Tuesday, 8 November 2011

BBC commitment to impartiality questioned in its coverage of Afghanistan

BBC commitment to impartiality questioned in its coverage of Afghanistan

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.

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:

‘‘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 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).

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 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.

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.
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.

7: Click for BBC Persian story

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.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Pashto and Pashtuns: In the Light of Linguistic Perspective

In the Light of Linguistic Perspective
By Prof.Dr.M.A. Zyar

Pashto is the language of Pashtuns. Pashtuns (Afghans) are the biggest majority ethno-linguistic tribe and the most long living residents of Afghanistan. The name of the country is links with the name of largest majority, the Pashtuns.

From the point of view of history and geography Pashtuns belong to northeastern areas like Pamir and Balkh. The grandpas of Pashtuns were named as Sakas, Kasyan and Sakan, and the Pashto itself were the grandson of Saki language.

Other current Saki languages belong to Saka origins like: Osety (Caucasia) and 12 or 13 other Pamiri languages are considered close sisters. Sakas are considered the fifth Aryanian origin along with, Awesta-speaking Zartostrians, Partians, Madians and Parsians, which created big empires many centuries before Christ in the Middle East, Caucasia, to northern west India and Kashmir, and defended its main residential territory (Bacteria or Balkh and the area around Axos river) from Greek invaders led by Alexander the Great and later established its first Greeco- Bacter government. 

From today 1965 years back some Sakas moved from north to south and named Halmand down area (Zarangia>Zaranj) with their name Sakistan, which later changed as Sistan. In second century AD when the empire of Sakistan collapsed, in the north the Saki origin Koshanians set the foundation of another empire, which controlled the north, west and south as well as the northwest of India and Kashmir.

Since then Pashtun Sakas established big and small feudal governments in the Ghor and Herat, the valleys of Helmand and Arghandab to Ghawara Margha -غوړه مرغه  - (Arakoziya, current Arghistan),  and to the skirt of Kasay the Solaiman Mountains which were later spread to Sindh, India and Kashmir.  This way Pashto was affected by Indian Aryan languages and collected a lot to its skirt.  

For the first time, the name of Afghan as Apaga is found (252-6 B.C.) in Aechamenian eara, later Apakan as nickname of Sasanian king Shahpuhr the First (309-378).

 In ancient Indian books, in sixth century has been published it as Avagana by Indian astrologer, Aramihra, and O-po-kien in Chinese sources.The Avaganas are the todays' Pashtuns which make the largest majority of Afghanistan.

In this point, let us quit the tales of the history, and let us discuss the current situation. Pashtuns suffer the historic tortures, even though Pashtuns traditional Jirga and meetings are good examples of democracy, but the nation could not experience the democracy with real meaning.

To bring democracy and establish civil society in the war-shattered country, it was necessary that Pashtuns should have been educated, though, historically, Pashtuns have been used as a force of war, as the ruling sources used them to defend against the invaders and that is it.

The largest tribe, with tribal values does not know anything about globalization or the real meaning of democracy.
Pashtuns have been pushed to war in the history because of some foreign movements who invaded Afghanistan time to time in the course of the history to gain control over the region through geopolitical position of the country. Simply like other free nations military, cultural and political interferes of foreign countries were considered as attack on the soil and the values.

Currently their language fights with a cultural invasion and there is no policy within Afghan government to protect Pashto from foreign assaults, and such a bad condition. The Pashto language has almost been separated from official activities intentionally and Pashtuns think that internal and foreigners have launched conspiracies against their language and values.

Many Pashtun intellectuals and writers say if the society does not begin a peaceful cultural struggle to protect its language, does not protect it from negative affects of neighboring Persian language, and does not give hand together against the rivals. It is possible that Pashto will be separated completely from the political ground of the country.

In a society where there are not enough educated people, its members will be deprived from intellectual evolution in technological age. Pashtuns are so behind from the international movement due to involvement in the wars that it needs successive and a lot of efforts to integrate them.

Military wars in their environment and civil war among Pashtuns have made it difficult for Pashtuns to get together to tackle hurdles against them, coordinately.

Looking to the current military and political situation Pashtuns pay the biggest scarifications to survive their future role in the country’s politics, in other hand they appeared main victims of so-called war on terror in Afghanistan.

Taliban are fighting in Pashtun areas and international alliance and its Afghan collaborators non-Pashtun allies so-called Northern Alliance also searches their Pashtun enemies in Pashtun areas.

This condition has given hope to those minorities who attempt to defame Pashtuns and would replace Pashtuns in political ground, as proxies of neighboring countries.

Those who do not accept Pashto-Pashtuns and Afghans- Afghanistan, enjoy the current situation in Afghanistan, the struggles against Pashtuns.

They accept the articles of the constitution which have been set in the constitution by Iranian instructions to protect their separatism and sectionalist interests.  For last 70 to 80 years newly created terminologies used by Iranian have also been used by these minorities.

For instance, since king Amir Shir Ali Khan (1868-79) up to present all military and administrative terminologies were in Pashto among 47 Afghan linguistic groups and this should not be contradicted, but, they ignore the fact and say why it should not be in both languages.

Even when some others do not have any other reasons they say that there has been no limit for these terminologies. When Persian speaking Afghans write a texts and needs to write Afghan terminology then they do not write them in the way it is written in Pashto, as instead of Pashto (څ=ts) they would write Arabic (س) or instead of Pashto (ښ) they would write Arabic( ش) and such others.

Even though such issues look ordinary to many people, but this type of official activities made many Pashtuns upset and have distanced from government officials.
Dari is a dialect of Persian, as Tajiki Persian, and was forcefully added to Afghan constitution in 1964 as Dari language.  They think, if Dari owns its original Persian linguistic name, then its origin should be recognized as southwestern Aryanian languages, not northeast Bakhtari group.

Historian Muhiuddin Mehdi discovered the Surkh Kotal  in 1956 and later in 1993 Rubatak, provided historic information from inscriptions about 200 to 300 other scattered discove- ries has picked up information from Professor Hinning to the current alive Sims Williams (SOAS, Lodon) as a famous Aryasnist  (Iranist) and has selected the position of Pashto and Pamiri (as of Yadghi and Monji) and also Soghdi, Bactri, Parti and Khawarezmi.

This best historic-geographic position and long and prosper activities and literature of Pashto has attracted the attention of many Aryanists since18th century and have undertaken significant academic researches.

Following French expert J.Darmesteter and German W.Geigar, distinguished Pashto language’s scholar, Professor George Morgenstierne devoted 60 years of his life on new linguistic knowledge about Pashto and the related languages.

He was always saying that the Landay (special type of Pashto popülar poems), and Khushal Khan Khatak (1613-1689), the great Pasho poet, were enough for me to get special interest and involvement with all Aryan and then Aryanian languages, in particular the Pashto.

As Pashtuns have spent over 2500 years in defense and invasive wars due to its geographical location, they could not find time to nourish Pashto, and in new Aryanian eara. On the other words, in the beginning of Islam, Pashtuns were in need or were pushed to use and utilize the south-western Persian as second Islamic language.

This requirement and motivation forced a famous king Sekander Ludi to use and send Persian language letters to India instead of his native language Pashto, and then pave way to Sory rulers and Turk- Mongol rulers to use Persian and at the end from Kabul to Dakan, the Indian city,  Persian became the language of majesty courts and offices.

Hotaks with the support of fourth Hotak king Shah Hussian (1729-38) started to accommodate Pashto language, but storm came on them from west of the country.
Ahmad Shah Baba also designed a map to support Pashto, but his successor ignored it, particularly when King Teemor Shah chose Kabul as the capital with the consultation of Turk-Mongol colonizers, which thrown all hopes and efforts to Kabul River.

It was a big cause, since then the culturist and developed minded Amir Shir Ali Khan attempted to restore the position of Pashto Language, but his successors up to present could not help stand Pashto as equal rival to Persian.

Very unfortunately at the present, the Pashtuns and Afghanistan are confronted ethnic groups, anti-national unity filthy alliance and foreign military occupation which challenge the war torn Pashtuns and their war shattered position.

 And much rudely with provocation and support of Iranian leaders implement the tripartite Persian states concept, that has been initiated by Raza Shah pehlavi in .1936, (you will read more about this in the upcoming chapters)

Afghanistan ministry of information and culture expressed concern over the use of Iranian terminology in media. An origin Pashtun, former minister Karim Khuram viewed concerns over the Iranian increasing influence.  He went a step ahead and made efforts to encourage media to use national terminologies, but, no one heard his voices, instead, following his comment, Iranian cultural sources in Kabul criticized him.

Afghan experts say, if the international community wants peace in Afghanistan, they should pave way for the establishment of Pashto research centers and development of the language. Pashtuns will consider the move a good news, and this way international community will attract majority Pashtuns to support foreign efforts in Afghanistan.