Samer Allawi, the bureau chief for Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel, met me in the broad entry hall. On a TV set in his office, images of weeping Palestinian women marching in martyrdom headbands alternated with pictures of men harvesting fruit in Oman. Allawi’s desk was clean but for a few papers, a computer, an apple, and a painting on glass that his daughter had made, which said in childlike Arabic script: “We love you, Dad.”
Allawi has been working for Al Jazeera’s Arabic language channel in Kabul for five years, and has been bureau chief for the last four. Born in Palestine, he moved to Pakistan in 1986 and studied law. A decade later, he started working as a journalist in Islamabad for TV channels in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Dubai. Al Jazeera’s Arabic service shares the Kabul bureau with its sister channel, Al Jazeera English. Nader is a stringer with an exclusive contract. The other journalist detained by NATO, Rahmatullah Nekzad, is a freelance contributor to Al Jazeera who has also worked for The Associated Press.
Nader has never studied journalism. “He’s originally not a professional journalist,” Allawi told me. But like so many others, he had learned on the job. Al Jazeera sent him for a week’s training in Doha, mainly in how to use his camera, and he has attended follow-up sessions in Kabul. Additionally, Allawi told me that he talks constantly to his field reporters about how to handle sources and make ethical choices in sensitive situations. “Training in the field is very important,” Allawi told me. “It’s more important than academic training in a classroom. When they get out of that classroom, they forget everything.” Despite his lack of training, Allawi said, Nader’s access to sources on all sides of the conflict has made him invaluable.
Yet Allawi acknowledged that professional missteps had led to Nader and Nekzad’s arrests. The day the men were released, ISAF’s communication director, Navy Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, had visited Allawi and shown him transcripts of telephone conversations that had been recorded between the journalists and Taliban spokesmen. According to the transcripts, Nekzad was asked by an insurgent to hand over some film he’d made of Taliban attacks. Nekzad appeared to agree, or in any case, he didn’t say no. In Nader’s case, an insurgent spokesman had invited him to come and film the bodies of civilians killed in a NATO attack. Nader had told the man that he couldn’t come to where the bodies were. But he said that if the Taliban brought the bodies to the city, he would film them there, and if they organized a demonstration, he would cover it.
Allawi told me that he had tried to convey to his staff that nothing should be staged for the camera. The accusation against Nader fell into this category. “It is very simple,” Allawi told me. “We should not agitate the people.”
The accusation against Nekzad was, in Allawi’s view, a tougher call. Nekzad lived in Ghazni, an insurgent-dominated central province. He had been detained by Afghan authorities in 2008 after he photographed the victims of a Taliban execution. According to the transcript Allawi saw, an insurgent spokesman had asked for Nekzad’s tape and Nekzad had appeared to agree, but it was unclear exactly what words he had used to indicate his agreement. Afghanistan is not a place where people simply say no. Language is not direct here, and outright refusal is one of the hardest things for Afghans to articulate. In the West, “no” means no, but in Afghanistan, “maybe” can mean no and “probably” can mean no. “If somebody calls me and wants sensitive pictures that I have, usually I do not say no from the beginning,” Allawi told me. “You say, ‘Why not? Let me discuss it.’ ” A reporter might say he would ask his boss, then tell his source, sorry, I’m not allowed. Everyone would understand.