Partial eclipse
Zuhra Bahman assesses media coverage of the election in Afghanistan and reports on how many dared defy government censorship
21 Aug 09

9f61408e3afb633e50cdf1b20de6f46622222222222222222Zuhra Bahman assesses  media coverage of the election in Afghanistan and reports on how many dared defy government censorship

I believe that any sane person on the receiving end of Afghanistan’s election day media coverage ran the risk of losing their senses, of either being turned into a paranoid freak, or a vigilante, a hopeless patriot or romantic. Or had they been particularly impressionable, a bit of all.

That’s my conclusion after spending all Thursday in Kabul with a radio, a TV and the Internet as my companions. At the heart of the day’s media coverage was the reaction to the government’s ban on the media reporting violence while poll stations were open between 6am and 6pm on the day.

The immediate media reaction to the decree was thoughtful, professional and mature — the Afghan Independent Journalists’ Association (AIJA) condemned the ban and declared it a move against the right of the public to access information and freedom of the press.

The government claimed it wanted to impose — or “request” — the ban because they thought that exaggerated media coverage of security incidents would scare people into staying at home instead of getting out to vote, rendering the election a failure.

Response was mixed on the day. The local online news outlets and the international channels did not respect the ban. Pajhwak News Agency, for instance, presented an onslaught of bad news — bombings, suspected bombings, failed bombings and scores of wounded or killed, or lost or martyred — the innocent, women and children, and the guilty alike.

BBC Persian TV, BBC websites and Al Jazeera also defied the ban and reported on incidents. A Tokyo Broadcasting Systems journalist Kojiro Nobuhiro was reported to have been arrested, though later released and there were other reports of detentions and beatings of local reporters.

Some freelance journalists who did not wish to defy the ban openly, along with a few aspiring citizen journalists, decided to Tweet, blog or Facebook any bang they heard, real or imagined. With no accountability, the news arriving from sources was largely unreliable. I saw reports of explosions in Kandahar from eight different sources, each one giving different figures, from two to eight rockets fired and from none, to “many dead”.

Due to the international media’s habit of portraying the Afghan government as inherently evil and the Afghan people as tribal types who love war, every incident came to add to the image of Afghans constantly waging civil war on each other rather than as an exception to peaceful life.

Based on the international reports and the blogging world anyone would become paranoid and run to the nearest shop to hoard dry food, firewood and get a burqa. Most of the broadcast media respected the ban or relied on the willingness of their staff to self-censor.

There were a few accidental slips — including that of the Ministry of Defence spokesman who accidently confirmed two attacks — one in Kabul and the other in Zabul with two casualties, in a live interview in Azadi Radio mid-morning.

Denied freedom to report on security issues and Taliban activities, local TV and radio stations jumped on other negative election day news, from the faulty hole punches, to washable ink and official interference. Channels turned over a lot of time to staging experiments to prove, or otherwise, that the ink used to mark voters’ fingers as proof of voting could be removed by unscrupulous people; trying nail varnish remover, soap, washing up liquid, bleach. Each channel accused a candidate — other than the one they supported — of committing the fraud.

The coverage tended to imply that the Taliban did not exist and the only people who were causing trouble were the election candidates and their supporters. My cousin at home watching local TV was furious at the unfairness. Her impression of the security was overwhelmingly positive; she wanted not only to go out to vote, but also to go on a little excursion to the other side of the city to see family.

During the lull time of prayers, lunch and in between news programmes the TV channels dug up old and new patriotic songs and adverts. Singers from all Afghanistan’s ethnic groups sang about the national dance; one sang about missing Afghanistan in front of Big Ben; another had a cute girl talking about national reconstruction. There are only a few of these, but they are repeated so often the aim seems to be to drill love of country into your brain.

At 6pm the ban ended and freedom of the media resumed. Every correspondent across the country repeated their day’s report again with the previously censored security news put back in. Every TV station brought in a “kaarsheenas”, an analyst, to sum up the situation. Some stated the obvious and blamed the Taliban, but others turned on the government, the international community and even the election candidates for the insecurity. Those who defied the ban and reported the insecurity only reached a handful of Afghans with Internet access.

Otherwise, there were only rare reports of good work taking place: people voting, albeit in smaller numbers than expected, the volunteers observing the elections, police and security forces guarding the stations, among others. But few were recognised as worth significant coverage.

On the day, the Afghan media showed its colours. Though media is a rapidly growing industry in the country, their expansion is horizontal and not vertical, they are growing in quantity and not quality. When left to their own devices they were sensationalist, biased and lacking analytical skills. During the ban they continued all three habits.

What was new was that that their sensationalism had to find a new focus, turning from terrorism to election fraud.

The country’s media still needs to reassess and look again at whether they need to copy the western media’s habit of covering only the bloody incidents. If their reports were more balanced and relevant, more people in Afghanistan and abroad would want to hear them and more, including myself, would be more prepared to fight for their freedoms.

We will have to wait and see — the newspapers in Afghanistan did not publish on election day or today. It’s a public holiday here.

Zuhra Bahman was born in Kabul. She writes for New Internationalist and is studying in London