The Bonn 2 Afghanistan Conference was not only revealing in what was said in the non-binding final statement* of the meeting, but also on how differently journalists worked and observed the event for much of the day. Our guest blogger Martin Gerner, a freelance German author and correspondent who also had organized an international seminar with independent Afghan journalists in Bonn** in the week the summit, writes his observations in the Bonn media centre.
In the complex relationship between politicians and journalists, both usually look to be close to each other, contributing to the negative image both professions have in the western public opinion by creating what many see as a too close relationship undermining journalists’ impartiality. Major summits, like the Bonn 2 conference, are usually no exceptions from the rule.
But the ever-growing zeal for the security of politicians – a result of the ‘war on terror’ – more and more often culminates in a separation of this symbiosis. In Bonn, the foreign ministers, joined by German chancellor Angela Merkel, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and Afghan President Hamed Karzai and his entourage, met in the tightly protected former auditorium of the German parliament. (The Bundestag is in Berlin now.) All journalists, on the contrary, were basically confined to a huge hotel hall transformed into a press centre for the day, roughly two kilometers away. There, all speeches of the conference were broadcasted live on a big screen, making the conference a somehow virtual event. Before that started, we were served a kind of silent TV morning show, featuring the ministers descending from their limousines and walking up the stairs over the rolled-out red carpet. Six smaller TV screens each to the left and right of the big one displayed major news channels from around the world – from CNN to al-Jazeera, mixing the Bonn speeches and features about the situation in Afghanistan with reports about circumcised African women or the lives of pygmees.
Afghanistan is still on the world news. But for how long? TV cameras tend to react to the rhythm of interventions, especially when they are supported by the military. Two years ago, the major news channels of the world switched off most of their satellite dishes from Iraq, while the conflict there is ongoing. The same, it is to fear, will happen to Afghanistan, reality on the ground and in the media then becoming two separate things.
Interestingly, a big number of non-Afghan journalists preferred this TV show to reality. It were in fact mostly the reporters from Afghan media – and international photo reporters – who queued up at 6 am in order to catch one of the few seats on the galleries of the old parliament that gave a direct view at the ministerial conference. This enabled them, for example, to watch how three German protesters in the conference hall – MPs of ‘the Left’ party who demanded the immediate withdrawal of all German forces from Afghanistan – interrupted German Foreign Minister Westerwelle’s introductory speech, a small but remarkable side event. While this was picked up by the Pajhwok news agency (see here), that interviewed the German anti-summit protesters on site. The general – overwhelmingly negative – mood of the western public opinion against the military engagement in Afghanistan probably is familiar to a lot of Afghan journalists, but to see those who embody the protest against it in reality seems to have been a discovery for some of them.
A few hours later, as the conference broke for lunch, the same load of Afghan reporters came to the media centre. Here, probably rather unusual to some, they found themselves to be almost in the majority, very apparently making some of the German reporters wonder whether that would not be a good occasion to get an interview from them. Possibly they sensed that the speeches they had just heard were far more distant from Afghan reality than what some of their Afghan colleagues would have to say. It also were mainly the Afghan journalists who obtained interviews from Afghan politicians visiting the media centre, from deputy foreign minister Jawed Ludin to opposition politician Mahmud Saiqal or AIHRC chairwomen Sima Samar.
German Deutschlandfunk, a quality public radio station, for example came up with a radio package on this (see it here), including an interview with a young Afghan reporter from Mazar-e Sharif. Interestingly, it does not mention the fact that he is also a stringer for German magazine Der Spiegeland often reports on the German military presence in the Afghan north, criticising their direct or indirect support of the different warlords there. In contrast, interview and report focus on the presence of Taleban. One wonders why – after so many open hints by speakers of the civil society assembled in Bonn – western media surprisingly still sometimes turn a blind eye on those who are in close cahoots with the international military.
Present in the press hall were also some Pakistani journalists who were pretty much in demand on that day, as they served as a kind of substitute for the governmental delegation from boycotting Pakistan. One of them argued that an excuse from the USA on the recent border incident which saw 25 Pakistani soldiers killed by an airstrike would have been a pre-condition for his foreign minister to participate in Bonn, otherwise ‘this would have caused a public uproar in Pakistan like on the Tahrir square’.
Later in the afternoon, as Guido Westerwelle and Zalmai Rassul, the German and the Afghan foreign minister, held their final press conference in the media centre, only separated by a corridor from the big press hall, most non-Afghan journalists again remained seated in front of the big screen. This should be unthinkable for journalists supposed to cover the event. Or, paraphrasing famous war-photographer Robert Capa: their reports might not be good enough because they were not close enough.
Leaving the scene in the evening with a journalist from Kandahar and walking along a corridor of about a hundred meters, stuffed with trays of fruit, steaming soups and stir-fried meat (all free-of-charge), he asked: ‘How much did this conference cost? The recent jirga in Kabul was said to have cost six million US-dollars. Eight million dollars would be my guess for this one in Bonn’, he speculated. ‘I hope it was the last of this kind of conferences.’ But it won’t: the follow-up for Bonn 2, a donor conference in Tokyo, will be held in July 2012.
* Read the final statement here and find other Bonn 2 and related documents, like the list of participants, all speeches of the participating delegations, the statement of Afghan civil society in English, Pashto, Dari and German -but not their much more outspoken statements.
Interestingly, the list of documents also contains the paper of an mining industry lobby group, the European Association of Mining Industries, Metal Ores & Industrial Minerals, on ‘Investment Opportunities and the Economic Future of Afghanistan’ (dated from Brussels, 26 October 2011), see it here.
** Find out more about it online, in English or German, here.
Photo: Martin Gerner.
This article was last updated on 31 Mar 2020