Did NPR endanger an Afghan farmer’s life?

A tenet of a strong ethics code calls for journalists to minimize the harm their work might cause. To that end, a lieutenant colonel thought NPR may have endangered the life of an Afghan farmer.

The farmer was quoted by his first name in a story about Afghans cooperating with the Americans against the Taliban.

NPR’s military correspondent, Tom Bowman, has been embedded with different American military units this month trying to tell the story of the U.S. effort to drive the Taliban out of the Kandahar region in southern Afghanistan.

Bowman’s 7-minute piece last week on All Things Considered took listeners along on a five-day Green Beret patrol with Afghan commandos moving toward Ezabad, a village that is right in the middle of Taliban country.

“Over the coming months,” said Bowman on air, “Eli and his team hope to create an armed community watch program in the village as another line of defense against the Taliban. Similar watch groups are up and running in the farming areas north of Kandahar city. The Green Berets are working, literally, one village at a time.”

Eli is a 32-year-old Green Beret from Idaho who Bowman interviewed.  Bowman did not use Eli’s last name for security reasons.

But Bowman did name a farmer who Eli and his team were trying to recruit for an armed security watch against the Taliban.

BOWMAN: The farmer’s name is Nabi. He’s tall, thin and nervous. He squats on a mat inside his house, together with the soldiers. The Americans ask him about the Taliban. He says they slip into the village quietly. They intimidate the villagers. They’ll send what’s known as a night letter, a written threat to beat or kill anyone who supports the Americans.

NABI: (Through translator) They will drop night letters in the mosque and they told everybody, hey, I don’t want to see anybody help out American guys and, you know, staying with them and talking to them. So, I don’t want to see anybody around here doing that.

BOWMAN: Here in Ezabad, some of the villagers support the Taliban. Others are just scared and unwilling to choose sides. Eli asks Nabi to side with the Afghan government and join an armed security watch to help the village fight the Taliban. Nabi won’t commit. Eli isn’t about to let him off so easily.

ELI: Okay, hey, is he ever going to come have lunch with me and the men?

NABI: (Through translator) He says I’m not sure, but I’ll be there.

ELI: How about tomorrow so we can plan on it? At one 1:00?

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

BOWMAN: Sure enough, the next day, Nabi visits the American compound and says he’ll join the armed community watch. It’s one small victory for the Green Berets.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Kandahar province, Afghanistan.

Lt. Col. Kraig Kenworthy (USMC) called to say he was infuriated that NPR used the farmer’s first name. Kenworthy complained that by revealing the farmer’s name and location, Bowman had essentially put a target on his forehead that meant he would be made an example of by the Taliban.

Rather than minimize harm, Kenworthy said NPR demonstrated a “frivolity for life.”

Bowman, who is in Afghanistan on a 5-week assignment accompanying U.S. military units, replied by email that he had asked the Special Forces unit he was with if it would be ok to use the farmer’s first name.

“They said no problem,” said Bowman. “Again, this guy is taking part in a very PUBLIC effort: community watch program, where he will essentially take up arms against the Taliban, and walk around his village. This guy is in no way a secret source of some kind.”

Bowman and his editor, Bruce Auster, said this was not a tough call for them because people in the village of Ezabad already knew the farmer had decided to work with the Americans.

“This case did not raise the issue in the way other examples might,” said Auster. “The chief reason is that the farmer in the story was signing up for a very visible role with the Americans. People in the village where he lived would know about it. So we were not revealing anything that the man wasn’t making public himself.”

The Green Beret unit Bowman was with did not complain about the story after hearing it.

I asked J.D. Gordon, a retired Navy Commander and former Pentagon spokesman, if he felt NPR had endangered the farmer.

“At a quick glance, it does appear that NPR was within its rights to use the Afghan farmer’s first name in the story about the patrol with U.S. forces,” said Gordon. “Tom Bowman interviewed the farmer ‘on-the-record’ alongside the U.S. soldier, who also used a first name. If there was any objection to the interview or a request that his name not be used, the farmer could have made that abundantly clear at the time. Furthermore, Mr. Bowman states that he clarified his intent to use the farmer’s first name with the U.S. forces at the scene, who could have also raised an objection at that time.”

This is an example where NPR did discuss how to identify the farmer but thought it was important to humanize him by sharing his first name.

Cases such as this one require serious consideration. Not giving any information about the farmer (for example simply calling him “a farmer”) or identifying him only  by his first name would not have lent the kind of credibility that comes with a first and last name.

But, as Lt. Col. Kenworthy argued, in some cases giving any identifying information can make someone vulnerable to retaliation – and the Taliban have a long history of killing those perceived as cooperating with the Americans or the Afghan government.

Most important, in this case, is that Auster and Bowman thought about the potential impact, consulted with the military, and weighed all the relevant considerations. They are accountable for their decision, which was a reasonable one under the circumstances.

By the way, Bowman and Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson have done some terrific reporting in Afghanistan often putting themselves in harm’s way on a daily basis. One might question some judgment calls, but overall they have given NPR listeners important information about a difficult, undercovered and troubling war.

This column was originally published on NPR.org on June 24, 2010.

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