OPC Press ID: ‘A Lifesaver’

By Anand Gopal

In the winter of 2013, I heard a story about U.S.-backed forces burying a child alive in a remote village in Kandahar, Afghanistan. While investigating, I was arrested by forces loyal to the brutal police chief Abdul Raziq, America’s man in Kandahar. I was expelled from Kandahar and barred from ever returning. But the report haunted me, and I figured that the same phenomenon that allowed insurgents and drug lords to slip in – gross incompetence – might enable an independent journalist to return unnoticed. I spent months making calls, charting locations of every police checkpoint, and mapped a route avoiding them, all the way to the village.

When I returned, on assignment for Harper’s, I travelled with my Afghan colleague through back alleys, judiciously avoiding checkpoints. We emerged onto a bridge heading out of the city when suddenly a hulking man in a bandolier stepped onto the road and stopped our car. I told him I was a journalist, but he demanded to see identification. This is always a moment of panic for freelancers the world over; we don’t have press cards, or any type of identification that can pass muster with officious local authorities. Sometimes, we get a letter of assignment, but those impress few people in places like Afghanistan, where they expect a well-laminated, official looking ID. Almost no freelancers I knew possessed such a card; in desperation, some even tried to make their own.

I knew that if I tried to explain the pitiful plight of the freelancer to the gunman, I’d likely not get very far. So I fished out the only substitute I could think of: my library card. The gunman studied it, impressed by the heavy lamination, the New York University torch logo, the passport-sized photo, the fine print on the back. It was clear he could not read English. He flashed a giant grin and said, “I love journalists.” He waved us on.

As any freelancer can attest, we are often not so lucky. In Iraq, I was detained by militiamen for investigating abuses U.S.-backed Iraqi forces had committed against civilians in the name of fighting ISIS. I spent hours trying to convince a gunman that I was a journalist, not a spy or ISIS operative, when he finally asked to see the last article I’d written. This happened to be the Harper’s piece on Kandahar’s murderous U.S.-backed forces – not exactly the type of story I wanted these murderous U.S.-backed forces to associate me with. I tried to dissuade him but he found Harpers.com and located my article – and realized that it could not be accessed. I’d never been so grateful for a paywall.

Not long after, I became an member of the Overseas Press Club. There’s a lot to commend the OPC, such as its dedication to international news at a time when foreign coverage is eroding, and the community of foreign correspondents it fosters. But the OPC’s Press ID has become a lifesaver. With the word PRESS brandished across the top (in English and Arabic), the ID is something I wish I had earlier in my career. It allows me to cross checkpoints, enter government offices, even obtain journalist visas. But most important, the OPC Press Card gives me a sense of security. In a world that’s growing ever more dangerous for journalists, and especially freelancers, nothing could be more valuable.

OPC member Anand Gopal is a journalist and author of No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban and the War Through Afghan Eyes. He won the OPC Best Magazine Reporting Award this year for his piece “The Hell After ISIS,” published in The Atlantic.

To learn more about the OPC Press ID, click here >>