Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghanistan: Feb ‘08

IWPR assists with survey on Afghan attitudes towards the media and raises awareness of plight of imprisoned journalism student.

The Afghanistan project shifted gears somewhat in February, to begin working on a survey of the way local people view the country’s press.

In part, the study - conducted with Media Support Systems, MSS, an NGO headquartered in Scotland - is intended to discover how Afghans, particularly in the strife-torn south, get their information, what sources are the most trustworthy, and on what basis they make decisions.

The long-term goal of the project is to give the Department for International Development, DfID, the information necessary to design a new communications strategy for its projects in Afghanistan.

For the past several weeks, Programme Director Jean MacKenzie and Project Officer Abaceen Nasimi have been interviewing media outlets, brainstorming with MSS colleagues, and working with researchers in Helmand province on focus group discussions.

One of the most impressive findings was the importance of rumour in Afghanistan. Among other things, we learned that many Helmandis were taken in by a spurious report that one could charge one’s mobile phone by stuffing clover stems into the battery compartment.

Another popular tale had people staring at the moon in mid-February, because credible sources insisted that the face of Ahmad Shah Massoud, an assassinated leader of the Northern Alliance, could be clearly discerned.

In such a chaotic information sphere, it can be very challenging to produce reliable, accurate information, as well as to deliver it in a medium that people can and will trust.

Another major focus of IWPR activity in February centered on the case of Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh, the young journalism student condemned to death by a court in northern Afghanistan for blasphemy.

IWPR found itself in the centre of the story, since Kambakhsh’s brother, Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi, is one of IWPR’s most eminent reporters.

The case made the headlines when The Independent began a petition to free Kambakhsh. For weeks, Jean MacKenzie and Yaqub were besieged with interview requests from around the world. Demonstrations around the country demanding Kambakhsh’s release just added fuel to the fire.

At this writing, Kambakhsh is still in prison, and Yaqub is out of the country accepting an international journalism award. We are continuing to work for justice in this very difficult case.

IWPR’s journalists in the south continue to produce ground-breaking journalism. In a special report on the tensions between the government of president Hamed Karzai and British troops (Helmand ex-Governor Joins Karzai Blame Game), Helmand reporter Mohammad Ilyas Dayee interviewed the controversial Sher Mohammad Akhundzada, whose removal in late 2005 was, according the many, the beginning of Helmand’s downward slide. Dayee contacted officials and local people as well, rounding out the picture of this troubled province.

The Helmand Journalists Independent Association is also finding its feet. In February, it held a meeting of the membership to discuss access to information, and the rules for fair and balanced reporting. With further mentoring, this organisation can become a force for change in the province.

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