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I want to congratulate Graham Bowley of the New York Times. I think this may be the first time I’ve been angry enough reading a news story in this country to address a reporter directly.
You may have heard of Sahar Gul. In case you haven’t, there’s the 27 December article in The Guardian. There’s the BBC story on 3 January. There’s even a 7 January AP piece where she’s interviewed. I’m not going to go into more detail on what happened to her. Read the articles. It’s…horrific. On a completely inhuman scale. I’d say her story had been told.
Enter Graham Bowley and his search for Sahar Gul. No snark, no irony, no cutesy wryly cynical approach to yet another bad idea in Afghanistan. In the first part of his article, he goes to the hospital to try to interview her, and is told this:
“No one can see Sahar Gul,” he said. “Too many people have come to see her. She has psychological problems. She is hitting herself. “
I told him that we didn’t want to talk to Sahar Gul if it would upset her. We just wanted to tell her story, and we had a signed permission letter from the Public Health Ministry.
Of course you had a signed permission letter. Because a girl who’s had her fingernails ripped out by pliers and kept in a toilet for almost half a year should understand that some bureaucrat in Kabul said you can talk to her. Naturally, since you came all this way, she should be happy to answer your questions.
When I arrived back at the Times’s bureau, I found that the Associated Press had also visited the hospital — and had more luck interviewing Sahar Gul.
When I was reporting for the business desk, being doggedly persistent — and even pushy — to get access to a protected source was a feature of normal life. But I am new to reporting in Afghanistan, and I have found myself treading lightly around a culture to which I’m not yet accustomed. But I realized that despite the delicacy of the situation, I should have pushed past ‘no.’ Her story was too important.
What’s disgusting here is that Mr. Bowley is motivated less by Sahar Gul than he is by the fact that his “story” was scooped by the AP. This has got nothing to do with her story…it’s everything to do with your story, Mr. Bowley. And congratulations, you persisted.
The next day, Sunday, we returned to Wazir Akbhar Khan. And this time, I wouldn’t be turned away.
Sayad Hassan, a white-bearded man who was in charge of the nurses, led us up the tiled stairwell to Sahar Gul’s room.
I found a small girl, cringing beneath a comforter. Her face was cut and scratched, her left eye bruised and half closed. Her forearm was withered and thin. Her hair was a dark tangle beneath a brown headscarf.
You managed to push your way into her room. You did an amazing job of describing with words what we’d already seen in photos. Her story, in her own words, had been told. This is not some “protected source” in the financial world keeping you from another feature piece on investment banking. This is a child traumatized to an incomprehensible level. And then there’s your conclusions on the event:
The quick arrests may be a small sign that the Afghan government is starting to take women’s rights seriously, though others say the government was only prompted into action by embarrassing news media reports.
I’m sorry, Mr. Bowley, I really am…apparently you’re the only journalist in 2012 who doesn’t have an internet connection. Because if you did, you’d have been able to Google (it’s a thing now, really) women’s rights in Afghanistan, and you’d see that the arrests of these individuals has nothing to do with “women’s rights.” Period.
What happened to her is so above what’s even remotely acceptable here that it’s far beyond a “rights” issue. Those arrests have so much less to do with rights and so much more to do with media attention. The fact that you would even imply that it is otherwise means you know next to nothing about Afghanistan. Those “others” you reference? Listen to them. In fact, let them write your stories. We’d all be better off.
You’re what’s wrong with journalism, especially journalism here. You’re recycling a story, a Kabul story, and doing so at someone else’s expense. So few here are reporting on anything new anymore, or bothering to cover stories with any depth. And I know it’s not just here, and it’s not just you. Regardless, I could have written that same story, and I’m not a journalist — I’m just some dude with a blog.
There are some genuine journalists reporting on this place. They are courageous professionals who continue to report on what’s happening in Afghanistan every day. They tell the stories of what’s happening here, even though so few are listening anymore. What’s alarming is that some of those journalists come from your paper. They post to the same “At War” blog you do. That the same editors who post genuine journalism and not some quest for personal glory allowed your story on the website is just disappointing.
In the words of one commenter on your post:
“But I realized that despite the delicacy of the situation, I should have pushed past ‘no.’” Thank you, Mr. Bowley, for making me want to throw up.
Eloquent? No. Honest? Yes, and a response I can relate to, unfortunately. Do yourself and whatever readers you may have a favor: go back to the business desk. And leave Sahar Gul and Afghanistan alone.
- Tortured Afghan girl to go to India for treatment (ctv.ca)
- Sahar Gul, Tortured Afghan Girl, Will Be Sent To India For Medical Treatment (huffingtonpost.com)
- Perilous Lives of Afghan Women (thedailybeast.com)