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Peace journalism about Afghanistan


Jake Lynch, TFF Associate, Australia

June 12, 2008

“It’s clear a long-term success in Afghanistan will require significantly more troops and we welcome those additional troops, no matter what the source”. So said Australian Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon when seven people were killed, earlier this year, in a bomb attack on the luxury hotel in Kabul which housed the Australian embassy. Strengthening the Nato-led “International Security Assistance Force” would be an “essential ingredient”, the Minister went on, in defeating terrorism in Afghanistan.

What to make of this proposed remedy? Well, it depends on how we diagnose the problem. And Fitzgibbon was pitching his statement into a media narrative for the Afghanistan story which constantly reiterates a simple proposition – ‘these evil men are out to get us’. Go back to the reports in the Australian press from the day of the attack, in mid-January, and search them for the six vital pieces of information that journalists are supposed to provide – who, what, where, when, why and how, the famous ‘five w’s and h’. You’ll find there’s one missing – the ‘why’.

Why are the Taliban still a factor? Why do people in Afghanistan support them? Such questions are very rarely posed or answered in the media of countries whose troops are in Afghanistan. Instead, their portrayal generally bears out what the novelist, Gore Vidal said about Americans’ stock view of their enemies – that they are driven to oppose the US simply out of “motiveless malignity”. Where there was an explanation, in reports of the Kabul attack, it was the kind that immediately begs another question. They did it to prove they could, we were told. Hmm, OK – why would they want to do that?

If we see, hear or read reports of political violence taking place for no intrinsic reason, we are likely to infer that the perpetrators are unreasonable (‘evil’). Hence it makes no sense to attempt to reason with them (negotiations). So the only possible response is more violence – the Fitzgibbon plan.

Any exploration of that question, ‘why’, would call this into question. I recently spoke to Patricia Garcia, a highly experienced Australian humanitarian worker who’s just given up on Afghanistan after many years. She was trying to foster community development in projects funded by the Asian Development Bank – including the provision of income-generating alternatives to opium production. But she left because aid workers these days are “concentrating on their own protection” – and travelling around in heavily guarded convoys of plush 4x4s makes them a symbol of the inequalities and mounting grievances that are driving more and more of the country into the arms of the Taliban.

It was, Patricia reckoned, “only a matter of time” before an attack in Kabul on a symbol of the international presence in Afghanistan. The battle for hearts and minds in the countryside was being lost because the military refused to coordinate with humanitarian efforts. Whenever US or Nato troops shot or bombed civilians, President Karzai would wring his hands, but was literally powerless to stop it. That contributed to his lack of authority in the country, so diminishing security, so in turn causing internationals to be surrounded by ever more security provision and alienating them from communities. A classic vicious circle.

It’s a very different diagnosis of the problem, and it suggests that the deployment of more troops would certainly not represent an effective remedy. It springs from observations on the ground by an aid worker who knows the country intimately. So why do we so seldom get to hear about it? Why, when reporters get reactions from ministers, to events like the Kabul bombing, do they not also consult people like Patricia Garcia?

It’s a prime convention of ‘War Journalism’. It arises from economic and political imperatives of the news industry. Concentrate on ‘official sources’ and you are less likely to be thought of as biased, so your newspaper – and the advertising in it – will appeal to potential readers of all political views and none, or your TV program will avoid flak. It goes hand in glove with another characteristic, presenting violence as its own cause – meriting the term, war journalism, because it serves to legitimise further violence, as in this case.

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The alternative is peace journalism. It’s based on distinctions in the representation of conflict which draw, in turn, on research built up over the years in Peace and Conflict Studies. As a reporter for Sky News, the Independent and the BBC, I applied them to my coverage of conflicts in former Yugoslavia, the Middle East and South East Asia – to name but a few – and later, as a BBC World presenter, in interviews with studio guests.

Peace journalism entails exploring the reasons for violent incidents; the stew of tensions, fears and grievances that underlie the visible effects of conflict. In doing so, it reaches out to many sources, including those with suggestions for peace initiatives. The Kabul bombing was an opportunity to remind readers that the British and the Canadians have both been thinking aloud about talking to the Taliban, and to seek out perspectives on what they might talk about.

Patricia’s suggestion that military and humanitarian efforts be better coordinated would represent a starting point; at a conference in Melbourne late last year I met Najib Lafraie, an Afghan politics professor from Otago University in New Zealand and a native of Afghanistan. He set out very clearly the contradictions that will prevent Nato from achieving anything resembling success in Afghanistan, and he set out a plan for involving community representatives to re-build the country on a transparent, accountable basis. If any journalist asked me who to interview about Afghanistan, I would suggest him.

We are now in a post-Cold War, post-‘9/11’ and post-Iraq world. There’s no need for journalists to line up on either side of an ideological divide, and no need to take official statements at face value. That’s why we’re seeing more and more peace journalism, even if editors and reporters don’t often call it that. It’s an idea whose time has come.

Associate Professor Jake Lynch is Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney



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