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After 30 years covering the world, more needs to be done, foreign correspondent reports

November 6th, 2010 Posted in Opinion

By Satenik Sargsyan

LOGAN—After a career that included plying the waters of Russia’s Volga River, covering the Cold War, and dodging bombs and bullets in Iraq and Afghanistan, National Public Radio senior foreign correspondent Anne Garrels brought the world to Cache Valley this week.

Over two days of classes, interviews and a public lecture, Garrels described three decades of covering foreign lands, international diplomacy, war and peace in more than a dozen nations.

Garrels decries “dying breed” of foreign correspondents in Morris Media & Society Lecture: “Bearing Witness: One journalist’s take on covering the world.”

She was in Logan as a guest of Utah Public Radio and the USU Department of Journalism and Communication’s Morris Media & Society Lecture Series. Click here for her hour-long interview with Tom Williams on Utah Public Radio.

Speaking to journalism students on Wednesday, she shared sometimes frightening details of her life as a “particular, endangered species of a human being,” a foreign correspondent.

“I covered a very cold war” in the Soviet Union during the Reagan Administration, Garrels told USU students. “And then the world began to change, and there were more and more hot wars. I always seemed to be somewhere nearby.”

Garrels’ career has taken her all the way from El Salvador to the former Soviet Union to Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to the Middle East, where she spent six years in Baghdad before and after the 2003 U.S. invasion to topple Saddam Hussein. While some things have changed, much remains undone, Garrels said.

“Iraq is better than it was, but it’s hard to know how much better,” Garrels said. “Foreigners are still targets.”

Journalists, in particular, had to follow strict security measures in Iraq. For one thing, foreigners in Iraq learned not to violate the “10-minute rule,” meaning that staying still in a public place—stuck in traffic, for example—was extremely dangerous.

“One of my colleagues had gone into a restaurant to meet someone and get lunch,” Garrels recounted. “One of the Iraqis saw someone stick a sticky bomb under the car.” The car exploded before anyone got close to it and no one was injured.

In Russia, where Garrels has observed the city of Chelyabinsk for 20 years, a slight progress is evident as well. For instance, Garrels mentioned that the imperative but largely ignored problem of HIV is now addressed by a number of non-governmental organizations that were impossible under the Soviet rule.

“They don’t get huge support from local authorities but it’s important that the community has come together to meet those needs.”

Over her career as a foreign correspondent, Garrels had to manage not only reporting in different languages and difficult political and security conditions, but she also had to learn how to navigate different cultural norms. In Baghdad, her staff included people of different religious sects and nationalities. In Afghanistan, political turmoil and tensions between different sectarian groups often affected her diverse staff.

“It’s amazing how wars are similar but the people involved are not,” Garrels said. “Cultures aren’t, and the reasons for them are different, sometimes good; sometimes really bad.”

Garrels, who grew up in Scotland, said understanding different cultures is critical, especially at times of war. Despite having studied Russian at Harvard University and being “passionately interested in the former Soviet Union,” it wasn’t until she was “dropped” into Moscow in 1979 that she really came to understand the mentality of the Russian people.

In the run-up to the allies’ invasion of Iraq in 2003, “There was a level of arrogance and ignorance,” she said. Garrels moved to Baghdad before the invasion to cover Iraq when it became clear to her that the Bush Administration was going to war.

She was one of only 16 U.S. journalists who remained in Iraq when the invasion began, and reported as the “shock and awe” of U.S. bombardment rocked the capital. In one memorable report, the NPR anchor says, “This is what Baghdad sounds like” as missiles are heard whistling and then detonating in huge explosions before Garrels starts her report.

By remaining behind to broadcast from Baghdad during the invasion, Garrels said she was fulfilling the essential function of the journalist in a free society—to provide others a glimpse of events as they unfold. This was the theme of her Morris Lecture—“Bearing Witness: One journalist’s take on covering the world”—and many of her conversations with journalism and political science students, as well as UPR listeners during her two-day visit.

Garrels says the U.S. news media were too accepting as the Bush Administration prepared to shift from hunting Al Quaeda in Afghanistan to attack Saddam Hussein for possessing weapons of mass destruction that were never found.

“One of the reasons why we got involved in Iraq is because we as journalists didn’t ask good questions,” she said, “and I accept responsibility, too.”

As most news organizations have reduced their foreign reporting to “zero”—most major newspapers and TV networks maintain foreign bureaus only in London, Garrels said—Americans are increasingly uninformed about the world. NPR is an exception, she pointed out, with more foreign bureaus around the world than most U.S. news outlets.

“I don’t think [Americans] are better informed today than a decade ago,” Garrels said.

While Americans have great opportunity to influence political decision-making, many know little about the world, and very few speak a foreign language, which is critical at time of complex global economy and an interdependent world.

“Military expeditions are not the answer. They are extremely costly,” Garrels said. “We simply can’t afford them as a nation.”

As foreign economies bloom, an increasing number of Americans will soon be seeking employment opportunities overseas, Garrels predicted. Lacking language skills and cultural understanding, they will find that not everyone in the world speaks English. Garrels said most Russian officials who she met during her recent trip down the Volga River did not speak English.

Garrels, who has won a Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women in Journalism Fund, said that as a woman she hadn’t been treated differently by predominantly patriarchal governments, because most of them see Americans as just “a foreigner” and leave gender out of the picture.

However, Garrels had to wear a burka once in order to interview an Islamic teacher. Burkas, the Afghani all-enveloping outer garment for women, have only a small screen before the woman’s eyes. Garrels said she was essentially blind unless she held the screen close to her eyes during the interview, all while trying to take notes and run a tape recorder.

During her visit to USU, Garrels signed copies of her 2003 book, Naked in Baghdad, which describes the daily journalistic survival practice in Baghdad. The title comes from her strategy for preventing government officials from confiscating her illegal satellite phone.

Living in hotels, reporters were not allowed to have satellite phones. However, the phone was essential as the centralized building where journalists went to send stories was under a bomb threat, and getting a line to the United States often took hours.

So when security officers came to search her hotel room, Garrels would tell them through the door that she was naked. The Muslim traditions and values did not allow the security officers to enter the room.

Garrels, who NBC News’ Tom Brokaw has described as “one of America’s most insightful and courageous journalists,” is now “retiring” to become a contributing correspondent at NPR, and will reduce her workload to occasional reporting trips while spending more time at home in rural northwestern Connecticut with her husband, cartoonist Vint Lawrence.

After more than 30 years on the road, she says, “I am glad I live here.”


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