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July 28 2011

13:43

Visualizing 10 Years of Violence Against Journalists in Afghanistan

Internews and Nai, an Afghan media advocacy organization, have collected hundreds of reports of threats, intimidation, and violence faced by journalists in Afghanistan. We recently announced a new site, which features 10 years of these reports. While Nai's data previously resided in spreadsheets, the new site allows the public to access hundreds of reports through visualizations and to download it directly. With this site we're raising the profile of media freedom in a country often characterized as among the most dangerous in the world for journalists.

Violence Against Journalists - data.nai.org.af

A screenshot of data.nai.org.af.

The site is packed with functionality that allows visitors to interact with the dataset in a variety of ways. Visitors can quickly scan the map to get a national overview of the data. They can drill down on individual provinces and individual years, seeing charts that depict violence over time when they mouse over the dots. If a visitor clicks on a year, they can even browse the data itself in a table just below the map.

We've also allowed visitors to turn on layers that can increase contextual understanding, such as the number of active journalists in each province, the number of media organizations in each province, and so on. Finally, users can download the full dataset and easily generate the code necessary to embed the map on other websites, in electronic press releases, and so on.

We included all this functionality without compromising one of the most important and desirable features of the site: speed. The maps are composited ahead of time, significantly reducing the loading time in Afghanistan and other bandwidth-constrained environments. We've also included a bit of code that dynamically evaluates each visitor's connection and serves map tiles that reflect that visitor's constraints. At the end of the day the maps are fast in spite of poor connections and remain fully interactive.

Violence Against Journalists map featuring ten years of incidents (see the website for more data and details):

June 11 2011

13:54

War and peace - Sebastian Junger on Tim Hetherington's death

Los Angeles Times :: Last Oscar season, author Sebastian Junger and photojournalist Tim Hetherington walked the red carpet together. Barely two months after the Oscars, on April 20, Hetherington was killed in a mortar attack in Misurata, Libya, where he was covering the rebel uprising against Moammar Kadafi's regime.

[Sebastian Junger:] War remains one of humanity's master narratives.

In the months since, Junger has resolved to pull back from combat journalism. "I'm not going to do any more front-line reporting, because I don't want to put my wife through what I went through with Tim," he said during a recent stopover in Los Angeles to promote the new paperback edition of his 2010 book "War,"

An interview by Reed Johnson, www.latimes.com

April 21 2011

14:28

Notifying Next of Kin in the Age of Facebook

When she picked up the phone, I could tell from the sound of her voice that she didn't know yet.

"I'm sorry to tell you this -- but I wanted you to hear from a friend, not Facebook. Tim Hetherington was killed in Libya. Chris Hondros too. I'm really sorry."

There's a nauseating absurdity to those words, but it's the conversation I had yesterday morning with a friend.

I'd been getting "pings" for an hour, mostly by Facebook IM, asking if I knew anything about the tweets coming out of Libya. I wasn't taking them especially seriously at first, having spent most of the last decade in the swashbuckling photojournalist's world of close calls, near-misses, slight embellishments, and wild exaggerations. In this very foggy realm of war and disaster, epic tales abound -- of firefights, explosions, abductions and the like -- but today's hype turned out to be real.

Contacting Next of Kin

As I began reading the SMS messages on my mobile, the phone rang. A friend in a newsroom, choking out words through tears that Tim was dead. Chris badly wounded. Another friend unaccounted for. Attempts were being made to reach Tim's girlfriend. Chris had just gotten engaged, and it was unknown if his fiancée had been contacted yet. No idea about their families.

By the time I got off the phone with her, and turned back to my laptop, conversation threads were spilling across Twitter feeds and Facebook walls. Prayers, questions, doubts, and speculation were spreading at digital speed.

I've been an embedded photographer, inserted with soldiers or Marines in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. I've often signed a contract known as the Embedded Media Ground Rules -- one of the most basic terms of the contract is that news of casualties is withheld, until such time as the next of kin have received official notice. When troops are killed, that process of notification means real, live, human messengers are dispatched to the doorsteps of mothers and wives - sometimes in a complex maneuver where multiple family members, spread out across different and distant locations must receive a coordinated, simultaneous knock on their doors.

In the forward "area of operation" controlled by the military, a communication blackout is usually imposed, with Internet and phone service, if they even exist, shut down until the next of kin have been contacted. It's one of the conditions that few journalists object to - most of us agree that no mother should have to learn of her son's death in the pages of a newspaper.

In the Facebook and Twitter age, the time delay of the print news cycle seems positively quaint. I thought about that as I watched real-time updates stream across my monitor and mobile screens -- and I wondered if Tim and Chris had family and close friends who hadn't even woken up yet in whatever time zone they were in.

News Spreads on the Social Network

For Tim and Chris, there weren't any media ground rules, and in rebel controlled territory in Libya, there was no Internet blackout. News of their deaths was transmitted across a personal social network that happened to be composed of professional communicators.

By mid-day, I'd learned that two other photographers had been wounded in the same incident. One of them was my friend Mike Brown, the other was a British photographer named Guy Martin who I've never met. The good news, at least, was that Mike had taken shrapnel to the shoulder, but was non-critical. The missing photographer, my friend Moises Saman, had made contact, and was safe, already in another country.

Conflicting reports kept coming about Chris - some said he's dead, others indicated that he suffered catastrophic head injuries but was clinging to life. There have been some angry comments about another photographer who first broke the news via Twitter or Facebook, and others of gratitude to him for assistance during the aftermath of the attack, as the wounded photographers received medical treatment.

Personally, I doubt that Tim and Chris probably would begrudge anyone for tweeting their deaths. In an information age, they lived and died by the sword, but it still feels kind of twisted.

If they could, my guess is that they'd both be advocating for a few whiskeys on their behalf. And that's where I'm headed.

Below is a photo I took of Tim Hetherington (left) and Basetrack's Balazs Gardi (right) in Brooklyn the night before Tim left for Libya.

tim hetherington and balazs gardi.jpg

October 19 2010

14:14

Basetrack Pushes Off to Follow Marines in Afghanistan

Safi Airways flight 4Q-52. Sept 28, 2010 at 20:00 GMT-Zulu -- I'm airborne and en route to link up with First Battalion, Eighth Marine Regiment (a.k.a. "one-eight," the subject of our Knight News Challenge grant), in southern Afghanistan.

We're at cruising altitude, somewhere between Hungary and Turkey, on a civilian flight into Kabul. The first leg of our trip, on Singapore Air between New York and Frankfurt, was fully packed. Frankfurt to Kabul is almost empty. Go figure. Apparently Afghanistan has yet to re-establish itself as a vacation destination for European tourists.

Battling Red Tape

Plan A was to travel from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina to Afghanistan with one of the first waves of Marines from one-eight -- but the battalion lost its first skirmish to red tape. Adjutant Lt. Hull, over at battalion HQ, waged a months-long campaign to clear me for travel on the chartered jets that the Marines use to reach Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan. I traveled to Camp Lejeune repeatedly as identification cards and travel orders were being processed.

Ultimately, I don't fit into any of the Pentagon-approved categories for non-military passengers -- I'm not a contractor or a detainee -- and so I find myself standing by and watching as the first group of Marines push off from Camp Lejeune at 5 a.m. on one of the last days of August.

I drag my kit back to the civilian airport at Jacksonville, N.C. the next morning and head back home. I'm actually more than slightly relieved to have the departure postponed -- I need every second I can get to scramble this operation up to half-baked status. We're still a long way from cruising altitude.

Preparations

Over the next month, my place in New York takes on the appearance of a propeller-head survivalist compound. Piles of Kevlar flak jackets and bullet-proof ceramic rifle plates accumulate in the corners of my living room, with satellite phones, GPS navigators, and head mounted fiber-optic cameras spilling out across the floors. Stacks of portable hard drives are wedge between waterproof expedition packs, shockproof hard cases and Camo Bivy sacks.

Dubious looking men with shaved heads and laptops occupy all available couches, and a pervasive smell of spray paint and WD-40 fills the air, as gear gets modified, tricked out, and dialed down. Conversation is limited to Skype conference calls between cities across the planet as blueprints are drawn out for everything from website architecture and digital data management to water purifiers and solar power generators. Airline weight allowances and national regulations pertaining to body armor become subjects of almost obsessive concern. AmEx calls me several times a week to inquire about the "unusual activity" on my credit cards.

Occasionally my 3-year-old daughter wanders into the living room, puts on a ballistic helmet, and turns on the CD system, thus injecting Shakira and mil-spec interpretive dance into the mix.

Exactly one month after the original deploy date, the first two-man crew heads out for Afghanistan. We barely make our flight, dragging more than our combined body weight in baggage with us.

But the project is finally wheels up and mobile -- and it now has a name and a website: Basetrack. (Here's a recent blog post about my flight to Dubai.)

Everything else is TBD, but ready or not, here we come.

More soon from the other side.

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