Foreign journalists are often taken hostages with their local translator or driver. But where the journalist’s life has a real bargaining value and is therefore more protected, it is a known fact that the interpreter’s is often much more at stake.
As they were held hostage together, Sultan Munadi told Stephen Farrell, “I think you’re going to be O.K., but they’ve got it in for me.” The British journalist himselfrecalls: “I did not think they were going to kill me, I did think they were going to kill him.” Eric Schmitt also recount Farrell’s words in the New York Times:
“While Mr. Farrell said he was treated well — given food, water and blankets and never harmed — the militants increasingly taunted Mr. Munadi. At one point one of the Taliban reminded Mr. Munadi of a case two years ago in which an Italian journalist taken hostage in Helmand Province was freed while his Afghan translator was beheaded.“
There have been several other instances of such double-standards notably in Iraq and Afghanistan between foreigner and local lives. As such the tragic case of the kidnapping of an Italian journalist in 2007, who was kidnapped alongside his translator and eventually freed whereas his Afghan interpreter was beheaded by the abductors.
Several reasons can explain those double-standards.
Firstly, foreigners in general (NGO workers, journalists, etc.) have more value to the eyes of the kidnappers than the life of a local driver, journalist or translator.
Interpreters who work with foreigners are also more likely to be targeted by kidnappers or attacks as they are considered as traitors by the insurgency. At the beginning of the war in Iraq, AP considered translating Arabic to Americans “one of the most dangerous civilian jobs in one of the world’s most dangerous countries”.
Finally, Western governments are more prone to negotiating/paying ransoms to the kidnappers rather than having one of their nationals brutally executed abroad. When the kidnapped translator for an Italian journalist was killed, the Taliban ‘spokesman’ said at the time that:
“When we demanded the exchange for the Italian journalist, the government released the prisoners, but for the Afghan journalist, the government did not care.”
Thus a question springs to mind: should the government of a kidnapped journalist also take responsibility for the local journalist, translator or driver who accompanies him? They certainly are essential in enabling journalists to do their job.
I’ll leave you with this quote from Barry Bearak, a Times correspondent who worked with Mr. Munadi in 2001 and 2002:
“The story calls [Sultan Munadi] an ‘interpreter,’ which misleads the reader about what these great people do for us. They serve as our walking history books, political analysts, managers of logistics, taking equal the risks without equal the glory or pay.”