The complexity of newsgathering in Afghanistan
By Hanan Habibzai
The local communication is characterised by restricted media culture which involves ethnic and sectarian ideologies. In an environment where decades of conflicts destroyed everything, thinking style is consequently exaggerated one way or another. Therefore, the function of communication system and resources shape the audiences opinions toward particular direction.
The ‘‘journalists are licensed agents of symbolic power – authorised by their status as employees of news organisations to tell the stories through which we make sense of our society’’ (Meikle & Redden 2011:10).
An Editorial policy requires, and the audiences should be in the heart of this guiding principle. Although Pajhwok has a specific written editorial guideline, but mostly news gathering process in Afghanistan comes through oral and unwritten editorial management. The news gathering methods are often borrowed from western media organisations news guidelines such as the BBC, and the Reuters News Agency, but frequently remain overshadowed by professional concerns.
This essay examines the complication of news gathering in Afghanistan, and provides a scholastic definition of news production in the country where searching truth becomes difficult due to security risks. My analysis is based on a statement by Danish Karokhel the founder of the Pajhwok Afghan News (PAN) and relevant studies.
THE AFFECT OF TENSE SURROUNDINGS
News production is severely controlled by powerful people and criminal gangs outside and inside Afghanistan’s government. The journalists usually recognise the threat consequences of a particular story might pose; they also can feel the state’s influence further more visibly. Reporters receive calls from known and unknown officials concerning particular news stories. As a result, the meaning of the news text changes or the coverage of a particular event prohibited. Free discussion through news controls one way or another.
‘‘News matters. It remains the main forum for discussion of issues of public importance. It offers an arena in which journalists and media firms, politicians, other high – status sources of information and audiences come together to inform, persuade, influence ,endorse or reject one another in a collaborative process of making meaning from events’’(Meikle & Redden 2011:1a).
Journalists put themselves in the line of fire of powerful members of society who attempt to consolidate their power through political corruption. They utilise their positions to influence the process of agenda settings and editorial decisions within private media organisations, a reason which distress the news gathering process.
News gathering ‘‘involves reporters, correspondents, producers, news editors and planners. They use sources such as people, documents, news releases and Internet –and other media outlets. They use equipment from a pen and notebook to audio recorders and cameras’’ (Franklin, Hamer, Hanna, Kinsey & Richardson 2005:169).
Journalists require these things to elevate the truth and keep their audiences informed. However, the interest of audiences widely decreases when the meanings of news text become causality of direct influence by political actors. Many people working across Afghan Media face lack of ethical and professional skills, simply for the reason that they are more citizens rather than professional journalists.
BBC’s Inayatulhaq Yasini says his experience of nearly 18 years of work as a journalist shows that most of those working in Afghan media face lack of professional skills. He summarises the reasons as below:
- ‘‘Media organizations are not paying attention to the training of their staff; they just concentrate on how to cover the events.
- People are mostly recruited if they got personal relationship.
- The payment is very low, that is why most of journalists are forced to have second jobs, which affects their journalistic work.
- Lack of security, which force journalist to self-censorship.
- Most media outlets are supported by foreign or local donors, and everyone has its own agenda, it is forcing journalist to follow strictly what the boss saying even on the expense of violating journalistic values’’ (Yasini,2011).
THE EYE WITNESS JOURNALISM
Pajhwok Afghan News is based at the heart of Afghan news. Like eye witness journalism, its reporters closely observe every day events all across the country, which allow them to have a full coverage of Afghan developments. The ‘Eye witness journalism is in one sense the purest and best of what we do. It has the power to settle part of the argument, to close down propaganda, to challenge myth-making. It is the first draft in the writing of history and, in itself, a primary source for future historians’ (Little 2010:10).
The environment in which Pajhwok runs remains a dangerous region for journalists and reporters where the freedom of speech regularly victimised or offended by powerful officials, drug lords and militants. ‘‘We live in a world where journalists are kidnapped and beheaded and so becoming embedded has become a necessary evil. It needs to be seen in context (as the reporters quoted here stress): embedded reporting is only part of the coverage of the war’’ (Hayward 2010:54).
At least one of PAN’s reporters and several other journalists lost their lives searching for the truth and ever since, news gathering has become an even more complex job.
‘‘Journalists who cover Afghan issues face the anger of many: warlords, drug lords, war criminals, corrupt officials, insurgents and killers – the people who hate truth tellers. Afghanistan is a dangerous country (particularly for journalists who want to tell the truth) quite simply because the people who are in the business of killing and the drug traders are the real power in the land’’ (Habibzai 2010: 57) and these are the people who remain major sources for the news as well. Quite simply, what they want to hide and what they want to tell is up to them.
‘‘The Afghan authorities think foreign journalists have the strong support of the international security assistance force and hence they offer them excellent access. However, local journalists do not enjoy such access: there is no security assurance for them to cover big issues such as corruption. On that issue, local journalists can only report from press conferences. But foreign journalists can investigate it deeper because they enjoy the support of their organisation and the Western countries’ military and political presence’’ (Habibzai 2010: 57a).
Access to the information is an elaborate process drives journalists to leave a number of key stories uncovered. The local reporters and journalists see and hear what is happening in their environment, but often security events need the confirmation of local officials which usually arrives too late or not happening at all.
NEWS GATHERING IN TRICKY SITUATION
Danish Karokhel is the founder and director of Pajhwok Afghan News (PAN) is satisfied to some extent for the work his organisation does in Afghanistan.
‘‘We have won the confidence of people owing to our constant adherence to objective, clean and responsible journalism. Groups of people from different parts of the country come and share their problems with us. To quote just one instance, representatives of the remote Wakhan district in Northern Badakhshan, Ghorband and central Ghazni and Kabul recently shared their concerns with Pajhwok, which they view as an effective forum for raising such issues in a constructive and rational manner’’(Karokhel 2011).
Talking about the complexity of news gathering involves some risks to security. This is because it can cause the rich and powerful to be embarrassed which biases them against the news media. The poverty of human resources within Afghan government and on-going conflict in the country resulted in the transfer of power to people with criminal backgrounds. Many journalists don’t dare to cover the issues to do with bribery and political corruption in Afghanistan.
Raising issues to do with illegal business could cost people their lives for which there are quite a few examples of journalists losing their life in pursuit of the story. Going to the scene of events, they may find many things that are news worthy, but they are forced into silence due to fear for their lives. Many local journalists are not ready to work in such a tense surroundings where the exposure of truth becomes problematic.
‘‘Because of these security and economic problems, Pajhwok has had a difficult struggle with staff attrition. Replacing staff has been made more difficult by the related flight of qualified Afghan journalism trainers to better paying jobs. The problems are even more acute in turnover within Pajhwok‘s management team’’ (Danish, 2011a).
Several types of censorship exist in the process of news gathering which can alter the true meaning of a story. The majority of news reports contain censorship and thus, the reality remains a casualty of the on-going situation. By studying and better understanding all types of news stories as sociological practice, one can easily find out the difficulties journalists are facing every day. ‘‘Local journalists are the main victims of the conflict. They don’t have life insurance and so they do not dare to go on dangerous assignments. If they are brave and say the truth they immediately face death threats’’ (Habibzai 2010:58b).
Since, Afghanistan is a war shattered country; specialism is an issue for media and other governmental and non-governmental organisations. Therefore, the news gathering process in the country is quite unlike that in the west. However, Pajhwok’s founder Danish Karokhel insists that journalists working for the organisation are absolutely given professional training and capable of modern journalistic skills.
Apart from professional codes, almost every media organisation has particular norms for processing news production. ‘’Journalism has a distinct culture with norms, conventions, and expectations of behaviour from those who are part of the culture. Many of those expectations are fuelled by the public service aspects of the profession-the feeling among journalists that they are working for the public good, not just for their private benefit’’ (Stovall,2005:22).
The preventions drive the significance of a news story from one side to another because from outside the newsroom, several factors interfere with the process of news production. Those factors involve political interests of the gatekeepers and text producers’; therefore, Afghan media outlets always containing single focus.
This culture generally exists in countries lead by an authoritarian system. Afghanistan can be relatively characterised as an authoritarian country because the public sphere theory does not exist and the powerful men use official positions to undermine the freedom of speech.
William H Hachten  points out that the press nearly always magnifies the bad and underplays the good. ‘‘The media are no longer seen as society’s truth-Sayers. By embellishing the bad and filtering out the good, a negative picture emerge’’ (Hachten 2001:115). This is what powerful people accuse journalists of focusing on political and military corruption and ignorance of ‘so called’ development in Afghanistan. They are also blaming media on more favouritism toward negativity.
‘‘It is clear that Afghanistan’s institutions, despite, all the rhetoric are one of the most corrupt in the world. There might be some exemptions but generally speaking corruption is high everywhere. This has affected every aspect of the country. The problems with media organizations, particularly which are based in Afghanistan are under the influence of different reasons. The news organizations are looking to the events according to their ethno-political interests and affiliations’’ (Yasini, 2011a).
The continuous war and violence, state corruption, political fraud and crimes against humanity overshadowed the so called reconstructive development in the country, if there is any. Many journalists including Pajhwok’s reporters trying to raise issues to do with above mentioned phenomenon. ‘‘There are many times more new events circulating than any newspaper or magazine could ever print. So it has to select those items that will have the most interest to its target audience’’ (Niblock 2005:75) .In this case Afghan media seem to have no cross ethnic and cross border audiences, and the politics of media organisations are mostly interconnected with contemporary political factions .
The essential uses of functional sociological theories in the study of news reporting may help a scholar to identify the impact of such product on audience as well as the confrontation with a tricky process to raise a truth. This can be recognised as a study of sociology of the news subjected by general sociology of the knowledge. The men or women setting in the newsroom waiting for a complete package of materials and expect a comprehensive story, but they have to pay less attention to understand that informational crisis drives the story toward meaningless direction.
In this type of condition journalists covering the everyday issues require specialised knowledge of news gathering and news production. ‘‘This need will encourage new forms of journalism and new journalistic skills to emerge. A more instrumental journalism will transform journalists into information brokers drawing on a variety of journalistic, graphic and database skills to supply particular clients with information relevant to their concerns’’ (Manning 2001:77).
To ensure this purpose, the practice of journalism ‘‘requires extraordinary energy and intellectual accomplishment under the constant pressure of daily deadlines. Journalists have to perform in pressure-packed environments. They have to produce, and they have to find ways of producing’’ (Stovall 2005:25a) a news story. The text of a story affects when a news source denies providing basic information. Many Afghan journalists claim that the content of their work remains imperfect when they denied information by Afghan authorities.
State corruption, political and military chaos have characterised major challenges against free and independent discussion through media outlets. Political and armed instability is a main reason pushing journalists to censor his or her work.
‘‘Journalists and media rights activists in Afghanistan are warning of a growing threat to freedom of expression, while officials contend that restrictions are imposed on media outlets only in response to irresponsible reporting. Most recently, the Pashto-language news website Benawa was banned on September 10th 2010 after it erroneously reported that Afghan vice-president Mohammad Qasim Fahim had died’’ (Wahedi 2010).
‘‘It is also moving to outlaw another widely followed muckraking journalism site, Tolafghan.com. The steps come weeks after Afghanistan’s government closed down one of Kabul’s most popular TV stations, Emroz TV, following a request by the Iranian Embassy, and enacted wide-ranging’’ (Trofimov 2010).
‘‘Benawa officials said the article was corrected within half an hour and they accused information minister Sayed Makhdum Rahin of slapping the barring order on them because of stories they had published about him in the past’’[Wahedi 2010a]. ‘‘The flourishing Afghan media scene is one of the success stories of the post-Taleban era, but the country’s ministry of information and culture has come under fire for imposing bans on several television stations’’ (Wahedi 2010b).
‘‘Conservative values are also a strong force, and many media outlets have been accused of carrying morally offensive material. Some of this criticism has come from the Commission for Monitoring Media Misconduct, a body set up by the information and culture ministry. Afghan internet service providers have been told to block thousands of websites that contain pornography or are linked to insurgent groups like the Taleban’’ (Wahedi 2010c).
Many Afghan journalists including Pajhwok Afghan News reporters disputed against the denial of information by Afghan officials, but so far officials show no signs of collaboration.
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Hanan Habibzai, an investigative journalist with more than ten years of experience in global journalism has covered the US invasion of Afghanistan, the fall of the Taliban regime, and post-Taliban developments, including the rise of militancy in the country.
MA in global journalism from Coventry University, Hanan writes on the conflict in Afghanistan and the regional politics, his work has been published by the BBC Afghan Stream, Pajhwok Afghan News, Reuter’s news agency, the Washington Post, Veterans Today, several local and the global media agencies, Including contribution in a journalism book Afghanistan War and the Media: Deadline and Frontline (2010), edited by R, Keeble & J, Mair, Hanan’s academic work is published around the world.
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