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Sherry Ricchiardi: Media coverage of the war in Afghanistan

Sherry Ricchiardi is a senior writer specializing in international issues for the American Journalism Review and a professor of journalism at the Indiana University School of Journalism. Since the September 11 attacks, she has written two pieces for the American Journalism Review analyzing the press and its coverage of war and terrorism. Her next piece will focus on journalism and bioterrorism. Ricchiardi has been an international print journalist covering the war in the Balkans since 1991. Her work has appeared in such American newspapers as USA Today, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and the Miami Herald.

CNN: You recently interviewed various journalists via telephone from their beats in Afghanistan. What did they say about the challenges they face doing their work there?

RICCHIARDI: Basically they're all saying the same thing, that this is the world's harshest landscape. They have so many obstacles and dangers, but basically the water is very foul, and many are getting sick. There's a lack of food source; they're living on rice and other things, having run out of their power bars. The harsh landscape [is] like a lunar landscape, and they're often climbing, on a donkey or an old Russian jeep. The weather is so bad, from extreme heat to extreme cold, their phones and their cameras don't function. And there's extreme danger. Anyone who goes near where the Taliban are fighting place themselves at grave risk.

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They're facing a very tortured land. They're sleeping with lizards, fleas and scorpions. There are forbidding mountains [where] they're exposed and it's difficult to take the proper cover. They describe blistering sandstorms that absolutely devastate them. They can't move when these sandstorms are on, and they're grounded. They talk a lot about the very foul water and lack of food. The other thing that's important is the Wild West lawlessness there. Some have been robbed by local bandits. Also add in that there are 10 million landmines scattered through the country, and most don't know where they are. So that summarizes what some of the physical dangers are in this assignment. It's a tough one.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Dr. Ricchiardi, have reporters been vaccinated against biological agents?

RICCHIARDI: Not that I know of. I have not talked to a single reporter who has said that they've been vaccinated before going to Pakistan and Afghanistan. I've heard nothing of that, but it's a great idea.

CNN: Donald Rumsfeld repeatedly lambasts 'press leaks.' Is there any likelihood that the press will censor itself to help the greater U.S. cause?

RICCHIARDI: I think the industry is concerned about that. A lot of the editors that I interviewed for the American Journal Review story complained bitterly about the lack of information that was coming out of the Pentagon and from the administration. There's a real frustration with that right now. I believe that what they're concerned about is that the military is operating in almost total secrecy, which can be a problem. We have had reports quoting the Pentagon as saying America's new war against terrorism will be fought with unprecedented secrecy, and we know that's been reported in the media. So editors complain about the lack of access to activities by the American and British forces, and an overall lack of information on what's being called Operation Enduring Freedom. I talked to an editor at National Public Radio, and he said, "This administration has clamped the most severe information freeze I've seen in 35 years of reporting." and I think that reflects what I've heard from other reporters.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: If the media has important information such as the death of Osama bin Laden do they need permission to report on it to the public?

RICCHIARDI: No, they do not technically need permission to report it. If the media documents beyond a doubt that Osama has been killed, we can report it as long as we know it's fact. We don't need permission to do that. The government might ask CNN or whoever to hold it for security reasons, and that's where trouble starts between government and a free press.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Are the governments aware of the location of the journalists and could they get them out quickly if needed.

RICCHIARDI: The government is not aware of the location of journalists. I talked to many last week in Afghanistan, and they were calling from mountaintops and from desert outposts. One of them who called me from a desert outpost was traveling with the United Front, the fighters fighting with the coalition. No one knew where she was. Journalists are operating as free agents, at great risk at this point. When they cross the border, it's not like Vietnam, where they have regular press conferences or briefings. It's totally different. So, if something happens, it will be difficult for the government to contact this cadre of journalists. They are, however, in touch with their own agencies. I'm sure CNN would do everything possible to get their own people out, so there is that safeguard.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Could you give us some information on the news network Al Jazeera, and does their coverage of the Afghanistan war represent all sides?

RICCHIARDI: I am not an expert on that station; that's not a part of the story I wrote. But I did read a lot about it, and they've had the only real access at times. Do they represent all sides? Probably not. When you think about where they are, and how they do their reporting, they're probably not representing American and British voices. They're the only voice emanating from that region, and have been for a long time. It's where bin Laden and his lieutenants go when they want to send a message to the world. But they're an important outlet. Better them than no one.

CNN: CNN was invited by Al Jazeera to submit questions to Osama bin Laden. How are other members of the press responding to CNN's decision to do so?

RICCHIARDI: There's been a lot of controversy about it. I was in a conference about journalism in the face of bioterrorism last week, and there was talk of whether it's a good thing, and if it gives bin Laden control, and if it takes control away from CNN. That's the kind of thing you'll hear about it. It's not usual to give someone a list of questions. There's a question of how it will play out. CNN can make the decision not to broadcast, even if he answers the questions. But we'll see. It's a work in progress.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Is it true that women reporters are not allowed in the holy city of Kandahar?

RICCHIARDI: I have not heard that. I did talk to the female journalists last week, and asked if being female was a problem. They all said no, and that the United Front have treated them very well. They don't wear veils because they don't expect them to. They know they're western women, and don't expect them to look like their women. One told me it's been an advantage to be a woman, and that they're showing her more respect. Some of the young warriors will carry her equipment up a mountain for her, so she could get a picture from the top. It seemed to her that they're showing respect and being helpful. She said she was just glad for the help, and any help she could get was welcome, for any reason.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Journalists surely know the risks covering this war, why do they expose themselves to these risks?

RICCHIARDI: I covered the Balkan war since 1991 -- you talk to journalists anywhere, and it's a sense of mission, a sense of relating what is happening on the ground to the world. CNN is famous for their coverage during the Balkan war when the cameras were on the ground in Sarajevo [when] the Serbs would [make] these horrifying attacks, and CNN would have it on the air. There would be an international reaction. Many see it as a mission to make sure the world knows what's going on in these places like Afghanistan, which is mysterious to many. I don't know of many that do it for fun, although I know a few who are like cowboys or cowgirls who go in with guns blazing to give a story. They're heroes to me: they leave family and friends behind, they go in and risk themselves to bring us a story. It's certainly true here, where there's uncharted territory. In the Balkans, we'd go back to a hotel after a few days. It was dangerous, but we had some of the necessities of life to keep us going. They don't have it.

CNN: Do you have any closing comments to share with us?

RICCHIARDI: I think that it should be considered that it's a fact of life in a democracy that at times the press will be the target of public discontent. There's the whole notion of "kill the messenger," that life would be more pleasant if we didn't have to deal with bad things. There's a lot of bad information right now, with stories from Afghanistan and from home about bioterrorism. There's a natural tendency to take it out on the media, who are delivering what we don't want to hear. But it's imperative that we're there, on the scene, and witness as much as we can what our military is doing there. New rules are being written as we speak both for the military and the media. We'll have to wait and see how it evolves over the next few weeks, as there's more ground fighting.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today.

RICCHIARDI: Thank you, CNN, for doing this. This is important subject matter and to allow the public to ask questions about what the press is doing is important. Thank you.

Sherry Ricchiardi joined the chat room via telephone from Indiana and provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Wednesday, October 24, 2001 at 12 p.m. EDT.


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