Journalist minimizes 28-day kidnapping ordeal to focus on status of citizens
On Tuesday Nov. 18, journalist Mellissa Fung came to Concordia to give a talk about her experience reporting in Afghanistan. The independent journalist, writer, and former reporter with CBC was captured and held for 28 days by an Islamist group in 2008. This happened while she was reporting for the CBC on Canada’s military intervention in the country. Despite this experience, she chose to go back later to keep reporting on the fragile state.
A few years after, she wrote a book about her story, entitled Under an Afghan Sky. This talk was part of a series of discussions held in seven journalism schools across Canada to share her experience.
The event, titled “Inside Afghanistan,” was organized by the Aga Khan Foundation, a non-profit organization which works towards social growth in the developing world.
André Roy, the Dean of Arts and Science, introduced Fung as being an inspirational example of journalism representing the “conviction, courage, passion, and commitment” necessary for success.
“Just because we have been at war in this country for the past 12 years doesn’t mean that things were going to turn around quickly,” said Fung. “We have to have patience.”
In her talk, Fung chose to focus on why she kept coming back to the country over the last seven years despite everything she’d been through. Even though she made headlines because of her kidnapping, she didn’t talk in detail about this experience. Fung explained that while the press tends to highlight the individual, she did not want to become the story. Instead, she hopes people will focus on talking about the lives of refugees and women overseas.
It is for this specific reason that she feels committed to the stories she collected, to put the spotlight back on those who are struggling every day. She also spoke about how much Afghanistan has changed and gained since 2001, coverage that traditional media tend to ignore in favour of more negative coverage like instances of suicide bombing.
“We have the responsibility as journalists to tell the other side of the story as well to get a complete picture of what really is going on in the country,” she said.
Fung explained that she had to argue with CBC in order for them to allow her to return to Afghanistan in 2011. They feared for her safety, but this was preventing her from covering the stories she believed in. Fung finally went back with an NGO working in Afghanistan.
According to her, 80 per cent of women in Afghanistan are still illiterate but the number of girls in school keeps increasing. “Development is a process, it is generational,” she said. In addition, new initiatives exist in the population. One of the stories she shared was about a school where boys and girls were learning side by side for a few years, before the government intervened.
Outside of education, she also looked at the healthcare system and talked about new initiatives increasing widespread healthcare access. The Afghan government for instance partnered with a French NGO to create the French Medical Institute for Children in Kabul. Twelve years ago, such a facility didn’t exist, and it is now expanding.
Fung’s lecture concentrated on the difficult situation of women, but she addressed it with positivity. She said that around 90 per cent of women have experienced some kind of sexual assault. However, increasingly women are able to speak up about it.
“Today they have control, they can have a choice. And that’s what makes the whole difference,” she said. “Women all have a sense of cautious optimism about the future, they know they made incredible progress over the last 12 years and they see a lot of hope that this will continue.”
Thanks to the lessons learned from working in “one of the world’s most fragile states,” Fung shared the challenges, risks and importance of treating all sides of a story. Through powerful stories about education, health and women, it is a sorely-needed bit of optimism in the challenging future that lies ahead for this country.