Afghanistan: Feb ‘09

IWPR story reveals that US-led forces killed civilians in raid, not warlord and militias, as they claimed.

Afghanistan: Feb ‘09

IWPR story reveals that US-led forces killed civilians in raid, not warlord and militias, as they claimed.

Monday, 23 March, 2009
One of the prime functions of journalism is to act as a control on those in power, providing the so-called watchdog role.

The IWPR Afghan team can’t use this term in workshops, due to cultural sensitivities – more than one trainee has objected to “being compared to a dog”.

Nevertheless, the concept is alive and well in Afghanistan, as witnessed by February’s report Herat Official Claims Civilians Killed in US Strike

One of IWPR’s trainees in Herat, whose name has to be withheld for security reasons, was preparing a profile of notorious local warlord Ghulam Yahya Akbari.

Yahya, popularly known as Siyawooshan, had been mounting his own insurgency in Herat for the past two years.

He and a band of gunmen made money by kidnapping local businessmen; they lobbed rockets at the Italian-led base and the United Nations compound out near their camp; and they instituted a strict Sharia regime in Gozara district.

At least one hostage died while in his custody; he also claimed responsibility for shooting down a helicopter containing several prominent military commanders, even though it is widely accepted that the aircraft crashed into a mountain in heavy fog.

Whatever the provocation, on February 17, the US-led Coalition had had enough. They launched an airstrike against Yahya, and immediately issued a press release announcing that he and 12 to 15 of his militants were dead.

IWPR’s reporter contacted Yahya within minutes of the release, who told him that the strike had missed him and wiped out a family of Kuchis instead.

Programme director Jean MacKenzie asked the Coalition for clarification, and was told that the military was standing by its original claims.

But once IWPR’s story was published, the Coalition was forced to initiate an investigation.

By February 22, press spokesman Lieutenant Commander Walter Matthews issued a statement confirming that 12 of the dead were, indeed, Kuchi nomads.

A team traveled to the area to assess the damage and to compensate the relatives of those killed.

The Coalition also issued an apology, although they continued to insist that the fault lay with insurgents who “had taken cover behind innocent civilians”.

IWPR has continually been at the forefront of reporting on civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

All too often these incidents go unreported, since they frequently take place in remote areas where the international media has little or no access, and where Afghan reporters are discouraged from taking on the story.

IWPR has a wide network of trained and courageous reporters, who, time and again, have forced the military to back down, to admit and to apologise for their failures.

Of course, the insurgents kill as many or more innocents than foreign troops; unfortunately, bad press seems to have little or no restraining effect on the actions of the Taleban and their allies.

One relief agency official in Kabul told MacKenzie that our journalists’ reporting “had stirred up all the right things”, and was responsible for several high-level interventions by international actors.

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