The South Asia Channel

Telling the whole story

The first tweet I saw was late at night on Thursday, already early morning in Kabul. It was a short, to-the-point burst of information from Sarah-Jane Cunningham, a British-Egyptian woman working in Kabul: "British Council being attacked in #Kabul. Fight ongoing. No reports of casualties yet." From there it was almost embarrassingly easy to cobble ...


The first tweet I saw was late at night on Thursday, already early morning in Kabul. It was a short, to-the-point burst of information from Sarah-Jane Cunningham, a British-Egyptian woman working in Kabul: "British Council being attacked in #Kabul. Fight ongoing. No reports of casualties yet."

From there it was almost embarrassingly easy to cobble together a real-time update, almost minute-by-minute of a Taliban gun-and-bomb attack in Karteh Parwan district of Kabul against the British Council – a cultural institution where, among other things, many Afghans have learned English. Bilal Sarwary; Jerome Starkey; Erin Cunningham; Massoud Hossaini; and Mustafa Kazemi were just some of the English-speaking reporters posting information via Twitter.

Their minute-to-minute updates — shots fired; three explosions; smoke coming from building; burning debris; the Americans have arrived! The British are here! — made it easy to follow along and the re-tweeting of their tweets was soon filling the timelines of people around the world.

And then there were blog posts and pictures and videos thrown up on Youtube. Media outlets had slide shows up before the dust had even settled. Next came the inevitable parsing out of whether Afghan security forces were ready to take on these kinds of attacks on their own without assistance from internationals. We heard from a tailor, we heard from a butcher, we saw the grimacing faces of Afghan police officers as they carted away the body of one of the attackers.

The frenzied pace led one tweeter, @polgrim, to observe "From the looks of it some journos are getting an orgasm live-tweeting the insurgency in Kabul this morning. *tone down the theatrics*." The last thing I tweeted was some five hours after the attack began when a reporter said the area was quiet and cordoned off. Twelve people had been killed.

A few hours later in Jamrud district in Pakistan’s Khyber Agency, a suicide bomber standing in the fifth row of the Friday prayer congregation detonated himself killing forty people and injuring scores more. As of Sunday, the death toll stood at 52 and was expected to rise. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility.

The majority of the casualties were brought to Peshawar. There was no on-the-scene live-tweeting, no accessible English-speaking journalists who could update the world in real time. There was no worldwide re-tweeting. It was mentioned by the international press, of course, but with a dearth of immediate pictures or video or English interviews it didn’t really make a splash of any kind except in Pakistan. I shared exactly two news items via Twitter — one in English and one in Urdu.

Oh, and Hillary Clinton read a statement of condolence.

There was a near-identical suicide bombing of a mosque during Friday prayers in Jamrud district two years ago as well, where again some fifty people were killed. Then as now the coverage was limited to news media within Pakistan. And there have been scores of other attacks since, both big and small. The only ones that really seem to draw much attention are either at military installations or at places where expatriates could be involved. In other words, places that might mean something to "us," the international community.

It’s a natural outcome, I suppose, of the difference between cities saturated with foreigners – like Kabul – and one where it’s "just locals" – like Peshawar. Obviously, the greater number of reporters in a place writing and reporting in different languages, the more likely we are to get information, both important and trivial. It’s like the difference between Libya and Bahrain.

But these two very different reactions by international media, to me, speak to a bigger problem with how we perceive the stories of ordinary Afghans and Pakistanis.

I’m not keeping some kind of macabre scorecard 00 twelve dead Afghans versus 50 dead Pakistanis or one sustained attack versus two blitzes. And it’s not even about how well events are covered in either country. There are definitely good foreign reporters doing good work but mostly the coverage in both countries is shallow and almost exclusively focused on conflict — it’s the only thing about these places that seemingly matters.

The part about this imbalance in international reporting that is most problematic for me is the perception of how conflict is playing out in the two countries. In Pakistan, it’s seen primarily as a war between the military and the Pakistani Taliban confined to a population-free area known as The FATA — a place without stories, history or individuals, meaning that violence is inconsequential at a human level.  In Afghanistan, the large number of internationals and English-speaking journalists can, and do, provide ongoing eyewitness testimony to the effects of violence on ordinary people. Consider it a secondary outcome of the international presence.

There’s also an underlying moral judgment about the violence in Pakistan, that when people die, well, it’s a result of Pakistan’s own bad policies and you reap what you sow. We see this moralizing in an extreme form with the debate about the use of drones. Estimates of civilian deaths from drone attacks range from zero to hundreds. But we rarely see those casualties and know almost nothing about the people who live there, so it’s easy to add the qualifier that while civilian deaths are sad, drones are, nevertheless, important tools in the fight against militancy.

I’m certainly not saying the lack of attention on the stories of regular people is coming only from a lack of will to tell them. There are very real challenges to reporting from volatile areas for both local and foreigner reporters. But the absence of average Pakistanis has allowed a narrative to take hold that Pakistanis, unlike Afghans, are complicit in their own misery.

Time and again, in doing my job, people caught up in extraordinary hardship have said to me, "tell the world." An international media "frenzy" would help, one that aggressively focused on the multiple ways ordinary Pakistanis — like many ordinary Afghans — are paying for others’ ambitions. Then maybe they could tell the world.

Naheed Mustafa is an award-winning freelance writer and broadcaster based in Toronto, Canada.

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