Just… Wow

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by Joshua Foust on 3/26/2012 · 2 comments

Tara McKelvey reports on human rights in Uzbekistan, sort of:

As I stood at the gate, I held my passport and a notebook filled with the names of both kinds: dissidents who had been outspoken about human rights abuses, along with others who were willing to talk as long as they could remain anonymous. The list included activists, economists, a former government official who had resigned in protest after the Andijan massacre, one woman whose relative, a political leader, had been assassinated, and four journalists…

I thought about what would happen if he and his colleagues in Uzbekistan knew I was a journalist entering their country on a tourist visa, about what would happen to the people on my list. “No,” I lied.

He stepped over to me. “If you get on that plane and go to Tashkent,” he said, waving his hand toward the jet, “they will deport you. They will send you back on this plane.”

I might have argued, but I lost my nerve that night. I would have been fine, but what about the names in my notebook?

So.. that’s incredibly irresponsible of her, to travel on a fake visa with a notebook filled with the names of open and especially of sources who wish for anonymity to protect their identity. She was right to worry about what would have happened to those people had she been caught — they would have been imprisoned and tortured! As a journalist, she had no moral or ethical basis to risk their lives just so she could get a story, and I’m going to say shame on her for that.

That doesn’t mean the names on her list are blind victims — they surely know the risks of speaking with a westerner, and they know westerners are often shadowed by the SNB to monitor who they speak to. Even so, it’s a crazy risk, and now regular tourists and even scholars have a public record of journalists misusing the visa system to gain access. So… good luck with that one now, guys.

The meat of her piece is pretty vegan as well, if you get my drift. It can be summarized as “the U.S. wants to withdraw from Afghanistan, and to do so requires working with sketchy or monstrous people.” That’s about as interesting as an introductory class to international relations. And it’s not based on a whole lot: it kind of reads like “I didn’t go to Uzbekistan, but I talked to Bakyt Beshimov, who told me Kyrgyzstan kind of sucks, so Uzbekistan isn’t getting better.” It’s the Holiday Inn Express school of journalism.

None of that helps us understand what is happening in Uzbekistan or how the U.S. can navigate the complex moral choices involved in withdrawing from Afghanistan. While she does highlight the very real (and substantial) leverage that Uzbekistan has over U.S. policymakers — something activists like Steve Swerdlow, whom she interviewed, deny exists — she doesn’t have the contextual understanding to explain why such a thing matters or how it shapes the choices U.S. policymakers have to make.

McKelvey spoke with people who have a genuine richness of understanding about Uzbekistan and Central Asia (both Swerdlow and Beshimov have published impressive work), but it resulted in bland platitudes and a big close call of a trip that probably would have put a lot of people at risk. The sheer contentlessness of her piece is just… disappointing.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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AJK March 26, 2012 at 10:44 am

Enjoyable snark on this one.

I wonder if this piece was supposed to be some sort of Lost in La Mancha story of a failed story, but the editor nixed it and she had to paste on a couple of interviews instead. It just reads like two different stories trying to mate.

Not to mention, if she wanted to talk to Uzbeks who are activists, economists, and former government officials, she could’ve done so in DC or even where the plane got off in Turkey. She probably wouldn’t even get arrested stateside for being a terrorist for the honor of talking to folks! /grumble grumble

Ennio March 27, 2012 at 7:10 am

It was “incredibly irresponsible of her” to decide NOT to take that risk? What the hell?

Also the story says nothing at all about trying to exit Afghanistan; in fact, it is entirely about staying there, and how doing so requires sacrificing democratic values. And the article has no pretensions of explaining what is happening in Uzbekistan. You might as well complain that an episode of Spongebob doesn’t elucidate the mysteries of the early universe.

Since we’re playing the criticism-by-juvenile-reduction game, this post reads like “I don’t like other journalists covering MY turf, so I’m going to crap on them when they do.”

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