Major newspapers rang out headlines last week of the latest death toll of Canadians in Afghanistan: four soldiers and a journalist. As an aspiring journalist, it made me think about the motivation behind Michelle Lang’s desire to work in a war-torn country and how it led to a tragic end so early in her life. She was 34.
Lang and four soldiers died when a roadside bomb exploded under the vehicle they were travelling in on the outskirts to the south of Kandahar.
A total of 17 journalists have now died in Afghanistan since Sept. 11, but Lang’s death is a first in a long list of Canadian near-misses on the front lines. CBC reporter Mellissa Fung endured a 28-day-long captivity in Afghanistan, while freelancer Amanda Lindhout was recently released after being held in Somalia for 15 months. While also working for Canwest News Service in 2001, Levon Sevunts was in a car that was attacked by members of the Taliban – which killed three other foreign journalists. A handful of of other journalists have been injured in attacks, as well.
Not only did Lang volunteer for a six-week shift over the Christmas holidays, a slot reporters have said they balked at taking, but she went beyond her job. Some reporters in Afghanistan are embedded with the troops – they travel and work with soldiers. For safety, it’s better to be with the troops than on your own. On the downside, reporters must conform to what the military says they can and cannot publish.
But an embedded journalist could stay on base and report on press releases, briefings the inevitable ramp ceremonies. Others leave the base with the troops – a dangerous activity in itself as the roads are littered with IEDs, or improvised explosive devices – one of the Taliban’s main tactics.
Lang was one of the latter; she was determined to get off the base and witness how ordinary citizens are coping in Afghan villages. It was Lang’s bravery in the face of a very real danger that reminds us of the challenges that journalists in certain situations face in order to get a story that is as unbiased and revealing as possible.
While soldiers swear allegiance to Canada and are sent to fight for our country, journalists provide a service to the masses. We certainly have our own opinions, but someone must be there to gather information other than for the sake of knowledge and spreading it. That is what Michelle Lang died for: to bring you the story about Afghanistan. In her own way, as do all the Canadian journalists who are there following the war, she served this country in ways many don’t understand or realize – all the while risking her life.
Journalists give people an account of what’s happening, whether through watching politicians behave like children, standing outside in freezing cold to file a fluff story on the weather or venturing “outside the wire” with Canadian troops. The media is more than just a communication device; it bridges gaps between different sectors of a society that is organized along ethnic and socio-economic lines, as well as our respective areas of specialty in the workforce.
Lang was serving our society by virtue of being in Afghanistan to practice her craft, telling the stories of the Afghan people and the soldiers who risk their lives. She worked, along with other members of the media, to sustain the attention of the public on a conflict that has gone on during the majority of this decade. Journalists stop short of asking us to take any sides; they bring us the relevant information so that we may think critically of the world around us and take whatever action we deem necessary. The only thing they ask for is your attention to the matters at hand, for an informed public is one of the essential ingredients to a healthy democracy.