Aswat Asharq Al-Awsat :
Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Aswat Asharq Al-Awsatt since 1987
TT

Aswat Asharq Al-Awsat : Trials and Tribulations of a Foreign Correspondent

As the first rumblings of war are heard from Europe the editor of a major American newspaper decides to send a reporter to the old continent to see what is going on. He wants “our best and brightest” for the job and finds it in John Jones arousing the jealousy of older and more experienced reporters.
This is the opening of “Foreign Correspondent” Alfred Hitchcock’s fast-paced 1940 film with Joel McCrae in the title role. The idea that you need your best and brightest as a foreign correspondent existed before McCrae faced Hitchcock’s’ camera and has continued ever since.
However, working as foreign correspondent didn’t maintain the exciting, risk-free and glamorous role that the old movie implies. To be sure the exciting aspect has remained along with fading shades of glamor. But the job is no longer risk-free and, in more and more cases, could even lead to death. Since 1991 over 2600 reporters have been killed in the line of duty, so to speak.
We cite the 1991 date because it was at its very end that one of the most famous foreign correspondents, Terry Anderson of the Associated Press, was released after 2,454 days of being held hostage by Hezbollah in Beirut. By sheer coincidence Anderson passed away aged 76 last week, just days before World Press Freedom Day on May 3.
Again by coincidence, Anderson died just a day after Italian diplomat Giandomenico Picco, the UN’s hostage negotiator who helped arrange his release, died aged 75.
In the 1980s, Beirut, capital of Lebanon was perhaps the most dangerous assignment that daredevil reporters coveted. Lebanon was a story within a story or even a story within several stories, something like Russian Matryoshka dolls. There were tensions and, at times, warfare among the various sects. Then you had tensions and conflicts within each sect. To complicate matters further you had a dozen foreign powers, including big beasts such as the United States and the USSR and wannabes like Col. Muammar Kaddafi’s Libya, Iran’s Khomeinist mullahs, the Vatican, Israelis, and of course Hafez al-Assad’s Syrian troops and local agents.
Covering what all those actors did was no easy task. The smallest risk was that they would treat you like mushrooms, keeping you in the dark and feeding you nonsense. But there were bigger risks including being caught in crossfire or targeted for assassination as several Lebanese journalists had been. The entry of Khomeinist mullahs in the Lebanese game introduced a new risk: being seized as hostage and used as a bargaining chip in haggling with the “Great American Satan” and its smaller French and British companions.
Iranian Ali Akbar Mohtashamipur, the man running pro-Tehran networks in Damascus and Beirut, had warned that he would use “absolutely any method” to pursue the aims of the Khomeinist revolution. And that included seizing hostages, an innovation that turned Anderson along with numerous other American, French and British journalists, aid workers, priests, and businessmen into captives of Hezbollah.
Anderson was seized on a Saturday after a game of tennis with his AP photographer Don Mell. AP’s star reporter was to spend the next seven years often kept in the dark, subjected to severe beatings, and chained to a radiator. His captors wanted him to confess to being a CIA spy.
They didn’t know that in a 1977 executive order President Jimmy Carter, persuaded by the American Society of News Editors (ASNE), had banned the use of journalists as agents or informants. Nor did they know that true reporters seldom turn out to be good at espionage if only because they want everyone to immediately be informed of what they have found out.
The work of a reporter may resemble that of a spy because both gather information. But the spy has few readers whom he might know while the reporter has countless readers he does not know.
No genuine reporter would want to see his report becoming a message in a bottle thrown in the sea in the hope that someone might find and read it.
To be sure we have had journalists working as spies. Some of them, all French, are portrayed in Vincent Jauvert’s fascinating book “Sold to Moscow” which, again coincidentally, appeared just days before Anderson died. However, all, including editors of two major weeklies, were desk journalists, not field reporters and sold the titbits they easily gathered in the corridors of power in Paris in exchange for cash.
The mullahs who had already reaped benefits from seizing US diplomats hostage in Tehran continued to milk that cow in Beirut as well. Using American hostages, including Anderson, who had the highest profile as bargaining chips, they persuaded President Ronald Reagan to approve a complicated gun-smuggling scenario to help Iran in its war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The scheme led to the Iran-Contra scandal that shook the Reagan administration.
The “deal” led to freedom for Anderson and those of US hostages who had not died in captivity. As Mohtashamipur has predicted hostage-taking along with suicide bombing became “important arms of the dispossessed against mire powerful enemies.” The current version of that scenario is on stage in Gaza with hostages used as Hamas’s key weapon against Israel.
Anderson often claimed that he survived his ordeal partly because as a teenager he had trained as a US marine and then served in Vietnam. On a few occasions that we met him, Anderson said he bore no hatred towards his jailers and, trying to keep up a stoic chin, pretended to have suffered no sequels. However, evidence presented at a trial against Iran, as the ultimate controller of Hezbollah, showed that Anderson continued to suffer from post-traumatic disorder.
The court awarded him $26 million from Iranian frozen assets. He spent much of the money on charitable causes including protection of journalists and help for children in Vietnam.
He also penned a book about his ordeal “Den of Lions: Memoirs of Seven Years” which didn’t turn out to be a page-turner and proved, once again, that reporting from the field is something and writing books is something else.
Don Mell, who was quickly released by Hezbollah, decided, perhaps wisely, that being an AP field photographer, though full of thrills, isn't worth risking a second captivity. He retired from the news business to become a rich man in finance, something no reporter could dream of.
Years later, Mell asked Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s chief, why he had been released quickly. “Do you fish?” Nasrallah asked. «If you catch a big one, you throw the other ones back.”
Anderson had been the big fish as every foreign correspondent, before and after Joel McCrae dreamt of becoming one.