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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Media interest in conflict zones should move beyond reporting events to understanding processes, seeking resolution

Human Rights Watch in its 2020 report vividly documents that the Taliban imposed stringent restrictions, including on freedom of expression, in areas under its control.

Updated: August 31, 2021 6:57:29 pm
TalibanTaliban fighters arrive outside the Hamid Karzai International Airport after the U.S. military's withdrawal, in Kabul (AP photo)

Written by Santosh Kumar Biswal and Nilesh P Gokhale

Chaos, uncertainty and anarchy are prevailing in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover. Twin blasts outside Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport last week killed nearly a hundred people, including at least 13 US service members. Several nations, including India, have completed rescue and evacuation operations. However, all this is not sufficient to bring normalcy in war-torn Afghanistan. In this context, diplomatic collaborations along with the role of media in reporting the conflict remain pivotal. Can the media be an instrument of peace in these troubled times?

On the ground, conflict reporting remains important. To be non-partisan, journalists should access both parties in the conflict, which can potentially contribute to the resolution of conflict and alleviation of violence. Media support in conflict areas judiciously calls for a constant development and testing of methods and approaches. However, such a type of journalism during a crisis has fallen by the wayside despite the emergence of crowdsourcing of news and social media. There is a growing disconnect in conflict-induced reporting. Journalists do what they prefer to do, while readers look for something else from reporting.

The Taliban has a history of targeting journalists and restricting media coverage. Reporters Without Borders revealed that at least 85 local journalists were killed in the past 20 years. However, the media industry in Afghanistan has flourished in the past 20 years. Young Afghan journalists are keen to work alongside foreign counterparts to step up international news coverage. This calls for media freedom in the war-torn regions of Afghanistan.

Human Rights Watch in its 2020 report vividly documents that the Taliban imposed stringent restrictions, including on freedom of expression, in areas under its control. The Taliban has targeted the media and women in the media — mediapersons are not allowed to place their political views on social media. As a result, journalists often tend to self-censor their stories. Moreover, women journalists face peculiar threats.

We are yet to forget the execution of Pulitzer-winning Indian photojournalist Danish Siddiqui by Taliban fighters. Siddiqui’s death unravelled the flaws of embedding journalists with armed forces. The idea of embedding journalists with troops commenced in 1995 with the British in Bosnia and was fruitful in Afghanistan and Iraq. Journalists in conflict zones face risks from multiple sources. Early this year, Pakistan’s top court acquitted the men accused of kidnapping and beheading The Wall Street Journal’s South Asia bureau chief, Daniel Pearl in 2002. Keeping in mind the volatile situation in Afghanistan, India has issued an advisory for journalists and advised Indian nationals to restrict travel.

In this crucial juncture, the media should continuously cover the conflict, of course, and not just evacuation of refugees and others. Evacuation is a short-term goal while the international media can amicably attempt to resolve the conflict by following editorial policies that push for conflict transformation. The media should also pay attention to marginalised sections, especially women, minorities and children, who face the brunt of societal prejudices. Their concerns are under-reported during war and armed conflict. For instance, few media outlets covered a group of disabled children who could flee Afghanistan.

Usually, the media is driven by “breaking news”. However, the unexpected developments in Afghanistan have taught us the importance of keeping an eye on processes, not just events. In this context, sourcing the views of experts from Afghanistan who have migrated to the rest of the world, would be useful. Their viewpoints and perspectives may help to understand Afghanistan’s present and predict its future.

International media should collaborate with the local media in developing and sharing editorial guidelines. The importance of local media coverage had become evident during the Balkan and Yugoslavia conflicts. However, local media should do responsible journalism by developing its own ethical guidelines and fulfilling the responsibility for alleviating conflict through accurate and non-partisan reporting.

As for the Indian media, it should continue to focus on the various pacts and treaties India signed with Afghanistan. Over the past two decades, India’s bilateral trade with Afghanistan has grown significantly, reaching $1.5 billion in 2019-2020. Irrespective of political instability, India continues to be a major development partner to Afghanistan with nearly $3 bn investment in infrastructure and development projects.

How shall India safeguard these investments? It is a story that needs to be followed in the coming months.

Biswal and Gokhale are with Symbiosis International (Deemed) University, Pune

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