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Afghanistan War Pictures Under Attack : Supporters, Critics Clash Over Work Done by U.S.-Trained Rebel Camera Crews

January 13, 1988|RONE TEMPEST | Times Staff Writer

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — The camera was focused on a convoy of Soviet tanks and trucks snaking through a rocky gorge along the Kabul River north of Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

As the vehicles reached a point where the gorge narrowed, Afghan rebels opened fire with rocket-propelled grenades. Several vehicles were hit, sending spirals of black smoke into the air.

The camera remained steady as the tanks returned the fire, peppering rebel positions on the rocky slopes.

Dramatic film of this battle was the centerpiece of a two-part report on the "CBS Evening News" last summer. Anchorman Dan Rather said the film was the work of veteran cameraman Mike Hoover "on assignment for CBS."

But the key Kabul River road segment of the report, CBS officials have confirmed since, was filmed by a young Afghan, Mohammed Salam, who had been recruited under a controversial U.S. government program to train Afghan rebels and send them into battle armed with cameras.

The program dates back to 1985, when Congress approved an appropriation of $500,000 to tell the world about the struggle of Afghan rebels against Soviet troops and those of the Soviet-supported government. Afghans themselves would be trained to do camera work.

According to supporters of the U.S. program, the CBS footage, as well as still photographs that were reproduced in magazines and newspapers around the world, demonstrates that in a short time the rustic Afghan guerrillas have begun to produce professional-quality material.

"With the right type of distribution," said Stephen Olsson, an American documentary film maker who serves as an adviser at the U.S. government-funded Afghan Media Resource Center here, "we have the potential to really open the window on the Afghan war. We are proving that the Afghans themselves can do it."

But opponents counter that what is being produced is war propaganda, filmed by combatants on one side of the 8-year war who have been known to put down their cameras and pick up their rifles.

For most of the Vietnam War, at least 400 American and European newsmen and women were on hand to document the action, including dozens of network camera crews in the field with the troops. Afghanistan has four times the territory of Vietnam, yet on any given day fewer than a dozen foreign journalists can be found there.

The United States is not directly engaged in Afghanistan, as it was in Vietnam, but this rugged country is the setting for the largest covert CIA operation since Vietnam. Last year, more than $600 million in U.S. funds were used to supply arms, including Stinger ground-to-air missiles, to Afghanistan's rebels, the moujahedeen .

"Clearly Afghanistan is near the top of the agenda for United States foreign policy," Kurt Lohbeck, a CBS contract journalist, said not long ago. "But Afghanistan is not near the top of our agenda in news coverage in the United States."

Lohbeck, one of the few American newsmen based on the Afghan border, has made many trips inside Afghanistan.

Western reporters are occasionally granted visas by the Soviet-backed Afghan government so that they can join strictly supervised tours of Kabul and other government strongholds. But assignment inside Afghanistan to cover the rebel side of the conflict is extremely time-consuming, expensive and dangerous.

American networks are not likely to send their people for several months to remote Afghan cities such as Herat or Mazar-i-Sharif, but "we pay these guys $7 a day and they will go anywhere," Olsson said, referring to the Afghan newsmen.

Recently the dangers have increased for the media. Reporters have been caught in the cross fire of rival rebel groups. At least three Westerners were killed working in Afghanistan last year, two of them Americans. Documentary film makers Lee Shapiro of New York City and James Lindelof of Los Angeles were killed by government soldiers in an October ambush.

Two others were captured. Early this month, one of them, French free-lancer Alain Guillo, was convicted of espionage by a court in Kabul and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

In a critically acclaimed documentary shown in July, also the work of cameraman Hoover, anchorman Rather intoned ominously: "This may be the last serious documentary to come out of Afghanistan for some time."

Olsson, a San Francisco-area native who made six trips into Afghanistan before he became an adviser to the Media Resource Center, said: "In 1984, I was willing to go anywhere. With the kind of security risks now, you are putting your life on the line. You have to think twice before you go in."

And this, Olsson said, makes the center's work more important than ever.

According to Acting Director Haji Said Daud, an Afghan formerly affiliated with two rebel groups, the center has trained 70 fighter-reporters, recruited from all the main rebel groups, since the center was established last year.

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