Rights & Freedoms

Elections 2014 (17): Journalists argue over neutrality, patriotism and the E-Day blackout


A journalist awarded by Interior Minister Omar Daudzai. Photo: Pajhwok

A journalist awarded by Interior Minister Omar Daudzai. Photo: Pajhwok

A debate has opened up on the role of the media during the Afghan presidential elections and its relationship with the Afghan state. It turns out that many journalists did not report or minimised reporting of Taleban attacks on election day – for a mix of political, patriotic and editorial reasons. In the days after, some journalists and security officials all over the country presented each other with awards for a job well done. It has left many other Afghan journalists deeply concerned about the risks to their hard fought for independence and integrity. AAN’s Kate Clark – who worked as a journalist herself for many years* – looks at the difficulties of reporting during wartime and the dangers of too cosy a relationship between the state and ‘fifth estate’.

One of the reasons why the presidential election ‘went so well’ was the hard work of Afghan journalists: their coverage of rallies and campaigns, holding of debates between the candidates and phone-ins and their scrutiny of alliances and platforms helped bring the competition alive and is likely to have been one factor in the high voter interest and turn out. However, another reason looks to have been the decision by many in the media to minimise coverage of Taleban attacks on election day or, indeed, not report them at all. The reason for this partial or total black out was largely pragmatic: many journalists and media outlets were reluctant to help the Taleban ruin a ballot they believed was of vital national interest. Many other Afghan journalists, however, disagreed fervently with this decision, saying the people had a right to know what was happening and journalists a duty to remain neutral. The blackout of coverage appears to have actually contributed to the high turnout, as well as to shaping the ‘feel good’ narrative that the Taleban had a bad election – they failed to carry out many attacks or disrupt the poll – while the Afghan National Security Forces, by contrast, succeeded in securing the vote in a brave and professional fashion.

Who decided what, on reporting Taleban violence on election day?

Requests from the government not to cover insurgent violence are nothing new: they were also made ahead of the 2009 and 2010 elections and, AAN was told, also by the NDS ahead of the consultative loya jirga of November 2013. Journalists insisted, this time they had made decisions independently. However, at the very least, however, there was a convergence of interests between the state and those parts of the media which decided on a black out.

There had already been an unusually militant feeling in the air on the journalists’ side. Many had decided to boycott Taleban statements, or, indeed, news of Taleban attacks altogether, for 15 days in protest at the Taleban’s murder of the AFP reporter, Ahmad Sardar and his wife and two children, along with four other civilians, in the Serena Hotel in Kabul on 20 March 2014 (see AAN reporting here). Even before that, a Taleban attack in Kunar in February 2014 which killed 25 soldiers had also stoked upset nationally and sparked some reporters into launching an anti-Taleban Facebook campaign in public support of the Afghan National Security Forces; some Afghan reporters also turned up as participants at subsequent demonstrations to protest against what they alleged was Pakistan’s ‘hand’ behind the attack.

AAN has been given various versions of events as to who decided, or requested, what to cover on election day and, as is often the case, no two stories are quite alike. Several journalists have reported that editors of major media outlets in Kabul met before the election to discuss how they would handle coverage of Taleban attacks on polling day. Abdullah Azada Khenjani, Head of News for 1TV, for example, describing how his channel and Tolo normally compete to see who can get quickest coverage of ‘breaking news’, including of major Taleban attacks, said they decided not to compete for coverage of attacks and not to have live coverage or ‘breaking stories,’ but rather to minimise and ‘de-sensationalise’ any reporting – this, he said, for ten days before the election and the day after. Sediq Sediqqi, spokesperson for the Ministry of Interior, said he had many meetings, even before the attack on the Serena Hotel, including one which brought together the editors of more than 30 media agencies – radio, television and newspapers. Journalists also spoke about a meeting held by the Media Commission of the Independent Election Commission, which brought journalists and the spokesmen of the various security ministries together. One journalist who attended the Media Commission meeting said they had been requested not to report Taleban attacks on election day. According to Sediqqi, however, the request was not for a blackout, but for a minimising of coverage and to report any attacks neutrally and towards the end of bulletins. Again, it should be stressed, journalists and editors said they had decided how to cover election day violence themselves.

Different agencies took different decisions. Killid and 1TV, for example, both told AAN they decided not to report any attacks before one o’ clock to give people a chance to get out to the polls. Head of Tolonews, Lotfullah Najafizada, did not want to say what his station’s election day policy had been, but told The New York Times: “In one of our meetings, we had a conversation: are we picking the next five days or the next five years?… Are we going to go against the process and show that this is going to be a mess, or encourage the people to go out and vote and highlight the importance of it… What is more important in Afghanistan, a bomb going off somewhere, which happens every day, or millions of people who go out and vote?” Other outlets did not comply with the blackout. The BBC, with its Persian and Pashto radio and online and Persian TV channel, said it could not join any boycott because of “our commitment to providing our audiences with timely, impartial and accurate news and information.”

Speaking to journalists in some of the provinces, it transpires the issue was also discussed there. In Kunduz and Jalalabad, for example, officials or senior local figures addressed local journalists asking them not to report attacks and, in Kunduz, at least, they complied. In at least two of the provinces of Loya Paktia, where journalists are reporting from the ‘front line’, they took their own, collective decisions on the matter: “We knew many people would not take part if they came to know about the attacks on election day,” said one reporter, who described how they had then faced threatening phone calls from the Taleban spokesman on polling day. Another journalist from a different province said he had been forced to relent from the blackout and report several attacks after angry Taleban called on Pakistan numbers demanding to know why he had not reported their “disrupting events”. He said he still felt under threat. At least some of the journalists who decided on boycotts at the provincial level are the on-the-ground reporters for major networks, both Afghan and international.

The election aftermath glow

After the election, there was a spate of ceremonies where journalists received letters of appreciation from the government for their election coverage – from the ministries of interior, defence and women’s affairs and from the Afghan intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security. Some journalists, along with civil society activists, in turn expressed their formal appreciation of the Afghan security forces for securing the poll.

The Ministry of Interior spokesman, Sediq Sediqqi, said the push by journalists and civil society organisation to formally ‘appreciate’ the ANSF had been “nationwide”, “overwhelming” and “highly unusual”. In turn, the ministry had also wanted to express its appreciation of how well journalists had covered the elections and encouraged people to get out and vote. The Minister of Interior, Umar Daudzai, at one of the ceremonies said (as reported in Hasht-e Sobh on 14 April) that, after the attack on the Serena Hotel, the media and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) had realized they had to work together and it was this cooperation, he said, which caused the “victory of democracy” in Afghanistan on election day. Significantly, the minister also apologised for violations committed by the police against journalists in the past – more of which later.

These ceremonies felt like the last gush of euphoria after the success of election day and there were many examples of enthusiastic reporting on the ANSF which tipped into making even independent agencies look like state-controlled.

One piece from Afghanistan Today, authored from Balkh, opened with journalism students in Mazar dancing in celebration of the high turn out, relatively little fraud and good security, scenes which, said the author, had become commonplace since election day. The author reported that “the 400,000 police and soldiers who safeguarded the vote entrenched their popularity with ordinary citizens”. He described an ‘appreciation’ ceremony for civil society activists in Mazar-e Sharif, quoting Brigadier General Shah Mohammad Zakeri, deputy commander of the Shaheen Corps 29, thanking the media for refusing to highlight Taleban propaganda: “The camera lenses of the media are as effective as our soldiers in front lines targeting the heart of our enemies.” Many of the reports were surreal, as, for example, this piece on Uruzgan Chief of Police, Matiullah Khan, accused of gross human rights abuses and involvement in drug running (made and denied here), handing out awards and praising media men’s “ceaseless efforts” to make the poll a success.

Different views

Journalists’ views on all this vary hugely. Some see themselves first and foremost as citizens and members of a society engaged in a sort of existential struggle with the Taleban which means for them that supporting the elections, the ANSF and, ultimately, the state is an obvious duty for the media. Others journalists took a pragmatic decision to help get the voters out – or at least not help keep the Taleban keep them at home – on election day. Others are deeply concerned about the risks to the profession if it loses its neutrality and cosies – as they see it – up to the state. The public debate on all this started quickly, with a thoughtful piece by two reporters with the New York Times, Azam Ahmed, who is American and Habib Zahori, who is Afghan, in the week after the election. It looked like the measure of the growing maturity of the Afghan media scene that it can start to analyse and question itself.

One of the leading proponents, for a long time, of the Afghan media behaving more “responsibly”, as he sees it, when covering Taleban attacks and not overplaying them is media activist and entrepreneur, Barry Salaam. He was one of those pushing for the election day blackout on coverage of Taleban attacks:

The only way the Taleban exist is through the media and the propaganda they carry out… If they are denied that role and space, it’s not that the media is after boycotting the Taleban completely, but making sure the Taleban don’t use the media as a tool to terrorise people On election day, you’re going out to vote as a citizen, and as a journalist, you’re also covering the same election you’re participating in… The conscious decision [not to cover Taleban attacks] is because this is bigger than the ethics we talk about in journalism… This is something to do with the fate of the nation.

Salaam speaks from the relative safety of Kabul, but one of the reporters AAN spoke to in Loya Paktia had also been considering how he and his colleagues ‘added value’ to Taleban attacks:

What journalists did [the election day boycott] was the right thing because the media created the Taleban, especially the western media [he gave no reason for this contention]. This is the reason why they are now so angry, because if we don’t report the insurgency, it’s gone.

The heads of two of the stations who decided on a partial blackout both tied it to the singular importance of the 2014 election. Head of News at 1TV, Abdullah Azada Khenjani, said his channel had decided on the blackout under “very particular circumstances and based on the national interests of Afghanistan.” He felt they could not “diminish the elections… [or] jeopardise the future of the country.” The director of the Killid Media Group, Najiba Ayubi, explained her station’s decision pragmatically:

Journalists should be independent and Killid is independent, but this was a little different: an election, something for the national benefit. If there had been some reporting on these things [ie Taleban attacks], people would have stopped going to voting centres and it would have badly affected our elections. So we delayed reporting on them for one or two hours.

Ayubi refused an ‘appreciation’ letter from the government; accepting such awards was, she said, a sign that the media was not free. Among the journalists who did accept a formal appreciation award and who also expressed his appreciation of the ANSF is Mukhtar Pedram, a reporter with the television channel, Khorshid, who told AAN:

The security forces proved their loyalty and strength for this country on election day, and we, as citizens of this country, have the responsibility to thank them and at least boost their morale… We awarded the soldiers not the officials. The soldiers are the ones who give their lives for this country…

However, he also pointed out that, in the absence of an “information law” which would give journalists statutory protection, “these kind of programs and awards help us gain security officials’ trust and build our networks among them.” His stance, then, looked to be a mix of patriotism and self-protection. One of the wholehearted believers in the media supporting the ANSF is media activist, Barry Salaam:

On a daily basis, we have a minimum of three to four ANSF killed. That’s the amount of their sacrifice. People know there are problems, corruption, but we are able to carry on our normal life because of the security provided by the ANSF. I don’t like to be appreciated by them, but I do want to appreciate the ANSF…. We did a lot of campaigns for [the ANSF]. I was one of the leading campaign organisers…

Many reporters, both veterans and newcomers, are, however, deeply unhappy and worried about the blackouts, appreciation ceremonies and journalists taking part in the earlier pro-ANSF campaign after the Kunar attack on the Afghan National Army. Shoaib Sharifi, a reporter and cameraman since the 1990s, who has worked with The Kabul Times, IRIN, the BBC and others, said, “The Afghan media, even some of my very professional friends, crossed the red line of neutrality and became subjective.” Another reporter, whose agency would not allow him to be named, differentiated between different actions by his profession:

I totally get the [15 day] boycott [after Sardar’s murder]. Many got the wrong impression: this was not about not reporting anything, but about not interviewing [the Taleban], not quoting [their speeches], not using their SMS messages. But other journalists took it to a new level and completely stopped reporting news involving the Taleban.

He was scathing about those journalists who decided to have the election day ‘blackout’:

They say it was a national duty for them, but if you are so concerned about the national interest and duty, why did you become a journalist? Go and become a soldier or a politician or something. Journalists should be impartial and shouldn’t be on any side of the war; they should report all sides without any bias.

One of the veterans of the Afghan media, Sayed Salahuddin, with two decades’ reporting experience with the BBC, Reuters and now The Washington Post said:

I think as journalists, we have to get on with all sides – the government, the opposition and the ordinary people. When we say we have to be impartial, it means not taking sides and speaking to all sides in the conflict. When the authorities, those in power from any side, praise you, you have to know there is some problem, something is wrong. I hope this does not jeopardise journalists in Afghanistan and make them vulnerable to attack by this side or that side or to manipulation.

One of Afghanistan’s rising but un-nameable reporters (his agency would not allow him to give an interview) told AAN it was civil society’s job, not journalists’, to support the ANSF. He had been offered, but declined an award from the Ministry of Interior:

It is not good if they [the security institutions] ‘appreciate’ the media: the Taleban and other groups will think we support government officials. We need to be independent. My only job is to give information to the people, report the news and the reality to the people… Sardar was my friend, but journalists have to be independent. Personally, I believe, even if the Taleban kill us, we can’t say we’re boycotting you. This is not my job. My job is to report both sides.

The risks of losing neutrality

There are many risks of too close a relationship between media and state: what else might the government demand, or the press feel, should not be reported because it hurts morale or the national interest? Election fraud? Administrative corruption? Incompetent or abusive sections of the ANSF? Bear in mind, these are already risky topics especially if the media wants to name alleged wrongdoers. Moreover, how can people trust the press, if it censors its news?

One of the consequences of the election day blackout is that, along with a very slow release of information about many aspects of the vote and the count (see AAN reporting here), we still do not know how violent election day actually was. Early official reports suggested violence was very low with, as Stars and Stripes reported, in a brave attempt to try to nail down some figures, “no attacks on major urban centres and only a scant number reported from elsewhere.” However, since then, more stories of incidents have emerged and what we are left with is a very murky picture. One particular problem was that reporters working for the major networks in at least some provinces had instituted their own, collective boycott. In other words, the information on attacks may not even have been flowing to national editors to decide whether or not their stations wanted to cover them.

This lack of information has implications for trying to assess fraud, as there is a direct correlation between ballot stuffing and insecurity, but also for assessing the strength and scope of both the insurgency and the ANSF. The state – and many parts of the media – have praised the ANSF for securing the vote, but it is actually very difficult to judge how well they did and how many polling centres the Taleban actually kept voters away from.

Shoaib Sharifi feels the coverage let people down: “Particularly on election day, we all relied on what the Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Defence said and we did not challenge their claims of foiling 150 plus attacks by the Taleban.” Official versions of events are repeated – and need to be questioned hard. Look at Andar district in Ghazni province, for example, held up as an example of the good elections of 2014 in the Afghanistan Today piece, a place where Afghans “chose to risk and defy Taliban threats, battering the strength of the insurgency in the process.” Yet AAN guest author Fazal Rahman found that two thirds of the polling centres which were officially claimed as open, were not open; Taleban threats had indeed succeeded in keeping many voters awayalso .

Some journalists argue that, far from needing admiration from the media, it is fair and unbiased reporting of the ANSF – good and bad – including on election day, that is actually in the national interest. “Some of us consider the ANSF as one of the most sacred national interests”, said Shoaib Sharifi, which means that “unearthing its weakness” can be portrayed as “an unpatriotic action, [done] in the interests of the neighbours.” For Sharifi, turning a blind eye to possible corruption or ineptitude in the ANSF is just irresponsible: “I think we (the Afghan journalists) are patronising an utterly weak and corrupt administration.” Given that corruption and predatory behaviour by the state has been one historical driver of the insurgency, one can see how vital it is to have a press which holds the state to account. Moreover, the Taleban are, of course, not the only threat to the Afghan people or their elections. Read through much of AAN’s reporting on the elections and you find strongmen, among them government officials, MPs and Afghan Local Police commanders, creating problems for the free voting of the electorate. (1)

Other journalists pointed out that the state, including the ANSF, really do not have that good a record in supporting a free press. Mandegar newspaper’s managing director, Nazari Paryani, for example, was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for “disturbing the social order” after publishing a report last year on fraud during the previous presidential election. He told AAN he only finally became a free man after appealing directly to President Karzai who, in what looks to be legally dubious fashion, ordered the case to be quashed. As AAN reported last year, reporters were beaten by NDS or policemen while investigating suicide attacks and by governors’ personnel for reporting anti-government demonstrations. According to the Afghanistan Journalist Centre, of 84 cases of attacks on journalists in 2013, 45 were by state officials. In response to this, journalists like Salaam say the difference is that the Taleban would shut down all free media, whereas the current government, despite the faults of individual officials, has no programme of media suppression.

Many journalists are concerned about the practical risks of their profession losing its impartiality, ie the added dangers of working, especially in insecure areas. Taleban rhetoric and actual threats against the media have, in fact, worsened since the post-Sardar murder boycott and the election day black out. As AAN reported, the Taleban have started referring to journalists as “puppets of the west”, “liars” and “Satanic”. Given that the movement believes it is legitimate to kill civilians associated with the government, it is easy to see how they could expand their targeting to journalists, should the media come to be too closely associated with the administration. Against the argument it should be noted that it was local reporters in some of the most insecure provinces who took the greatest risks in choosing collectively not to report attacks on election day.

However, the elections are not over. With a second round now looking likely, the election day blackout, not to mention all those reports, comments from officials and ‘appreciation’ ceremonies which crowed over the Taleban’s ‘bad’ election day, may just have stored up trouble – if the Taleban want to prove that they are still a force to be reckoned with when and if the voters again go to the polls.

How the media positions itself towards the state and the Taleban

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the case, it seems the media relationship with the state and the Taleban may also be shifting as part of a wider pattern – at least, this is how several journalists explained what had happened, among them Killid’s Najiba Ayubi:

I don’t like [the appreciation ceremonies] at all. It seems abnormal because in the past, the government was always trying to adjust the free media. Now there is a big change, which happened after the attacks before the elections and after the killing of Sardar and his family. People have changed their thinking; they think the Taleban will never give up and will kill us whenever they can. Also, people are now saying bad words against the Taleban. Before they didn’t. Now they do. And they went out to vote.

It seems possible that we are seeing a tilting towards the state by some journalists – and parts of wider society – and away from seeing the Taleban as offering anything in the way of an alternative government. The widespread participation in the elections looks to be a sign of that shift, a manifestation, it should be noted, of support for the system and the state, rather than the current government – if that is how we interpret the relatively few votes given to Zalmai Rassul, seen as President Karzai’s choice. Praise of the ANSF and a desire for them to be (seen to be) competent and brave as a symbol of the Afghan state might also be part of that shift.

Yet, how journalists position themselves vis-à-vis the state is very important. The development of a relatively free press in Afghanistan has been hard-won and is one of the main achievements of the post-2001 era. According to some, journalists risk all if they do not support the state in marginalising the Taleban whom, they say, would destroy free speech if they ever came back to power. On the contrary, warn others: if we journalists start to side with the state, we will have destroyed our country’s free media anyway.

*Kate was formerly with the BBC and reported on Afghanistan as its Kabul correspondent from 1999 to 2002.

(1) See, for example, AAN reporting from Paktia, Kandahar, the Shomali and Kunduz, here and here.

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Thematic Category: Rights & Freedoms