The NGO I work for—the Institute for War and Peace Reporting—trains local journalists in conflict-scarred areas because it believes that a strong, responsible, free press is one of the key components of a healthy society. But in Afghanistan, many of our trainee reporters have never known a free press. The press here, anyway, is more interested in storytelling than truth-telling and more likely to report innuendo than fact. We are starting from scratch.
Here’s an example: Recent flooding on the Afghan side of the Amu Darya River, which separates Afghanistan from Uzbekistan, destroyed crops and forced villagers from their homes. One of our trainee reporters drove to the district worst affected by the floods and returned with outlandish figures: thousands of families displaced and tens of thousands of acres of farmland destroyed. This week we went to re-interview the district governor who had given out the figures. His answers were so different from what our reporter had written that I began to wonder whether the trainee had been to the river at all.
The trainee told me later that the governor had changed his story. The governor might have mistaken him for an aid worker—a common occurrence here—or simply believed that exaggerating the damage would bring help faster. Even though the figures were obviously inflated, it hadn’t occurred to our reporter to question the governor further. He was the governor, after all, and what he said must be right.
There is more to this than an unwillingness to question authority—a serious problem in Afghanistan, but not the only one. The fact is that some of our trainees have great trouble understanding why the truth is more valuable to us than fiction, why what really happened is worth more than an exaggerated version. The kind of fact-based, methodically reported journalism that IWPR teaches is foreign to many Afghans. This is an oral culture—most people get their news by word of mouth and many are illiterate. The manner of conveying information is similar to the Homeric method of epic composition, and news, like those long poems, changes every time it is repeated. That it will change is part of the audience’s expectation and the storyteller’s art.
At a recent staff meeting, I asked our trainees why more newspapers in Mazar-i-Sharif don’t use our stories. IWPR publishes trainees’ articles on its Web site in English and syndicates them to local publications in Dari and Pashto, the two most commonly spoken languages here. Two of our freelancers, both editors of local-language newspapers, told me they won’t use IWPR copy because our stories don’t conform to their style: We use simple language while Afghan newspapers are ornate to the point of incomprehensibility; we print facts while most Afghan publications purvey rumors; we edit in English and translate our articles back into Dari, robbing the language of its rhythm and music; instead of starting with history, our articles begin with news; we write for ordinary people, while Afghan newspapers are aimed at the upper echelons of society.
One reporter sketched an inverted pyramid—the shape of a classic Western news story, which moves from the most important element to the least—and said that in Afghanistan the typical storytelling structure would be a pyramid oriented right side up, starting with what’s least important and getting to the news at the end. Anyone who’s ever heard an Afghan politician give a speech will recognize this structure. It’s a style that’s inherited from the heraldic messages dispatched by kings 400 years ago.
Since the fall of the Taliban, hundreds of newspapers and dozens of radio and TV stations have sprung up across the country, but many are funded by political groups and armed factions and report only their patrons’ views. Most Afghans have never encountered impartial reporting, with the possible exception of the BBC’s local-language radio services. Some newspapers print columns devoted entirely to rumor; the editors say that publishing unattributed whispers is the only way to keep up with the pace of gossip. Attempts at independent journalism have been rewarded with death threats, government harassment and, occasionally, imprisonment. Although a media-friendly press law has been drafted, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has yet to approve it.
Building an independent, accurate, and responsible press in Afghanistan will take years, if it can be done at all. In recognition of the work IWPR has done so far, the U.S. Agency for International Development just gave the IWPR Afghanistan program $2.3 million to train Afghan journalism teachers and develop daily news coverage of events all over the country. But it’s not clear how successful this experiment will be. The NATO-led international peacekeeping force in Kabul recently began publishing a local-language newspaper. One of our trainees told me that the shopkeepers who smilingly accept issues from the soldiers then deliver them to restaurants, where they are used to wrap hamburgers and French fries for take-away.
Listening to our trainees talk about Afghan journalism got me thinking about what kind of press would be most appropriate for this country. I know that the work IWPR is doing will make Afghan journalism more balanced and help hold Afghan leaders to account. Despite their reluctance to let go of their tradition, our trainees know that, too, or they wouldn’t be working with us. IWPR’s work may even strengthen Afghanistan’s uneasy peace. But ultimately, reforming the Afghan press must be an Afghan project. That’s why training more Afghan journalism teachers—to replace people like me—is so important.