AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   February/March 2005

Quitting Kabul   

The U.S. media presence in Afghanistan continues to dwindle.

By Kim Hart
Hart is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

Correction appended

Once a journalism hot spot, Afghanistan was all but left behind when the media's spotlight turned to the conflict in Iraq. In June/July 2003, AJR reported that only a handful of reporters remained in the struggling country on a full-time basis, while other news organizations floated correspondents in and out when time and resources permitted.

A year and a half later, Afghanistan has become even more of an afterthought. Only three news organizations--Newsweek, Associated Press and the Washington Post--have full-time reporters stationed in Kabul, the capital. Other major newspapers, such as the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, rely on stringers in Afghanistan and correspondents based in New Delhi, India, to cover the region, a stark contrast to the hundreds of reporters pouring into Iraq since the war began. The New York Times uses a stringer, albeit a full-time one. Television networks have nearly disappeared.

With the establishment of a new government and building of infrastructure, a continuing U.S. military presence and the hunt for terrorists, Afghanistan is rife with stories of long-term consequence. Roy Gutman, a veteran Newsday correspondent who became its foreign editor in July, has long criticized the media for their lack of solid, in-depth coverage of what he calls one of the major conflicts of our time and the true beginning of the battle against al Qaeda. Now that major fighting is over, "it's very important to keep a spotlight on Afghanistan to see whether the U.S. government is able to manage it and able to succeed," he says.

In light of the recent detainee torture and abuse scandals in U.S.-run prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gutman is appalled that the media have not given the situation more time and attention. In 1999, Gutman, between his two stints with Newsday, co-founded the nonprofit Crimes of War Project, where he commissioned a story that investigated the death of an Afghan soldier in U.S. custody. In September, the L.A. Times ran a story on the incident, but it was never followed up by other media and quickly forgotten.

"This is something that the news organizations should be all over," Gutman says, "but on the whole, nobody's making headlines out of what looks like a systematic pattern of abuse. It seems to me that this is what journalism should be about." (Newsday doesn't have a presence in Kabul, either. The paper opened a one-man bureau in Islamabad, Pakistan, January 1.)

With the exception of the October presidential election, coverage of Afghanistan has dropped off dramatically since mid-2002, says New York Times stringer Carlotta Gall, who has spent the last three years there. Despite the decreasing exposure, Gall is comfortable with the amount of play the country receives in American newspapers.

"I think it's about right... U.S. newspapers have kept the coverage pretty solid," Gall writes in an e-mail to AJR, adding that she has been pleasantly surprised by the "continuing interest of readers and editors." The fact that the country has not dropped entirely below the media radar is encouraging to her.

The dwindling number of journalists once made finding stories and interviewing public figures easier for the few American reporters who remained in the country. Now, though, growing bureaucracy and the swelling number of Afghan journalists tend to get in the way. For example, Gall and other foreign print journalists were unable to attend President Hamid Karzai's December 7 inauguration due to the sheer numbers of Afghan reporters and camera crews.

The region's remote and rugged landscape prevents penetrating coverage of military operations, says Chicago Tribune Foreign Editor Kerry Luft. With one stringer in Kabul who "periodically files reports" and a correspondent working out of New Delhi, Luft believes the paper produces enough coverage, but he'd always like to do more. He does not foresee the Tribune putting a full-time reporter there.

"For us, it's more of a rounded story than a military operation story," he says, explaining that many of the paper's articles on the country focus on people and life in the region instead of solely examining the "nuts and bolts of reestablishing some kind of government." He points out that the Tribune published about 150 pieces, ranging from briefs to front-page stories, that mentioned Karzai in 2004.

"That's a lot of coverage," he says. "It's not the same kind of coverage we're getting out of Iraq, but it's also a different kind of story."

Gutman takes the position that developments in Afghanistan now show the later stages of U.S. involvement and can provide insight about where Iraq is headed. Newsday's new bureau in Islamabad--232 miles from Kabul--focuses on coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the only American newspaper bureau closer to Afghanistan than New Delhi, which lies more than 600 miles away from Kabul.

"There's a shortage of people there, and once they're there they tend to do the less controversial stories," Gutman says, admitting that Newsday has also slackened in coverage since the height of the Afghan intervention. "Our notion is to place ourselves in the heart of the Islamic world of Asia. It remains to be seen how well it works."

Who's Still There

A handful of news organizations have journalists based in New Delhi or Islamabad who also cover Afghanistan. Others rely periodically on stringers. This chart includes only full-time positions in Afghanistan.

Full time in January 2004
Washington Post: 1 reporter
New York Times: 1 full-time stringer
Newsweek: 1 reporter
Associated Press: 2 print reporters, 2 television reporters
ABC: 1 full-time freelance producer

Full time in May 2003
Washington Post: 1 reporter
New York Times: 1 full-time stringer
Associated Press: at least 3 reporters
Chicago Tribune: 1 full-time stringer
Christian Science Monitor: 1 reporter
CNN: a team of 4, including 1 reporter
NBC News/MSNBC: 1 reporter-producer
NPR: 1 correspondent
Reuters: a team of 5, including 3 print staffers

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the AP's presence in Afghanistan due to a miscommunication between the reporter and the Associated Press spokesman. According to spokesman Jack Stokes, the AP has five people permanently assigned to Afghanistan: two print journalists, two television journalists and one photographer. The AP also employs a number of stringers elsewhere in the country and occasionally augments the permanent staff with journalists from Pakistan.