I used to say that Afghanistan was heaven for a journalist. I used to say that for three main reasons:
1. There is a wealth of topics to cover. No shortage of topics.
2. Afghanistan is a politicised society. Anyone is able to talk in a well-informed manner on political topics. This is one of the outcomes of 30 years of war. People have become better informed of events that directly influence their lives.
3. There is freedom for journalists in Afghanistan.
This is not so much the case now. Topics – there is still no shortage of topics, but is that being reflected in the coverage of what we call the conventional and the traditional media – PACT Radio/The Saba Story being the only representative of the traditional media?
The answer is no: the conventional media, whether it be the BBC, national TV stations, Radio Free Afghanistan, are dealing almost exclusively with statements of politicians or attacks by armed groups. Even this coverage is not really up to standard. As we all know, the first casualty of war is the truth. As even the Holy Prophet of Islam said:
War is deception
So if war is deception, then as a journalist one cannot depend on the statements of politicians, administrators or spokesmen of warring parties to get an accurate picture of what is going on with regard to armed clashes. One has to confirm their statements by going to the actual location where the incident took place, or speaking to one’s trusted informants in that place. But very few journalists actually do this.
One of the reasons they do not do this is because of security in the place where the supposed attack took place. Another reason is time. When I first joined the BBC, the BBC had one broadcast in the morning – half-an-hour – and one main broadcast in the evening. It started off as half-an-hour and was then extended to 45 minutes. That was it. Now I believe the BBC broadcasts round-the-clock in Pashto and Farsi. It certainly broadcasts round-the-clock in English. This has created greater pressure on journalists not to properly confirm incidents which are said to have taken place: there is so much pressure to get something on air quickly, and to be the first with breaking news.
The same goes for statements of politicians. The way of confirming their statements is to see if they are put into action. Words in themselves are worthless:
خبرې لږې، عمل ډیر
Here also, the conventional media fails to hold politicians to account. I will give one example, which is close to our heart, since as you know we have been involved in strengthening Islamic education inside Afghanistan over the last few years. In 2006, an inauguration was held next to the Imam Abu Hanifah madrassah near Kabul. The inauguration was of an Islamic university to be built on that site. I have it on good authority – from a senior member of the delegation – that a delegation at that time visited Saudi Arabia in order to raise funding for that university. However, when I visited the site myself – it must have been 2009 or early 2010 – the very inauguration stone itself was buried in mud, along with the idea of an Islamic university. Similarly, I was in Kandahar later in 2010. I was very pleased to hear on the local radio that $17 million had been raised to develop Jamia Umer, in the centre of the city, as an Islamic centre, place of worship, library and university, as had been originally intended. A delegation was visiting the city in order to prepare the ground to continue the work. We all know that since then nothing has happened.
The job of the conventional media is not to report statements: it is to see if those statements are borne out in reality. However the conventional media is failing in this respect. So as far as the first point I mentioned – covering the issues that really matter in Afghanistan – the media is coming up short. This involves holding politicians, spokesmen and administrators to account – in other words criticism. I would say here that our own traditional media is in a good position to take the lead here, since in the traditional media criticism is looked at as a favour, not as a negative action:
إنصر أخاك ظالمًا او مظلومًا
Help your brother, if he is a wrong-doer or the wronged. (Hadith)
As you all know, the Holy Prophet went on to clarify that help of a wrong-doer was to prevent him from his wrong-doing.
So extreme care is taken to couch the criticism in such terms that it does not cause offence. That is why, in The Pulay Poray Radio and The Saba Story, we have a radio drama. Some issues are better covered in a radio drama, since there any criticism will be oblique, the characters and situations cited being fictional.
Another way in which the media has dismally failed in its task is in giving the true picture of life in a country. I always say that the Afghan media has been nurtured in a culture of war: there is now a need for a media nurtured in a culture of peace to come into being. This does not mean that one ignores the instances of violence that are taking place in society. It entails dealing with these issues from the perspective of the population at large, and in the context of normal life, and with peace-building in mind.
Whenever I come to Jalalabad, I am struck by how peaceful it is, how the great old Pashtoon traditions that we all hold dear are being revived in this environment. That is not the picture that reaches the outside world. This is the fault of the media. To correct this picture, while acknowledging problems is the aim of this training that is going to be held over the next few days.