Anja Niedringhaus and Kathy Gannon were among the most experienced journalists working in Afghanistan. Together, they have reported from war zones around the world, frequently escaping death by the skin of their teeth.
On Friday, Niedringhaus’s luck ran out. Gannon, a writer for the Associated Press, and Niedringhaus, a photographer for the wire service, were traveling in a convoy with poll workers, protected by the Afghan National Army and police in the eastern province of Khost when they attacked by an Afghan police officer. Gannon survived, Niedringhaus did not.
Friday’s attack is the third high-profile attack on Western journalists during the past month that has resulted in the death of a reporter. In early March, a gunman shot and killed Nils Horner, a reporter for Swedish Radio, in an upscale area of Kabul. A week and a half later, gunmen attacked the Serena Hotel in Kabul, killing Sardar Ahmad, a senior reporter for Agence-France Presse, his wife, and two of their three children.
The killing of Niedringhaus, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her work in Iraq, and the wounding of Gannon add to what has become an increasingly precarious security environment for journalists working in Afghanistan in the run-up to Saturday’s presidential election. While the Taliban has pledged to disrupt the elections by stepping up attacks, there is no concrete evidence to indicate that the recent spate of attack on Western journalists is part of a coordinated effort to target members of the media. "We are ascribing her death to being on a dangerous assignment rather than murder per se," Bob Dietz, the Asia program director for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said in an interview.
Investigators have been unable to link the attacks that killed Horner and Ahmad to a larger pattern of efforts to target Western journalists and intimidate reporters from staying away from the country. The death of Ahmad and members of his family have been described as an instance of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. And while a Taliban splinter group claimed responsibility for the killing of Horner, it is unclear whether he was deliberately targeted as a member of the media.
Western journalists, of course, aren’t the only ones paying a price for their work in Afghanistan. According to a report published last week by Reporters Without Borders, local journalists have experienced increased attacks and threats ahead of the election.
Regardless of intent, the killing of three Western journalists in recent weeks sends a clear message to media organizations looking to cover Saturday’s pivotal elections: The Taliban considers all Westerners fair game for attacks — and that includes members of the media.
In all three instances, the journalists killed at the hands of the Taliban were experienced war correspondents aware of the risks of working in a country such as Afghanistan. All understood how to take appropriate security precautions.
Despite the lack of a clear statement of intent from the Taliban, their deaths are difficult to interpret as anything less than an effort to discourage Western media outlets from sending reporters to Kabul, even if no concrete evidence has emerged indicating that insurgents have made a conscious decision to target journalists.
Increasingly, that’s a distinction without a difference.