Media lessons from Afghanistan: Look at processes, not just events

Indian media should examine the inadequacies in western media’s coverage of the Afghanistan war to better report on the myriad conflicts at home.

WrittenBy:Kalpana Sharma
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Images define events. They are the markers of memory of momentous events.

There is no question that of all the images from Afghanistan – following the takeover of Kabul by the Taliban and the capitulation of the US-backed Afghan government led by Ashraf Ghani – the one that will remain as a tragic reminder of what is unfolding is this video. It shows desperate Afghans running alongside a US Air Force plane at the Kabul airport. People are clinging to the wheels and anything they can hold.

Despite this, the plane takes off. Additional recordings reveal at least two bodies falling from the plane. The story of those two men was pieced together by Vijayta Lalwani of Scroll who managed to speak to the man in Kabul on whose roof the corpses fell.

Afghanistan has been, and continues to be, the dominant story in international media, and less so in Indian media. What is being called the "stunning" and unexpectedly quick takeover of the country by the Taliban, with practically no resistance from the established government or its US-trained and funded forces, has left experts and politicians asking questions as to how this happened.

As expected, the focus of much of the reporting is not only on the desperation of those who want to leave the country, particularly people who had worked for western governments and who fear reprisals, but also the future of women. For in the last two decades, the status of Afghan women has been one of the major justifications for the continued presence of the US and other forces in the country, given the severe restrictions the Taliban had imposed on them during its previous reign.

For the media, the story of Afghanistan, particularly over the last two decades after the US invasion and the removal of the previous Taliban government, holds out several lessons. These apply not only to how we cover conflict, and post-conflict, but also whether we listen to, and report the voices of those who do not automatically come forward to speak.

For instance, one of the questions being asked post the Taliban takeover is whether the coverage by the media, particularly international media, gave us an adequate understanding of the processes underway in a country of huge contrasts between rural and urban and a range of ethnicities. Academics who have studied Afghanistan closely point out that the Taliban was growing in its reach quietly in the last decade and that it was also changing in its composition from being largely Pashtun to a force that included many more of the multiple ethnicities that are part of their country.

Another question is whether the international media conveyed the growing disillusionment in the countryside with the incumbent Afghan government and the high levels of corruption. The New York Times, in an editorial titled "The tragedy of Afghanistan", writes, "The corruption was so rampant that many Afghans began to question whether their government or the Taliban was the greater evil." If that is so, was this reported? If it was reported, then why are people surprised that the Taliban were accepted without a fight?

Peter W Klein, executive director of the Global Reporting Centre, writes in the Columbia Journalism Review about how he thinks journalism failed in Afghanistan. Looking critically at conflict reporting, he writes, "Many of us who have reported on the war stepped into the trap reporters often fall into, entranced by the drama of battles and the spin of military leaders."

He writes of how "a giddy excitement burns through newsrooms when there’s talk of a military action. War has built-in drama, pathos, characters, heroes, villains, patriotism, action – not to mention gripping images, the kind civilians will never witness firsthand”. And yet, Klein writes, "What we often fail to do is step back and reflect on the meaning of the larger war, and its likely legacy. Patriotism plays a part, especially if a reporter is covering troops from their own country."

Only a detailed study of media coverage of Afghanistan over the last two decades can confirm this, but it would be fair to say the dominant focus in most reports by the international media was on the continuing conflict, and not necessarily on what was happening on the ground away from the capital city of Kabul.

Apart from the frequent clashes between the Taliban and Afghan forces that were reported, what else was the militant group up to in the last two decades? According to a report by the International Crisis Group, the Taliban had created a PR machine as far back as 2008 and the tools it used to spread the message included DVDs, pamphlets and cassettes as well as sermons in mosques. It is possible that because the media mostly focused on episodic clashes, such a strategy would have slipped under the radar.

The reason these questions have relevance not just for international media but also for us here is because reporting on conflicts within this country is also an important part of our job. Yet, we tend to report the event, and sometimes miss out on informing our readers and viewers about the context, or the processes that led to the conflict.

As an example, take Northeast India. The younger generation in the rest of India, referred to by people in the Northeast as the "mainland", would probably not be aware that for decades, several states in the region were dominated by different kinds of clashes -- between the Indian government and militant groups, between different ethnic groups within the states, and conflicts between the states. In contrast, today the region appears peaceful, but only on the surface. And when something bursts through that veneer of peace, people are surprised.

So when six Assamese policemen died in a clash on the border of Assam and Mizoram recently, most readers in the "mainland" would have been puzzled. Why should there be border wars between two Indian states? While the clashes were reported, only a handful of print newspapers and digital platforms took the trouble to explain the background to the clash and why the tension had persisted. As happens so often in these cases, the explanation was not simple. It included history but also issues concerning livelihoods, forests, clashing ethnicities, and politics.

Then, on August 15, the relatively peaceful and picturesque capital of Meghalaya, Shillong, was shaken up when masked men dressed in black drove around the city in a stolen vehicle brandishing guns and even threw petrol bombs at the chief minister's residence. They were protesting the alleged "encounter" death of a former militant in his home two days earlier. The city was placed under curfew. The state's home minister resigned. But who would have even known that there was militancy in Meghalaya?

In fact, as in every other conflict, there were reasons behind this sudden outburst in the relatively peaceful state of Meghalaya as this article points out. Yet, as several journalists from the Northeast have often complained, such processes are often ignored or cursorily reported by the mainstream media in India.

Both the Assam-Mizoram border clash and the developments in Shillong indicate that there are developments on the ground that we in the media largely ignore or fail to understand and report. Event-oriented and sporadic reporting of regions like the Northeast reinforces ignorance and misunderstanding about the people and their problems. As the Indian Express rightly pointed out in its editorial of August 19, "The Northeast has a long history of governance failures widening fault lines and leading to divisive ethnic mobilisations and violence...The administration has been swift and successful in containing the violence, but these localised events do point to insecurities on the ground. The government needs to recognise, and be sensitive to, the numerous fault lines that shape ethnic, regional and political relations in the region."

Given the nature of the Indian media, with its obsession with "breaking news" and the dominance of television news as well as social media, it is virtually impossible to negotiate the time and space required to do the kind of reporting that heeds the silent processes that precede spectacular events. Yet, the recent developments in Afghanistan should remind us of the importance of keeping an eye on processes, not just events.


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