More than two months after the incident, the controversy over the circumstances of Sultan Munadi’s death refuses to go away.

Local stringers and interpreters who work for international news organisations in Iraq and Afghanistan are the unsung heroes behind many of the big stories that appear under the byline of high-profile foreign correspondents. Graham Greene’s novel, The Quiet American, in which The Times fictional Saigon correspondent gets his best stories thanks to his Vietnamese factotum who does everything from running his office to giving him news tips and tracking down news sources for him is an accurate portrayal of those who are often rather dismissively referred to as “local hire.”

Because of their local contacts and knowledge of their region’s affairs stringers are indispensable to international reporters operating in an alien and hostile environment and, quite often, risk their lives to oblige their bosses. Yet, their efforts are poorly acknowledged and when, in trouble, they are abandoned to their fate. Or at least that’s the perception.

The recent case involving The New York Times Kabul correspondent Stephen Farrell and his Afghan interpreter Sultan Munadi appears to have reinforced this impression. They were kidnapped by Taliban militants on September 5 in Kunduz where they had gone to report on the aftermath of a NATO air strike that killed many civilians fuelling widespread anger against foreign forces. Four days later, in a controversial move British commandos mounted a dramatic raid to free them ignoring the advice of intermediaries who were said to be close to a deal with the kidnappers and feared that any hasty military intervention could lead to loss of lives.

While the commandos managed to rescue Mr. Farrell, a British-Irish national, Munadi was killed after being shot. It is not clear whether the fatal shot was fired by a militant or a commando who did not recognise him as a hostage. Mr. Farrell was rushed to safety after he identified himself as a “British hostage” leaving Munadi’s body behind even though, according to Mr. Farrell, he kept telling the troops that his colleague had been shot.

“I twisted around and pointed to where Sultan was lying 5-10 yards away — in clear sight even at night — slumped over the mud ridge of the ditch inside which I had taken shelter,” Mr. Farrell recalled in a detailed e-mail to U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

According to him, though the troops told him they had a photograph of Munadi he “never saw if they acted on the information I gave them, as they were already pushing my head down close to the ground because of the gunfire in or beyond the trees around us. I was very quickly rushed away from the scene, and did not see Sultan again.”

The British government may have genuinely intended to save both the hostages but, judging from independent accounts of the incident and Mr. Farrell’s own version, it is clear that the soldiers’ priority was rescuing the “British hostage.” Mr. Farrell’s emails reinforce previous reports that despite his repeated pleas, they were totally indifferent to what happened to Mr. Munadi. They were simply not interested in him and made no attempt even to find out whether he was still alive.

More than two months after the incident, the controversy over the circumstances of Munadi’s death — suggesting that the British forces lost interest in him once they had Mr. Farrell out safely — refuses to go away and, last week, the CPJ intervened to demand an independent investigation by British authorities.

In a strongly-worded letter to Prime Minister Gordon Brown, it said that as an organisation dedicated to the defence of press freedom it was concerned about the incident. Such an investigation was necessary in order to clear up the “many unanswered questions” raised by CPJ’s own “two-month long effort” to document events that led to Munadi’s death.

The questions that the CPJ wants answered include: Was the recovery of both Mr. Farrell and Munadi an explicit objective of the military operation? What were the circumstances of Munadi’s death? Is there any evidence Munadi was shot accidentally by British forces who did not recognise him as a hostage? After Mr. Farrell pointed out Munadi to British forces, did anyone check for vital signs? Why were Munadi’s remains left at the scene of the firefight?

The CPJ believes that a “thorough” and “transparent” investigation would help western forces in their stated aim of winning the hearts and minds of the people of Afghanistan whose trust, it stresses, is essential to their military success. Equally importantly, it would assure Afghan journalists “without whom international reporters could not operate independently on the ground that they can report with the same degree of safety as their western colleagues when encountering British and other foreign troops.”

The CPJ’s letter confirms previous reports that The New York Times had strong reservations about the wisdom of launching a rescue mission without first exhausting all other means.

Meanwhile, Mr. Farrell, who formerly worked for The Times, London, and was briefly captured in Iraq five years ago, has been criticised for his gung-ho style. The problem is not Mr. Farrell’s style but the ruthlessly competitive nature of western journalism because of which correspondents on foreign assignments — especially in conflict zones — are under tremendous pressure to produce “exclusives” forcing them to take avoidable risks — often with disastrous consequences as the Farrell-Munadi incident shows.

Postscript: Mr. Farrell’s first foreign posting was in India. Any memories, anyone?


Scientists protest “legal bullying”December 3, 2009