Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hard to report the real facts in a deadly place

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My wife received a phone call late Wednesday afternoon from a Winnipeg radio journalist wanting to know if I had returned from Afghanistan. The caller said a report had just moved about a western Canadian journalist being killed in Kandahar city.

I returned from Afghanistan about three weeks ago, but the call still upset my wife because of the image that what happened to Michelle Lang could have happened to me.

I probably arrived home in Winnipeg around the time Michelle was getting ready for her trip to the war zone. Like me, she was undoubtedly excited and probably played down the risks. After all, a Canadian journalist had never been killed in Afghanistan and the army does a pretty good job of looking after your health.

But there are no guarantees. No amount of preparation or armour can protect you from a big enough bomb if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Michelle's journalistic status was different than mine. She was working alone for Canwest News Service, with opportunities to travel with a military unit in the field. I was attached to a group of seven journalists, plus media managers -- a totally different experience. We were promised an overnight visit to the city where Michelle was killed and to a nearby village, but because of the size of our group, we were supposed to travel by helicopter. It would have taken too many armoured vehicles to move us the 16 kilometres from the airfield where we were staying to the lawless city of 800,000.

Unfortunately -- and I say unfortunately because we desperately wanted to get into Kandahar city -- a helicopter was not available during our entire time on the ground. The military was too busy on a major operation to clear insurgents from villages west of Kandahar, or so we were told.

Our group was a Priority 10, but everything below Priority 3 was cancelled during my time in Afghanistan. That meant my colleagues and I were grounded. The closest we came to experiencing any danger was a single rocket attack that sent us scurrying into a bomb shelter.

I was aware Kandahar was a dangerous place, but I wasn't really worried about my safety. The odds, I figured, were on my side.

Michelle's death highlights a problem that became clear to me while I was in Afghanistan. It is so dangerous in the Kandahar region that journalists cannot do their jobs. That means the information Canadians are getting is limited and even suspect.

There are only four media organizations that try to maintain a full-time presence in the country -- the CBC, the Globe and Mail, Canwest News Service and The Canadian Press. It's even a bit of a stretch to call them full-time. The Globe's Patrick White is on his way home after a six-week stint and Jim Murray of the CBC has only been there eight months. Michelle was only scheduled to be there for a short stint as well, but Canwest is probably re-evaluating its options now.

White told me the Globe did not want him travelling to Kandahar city, while Murray said the area was too dangerous for truly independent reporting. The CBC has used private security agents to move its reporters around the area, but Murray said they are somewhat unreliable and their presence, like the army's, alters or tempers answers reporters get from locals.

"They (private security) tend to want to get out of the car and kill everyone so it's safe to conduct the interview," Murray said, only half-joking.

In such a dangerous situation, and with such a small Canadian media presence, it's difficult to know if the whole story is being properly and accurately told.

My thoughts are with Michelle's family, and with those of the four soldiers killed, but I hope Canadian media companies do not withdraw from the field. In fact, they should be increasing their presence in the country so Canadians can get the clearest picture possible of the situation.

I never met Michelle, but I suspect she would agree.

dave.obrien@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 31, 2009 A3

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