tipple.
CLASH OF THE PRESENTERS
Traditionally intense rivalries between media companies are only intensified in Afghanistan.
Television crews block access to their precious roof space on the front line, either by cajoling or bribing soldiers.
Some of the world's most well-respected companies have got involved in staging "fighting" on the front line, paying soldiers to pose and to fire for the cameras, irrespective of the risk to the mujahideen who are then fired on in return by the Taliban.
"One hundred dollars per shell" is the quip among reporters less than impressed with the theatrical approach to journalism.
Another trick employed for effect is the "flak jacket fixation", a tendency to wear body armour to add to the impression of danger, even where none lies.
One reporter was seen urging his cameraman to roll the film as he helped civilian victims of the U.S. attacks into the back of his vehicle, and others have posed in places where they know they will draw fire from the Taliban.
The marksmen have proved inaccurate so far.
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