2014 Tara Singh Hayer Memorial Award Winner: Kathy Gannon

Monday, November 24, 2014
AP Special Regional Correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan Kathy Gannon sits with girls at a school with girls at a school in Kandahar, Afghanistan on October 1, 2011. PHOTO: AP/Anja Niedringhaus
By Kelly Crichton It’s every journalist’s First Commandment: “Thou shalt not wear your heart on your sleeve.” And in the company of the powerful, journalist Kathy Gannon’s feelings are neatly stowed away. Warlords, mujahedeen and politicians of every make and ill-gotten means see her as a mere scribe of history, albeit a courageous, tenacious and very clever one. But when she sits down to write about those powerful actors and their effect on the citizens of Afghanistan, there is no mistaking where Kathy Gannon’s passion lies. For more than two decades, she has been on the ground chronicling the devastation that foreign invasions, corruption, internal wars and Western blundering continue to have on the people of Afghanistan. “You can’t really cover a story unless you can get to the village where a raid has happened or to a bomb site to see for yourself how the people have been affected,” she says. Gannon writes for the people. She writes hoping that her audience will gain some insight into where, why and how their own governments have gotten things so terribly wrong in their heavy-handed attempts to “fix” Afghanistan so the country suits their own objectives. In a curious way, Gannon’s passion for getting the story on the ground has its roots in small-town Canada. “I always felt Canada was such a big country—but with a small population, it always felt more like a town than a big city. And so it was important to know what everybody was thinking, not just the important people.” She was born and raised and had her first journalism job in Timmins, Ont. Then it was points west. In Prince Albert, Sask., she dined with the likes of Tommy Douglas and John Diefenbaker, who nicknamed her “Sunshine.” Beautiful B.C. tempted her during a stint as city editor for the Kelowna Courier, but in her heart, Gannon always wanted the life of a foreign correspondent. She acted on the dream in 1984. “I knew there weren’t many openings available to Canada-based journalists as foreign correspondents, so I sold everything and initially went to Israel.” After Israel, Gannon travelled to Japan, before finally arriving in Peshawar, Pakistan. In 1986, the border town of Peshawar teemed with Afghan refugees and mujahedeen leaders. The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan seven years earlier, and Gannon, then 32, wanted to see what was happening first-hand. She persuaded one of the most radical mujahedeen groups, Hezb-e-Islami, to let her travel throughout Afghanistan with some of its fighters. They trekked through mountain corridors with the full force of the Soviet military bearing down on them. “I remember hiding beneath a clump of trees as a helicopter gunship hovered overhead… I could hear the whir of the blades. I tried to disappear inside the tree trunk.” “Fearless” is a word often ascribed to Gannon, but it doesn’t mean she is without fear. “I don’t deny I get afraid. But I am more afraid of being hostage to my fear,” she says. “I take strength from the people I’m with… I stop, take a deep breath. The alternative is just not acceptable.” Her refusal to give in to fear, along with her knowledge of and respect for the culture and history of Afghanistan, won her the respect of locals and leaders alike. “You really have to embrace the people and the culture of your host country… you have to spend a lot of time earning their respect,” she says. “That doesn’t mean being a bully, but they have to be convinced of your own bravery.” In one particularly petrifying moment in 1996, Gannon was on the front lines in Kabul as Taliban fighters swept away the remains of a corrupt and fractured mujahedeen government. An enraged Northern Alliance soldier pounded on her car. Instead of telling the driver to keep going, Gannon asked him to stop the car to ask the soldier why he was so angry. His response left no room for doubt. “Go home to America. It is Americans who brought the Taliban.” Gannon’s trenchant eye, along with her courage and carefully cultivated sources in the top ranks of the regime, help explain why she was one of the few Western journalists the Taliban allowed back into the country when it took power in 1996. Since that time, she has charted the brutal course of the Taliban’s rise and fall, especially the dramatic impact of 9/11. Gannon has consistently documented how the clumsy and often cruel re-involvement of the American military failed to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. And she does not hesitate to point out that the Western-backed government in Kabul, rife with corruption, warlords and former mujahedeen, has created little improvement in the lives of locals. Gannon’s 2005 book, I is for Infidel: From Holy War to Holy Terror in Afghanistan, is an astute, absorbing account of 18 years of work in Afghanistan. As in her reporting, she does not hesitate to speak truth to power, Western and Taliban alike. From what she knew was the privileged position of a Western woman, she challenged leaders about their drastic curtailment of the rights of women in Afghanistan. And while those rights have become the rhetorical centrepiece of Western governments’ fading preoccupation with the region, in I is for Infidel it’s clear how the West, anxious for stability in the region, dismissed such concerns in 1996. At a UN news conference in Kabul, Gannon listened as the UN Special Envoy, in response to a question from a reporter, pronounced: “Women? Don’t talk to me about women… that is a cultural issue. I am trying to negotiate peace.” In 2006, the International Women’s Media Foundation recognized Gannon’s work with a Courage in Journalism Award. In 2003-2004, she held an Edward R. Murrow Press Fellowship from the Council on Foreign Relations, and in 2010 she received a rare Board of Governors’ Award from the National Newspaper Awards. In a citation for her award, the judges wrote: “Kathy Gannon of the Associated Press has covered Afghanistan longer than any other Canadian journalist. Throughout it all, she never stopped telling the story of the people of Afghanistan.” Gannon’s colleagues are no less effusive. The CBC’s Susan Ormiston calls her a classic “go-to” person: “A lot of us did that. She was somebody you could tap into to say, ‘Kathy, what is the ground truth?’” In April 2014, Gannon and her friend and colleague, the renowned photographer Anja Niedringhaus, were covering the start of the Afghan elections. While accompanying a secure convoy delivering ballots, the pair took shelter in the back of a car to prevent rain from damaging their equipment. Moments later, a unit commander assigned to guard the convoy opened fire, targeting the two women. Niedringhaus was killed instantly. Gannon suffered six bullet wounds in the arm, shoulder and hand. The commander was arrested. His motives remain unclear, but it is believed members of his family had been killed in an American raid. Now in recovery, Gannon is applying those same lessons in managing fear that she learned in the field. “In the beginning, I couldn’t even feed myself. But, again, the alternative isn’t acceptable. You either give in, or you keep going.” For Gannon, the loss of her friend is devastating. “Anja and I had the same belief in the way to tell a story. Nothing made her happier, nothing made me happier, than to get out there and see for ourselves what was happening. We felt it was a privilege to be there.” Yet Gannon is the first to admit that it’s become increasingly difficult for journalists to get out to the story. “Journalists are now seen as tools by parties in a conflict, and that makes them subject to hostage-taking and worse. It’s a real challenge for them and for media organizations trying to figure out how to protect their people.” Kathy Gannon’s courage in the face of danger, her determination to bring truth to a dreadful reality, and her ongoing dedication to the people whose lives she charts so faithfully make her a role model for us all. She embodies the essence of the Tara Singh Hayer Memorial Award. For her, the award is hugely significant and important. “It is a thrill to win an award that is Canadian and to be recognized by my peers.”
Kelly Crichton worked as a journalist in television and radio for more than 40 years.

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