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

Afghanistan: July/August ‘07

Leading media follow up and republish IWPR stories covering controversial subjects and issues.

Over the summer, IWPR’s project in Afghanistan has come under increased scrutiny. Journalist trainees have prepared fair and balanced reports to a high international standard, but the topics under discussion are quite sensitive, and it is very difficult to steer between opposing extremes.

As can be seen below, IWPR stories cannot please everyone, but they are receiving wide play and general respect.

Over the past two months, IWPR has been cited by Reuters, contacted by the BBC and the New York Times, and republished in the United Kingdom, the United States, Pakistan, and India, as well as in Afghanistan.

As the premier media organisation working in the troubled south, IWPR is one of the very few sources of verifiable information about events in the conflict zone. It also provides rare glimpses of lives lived in precarious balance between Taleban guns and foreign bombs.

Reactions to conflict reporting in this kind of environment are, predictably, mixed. Commenting generally on IWPR’s reporting, a British official on the Lashkar Gah Provincial Reconstruction Team joked that “if the Pentagon is mad at you, you must be doing something right”.

After the publication on August 7 of an article entitled “Helmand: Precision Strike or Reckless Bombing?”, Programme Director Jean MacKenzie was informed that the view from the Pentagon was that the piece was too soft on the Taleban. Meanwhile, Alex Strick van Linsehoten, the editor of Afghan Wire, which publishes translations of the local press, felt the same article should have been tougher on the international forces whose air raid cost many lives.

“I thought you could have expressed more outrage,” he commented.

However, Alex could not find fault with “A Kinder, Gentler Taleban?”, an in-depth look at life under the fundamentalists in northern Helmand.

Musa Qala was all but ceded to the opposition last October, and formally fell under the Taleban’s white flag in early February. Contrary to the expectations of many, the local population has made their peace with the new situation.

The article received wide exposure: Reuters contacted Jean the morning the piece appeared, and wanted to do a pick-up. The agency’s telephone calls to the PRT alerted the military, and IWPR braced for a negative reaction.

However, while the report ruffled a few feathers, it was judged to be a fair reflection of reality.

“I have never seen a more balanced piece of reporting,” commented one PRT military officer. Civilian representatives on the PRT also commented favourably on the article, which was highlighted in Moby Capital Updates, a popular listserv for Afghanistan.

“The Night Belongs to the Taleban”, published in mid-July, documented gains the insurgency has made in Wardak province, just 40 kilometres away from the capital. Much of the province is now under Taleban control, and the formerly peaceful residents are worried about their security and their future.

IWPR’s trainer and journalist, Wahidullah Amani, made the journey to Wardak to see the situation there. In the process, he interviewed a local militia head, who told Wahidullah that much of his district went unpatrolled - they “left it to Allah”, is how he put it.

Two German NATO troops came under attack in the district, and the local security forces failed to respond. The Germans made it back to their base, but a few days later two other Germans were kidnapped in the same district.

One week after the article appeared, the security chief for Wardak was dismissed.

Few IWPR pieces have provoked the kind of reaction that “Media Wars,” published August 18, did. A look at the state of the Afghan press, it touched on the highly sensitive issue of ethnicity. Our editor Hafizullah Gardesh spoke to media heads, experts, journalists, and government officials, and produced an analysis of the scene that showed some troubling tendencies, such as the media’s politicisation along ethnic lines - which some observers believe is contributing towards wider divisions in the country.

Much of the media has gravitated to one side or the other of the political, ethnic, or social divide, and it is having an effect on the country as a whole.

Several readers wrote in to complain, saying that highlighting ethnic problems would just worsen the situation. One reader accused IWPR of an “anti-non-Pashtun” bias.

The reaction demonstrated the problem - ethnic issues are so explosive that it is almost impossible to discuss them rationally. This is reflected in the media, and IWPR’s coverage pointed out a dilemma that few have had the courage to talk about.

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