Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
“So, Minister, why were these bombers so easily able to get past the new roadblocks in Kabul city centre?” The journalist’s tone was measured but firm, allowing no evasion. “We have heard your promises of new security measures so many times before,” added his colleague. “Why should the public believe you now?”
I never thought I’d feel such sympathy for an Afghan government minister. But luckily there was no bombing and I was only playing the role of the official, as part of a mock press conference with IWPR trainee journalists. This was one of the training exercises I used during a series of workshops during the ten weeks I recently spent working in Afghanistan.
It wasn’t just during trainings that the reporters were so outspoken. I returned from Afghanistan amazed and encouraged by the tenacity and bravery of Afghan journalists.
The Afghan media industry has only had the chance to really develop since the fall of the Taleban nearly nine years ago; three decades of continuous conflict did little to encourage the rise of free and fair journalism.
But in recent times, dozens of radio stations, scores of TV stations and hundreds of newspapers have sprung up. And although a new generation of journalists may sometimes be hampered by lack of access to training and technical resources, they are eager, responsive and above all courageous.
In other IWPR programme areas, particularly in the former Soviet Union, trainees may be reluctant to challenge authority – a legacy of authoritarianism. But in Afghanistan, despite its own communist past and the realities of an incredibly unstable state where warlords act with impunity and the government provides little protection, the journalists appear fearless in challenging the status quo.
“Afghans have less fear of the state because as an institution it has historically been so weak,” said John MacLeod, Senior Editor at IWPR. “But as an Afghan it makes sense to have fear of multiple actors at the same time. These journalists manage to put it aside.”
In Afghan culture, there’s a strong emphasis on politeness and particularly deference to elders – attitudes not always compatible with asking difficult questions. There is also pressure to avoid addressing themes seen as morally offensive.
Despite the fact that we have had journalists who have written about sensitive issues such as abortion, putting aside their own views and prejudices to produce professional and balanced reports.
Others have recently addressed issues concerning those who are marginalised by society, such as the Jogi gypsies.
Another issue of great importance in the country is human rights and the role of current and former warlords. Reporters need courage to tackle stories such as a recent one about voter anger over election candidates suspected of past abuses.
“Covering human rights abuses is really quite dangerous,” added MacLeod. “They are interviewing people in very difficult circumstances, people who themselves are under threat, while facing a real danger from armed groups. And yet they put these difficult questions to very difficult individuals.”
This is especially true when covering sometimes very shocking stories, such as the Taleban murder of a young boy accused of collaborating with the foreign military.
IWPR encourages journalists to probe their sources, while training them to have the discipline to get both sides of the story.
Ultimately, many of the reporters I met seemed driven by a sense of justice, reflecting a widely held belief that despite everything bad that has happened in Afghanistan, there should and will be some kind of reckoning with the past.
Daniella Peled is an IWPR editor.
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