'The more I knew, the more reason there was to stay'
By Global Journalist Staff Posted Mar 9 2009
By Melissa Ulbricht
National Public Radio foreign correspondent Anne Garrels was in Columbia, Mo. in February to accept the Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism. Garrels has been reporting from Iraq since 2002.
Garrels has also reported from Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Russia, Israel, Central America, Afghanistan and other challenging areas. Not surprisingly, she has seen a lot. Many questions were asked of Garrels during her visit at the Missouri School of Journalism. A common theme was fear. A student asked how Garrels is able to remain confident while reporting. “I would be scared for my life,” the student said.
“You should be,” Garrels said. ďAnd being scared is the healthiest thing in the world.Ē
Global Journalist sat down with Garrels and talk about press freedom, international media and where she will not go next.
GJ: What is the biggest deterrent to a free press in many of todayís ďhot spotsĒ?
Anne Garrels: Fear. Without any question. Iím not sure where Iraq is on the list but it must be near the top as one of the most dangerous places. And journalists are killed for writing what people donít like. The result is that many are frightened. It has not stopped journalism, but some of the best journalists have had to flee the country or are now living abroad. Every single member of my staff is looking to leave the country and is afraid that they will pay a price for having worked for us in the future.
GJ: And these are the foreign locals?
Garrels: Yes, the Iraqis who are working with me.
GJ: What do you feel is the greatest danger facing countries or regions with little or no press freedom? What are the repercussions for that country or its citizens?
Garrels: Presumably those countries are already not in good shape and it just means there is absolutely no recourse for citizens. It goes hand-in-hand. Establishing a tradition of press freedoms is very, very difficult. Itís been difficult in Iraq. Where there is a lack of press freedoms, there are problems.
GJ: You said earlier that foreign correspondents are an ďendangered species.Ē You also talked about the importance of having on-the-ground foreign correspondents. Given this, how do we ensure a future for such correspondents?
Garrels: I have been in despair about this but I havenít been in a position to talk to people investigating it. But just now at the institute, at the Reynolds [Journalism] Institute, going around talking to some of the [RJI] Fellows, these are the issues they are thinking about. It was sort of exciting. Do they have answers? No. But they think they are getting closer to figuring out economic models whereby new media will generate income. At the moment that is not the case. And I think the public has got to Ė some in the public already do realize it, those that support NPR for instance Ė that having people on the ground makes a difference. That there is a difference between opinion and reporting. We have to help educate the public about this. We have to perhaps be more engaging so that the public understands.
There are raw economic and business models. It was interesting talking to the Fellows here who were thinking about that. It was inspiring to me because I just spent the last few months with colleagues overseas all of whom are losing their jobs, or many of whom are, I should say. So the idea that people are thinking creatively about it is exciting.
GJ: What is international media doing right or wrong today in coverage of war and conflict? I mean, NPR aside, what of U.S. new outlets or outlets in other countries?
Garrels: It is the cost of covering wars that is a huge impediment. With the coming costs with a build-up in Afghanistan, even before the number of troops is cut back in Iraq, the networks are cutting back, newspapers are cutting back their coverage. Because itís just too expensive to keep operations going in both places. Theyíre going to be shifting their attention to Afghanistan. I think that is problematic. I think we need to keep watching Iraq carefully.
I have to be pragmatic, weíre all going to have to scale back. We canít possibly afford the massive costs of doing both of those at once. Money, security, lack of mobility. Experienced people arenít exactly lining up to go. Weíre wearing people out, with experience. And now to have both Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan. Itís hard.
GJ: You said once that the one place you would not to go was North Korea.
Garrels: No, actually I think I said Iran. I said Iran. Or maybe it was North Korea.
In other words, I will not embark on another, you know, Iraq turned out to be a 6-year odyssey. And, it was worth it. When I got there, I didnít know that much. The more I knew, the more reason there was to stay. I really did feel I had something to offer and more and more to offer than I had originally. But Iím not going to embark on another 6-year odyssey.
GJ: So, no Iran and no North Korea?
Garrels: No way. But itís frustrating. Because the only way to do this right is to be there for a long time. So youíre caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.