Soviets step up war against reporters in Afghanistan
Earlier this year, a British television crew working for an American network crossed clandestinely from Pakistan into northern Afghanistan. For 10 weeks, they toured several provinces in an effort to report on the state of the Afghan resistance and the effects of rising Soviet repression against civilians.
Traveling hundreds of miles by foot, their food and equipment loaded on horses, they traversed 14,000-foot-high mountain passes, waded across fast-moving rivers, skirted Soviet military observation posts, edged their way down ravines scattered with mines, and avoided sleeping in the same place twice because of informers.
Only narrowly did they succeed in evading capture when Soviet heliborne troops began landing at dawn a few hundred yards away in a highland side-valley.
Throughout the entire trip, the cameraman and his soundman were unable to communicate with the outside world. Only by sending occasional hand-carried messages, which can take up to two or three weeks to reach the nearest telex office or phone in Pakistan, could they let friends know they were still alive.
By the time the crew finally emerged at the end of September, much of what they had filmed was considered ''old news'' by Western TV standards. Yet such 19 th-century-style expeditions are often the only means of furnishing in-depth coverage of the war.
After nearly five years of Soviet occupation, Afghanistan still ranks as one of the world's most poorly reported conflicts. To make matters worse, it is becoming an increasingly hazardous war to cover.
This was recently highlighted by the capture of French TV journalist Jacques Abouchar during a Soviet-Afghan Army ambush in southeastern Afghanistan on Sept. 17. Over the weekend, a Kabul court sentenced Mr. Abouchar to 18 years in an Afghan prison for entering the country illegally.
Furthermore, any efforts at providing a balanced assessment of the war based on first-hand experience are handicapped by the refusal of the Soviet-backed Afghan government to grant visas to reporters who have previously visited Afghanistan with the resistance. Even when journalists are allowed in, their movements are restricted to the area around Kabul, the Afghan capital. Only occasionally have Westerners been able to go to other government-occupied towns.
These difficulties, as well as a lack of editorial resolve, have resulted in a general failure of the American news media to produce more regular and detailed coverage of the war. Many American editors consider Afghanistan too remote or too costly in time and money to merit dispatching a correspondent there on a regular basis. By contrast, European, and notably French media, have managed to provide far more consistent coverage.
Whereas hundreds of Western journalists flocked to Kabul and the guerrilla-held regions during the initial months of the Soviet occupation back in 1980, only a handful of reporters venture into the depths of Afghanistan on serious, long-term assignments at any one time.
Despite such paltry numbers, however, the Soviets are noticeably irked by the persistant infiltration of foreign journalists. As the effects of Soviet attacks on civilians become increasingly apparent, the Kremlin would rather contain all ''unofficial'' access to the country.
It seems clear the Soviets are intent on exploiting the sentencing of Mr. Abouchar to intimidate other journalists from entering Afghanistan. Several weeks after Abouchar's arrest, the Soviet ambassador in Islamabad, Pakistan, reportedly warned that from now on, any journalists caught with the guerrillas would be ''eliminated.''
When asked whether this was now part of Soviet policy in Afghanistan, a Soviet Embassy official in Washington did not acknowledge that this was so. But he noted that anyone ''violating the territorial integrity of Afghanistan would have to face the consequences.''
According to French observers, Moscow and Kabul will try to get as much propaganda mileage as possible from the Abouchar case to prove what they claim to be Western involvement in undermining the Afghan regime.
Such a precedent in propaganda exists. In March 1983, Soviet troops captured French doctor Philippe Augoyard in Logar Province, where he was engaged in clandestine health care among civilians in resistance-controlled areas. Put on trial and sentenced to eight years' imprisonment, he was deported only after he had ''admitted'' before TV cameras to subversive activities.
The Soviets have also exerted great pressure on the Pakistan government for allowing Western journalists, doctors, and relief workers to cross into Afghanistan.
The Pakistanis claim it is in their interests for the Western press to report on the war. Nevertheless, they have apprehended at least a dozen Westerners over the past few months while trying to enter Afghanistan.
Some Western observers say the Soviets will try to increase pressure on the Pakistanis to halt journalists, just as the Soviets have stepped up pressure for allowing Afghan guerrillas to operate from Pakistani soil by bombing frontier towns and refugee camps.
From the Soviet point of view, a European diplomat says, the movement of journalists to and from the border is at least as dangerous as the movement of weapons.
''Ideally,'' he adds, ''they would like to get on with their war without the outside world knowing.''