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

Afghanistan: Nov '07

Musa Qala special report provided only genuine reporting from the town since it was taken by the Taleban in February.

Looking at November’s output, I cannot help but be amazed at the progress that Helmand’s journalists have made over the past year.

When we went to Lashkar Gah in January to conduct our first journalism workshop, I had to repress feelings of desperation when I looked at the reports our trainees were filing. They were eager, yes, and responsive, but I was not quite sure that they would ever really “get it”.

But get it they did, and in spades. In November, all of our efforts paid off handsomely, in the form of a special report from Musa Qala.

Musa Qala is a small town in the north of Helmand province, and by itself poses little real strategic or economic significance. It is squarely in the middle of the poppy belt, but then, so is much of Helmand province, which all by itself accounts for about half of the world’s heroin supply.

But Musa Qala had become a symbol of defeat for the government and international forces. This dusty outpost had fallen to the Taleban, who had hoisted their flag, set up a government, and brought a new form of their strict regime to the people of the district.

The news IWPR was hearing was that all was well in Musa Qala. While some residents chafed under restrictions, in the main they were grateful for the peace and security that the Taleban regime had brought.

But without first-hand evidence, we could say little.

So two of our trainees, a staffer and one freelancer, joined two other journalists on a jaunt to the north. Sanctioned by the Taleban, the trip brought the only genuine reporting to come out of Musa Qala since the Taleban took it over in February.

IWPR’s Special Report included images, interviews, and analysis from two remarkable journalists, Aziz Ahmad Tassal and Aziz Ahmad Shafe. Together, they produced a comprehensive assessment of the situation.

The trip, while risky, went off without a hitch. The return, however, was a different story. One of the group was briefly jailed, the others were being sought by the police, but managed to elude them until the furor died down.

The government, it seemed, was not as keen on free expression as their rhetoric would lead us to believe.

Other November highlights included the launch of the Helmand Journalists Independent Association, which was designed and financed with help from IWPR. The association is meant to unite all of Helmand’s journalists, to give them a place to gather, an ear into which to pour their troubles, and a mechanism for dealing collectively with the government and international in Helmand.

IWPR also expanded its media centre in November, increasing the number of computers available to local journalists, and upgrading the internet connection for greater speed.

Training as also an important focus in November: Radio trainer Jared Ferrie traveled to Lashkar Gah to work with IWPR trainees on radio features. The results can be seen in the Helmand Voices project, available on the website.

Jared also worked with the local state radio station to produce a live call-in show, during which government officials spoke about the counter narcotics efforts in this poppy-rich province. Caller after caller complained that there was no alternative to poppy, that they had to make a living, and that the government was not helping them. Little by little, the officials abandoned their entrenched positions, and began to listen to what the callers were saying.

The results may not be immediate, but a dialogue has been opened that could lead to a more rational policy in Helmand, with real impact on the poppy growers of the province.

Graphic designer Felix Kuehn also traveled to Lashkar Gah to conduct a workshop on newspaper design for a group of journalists hoping to launch a new weekly in the coming year.

The journalists chose a name, Nawae Rasanai (New Media), a format, and began to design sections for the paper. IWPR hopes to get a mock-up printed in December, and will help the journalists to approach funders as soon as the design work is completed.

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