Why are the deaths of nine journalists in Kabul bombings receiving so much international media coverage? Is it because their lives are seen by the wider public to matter more than those of the police and emergency workers who also died? Or is a case of editors deciding this for us?
Journalists are meant to be objective, but when it comes to other journalists being specially targeted by bombers, snipers, hit-men, government agents and ruthless extremists, does this objectivity go out the window?
Inevitably at times it does, especially if the victim is well known in media circles. Then the amount of coverage given to the incident becomes disproportionate.
According to witnesses and survivors, after an initial suicide attack during the morning rush hour in Kabul on Monday, another suicide bomber targeted journalists, police and emergency workers who had arrived on the scene. A total of 25 people died in the carnage, including nine journalists and four police officers. A branch of the Islamic State extremist group has claimed responsibility.
Newspapers, news agencies and news websites around the world gave the bombings splash coverage, some of them going so far as to give biographies of each of the nine journalists who died.
Would they have gone to this extent if, for example, nine medical workers had died? Probably not.
The difference, perhaps, is that attacks on journalists are seen as attacks on the freedom of expression – recognised as a basic human right.
”Where media are in danger, all other human rights are under greater threat,” the US Embassy in Kabul said in the wake of the attacks.
“(The) attack, like all such attacks on journalists, is an attack on Afghanistan’s free press the public’s right to know,” said David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression.
“These attacks serve to remind those who glibly demonise the press that journalists serve a crucial function in societies: the illumination of all matters of public interest,” Kaye was quoted as saying.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted: “Independent media is a cornerstone of democracy.”
The Afghan Journalists’ Safety Committee (AJSC), an independent watchdog, says the Taliban and Islamic State deliberately target journalists in Afghanistan – beating them, detaining them and killing them – in order to intimidate news organisations into self-censorship.
”They hated journalists,” Shah Marai, Kabul chief photographer of international news agency Agence France-Presse who was among Monday’s dead, wrote in 2016, referring to the Taliban.
Marai was well known for his courage, continuing to document the spiral of violence enveloping his homeland despite being threatened and once even beaten by the Taliban.
Because of his links to a global news agency, Marai’s death added an international angle to the story. AFP wrote a detailed obituary, complete with glowing tributes from foreign correspondents who had worked with the man it described as a “charismatic and courageous journalist”.
The obituary emphasized Maria’s love for his six children, one of whom was born just a week before he died, telling how he would often bring them into the bureau to interact with his colleagues. It spoke of how he would encourage his colleagues to play ping pong or volleyball to ease the tension.
It also quoted from a 2016 blog Marai wrote in which he highlighted the dangers of being a journalist in Kabul.
”I don’t dare to take my children for a walk... Every morning as I go to the office and every evening when I return home, all I think of are cars that can be booby-trapped, or of suicide bombers coming out of a crowd. I can’t take the risk. So we don’t go out,” he wrote.
I had the privilege of working with Marai in 2001 while covering for AFP the routing of the Taliban in Afghanistan by US-led forces following the 9/11 attacks.
At the time he was full of hope, believing his country was entering what he later went on to describe as a “golden” age—which alas proved short-lived.
Filled with humour and goodwill Marai, then hired by AFP as a driver while taking photos on the side, would head into the snow-filled streets of Kabul with a cheery goodbye, returning hours later with photos and quotes from a press conference or an incident he had come across. His good humour was infectious and the mood always brightened when he was around.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Monday’s bombing represented the deadliest single attack involving journalists in Afghanistan since at least 2002, and one of the most lethal ever worldwide.
More poignantly for me, it killed my dear colleague Shah Marai. Which is why, in my biased opinion, the splash coverage was warranted.