Afghanistan - the media in drawdown?

16 May 2013

by Jawed Nader

An American reporter's farewell blog sounds the alarm about a possible "media drawdown" in Kabul

In a piece published in The Daily Beast  this week AP correspondent Heidi Vogt warns that the number of foreign correspondents in Kabul is dwindling.  In 2010, she says, reporters were jostling each other out of the way to cover Afghanistan.  Then, AP had four international staff correspondents in Kabul.  Now, it has only two.  Vogt assumes she’ll be replaced when she leaves - but adds “there’s no guarantee”.

Vogt sees the role of the foreign correspondent in Afghanistan as “bearing witness”. She’s clearly worried about the future of reporting there.  “What scares me most is that with every passing month there are fewer people doing that job in Afghanistan,” she says.

The “reporting machine” that keeps the story alive in the American consciousness is slowly being dismantled.

Vogt attributes the reduction to “a press drawdown that accompanies a troop drawdown” and warns that Afghanistan is “already slipping off the (American) front page”.

It’s not yet a crisis  - for now, she says, the overall media presence is “still pretty robust”. 

But she worries what will happen after 2014, when the majority of foreign forces will have left and the media caravan will have moved on.

“When a suicide bomber blows himself up in 2015, there may be a very small handful of Western reporters still in country to cover it”, she says.

Vogt’s warning is a timely one.

International aid agencies have been urging the world not to forget Afghanistan after 2014. They’ve pointed out that the problems facing Afghans will remain long after the last foreign soldier leaves.

With international aid funding dropping fast, humanitarian needs could grow.  Freedom of speech could also be affected - Vogt speaks of the presence of foreign reporters acting as a kind of “shield” for Afghan journalists in a country where press freedoms are not yet taken for granted.  And then there’s the possible impact on women’s rights. Afghan women fear that if the Taliban are brought into the peace process, their rights could be compromised.  In the past, the foreign media have been particularly vociferous on women’s issues, amplifying stories by Afghan journalists and bringing them to the attention of the outside world.  But what will happen if foreign news outlets lose interest?  

It’s not just media coverage in America which may be at risk.  BAAG did its own mini-survey of the British media a few weeks ago. Of 58 stories in national newspapers and the BBC website over a one week period, well over half were linked, in some way, to the presence of British forces in Afghanistan. This begs the question as to how often stories about Afghanistan will appear in the British media after British forces pull out.

Western media interest in Afghanistan in recent decades has been cyclical.  The level of interest has been high when foreign forces were present there, whether they be Soviet or Western.  But it has dropped when those forces begin to pull out.

The Afghan people need continued support after 2014 - not just in terms of humanitarian aid, but in terms of international interest and engagement.  Over the past decade, the international media spotlight has played a vital role in ensuring that foreign policy makers keep to their promises not to abandon Afghanistan.  The hundreds of stories written by foreign journalists have helped to ensure that the voices of the Afghan people are heard across the world. That spotlight must not be switched off.