The media spotlight on Afghanistan is fading fast – but the agony of its people is far from over

Ayesha Jehangir

The Guardian

18 March 2022

Afghans have been fighting since the 70s for the same reason Ukrainians are fighting but they have been neglected and betrayed

In January, some Taliban members in northern Mazār-e-Sharīf city allegedly gang-raped eight women in custody. These women were part of the group of people arrested while trying to flee the country following the Taliban takeover in the wake of the withdrawal of foreign troops.

The Taliban, obviously, denied this.

My friends in Kabul told me that the women who survived the gang rape were later killed by their families in the name of “honour” after they were handed over by the Taliban. The rest of the women, they said, were still “missing”.

The barriers between young women and higher education are at the highest, women are banned from most paid employment, women’s sports have been banned, and over 72% of women journalists have lost their jobs.

In their early days of power, the ministry of women’s affairs was swiftly replaced by the Taliban with the infamous ministry of virtue and vice, which later saw an array of restrictions imposed on women’s travels. Women have been beaten and abducted for peaceful protests for their right to work, education and health – more and more people now selling their daughters away for mere survival.

The life of a woman under Taliban rule is not a mystery to the outer world. Yet international media are becoming increasingly disinterested and distracted.

After the initial “winners and losers” coverage that kept newsrooms busy for a few weeks, as soon as the international troops and contractors left, international media made an exit too.

The US abandonment of Afghanistan set its people on a trajectory that prophesied a life of intimidation, terror and incarceration – human rights violations, poverty and statelessness that proved their worst nightmare true.

The absence of war is not peace.

Journalists may not be propagating war, but through inconsistent and infrequent coverage they are also not prioritising peace with the US-led coalition quitting and the Taliban ruling Afghanistan. It gives way to propaganda and misinformation to permeate through without public attention or inquiry.

On top of that, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which led to fluctuations in the global stock markets, and the surging Covid-19 infections around the world have resulted in war-ravaged Afghanistan – disenfranchised and ignored by international media – continuing to suffer silently and helplessly.

The international media spotlight on Afghanistan is fading fast.

Yet the agony of the Afghan people, especially women and young girls, is far from over – the crisis is only escalating, with the crumbling healthcare and services system caught between international isolation and hardline Taliban rule.

Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, local media does not have the freedom to raise questions, let alone investigate. Taliban control local media insofar as heavily armed Taliban fighters have been seen to accompany their leaders when they make live TV appearances.

Separate surveys by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) have revealed that over a half of Afghanistan’s media outlets have closed since the Taliban took power back in August.

For surviving journalists, the Taliban announced the vaguely worded “11 journalism rules” – basically their way of censoring and controlling media.

And now, with the western media broadly shelving the coverage of Afghanistan, there’s hardly anyone left to rely on with conflict de-escalatory coverage that is grounded in the frameworks of humanisation, justice and peace.

Yet, amid the threats of abduction and targeted persecution, a group of women took to the streets of Kabul on Sunday, demanding access to education and work. For these women to stand in the face of tyranny – that even the most powerful country in the world does not want to face – is an act of resilience in the most desperate of times.

It calls for robust international media coverage and solidarity.

Yes, some primary girls’ schools have reopened this month and some women have been allowed to return to work in the education and health industries, but human rights violations, hunger, poverty and sickness remain at a record high, and a predicted famine is around the corner due to economic crisis. And with people resorting to selling their daughters and kidneys in the black market for bare survival, one must recognise that there is hardly any strength left in them to stand for themselves.

These stories need to be told to shake minds and souls around the world for action.

With the era of media witnessing war and other distant crises came the age of the attention economy, where quite important issues struggle to survive in the public discourse for longer periods of time.

They need constant reminders. The continuity aspect of postwar follow-up reporting can give visibility to stories that may have been missed by the public in the first instance. The news media cycle is swift and urgency-centric. The continuity aspect keeps information alive and safe from obscurity.

Peace reporting in a conflict is crucial and places a lot of responsibility on the journalists.

In the global fight between the pens and the AK-47s, the international media and journalists need to stay engaged in Afghanistan through peace journalism and not allow the latter an easy win.

 Dr Ayesha Jehangir is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Technology Sydney
The media spotlight on Afghanistan is fading fast – but the agony of its people is far from over