BBC commitment to impartiality questioned in its coverage of Afghanistan

By Hanan Habibzai

This article analysis the work of three media organizations relating to their coverage of the same event in Afghanistan. On 10th February 2011 Lutfullah Mashal, a spokesman from the Afghan National Security Directorate, gave a press conference to the world’s media claiming the government had arrested two men suspected of carrying out a suicide bombing in Kabul that killed eight people.

The BBC Pashto Service report of the conference, compared to coverage of the same event by the USA’s Washington Post and an Afghan online news agency Pajhwok calls into question the BBC’s impartiality when reporting on Afghan affairs. The BBC is renowned for its relatively strong commitment to impartial, professional journalism focused on truth in the public interest.

‘‘Impartiality lies at the heart of public service and is the core of the BBC’s commitment to its audiences. It applies to all our output and services – television, radio, online, and in our international services and commercial magazines. We must be inclusive, considering the broad perspective and ensuring the existence of a range of views is appropriately reflected’’.1 Yet the corporation’s reporting in Afghanistan through its Afghan Section continuously deviates from these principles. The press conference in Kabul is a telling example of this.

BBC PASHTO SERVICES’ APPROACH

The original news story in Pashto, an official language of Afghanistan, was broadcasted on 10th February 2011. For this analysis, I use an English translation 2. The story was treated as a high profile news item on the day with a picture of Lutfullah Mashal covering the top half of BBC Pashto’s online front page. The headline chosen, ‘Intelligence says a Pul-i-Charkhi prisoner was guiding suicide bombers’, even though the person presenting the information is a government spokesman and not the prisoner himself. The term ‘says’, has been used, when perhaps ‘claims’ might be more accurate. In using this headline the report has already taken what the government says as fact without challenging its version of events, something imperative to good journalism.

Looking at the body of the story, the language used is more evidence to support the notion that the reporting is biased. The first sentence of the story represents a point of view, in this case that the men arrested are terrorists, even though no trial had taken place to confirm or refute this. Other reports carefully refer to ‘alleged bombers’ or ‘suspects’, as impartial journalism should; yet here the reporter is corrupting reader impartiality by stating as fact the government line that the men arrested were in fact terrorists rather than suspects.

The language used is one-sided, therefore compromises on the principles of the impartiality and independence of journalism. In other words, the language used is very opinionated which intentionally endeavours to influence the opinion of the reader. These are contrary to the nature of true journalism. ‘‘The language of the news plays a major part in the construction of what Berger and Luckman have referred to as the ‘social construction of reality’ (1976). It assists in the creation of a set of public discourses through its selection of narratives and the language it employs to project them’’ (Conboy, 2007:5).

The job of journalists is to provide the best obtainable version of truth rather than drive the readers in a particular direction. It is only at the end of that long first sentence that the reporter attributes it to the government spokesman. The opening is more like a government statement than a paragraph in a news story. The language in this first paragraph is political, not factual. If a report subsumes the strong views of politicians in this way, it suggests complicity in the state’s attempt to control information; in effect it implies that the reporter is partisan. Yet the BBC is supposed to be a source of impartial and professional journalism regardless whether they are reporting in Britain, Japan or Afghanistan. To illustrate, there are alternative words that can be used instead of ‘terrorist’, some of which are available in BBC’s guideline:

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‘‘We should use words which specifically describe the perpetrator such as bomber, attacker, gunman, kidnapper, insurgent, and militant. We should not adopt other people’s language as our own; our responsibility is to remain objective and report in ways that enable our audiences to make their own assessments about who is doing what to whom’’3. The directorate spokesperson, Mr Mashal, is the reporter’s second source; his primary sources are the detained suspects, who also attended the conference. For accuracy, the story should be told using their own voices, after all they are the ones accused of masterminding the suicide attack. How can the BBC Pashto journalist be so sure that the national directorate’s side of the story is the factual side? The reader needs more reporting or at least a caveat from the reporter.

The reporter gives very little detail on the circumstances of the arrests of the suspects, where were they arrested or what did they say verbatim at the press conference? How were the attacks masterminded from prison? Via the internet or cell phone? More information is needed for this to be plausible. Instead, the only development the reader is given is that these men are ‘terrorists’ and bombers. This and the incorporation of Mr Mashal’s comments into the body of the news report (outside quotations), compromises the reporter as he is placed as a supporter of the claims made by the intelligence service. In short, the main critique of this piece of reporting is that the journalist appears to support one side of a story, which has skewed his reporting in a way favourable to the government. Here is the last sentence of the report: ‘It is not yet clear whether these people confessed by force and pressure’. The first half of the sentence hints at proper investigative reporting; the journalist reverts back to ‘say’ is more neutral than ‘‘confirms’’. The second half of the sentence containing acceptance of Mr Mashal’s claims: ‘but intelligence says the arrested people had direct links with Pakistan’s Lashker-e-Taiba and Jalaluddin Haqani network’.

While BBC World Service English is professional in its work reporting on international conflicts, its Afghanistan section too often deviates from high quality output elsewhere. The mindless regurgitation of particular terms used by state authorities like ‘terrorist’, ‘tragedy’, ‘bloodshed’, ‘painful’, ‘cruel’, ‘innocent’, ‘plot’ and so on, indicate an unquestioning acceptance of state propaganda of the worst kind. ‘‘Victimising language like ‘devastated’, ‘defenceless’, ‘pathetic’, ‘tragedy’ which only tells us what has been done to and could be done for a group of people by others. This is disempowering and limits the options for change’’ (Lynch & McGoldrick, 2009: 29).

Indeed the use of language is a sensitive business for every journalist. Every word generates a meaning; we listen, hear or watch it. Biased language used in a report immediately raises questions about the ownership of a particular media organisation and its ulterior motives. ‘‘News is determined by values, and hpw the kind of language in which that news is told reflects and expresses those values. Audiences feel that the way in which language is used must affect the content of what we receive from the media’’ (Bell, 1993:2).

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PAJHWOK AFGHAN NEWS (PAN)’S APPRAOCH

To further illustrate the case, let us look at Afghan news agency Pajhwok coverage of the same event 4. Pajhwok refers to the alleged bombers as ‘suspects’ in the article title because the men accused have yet to be tried.

The reporter steers clear of suggestive language in his opening sentence referring to ‘arrested men’, whereas BBC Pashto says ‘terrorists’. The skilled approach avoids the personal involvement of the reporter.

The reporter tries to reveal details about possible seize of the military equipment with suspected individuals who appeared in the press conference, and he tried to raise issues to do with the suspicious role of alleged bombers in the attack on supermarket.

The reporter only quoted Mr Mashal when he made an effort to talk about the areas where ‘men’ have been arrested and the equipment which linked to the suspect bombers. Well use of source and professional practice of language by Pajhwok news agency, when the journalist refers to the suspicious role of the arrested ‘men’, he quotes the primary sources.

Despite the fact that Pajhwok has a smaller budget and fewer resources than the BBC, it still emerges as the more professional outfit.

THE WASHINGTON POST’S APPROACH

The Washington Post also reported the same event from Kabul on 10thFebruary 2011. The Washington Post’s story titled ‘Kabul grocery bombing said to target French diplomats’5, avoids using controversial terms such as ‘terrorist’. The reporter focuses on the primary sources, the suspected bombers, present at the press conference.

The story opens with a quote from Mr Mashal, the official source, but when reporting the details of the bombing and arrests, the post gives time and space to the suspects themselves and not the government spokesman. As a result, the reader is given a descriptive report of the event right down to the type of clothes the suspected bombers wore.

This sample of reporting from a western media outlet contradicts claims that western journalists in Afghanistan are not impartial and instead voices for the international security forces. The Washington Post reporter’s comprehension of political and cultural implications of this event is such that he reports in a sensitive way. Thus he avoids being seen as part of state propaganda.

INTUESIS & CONCLUSION

When reporting in Afghanistan it is important to recognise the different interests that exist. Outside of Kabul, the Taliban are a political and cultural force that may resonate with ordinary Afghans. The use of language which obviously misleads audiences creates an unbridgeable gap of confidence, which can too easily be filled by scepticism. In such matters the BBC guidelines suggest that the possibility of some things being in the public interest for one section of the population, but against the interests of another is a matter of some debate.

‘‘We must not knowingly and materially mislead our audiences with our content. We may need to clarify the nature of some content by labelling (for example, verbally, in text or with visual or audio cues) to avoid being misleading ‘’6.

Another example where BBC journalists working in Afghanistan seem to disregard these guidelines is the BBC Persian TV broadcast on 19th February 2011 titled ‘My Kabul’ 7. The reporter presents the experiences of a small section of society who enjoy life under the current circumstances in Kabul. But he ignores the largely voiceless majority that live in poverty and with the constant threat of death outside Kabul.

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The reporter goes so far as to suggest that the Kabul police are trustworthy a laughable claim since even those inside Kabul recognises the systemic problem of police corruption. The reporter’s rose tinted view of Afghanistan continues with the claim that because there are post-Taliban private TV channels, there is also freedom of speech in the country. Yet this ignores the murder and kidnap of many journalists and the continued threat to investigative reporters. What of the BBC’s own Samad Rohani, killed in 2008?

The presenter airbrushes out the death of another journalist Sayed Hamid Noori, killed in the heart of Kabul late last year. Private TV channels do not mean freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is being able to speak freely without fear of death or kidnapping.

The reporter does not question the decreasing authority of the Karzai government, where injustice and corruption are widespread. According to Anderson, Peterson and David (2005) the journalist must question the arrangement of an event and only report the true picture rather than the painted official picture.

‘‘Both liberal democratic theory and the various strands of critical theory share a central underlying concern with issues of news representation and source access. Questions concerning whose voices are given prominence, whose voices are silenced or marginalized, and the role of the media in representing ‘public opinion’, is the subject of intense debate’’ (Anderson, Peterson, David 2005:188).

The reporting of the BBC’s Afghan section is indicative of wider problems with Afghan media. Many media organisations employ citizen journalists rather than professionals, which significantly impacts the quality of reporting in the country. Most Afghan journalists appear to ignore the political, social, economic and cultural sensitivities of the country; instead their focus is on the government agenda through press conferences and official statements. Symbolic of this is the way that in the reporting of the February press conference, the suspected bombers, such a compelling visual for readers, were studiously ignored by the BBC reporter, and instead the government spokesman was the star of the show. Such reporting suggests audiences and their interests are not important, which makes it little more than a government propaganda machine.

And so it is the interest of editors, who have their own political agenda, which takes precedence in newsrooms across Afghanistan. This agenda usually fits to what the government wants. This trickles down to junior staff members, whose focus is avoiding poverty and unemployment, which means toeing the party line at the expense of journalistic integrity. End.

Notes

1: See BBC editorial guidelines online version

2: Click for a translation of BBC story

3: See BBC editorial guidelines online version

4: Click for Pajhwok’s original story

5: Click Washington Post’s original story

6: See BBC editorial guidelines online version

7: Click for BBC Persian story

REFERENCES

Anderson, A &Petersen, A, David, M & Allan, S. (2005), News Production and Sources Strategies, Journalism Critical Issues, New York: Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication.

Bell, A. (1993), the Language of News Media, Oxford: Blackwell.

Conboy,M. (2007), The Language of the News, New York: Routledge.

Lynch, J & McGoldriick, A. (2005), Peace Journalism, Gloucestershire: Hawthorn Press.

The first draft of this article is reviewed by Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi, a UK based journalist, and the second draft of this article is reviewed by Dr Fred Mudhai senior lecturer in global journalism at Coventry University, UK.

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