Popular Indian English news channel, New Delhi Television (NDTV), has joined reporters across the world in boycotting coverage of the Taliban, after its members killed nine persons – including a well known journalist, his wife and two children – at a five star hotel in Kabul.
The Serena Hotel attack – targeting foreigners ahead of the presidential polls – is being termed the deadliest Taliban strike in recent months. Four teenage Taliban members got past security in the heavily fortified luxury hotel and shot dead seven people in the restaurant and two more in the hotel hallway, before being killed by security forces.
Four foreigners killed include a Paraguayan election observer, a Canadian woman and two Bangladeshis. Forty-year old Sardar Ahmad, one of Afghanistan’s most prominent journalists and former senior reporter for Agence France-Presse (AFP), was celebrating Nowroz – Persian New Year – and sharing a meal with his wife and three children when they were all shot at point-blank range, execution style.
His third child – a son – is said to be critical. Sardar was with AFP since 2003 and was described as courageous and one of the best journalists at the organization, for his coverage of the tensions within Afghanistan.
Claiming responsibility for the attack, the Taliban said it was targeted at “foreign invaders and puppets of high-ranking officials”, and further vowed to disrupt the April 5 election.
Hundreds of journalists and international media organizations enforced a voluntary ban on broadcasting Taliban attacks like this. A statement issued by the Afghan journalist fraternity read: “The Taliban carry out such attacks, which can never be justified, solely for the purposes of news coverage and projecting terror among Afghan citizens. Therefore, the journalism family in Afghanistan, in a collective decision, has decided to boycott coverage of news related to the Taliban for a period of 15 days. We also ask the Taliban for an explanation of how they justify the close-range shooting of innocent children.” NDTV is the only Indian media organization that decided to support the group.
In an AFP report, Gilles Campion, regional director of Asia-Pacific AFP, said, “Sardar was one of our best journalists in Afghanistan and a beloved member of our team.” Colleagues recall Sardar as a passionate journalist who cared deeply for his country. He had family in Canada who advised him to leave Afghanistan, but he would not have it. Kabul Pressistan, a local news agency he set up as a side venture, has become a required first-stop for foreign correspondents seeking trustworthy fixers, translators and security tips.
Afghanistan has become volatile and a dangerous zone for press corps. Earlier this month, Swedish journalist Nils Horner was gunned down in broad daylight on a busy street in Kabul. A recent UN report attributes three quarters of the civilian death toll to Taliban attacks. The Taliban does not discriminate between its victims, and these are not the only two instances in which journalists have been targeted. Popularity-seeking militant organizations across countries like Somalia, Libya, Syria, Pakistan and Iraq specifically target journalists to get coverage.
These deaths remind us of the immense risks journalists take, not just while reporting on conflict – journalists are even targeted for covering crime and corruption. In this scenario, the decision to boycott the Taliban rings a bell for every rational news organization.
It is not that journalists are only under attack in war-torn countries. In 2013, India was listed as unsafe for journalists, with a reporter allegedly killed by Maoists the same year. Numerous reports from across the world cite instances of journalists in unsafe areas being manipulated and intimidated. They are targeted by any quarter that feels that too much information is being reported, with the persecutors even being affiliated with political parties, state-sponsored agencies and the military establishment.
Worse is that the accused are rarely identified, go scot-free or are never tried in the court of law.
It is understandable that the media has reached a breaking point and boycotted the Taliban, which is perhaps the first-of-its kind step by the media. It only goes to show the frustration and fear under which media is forced to operate, and that when no one else stands up in its defence, the press stands up for itself and its freedom.
A section of media is however debating whether such a boycott adheres to the tenets of journalism, because as a profession it is supposed to be free and fair to all. They argue that the press cannot boycott any organization – even if it is militant in its style – because information is not meant to be held back, and it is especially significant ahead of the April 5 Afghan polls, which the world will be watching keenly. A number of Western journalists are camping in the country to cover the elections, beyond the blast walls of military bases and diplomatic compounds.
This group argues that nothing should hinder journalists’ efforts to report thoroughly on the country’s upcoming elections and ongoing U.S. withdrawal, which will also show the Taliban and other such organizations throughout the world that journalists remain committed to their profession. Another argument is that a boycott may not necessarily affect the media-savvy Taliban.
While this may not be a fruitful longterm decision, the media needs to stand united and fight back. To be neutral is a virtue of the media, yet to be mute in such circumstance is a vice it can avoid.