Afghanistan War Pictures Under Attack : Supporters, Critics Clash Over Work Done by U.S.-Trained Rebel Camera Crews
The camera was focused on a convoy of Soviet tanks and trucks snaking through a rocky gorge along the Kabul River north of Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
As the vehicles reached a point where the gorge narrowed, Afghan rebels opened fire with rocket-propelled grenades. Several vehicles were hit, sending spirals of black smoke into the air.
The camera remained steady as the tanks returned the fire, peppering rebel positions on the rocky slopes.
Dramatic film of this battle was the centerpiece of a two-part report on the “CBS Evening News” last summer. Anchorman Dan Rather said the film was the work of veteran cameraman Mike Hoover “on assignment for CBS.”
But the key Kabul River road segment of the report, CBS officials have confirmed since, was filmed by a young Afghan, Mohammed Salam, who had been recruited under a controversial U.S. government program to train Afghan rebels and send them into battle armed with cameras.
The program dates back to 1985, when Congress approved an appropriation of $500,000 to tell the world about the struggle of Afghan rebels against Soviet troops and those of the Soviet-supported government. Afghans themselves would be trained to do camera work.
According to supporters of the U.S. program, the CBS footage, as well as still photographs that were reproduced in magazines and newspapers around the world, demonstrates that in a short time the rustic Afghan guerrillas have begun to produce professional-quality material.
“With the right type of distribution,” said Stephen Olsson, an American documentary film maker who serves as an adviser at the U.S. government-funded Afghan Media Resource Center here, “we have the potential to really open the window on the Afghan war. We are proving that the Afghans themselves can do it.”
But opponents counter that what is being produced is war propaganda, filmed by combatants on one side of the 8-year war who have been known to put down their cameras and pick up their rifles.
For most of the Vietnam War, at least 400 American and European newsmen and women were on hand to document the action, including dozens of network camera crews in the field with the troops. Afghanistan has four times the territory of Vietnam, yet on any given day fewer than a dozen foreign journalists can be found there.
The United States is not directly engaged in Afghanistan, as it was in Vietnam, but this rugged country is the setting for the largest covert CIA operation since Vietnam. Last year, more than $600 million in U.S. funds were used to supply arms, including Stinger ground-to-air missiles, to Afghanistan’s rebels, the moujahedeen .
“Clearly Afghanistan is near the top of the agenda for United States foreign policy,” Kurt Lohbeck, a CBS contract journalist, said not long ago. “But Afghanistan is not near the top of our agenda in news coverage in the United States.”
Lohbeck, one of the few American newsmen based on the Afghan border, has made many trips inside Afghanistan.
Western reporters are occasionally granted visas by the Soviet-backed Afghan government so that they can join strictly supervised tours of Kabul and other government strongholds. But assignment inside Afghanistan to cover the rebel side of the conflict is extremely time-consuming, expensive and dangerous.
American networks are not likely to send their people for several months to remote Afghan cities such as Herat or Mazar-i-Sharif, but “we pay these guys $7 a day and they will go anywhere,” Olsson said, referring to the Afghan newsmen.
Recently the dangers have increased for the media. Reporters have been caught in the cross fire of rival rebel groups. At least three Westerners were killed working in Afghanistan last year, two of them Americans. Documentary film makers Lee Shapiro of New York City and James Lindelof of Los Angeles were killed by government soldiers in an October ambush.
Two others were captured. Early this month, one of them, French free-lancer Alain Guillo, was convicted of espionage by a court in Kabul and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
In a critically acclaimed documentary shown in July, also the work of cameraman Hoover, anchorman Rather intoned ominously: “This may be the last serious documentary to come out of Afghanistan for some time.”
Olsson, a San Francisco-area native who made six trips into Afghanistan before he became an adviser to the Media Resource Center, said: “In 1984, I was willing to go anywhere. With the kind of security risks now, you are putting your life on the line. You have to think twice before you go in.”
And this, Olsson said, makes the center’s work more important than ever.
According to Acting Director Haji Said Daud, an Afghan formerly affiliated with two rebel groups, the center has trained 70 fighter-reporters, recruited from all the main rebel groups, since the center was established last year.
He said that 70 missions by rebel reporters have resulted in more than 200 hours of film and 6,000 photographs and slides. He said the center’s material has been used in 122 countries, most of them in the Third World.
The U.S.-financed project has recently become an important source of information in Pakistan, where 3 million Afghans live as refugees and which acts as a vital conduit for getting American weapons to the rebels. Film supplied by the center is an almost nightly feature on the Pakistani government television network. Independent newspapers use the center as a source for news of fighting in Afghanistan.
Daud said that in a single recent week, 16 rebel crews trained and supplied by the center were in Afghanistan, several of them filming the fighting at Khost, in Paktia province.
“One of the rags against the Media Resource Center,” a U.S. official associated with the project said, “is that they don’t come up with quality equal to Western commercial standards. But for an organization that has only been around for such a short time, I think what they have done is impressive.”
The media center distributes its material free, yet when its material is used, as in the case of the Aug. 11 and 12 CBS News programs, the center wants credit. On the other hand, because of the possibility of danger to relatives in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, some rebel reporters do not wish to be identified by name with their work.
Another credit dispute arose over a photograph that appeared among Time magazine’s “pictures of the year” Dec. 28. The photo showed the bodies of an Afghan family buried in a Soviet air attack, poised in prayer and preserved as in a scene from Pompeii. It was said to have been shot by Radek Sikorski for the London Observer. But U.S. officials affiliated with the Afghan Media Center say they have an identical negative.
A spokesman for SIPA Press, the New York agency that represents Sikorski, said Sikorski did take the photo.
(“In general if the source and the circumstances of a photo are unusual,” said Alvin Shuster, foreign editor of the Los Angeles Times, “we try to explain all that background to our readers.”)
Critics of the program contend that the amount of quality work being produced by the Afghans is still very low.
“Out of the hundreds of hours of film that they shoot, there might be two or three minutes of good stuff,” said a Western journalist who has covered the Afghan conflict for several years. “I think it is a mistake for them to try to compete with American or European national television.”
Even more troubling to critics is that it is rarely possible for independent journalists to verify the claims of the Afghan rebel reporters.
How, some critics say, can a recipient of Afghan Media Resource Center material be certain that the village the rebel reporter says is under attack is actually that village, or that the attackers are who the rebel reporter says they are?
“The problem of any of what you see from these people is credibility,” the experienced Western journalist said. “There is no question that you are seeing things, but what is the context?”
Olsson and others defend their Afghan cameramen against such criticism by saying that the pictures usually speak for themselves. Moreover, they say, the pictures are subjected to extensive editing at the center before they are distributed. There is no doubt, for example, Olsson said, that the attack on the Soviet convoy on the Kabul River was anything other than what it was described as.
It is an advantage rather than a disadvantage, Olsson said, that the men assigned to report on the moujahedeen are members of the moujahedeen.
“Our men move with the mouj because they are the mouj ,” he said . “They are willing to stay in longer and put up with more hardship.”
After all, Olsson said, Americans covered the war in Vietnam and French journalists covered the battle of Algiers.
“When people say, ‘How can an Afghan cover the Afghan war? He is too involved,’ it is in many ways a racist comment,” he said. “I think it is unfair to say they can’t be objective merely because they are Afghans.”
Few government projects in recent years have been debated as intensely as the Afghan Media Resource Center, and the debate touches on the question of academic integrity as well as journalistic ethics.
Under a $180,000 contract with the U.S. government, Boston University sent specialists to the center to train Afghans in camera techniques, in writing and editing. The contract expired in December and was not renewed. The program had become the subject of campus debate, questioning whether the university should be involved in what was widely perceived as a government propaganda project.
Since then, the U.S. Information Agency has taken over, and this has placed it in the position of sending Afghan soldier-journalists into a war zone and arranging for the distribution of their reports.
“We hope it is an interim measure,” a U.S. official in Pakistan said. “We don’t like doing it. We don’t like charges that it (the center) is a U.S. government propaganda agency.” The official said the government has begun looking for a new independent contractor for the program to take the place of Boston University.
Under U.S. law, it is illegal to use within the United States material produced by the information service. And in letters to Boston University officials, CBS executives said the network had inadvertently used the film on the Kabul River battle in its Aug. 11 and 12 programs. Had they known that the material was produced by a government-funded organization, they said, they would have been prevented from using it under the network’s own rules.
As the debate continues, the quality of film and still photographs arriving at the center continues to improve. And many of the fighters-turned-film makers say they have no intention of giving up their work, regardless of whether they continue to have the U.S. government’s support.
One of them, Kamaluddin Koochi, 30, was a teacher of biology and chemistry in his native Jalalabad before the Soviet Union sent troops into Afghanistan in December, 1979. He and his father were jailed because of ties with a previous government, and when they were released, the entire extended family of 120 people moved to refugee camps in Pakistan.
For several years, Koochi, who speaks English, worked as a guide for Western journalists going into Afghanistan to cover the war. Later Koochi went to France for a three-month French program training Afghans to film the war. Now he is one of the star cameramen of the U.S. project.
“We have five or six video cameramen,” Olsson said, “who are good enough that I would hire them if I were running a television station in the United States.”
Afghanistan may need biology and chemistry teachers more than it needs cameramen, but Koochi says he will not go back to teaching, even if there is peace.
“I want to be a cameraman,” he said. “I am very keen to learn everything about camera and film.”
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