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Reporting in Afghanistan: Listen, Ask Questions. You Are Not the Story, an Award-Winning Journalist Says


Kathy Gannon, a longtime AP journalist and a Canadian, interviewing survivors of a massacre of 18 people
Kathy Gannon, a longtime AP journalist and a Canadian, interviewing survivors of a massacre of 18 people, including 11 children, by an American sergeant who went on a shooting rampage in 2013 in southern Kandahar. Gannon was based in the Afghan-Pakistan region for more than three decades before recently retiring. ANJA NIEDRINGHAUS

Kathy Gannon never wanted to be a journalist. That changed when she was urged by a journalist brother to give the profession a try. She became a successful reporter and editor of local newspapers in Ontario and British Columbia. With that experience, she ventured into the Middle East, Central Asia and finally into colorful, tribal, breathtaking Afghanistan. That was in 1988. She was soon immersed in the place and its people.

Gannon was based in the Afghan-Pakistan region for more than three decades, reporting and directing coverage for The Associated Press. She has won at least a dozen major journalism awards not only for her courage but also for her insights into a society so strikingly different from anything she had ever known.

She is the author of “I Is for Infidel: From Holy War to Holy Terror in Afghanistan,” an account of the first Taliban regime and its aftermath. Gannon, who retired recently from the AP, is working on another book.

Her reporting in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region documented a momentous period spanning the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989, the bitter Afghan civil war among Islamic Mujahideen factions that followed and the rise and fall of the first Taliban regime. Gannon was the only Western journalist allowed in Kabul by the Taliban in the weeks preceding the 2001 United States-British offensive after the Sept.11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

In Pakistan in 2007, she reported on the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the first woman to lead an elected Pakistani government.

Her work in Afghanistan has come full circle: She most recently was covering the country after the abrupt American military withdrawal in August 2021 and its effects on the Afghan people living under Taliban rule for the second time.

In 2014, Gannon narrowly escaped death when a Taliban police officer shot into a car in which she was traveling with a Pulitzer-winning photographer and close friend, Anja Niedringhaus, who was killed in the shooting. Gannon’s own body was shattered. But eighteen reconstructive surgeries, done at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan, and two years of recovery later, she returned to Afghanistan.

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In an interview with PassBlue by phone from her home base in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, Gannon, who turns 69 on June 3, talked about her distress over trends in journalism.

She said she sees reporters who are opinionated, judgmental and self-important, and she calls for a return to more traditional role for media — especially in the West — that would allow consumers of news to make their own judgments, based on discoverable facts and what local people can share from their own experiences. Only ask questions and listen, is her advice.

“We are straying so far from what we are supposed to be doing,” she said.

She intends to take the message to media events and venues. On May 18, receiving an achievement award at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, she said: “Journalism is not about us, not about journalists. It is also not about advocacy. That is a job for others, not for those who profess to be journalists, chroniclers of history. . . . It is not about what you think is right or wrong, good or evil. You have no moral high ground.”

Gannon was born into an Irish-Canadian family in Timmins, Ontario, an important gold mining center. It was a close-knit family of six children, the descendants of 19th-century immigrants. When AP medevacked Gannon after the shooting in Afghanistan to a hospital in Frankfurt, Germany, her sister and three brothers were there, waiting to help her get through the ordeal. So was her husband, Naeem Pasha, a leading Pakistani architect, poet and promoter of young artists in a country stereotyped more often in the West as a seamless, stifling military state.

Gannon’s sister, Patricia Ann, a retired nurse, looked after her  in New York City, while she rested between surgeries in an apartment provided by the news agency. “Everyone in my family was beyond kind, committed to helping me because I couldn’t do anything by myself,” Gannon said. She also credits the AP for the quick, generous lifesaving actions that management took to ensure her survival and help her recovery.

Here is her remarkable story, told in her own words, edited and condensed for space. The interview is part of PassBlue’s Women as Changemaker series. — BARBARA CROSSETTE

Gannon at a junkyard in Kandahar, writing about US forces destroying and turning equipment into scrap rather than leaving it for the Afghan army, when the coalition was preparing to hand security to the Afghan national forces, 2014. Gannon narrowly escaped death that year when she and Anja Niedringhaus, a Pulitzer-winning photographer and dear friend, were shot at in their car by a Taliban police officer, killing Niedringhaus.

PassBlue: Tell us about your early life, if you will.

Gannon: My father was head of security at the Texas Gulf mine in Timmins [now owned by the Glencore Corporation]. He had to quit school in grade 3 or 4 to work in the lumber camps in the Gatineau area of Quebec, where he was from. Mom was a teacher. My dad went to work quite young, but he was an avid reader, having taught himself to read phonetically. But his spelling wasn’t very good, so my sister and I would often edit the reports he had to hand in monthly as head of security. My father was a man who believed your word was everything and your name was all you had, so you had to respect it. I worked at the mine site on the surface in the office one summer during college and I brought home a box of pens — everyone took home office supplies. He made me take them back and apologize to my boss. Area-wise, Timmins is one of Canada’s largest cities, but it is mostly bush [current population is about 41,000]. When you come into Timmins from Sudbury, you see a sign that says, “Welcome to Timmins, city center 32 kilometers.” The next sign is a moose-crossing warning. I still have relationships in Timmins. My parents are buried there; three of my brothers are buried there.

PassBlue: After the 2014 shooting in Afghanistan, which killed your colleague and close friend Anja Niedringhaus — sitting next to you in the car under attack — you had only seconds to assess your injuries. How extensive were they?

Gannon: My left hand was almost off; there was only a stump. Most of my left forearm was gone. My right shoulder blade was shot up, my right lung was punctured and my right wrist and fingers were shattered. I have an artificial bone in my right hand.

PassBlue: Yet after 18 surgeries and almost two years in recovery, you went back to the region, to a country where somebody tried to kill you.

Gannon: You don’t want to be hostage to fear. If I wouldn’t have gone back, I would always have been afraid of what could happen. I said [of the man who shot her], one person does not define a nation. I really believed that. But I had to go back to really know that. In my heart I felt it, but I had to be sure that it was also in my head. It was important to go back that I could conquer the fear . . . what you have to do to make yourself feel strong inside yourself. Reporters have to go there. That’s what we do. For me, it was very important for me to do my job.

PassBlue: Isn’t it difficult now for journalists reporting from places like Afghanistan and Ukraine to suppress reactions that would be understandably judgmental, angry or given to emotion? Would hugging a victim be crossing the line?

Gannon: I hug people all the time. If I see somebody crying, I can show it in my story, but I’m not sobbing alongside of them. It’s not that I don’t have emotions. Honor killing [in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region] is a horrific crime [about which she has written], as is the idea that a woman has to carry the honor of the whole family. Frankly, we are so far from [understanding] a lot of this in the West. They’re not monsters, they’re Afghans and their self-images are tribal. We can’t say, “I won’t talk to them because they are monsters.”

PassBlue: What’s next in your life now that you’ve retired from journalism?

Gannon: There are lots of things that I can do. I want to get my French back. I may want to go back and get my masters in Urdu. Pasha [her husband] is a leading architect here, and a lot of our friends are artists. It’s a community of people with remarkable ideas. We have a very full life, so our intention is to spend half a year or so here and half a year in Canada. We have a condo in southern Ontario, not far from where my sister lives. And I’m writing a book built around conversations I have had with people in the region who influenced my thinking. The first one I have written is about Anja — about the stories we had done together, about Afghanistan and its people and the story of Pakistan through two different pairs of eyes. All that has gone on over the last 30 years — and what tomorrow might bring. Another “conversation” will be with Hamid Karzai [a former Afghan president] reflecting on post-2001 Afghanistan: where it went wrong, or right, and everything in between. The last conversation is with Pasha on Pakistan and how his country is misunderstood, but also how it breaks the hearts of its citizens so often.

We welcome your comments on this article..  What are your thoughts?

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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