You were commended by the United Nations for the ‘best and most insightful’ coverage of the Afghan civil war. What were some of the biggest difficulties you encountered while reporting there?
The UN envoy for Afghanistan back in 1999, Lakhdar Brahimi, dropped that comment in at a regular press conference. He kicked off with something like: ‘Before we start, I’d like to specially commend …’ and he went on from there. It was quite something, but I guess he also had an idea of what my bureau had gone through over the previous 18 months. It was a simple touch, but very much appreciated.
The worst thing about reporting from there was being under house arrest on charges of spying. I had to defend myself in front of a Shariah court and was told I’d face the death penalty if I was found guilty. I eventually did prove my innocence before an assortment of 30-odd court officials, but it was a very lonely time.
On a day-to-day basis, the second half of 1998 was pretty bad. The house I was staying in was located behind the airport, which would be attacked by the then-opposition twice, perhaps three times, a week. Ahmad Shah Masood would fire Frog 7s, which are part of the scud series of Russian-made missiles, at the airport and often miss. Our windows were permanently taped up, the house was sandbagged and our dogs were the early warning system. They could sense any incoming and would immediately duck under a table and cower. We had about five to ten seconds to follow suit. It was really loud and the shockwaves were extremely powerful.
I covered thee major offensives launched by the Taliban over 1998 and 1999. They all failed and the carnage was memorable, although I prefer not to think about it too much. The Taliban refused to release details from the battlefield, which meant we had to travel frequently to the frontlines and confirm what was happening. Getting motivated over a morning cup of tea was always an issue.
And the food was atrocious and dirty, so being ill was a constant!
Since then, you’ve spent a lot of your time reporting from South-east Asia. What prompted the move to the region?
I first came to Asia in 1982, Singapore, and loved it. But my association can be traced back much further and is typical of my generation. I grew up in Australia watching the Vietnam War on TV and had a personal association with that conflict. I also remembered very well as news of the atrocities committed by Pol Pot slowly leaked out of what was then Kampuchea.
South-east Asia just had an allure—it was fascinating and at times frightening. When you consider issues like Islamic militancy, countries like Burma, North Korea and conflicts of differing levels elsewhere in the region, then not that much has changed. I kept writing about the region and eventually moved here permanently about 13 years ago. For me, it’s just an extraordinary place to be a foreign correspondent.
How much freedom do you have as a reporter in the region? Have you encountered any particular difficulties with officials?
It changes dramatically from country to country and the subject matter is obviously important as well.The Vietnamese, for example, asked me to leave their country in 1992 for ignoring official directives on what to cover. I was thrown out, but they were very nice about it and I’ve been back many times since.
I also faced a lawsuit launched by influential Cambodians in a Singapore court, but they backed down after then-King Norodom Sihanouk reprinted the offending article and gave it his official stamp of approval. I had a run-in with triads during the handover of Hong Kong back in 1997 after writing about the heroin trade in a post-colonial world. And in Iraq, the US military attempted to seize my communications equipment. I threatened a lawsuit and we negotiated a more ‘comfortable’ working relationship.
Attempts to influence media coverage, either by quiet seduction or outright intimidation, are a constant. However, by and large, for a Western reporter press freedom in South-east Asia’s democratic countries isn’t too bad, and overall we get the job done. But it needs to be remembered that foreign journalists tend to get away with a lot more than local scribes. Locals face a lot more bullying and have much more to lose if they offend the wrong people.
Thin-skinned leaders who control the public purse and believe they’re beyond criticism are always a problem. But I’ve often found officials in institutions like the International Monetary Fund or some human rights groups to be far worse than third world despots and prone to tantrums more befitting of a precocious five-year-old brat when journalists don’t deliver on their expectations.
Are there any issues you think have been overlooked by the mainstream media that you expect to come to the fore in the next few years?
The biggest complaint in Afghanistan back in 1999 was fatigue. Nobody wanted to know about the place. There was donor fatigue, media fatigue, Taliban fatigue. The wider world was fed up with the place and wished it would go away. Stories were ignored and promised aid never materialized and no one cared—until the September 11 strikes on the United States two years later.
But fatigue has again set in, and Islamic militancy led by hot-headed mullahs who believe bloody violence is an acceptable means to their religious and territorial ends remain an enormous threat. South-east Asia remains the second front, and I strongly suspect more strikes will be forthcoming.
The worst kind of strike will be a dirty bomb or gas attack. Such a strike might actually be small in nature, but these kinds of unprecedented attacks would have the capability of again turning the world on its head, not unlike Osama bin Laden did more than nine years ago with hijacked airliners.
At a national level, Thailand and its internal political turmoil remains a wildcard, as does Pakistan with its nuclear ambitions and threats from Taliban insurgents, which is largely a problem of its own making.
I also think there are one or two countries whose finances are very sick and in direct contrast to what official figures and their leaders say they are. The ramifications of this could be great.
One last thing. The environment and the inability of humans to live sensibly within it will remain a constant in years to come. The environmental movement and mainstream media coverage, however, is usually hysterical and opposition to cleaning-up the planet is driven by greed. Sadly, these two will probably combine and thwart what needs to be done, bringing about their own catastrophes.