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Graham Bowley Updates Us on Sahar Gul. I Throw Up Again.

Some of you may recall that I had written a piece about Graham Bowley and his delightful foray into sensitive, caring journalism. And a follow up. And, well, I wasn’t exactly alone in my thoughts on the piece. Not by a long shot.

In putting together this post, I re-read his initial piece on Sahar Gul, and you know, this time around I didn’t have the same reaction. In fact, I saw his piece for what it truly was: a reporter stepping outside the journalistic bounds of pure objectivity and just looking out for the interests of a young Afghan girl.

All of the above would be true if I’d been struck repeatedly in the head with a ball peen hammer.

From his original story, this is how his “interview” went down:

“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.

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.

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.

Mr. Bowley has since posted a “follow up.” I use “quotes” here “sarcastically” because this is as much as a “follow up” as Paula Deen’s cooking is “good for you.”

Some readers might remember the last time I visited Sahar Gul, when I managed to get past the bureaucracy of the hospital in Kabul where she was being treated and her relatives, doctors and supporters welcomed me to her bedside.

Look, I am not a journalist, which means apparently I am a moron. Because his first story said nothing about being welcomed to her bedside.

His first story was a riveting tale of a reporter who’d been scooped by another news organization, and his efforts to get that “story” against all odds. The story had been done. His own paper agrees that that story had been done. Otherwise, his piece on Sahar Gul gets covered on the regular news site, not on the blog. But he persisted.

Now, a few weeks later, he’s being welcomed with open arms? Here’s where that particular revision of the facts is a little off: his “follow up” isn’t with the family, but with a representative of the Women’s Ministry.

Readers have asked for an update on her health. One of the reporters here in the Kabul bureau of the New York Times, Jawad Sukhanyar, got in touch with Rahima Zarifi, the Women’s Ministry representative from the Baghlan Province, who has been visiting her regularly.

Ms. Zarifi said that Sahar Gul is still in the government–run Wazir Akhbar Khan Hospital in Kabul.

She assured us that Sahar’s condition was better but that she would be staying in the hospital where the Ministry of Public Health has allocated her food — just over two pounds of meat and fruits each day – and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the human rights commission can get readier access to her.

First off…super glad she’s doing better. No snark, no nada. That being said: maybe her family’s different, but in dealing with oh, I don’t know, humans here in Afghanistan, if I’ve made that much of a connection with a family that I’m being welcomed into the hospital room of their traumatized relative, I’m pretty sure I can pick up a phone and call them.

Now, if I’m a self-centered narcissistic reporter who’s hell bent on just getting my story regardless, well, then I might have a tougher time getting in touch with them directly. And I might then have to go to a ministry rep.

Fortunately, Graham Bowley is a warm, compassionate human being who probably just lost their number.

Author’s Note

Here’s the Public Editor’s response to my email about Mr. Bowley’s first article: 

Thanks for your message about Graham Bowley’s coverage of Sahar Gul, the young Afghan girl. I am concerned about the girl’s privacy as well and have raised the question with the Foreign Desk. I do concur that news organizations should be careful to respect the privacy of crime victims. This is a case where, I believe, the benefits of doing a story were outweighed by the potential harm to the girl.

So that’s fun. Based on what I read over at Wronging Rights, that’s what they’re sending out to all the kids.  


  • I’m going to have to unsubscribe to this blog because you guys seem hell-bent on airing your grievances against journalism and using Sahar Gul to do it. Not that there isn’t a lot of bad journalism going around but there’s a lot of bad everything going around & all this self-righteous chest-thumping isn’t doing the good it’s intended to do. I’m sure your motives are pure but your methods are a waste of precious time and resources. (See my 1-24-12 post on your blog).
    So before I sign off permanently I just want you to know that I am one of the readers to whom Graham Bowley was referring when he wrote that he was following up on Sahar’s current state in response to readers’ requests. (See my 1-24-12 post on your blog). My mind was in torment over Sahar. I couldn’t stop thinking about her day or night. I wondered about her fate constantly. So I wrote to Mr. Bowley and to the NY Times. Here’s a part of my letter: “… Orzala Ashraf, an Afghan human rights activist, quoted in a January 9, 2012 article by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. Ashraf states, “It is good that these stories are covered, but most important is that the media should also cover the follow-up: what happens to the people who have done this?” says Ashraf of Gul’s abusers. “There are not enough programs in the media that would be interested in following that story. It is critical that we know two months from today, two years from today, what happens. People have committed a crime against this girl.” Would [you] let us and your readers know what does happen to Sahar Gul next week, next month, next year?”
    I wrote to at least a dozen other news outlets, including some Afghan ones, but Graham Bowley and Gayle Lemmon were the only ones to respond.
    Now, regardless of Mr. Bowley’s motives, which you or I cannot possibly know, on the face of it, he has done a good thing. He has followed up on that young victim when most news outlets salaciously covered all the details of her initial rescue and then dropped her to go on to the next opportunity for self-aggrandizement. So far, only Graham Bowley and Gayle Lemmon have done follow-ups on Sahar Gul.
    If we “leave Sahar alone” to let her have her “privacy” she will go right back to the anonymity that allowed her torture to happen in the first place. Why was your blog silent when the story first broke and there were HUNDREDS of reporters shouting questions at Sahar & shoving cameras, lights and mikes in her face as she was being wheeled into the hospital on her first day there, bleeding and broken?
    If the free world doesn’t keep up the pressure how will this type of atrocity against girls ever stop? Think about it: over 60 years after the end of WWII there are still Nazis being brought to justice.
    Let’s bring the same kind of relentlessness to ending the suffering of girls like Sahar Gul. Let’s write blogs about agencies that provide rescue and shelter and work opportunities for girls like Sahar. Let’s organize letter writing campaigns, yes, but not to the NY Times, but to the leaders of these countries who are most able to change the laws and customs that cover up these abuses. Worldwide opprobrium has been effective against many cases of injustice. Let’s organize to find ways to make Sahar feel loved and safe again. Can we find out if we can send her cards, sweets, a plush toy she can hold, something to decorate her hospital room? It might give her some strength and hope if she knew that people from all over the world were thinking of her and wishing her well.
    Righteous indignation is good only if it spurs you on to doing good works, otherwise it’s merely beating the air. A long time ago I, too, used to think I’d been appointed in this life to bring wrong-doers to heel. Now I pick my battles more carefully. This one in particular about “respecting” Sahar Gul’s “privacy” is the absolutely wrong battle, it’s straining a gnat & swallowing a camel. The more attention Sahar Gul gets the better. Her torturers need to be brought to justice.
    Why not use Graham Bowley’s “intrusiveness” and “persistence” to Sahar’s advantage by asking him to track down Sahar’s husband, for example, who, being the coward and sadist that he is, has run away, leaving his mother and sister to face abuse charges. After all, Mr. Bowley is a war correspondent and isn’t liberating girls like Sahar part of the war in Afghanistan?
    Thank you for your time.

  • Think that Mr. Bowley was a bit stung by some of the criticisms of his article last month? Perhaps just a bit…defensive? Why else the “welcomed to me to her bedside line”? (And to the previous commenter, your post is really not about Sahar Gul,it’s about journalistic ethics, and a ten years of the media treating Afghans as victims or curiousities, rather than “real” people.) Anyway, GB IS sensitive. All I can think is “Dude, you’re a reporter in a war-zone, you’ve got to toughen up!”