Afghanistan journalists attempt a boycott after death of reporter

On Thursday, March 20, at a celebration of the Persian New Year in Kabul’s posh Serena Hotel, four young men attacked partygoers with small handguns they had smuggled through security, murdering nine civilians before they were killed by security forces.

Among the first to fall was Sardar Ahmad, a veteran journalist with Agence France-Presse, who was killed along with his wife and two of their three children. For Afghan journalists, the attack – one of several claimed by the Taliban in the past few weeks as the country prepared for its presidential election – was too much to bear.

Tributes appeared on the websites of media outlets around the globe, and hundreds braved a downpour to attend his funeral. The day after the attack, a group calling itself “the gathering of Afghan journalists” issued a statement announcing its intention to boycott the Taliban for fifteen days. Although the initial statement did not list participating journalists and organizations, few domestic media outlets have run any quotes from Taliban spokespersons in the past two weeks.

According to Khpolwak Safi, the head of the Independent Journalists’ Union of Afghanistan, the boycott’s low profile is intentional; rather than report suicide bombings with screaming headlines, he said, journalists have agreed not to speculate about Taliban attacks and “not to put those kind[s] of stories on the top of any news bulletin.”

Even such a limited boycott makes journalists uneasy, however. While many of Afghanistan’s most prominent journalists are participating, several U.S. news organizations announced that they would continue to conduct interviews with Taliban spokespeople and publish the group’s statements.

Given its short duration and limited application, the coverage boycott isn’t likely to be effective in curbing Taliban attacks on journalists. By all accounts, the Taliban’s media operation is aggressive in getting its views out, and putting limits on sourcing can do the public a disservice by failing to provide all sides. Still, the boycott does provide a rare look into the contentious relationship between modern war reporters and their sources, for whom the story can be another battleground.

For Waheed Massoud, the BBC’s Kabul chief, the boycott is the only weapon Afghan journalists have in their arsenal, and it’s not a very effective one.

“I don’t think this boycott, in the bigger picture, will be effective in getting Taliban to change their tactics,” according to Massoud, who is currently in the United States. But he said by phone he would have taken part in the boycott if he were in Afghanistan because there’s no other way of getting a point across to the Taliban.

Safi said the boycott was having some effect, with the Taliban calling on journalists to be impartial. During a similar boycott in 2007, Safi said in an email, Afghan journalists were politically divided and couldn’t agree on the boundaries of the boycott – should any suicide attack be presumed Taliban until proven otherwise?

That wasn’t all, though. According to a leaked State Department cable, the Taliban threatened to kill journalists who participated in the 2007 boycott. This time around, though, Safi said the Taliban has dialed back its aggressive stance.

A 15-day boycott doesn’t address larger issues that journalists face in dealing with the Taliban.

According to Vanessa Gezari, a visiting professor at Columbia University who reported from Afghanistan and trained journalists there, the Taliban is notoriously hard to cover. While the group releases a steady stream of announcements on attacks, bombings and body counts, its internal operations and power struggles are practically impossible to report on, leading some journalists to say the Taliban’s only clear objective is to generate press. Some, Gezari said, argue the group shouldn’t be covered at all.

“Journalists are not machines,” Gezari said. “Journalists are increasingly fed up with this violence, particularly against civilians, and they are looking for a way to respond.” Still, she said she wasn’t sure whether a coverage boycott was “realistic or sustainable.”

Foreign correspondents, for the most part, have not taken part in the boycott. Statements from the Taliban have been reported by The Associated Press, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal since the attack that took Ahmad’s life. The thought of shutting out one side of a conflict – for example, by declaring that its actions “can never be justified” as Afghan journalists did the night of Ahmad’s death – would strike many U.S. journalists as taking sides, even if it is directed at a group like the Taliban.

“The Wall Street Journal has made no changes to the way it is covering Afghanistan,” said WSJ reporter Habib Khan Totakhil in a Facebook statement, noting that his organization would continue to provide “full coverage” of the Taliban “in an unbiased and professional way.”

In a statement, AP spokesman Paul Colford said that even a recent attack on two AP reporters would not change the organization’s coverage, writing that the organization will “continue to provide a robust news report from Afghanistan.”

“It violates my sense that we have to hear from all sides, but in some way, that’s already been frustrated,” said Gezari.

Just how far journalists are willing to take their boycott remains an open question. While the Afghan journalists called initially on colleagues to refrain “from broadcasting any information that could further the Taliban’s claimed purpose of terror,” the boycott has been less strict in practice, said Safi, the head of the independent journalists’ group.

When Taliban fighters attacked the headquarters of Afghanistan’s election commission on March 29, journalists could not ignore it. That act of terrorism made headlines, even if reports didn’t include comment from the Taliban.

While journalists’ degree of commitment varies, almost all have agreed not to quote the Taliban, said Marai Shah, the AFP’s chief photographer in Afghanistan, in an email. The journalists’ statement “does not mean they are not going to cover the incidents,” he said. “If they do so, it would be ignoring the victims’ rights.”

Almost a month following the attack on the Serena Hotel, the Taliban’s responsibility is still a matter of debate: after initially denying the attack, the Taliban claimed responsibility for ”selectively” killing more than 20 people at the hotel, before issuing another statement that expressed regret at the deaths of women and children. Meanwhile, Afghan intelligence officials insist that the attack was really perpetrated by Pakistani agents.

Whatever the boycott achieves, the job of Afghan journalists will remain dangerous, and their names may one day end up in an article about the next mass murder.

“Sardar is not the first victim,” said Massoud, “and I don’t think he will be the last.”

Jack Newsham is a student and freelance journalist interested in media. He will spend the summer writing for The Boston Globe. He has reported for The Sacramento Bee, fact-checked for The American Prospect, and conducted research for George Akerlof and Robert Shiller. He can be reached at j.newsham@gmail.com and on Twitter @TheNewsHam.

Related: Afghanistan gets more dangerous as elections approach | AP photographer killed in Afghanistan

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