When reporters become the story

The plight of a cameraman in an Afghan jail and the detention of a writer in Israel highlight the risks of activist journalism.

By Duncan Campbell
Published October 18, 2004 2:05PM (EDT)

More than 20 years ago, a young video cameraman called Ed Caraballo got his first heady experience of the wild side of filming when he worked with John Lydon's PiL band in New York. Now Caraballo, a New Yorker, is experiencing a much wilder time having been jailed for eight years in Afghanistan for allegedly being part of a freelance bounty-hunting team that was trying to track down Osama bin Laden by carrying out violent interrogations.

Last week, Caraballo, who said he was merely filming events as a professional journalist, was moved from his cell in Kabul after an al-Qaida suspect threatened to burn him to death. Caraballo's incarceration came at the same time as that of a young Polish-British journalist, Ewa Jasiewicz, who was arrested in Israel and detained at Ben Gurion airport for three weeks after the Israeli authorities decided that she was not a journalist but an activist. Back in London, Jasiewicz writes in the Journalist this month a defense of "activist journalism" that does not adopt any pretense of objectivity.

Two very different cases but each involving journalists who said that they were reporting what they saw in the best way that they could and who ended up behind bars. So where does journalism end and participation begin? According to Caraballo's brother, Richard, Ed was working on a film about Jack Idema, the extremely volatile former Special Forces soldier and bounty hunter, who had decided that he and his team would track down bin Laden and claim a $25 million reward. To this end, he rounded up potential sources of information, locked them up and, if they did not cooperate, subjected them to interrogation. Depending on whom you believe, this involved either "standard" techniques (Idema's version) or the detainees being hung upside down by their feet, scalded and beaten (the prosecution case). Idema and another American bounty hunter were jailed for 10 years for torture and kidnapping, Caraballo for eight.

"I am sure if he had known all the angles to this thing he would have run for the door in a New York minute," says Richard Caraballo, who has been trying to get attention for the case on the grounds that this is an issue of press freedom. He says his brother had to stay close to Idema: "Due to the extremely precarious security situation within Afghanistan for foreigners, it was agreed that Ed, a civilian with no military expertise, would need to remain in the secure presence of Idema's team." He says that his brother, who has been involved in five Emmy-winning U.S. documentaries, was merely hoping to complete a film about Idema that had taken more than two years.

The Afghan court took the view that Caraballo was part of the Idema team and could not plead any journalistic defense. Richard Caraballo is trying to persuade journalists' bodies around the world to take up his brother's case.

The Committee for the Protection of Journalists in New York is monitoring the case and describes it as "a very gray area." Its spokesperson for the region, Abi Wright, says that while it was clear that Caraballo had worked as a professional cameraman in the past, with the facts they had available, "we did not see his [current] situation resulting from journalism." The "gray area" here arises partly because Caraballo was not working for a specific network or company but was doing the film in cooperation with, and encouraged by, Idema. His brother says that he did not have a commission to make the film but believed he would able to sell it when he returned to the U.S.

Jasiewicz's case is very different. Having embarked on a career in journalism five years ago, she was working for a news agency when she became disillusioned with the job and its lack of connection to her life as a political activist. "I quit and made my way to Palestine to do something of more practical value to people," she writes in the Journalist this month. She has since filed stories from Israel and Iraq: "I would never have got close to people in Palestine or the oil workers' union in Iraq if writing had been my only goal," she writes. "Activist journalists work with their 'subjects,' see them as comrades and take the risks and make the sacrifices necessary to serve and support them." She fell foul of the Israeli authorities, who suggested that her Palestinian contacts were violent people and thus she could not be allowed into the occupied territories. Now in London, she says that she still hopes to return.

"I'm not motivated by journalism, I'm motivated by international human rights," she says. "I don't really believe in objectivity; I don't believe it's possible." She believes there there is a growing acceptance of "advocacy journalism" as exemplified by Arundhati Roy and Naomi Klein, "who speak on behalf of people who are marginalized and don't have a voice."

So is her position and that of Caraballo different from that of journalists who are embedded with the armed forces and who also have to "take the risks and make the sacrifices necessary," or have they crossed a line that means that they cannot ask for special treatment as journalists?

There are risks, implicit or explicit, involved in any form of embedding. Reporters are no more immune to warming to people they hang out with than other human beings. If you eat with people, see their problems at close hand, experience their dangers and learn about their lives, you will inevitably be more sympathetic to their story than if you were dealing with a spokesman, whether the group you are embedded with consists of soldiers or bounty hunters. The problem is that, in a world where violence is increasingly the currency of political debate, journalists who are embedded -- officially or unofficially -- are more likely than ever to find themselves seen as indistinguishable from those with whom they are embedded and thus increasingly likely to have to face the consequences.

Tala Dowlatshahi of Reporters Without Borders in New York says that her organization recognizes the difficulties journalists face and has drawn up a code of ethics in conjunction with UNESCO that spells out how to behave in complex situations. She adds that conflict situations had thrown up a number of new ethical issues in how a journalist should behave. The cases of Caraballo and Jasiewicz will not be the last to throw up such dilemmas.

Duncan Campbell

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