Last Saturday (January 27), an ambulance packed with explosives blew up on a crowded street in central Kabul, killing more than 100 people and injuring some 200 others. The intensity of the attack and the multitude of deaths led both Afghan and foreign observers to call the attack “a massacre.”
Just a week earlier, a small group of terrorists attacked the Inter-Continental hotel in Kabul leading to a 13-hour siege at the venue, in which more than 20 people lost their lives.
The increasing rate of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and widespread suffering represents a catastrophic human tragedy. However, that does not translate appropriately or adequately into international media attention. Mainstream news media outlets appear to classify victims of terrorism according to “worthy and unworthy” categories.
This double standard must end. All international news organizations should adopt a human-centric approach and see all victims of terrorism as equally newsworthy.
What gets into the news and how long does it get covered? These two fundamental questions have been at the center of many researches and studies by media and communication experts.
When it comes to selecting and displaying news, news executives claim that their decision-making process is based on professional standards and values.
In practical terms, however, editors always skew news according to subjective political leanings and economic factors.
Media critics believe that news media’s “biased choices” in the selection of some information at the cost of others are related to different factors, including “internalized preconceptions,” “the adaptation of personnel” and “the constraints of ownership, organization, market and political power.”
They report the news “apart from the naked realism of horrors and losses, and criticism of the facts.”
All Terror Victims Matter
As a media observer, I often hear and read of Afghans complaining that their tragedies are ignored by mainstream press, while terrorist attacks in Western countries always receive more media coverage than those in Afghanistan.
Afghans also believe that selectivity in the coverage of terrorism and human rights violations by parties (Taliban, U.S., Afghan government etc.) to the conflict are dealt with double standards by mainstream media.
In the ongoing war in Afghanistan, civilian deaths from terrorist attacks in retaliation to U.S. military operations occur on a daily basis. In the first nine months of 2017, more than 2,600 civilians were killed and 5,300 were wounded, most of them women and children, according to U.N. estimates.
However, because of policy and ideological preferences of market-driven mainstream media, terror victims in Afghanistan did not receive the required news coverage in 2017.
“There was a long time, even until very recently, when the Afghan people felt their suffering wasn’t being acknowledged by the outside world,” notes Afghan journalist Ali Latifi.
He writes that, when all victims of terrorism are not heard and their stories don’t get coverage beyond what they mean for Western powers’ foreign policy agenda, “the world loses the sense that it’s people, not nameless, faceless numbers, who are dying and suffering because of these heinous attacks.”
Latifi points to the U.S. media coverage of the May 31, 2017 bombing in Kabul, when more than 150 people were killed, as an example: “I was in California at the time, and I remember a major media outlet discussed the bombing and followed it with a talking head commenting on U.S. policy,” he said.
“There was no mention of exactly who was among the 150 people who died and what kinds of lives they led, but just after that, they cut to a follow-up story on a teenager injured from the Manchester bombing which, at that point, was already nearly two weeks old. People were given a chance to identify with the Manchester victim but no sense of who was killed and injured in Kabul”.
Worthy and Unworthy Victims
When terrorist attacks target foreign citizens or occur close to Kabul’s “diplomatic zone,” they always receive more global attention and easily make catchy headlines in major international news outlets.
On January 1, 2018, the killing of one U.S. soldier (a “worthy victim”), in a military operation in Achin district of eastern Nangarhar province, made headlines in almost all major Western news outlets. However, there was something of equal importance to humanity missing. None of the news stories mentioned that during the same U.S. operation, on the same day and in the same province, at least one civilian (an “unworthy victim”) was also killed and three women and two children (“unworthy victims”) were among 14 civilians wounded by American forces.
The worst example of the unworthiness of Afghan victims was on January 3, two days after the incident, when national news channel Tolo News published its story about the incident on its website mentioning the death of one U.S. soldier, but failing to report anything about the killed and wounded Afghans.
Sympathetic to U.S. officialdom, both local and international news media were quoting an official press statement by the U.S. military. They failed to provide alternative sources of information about the operation and assert their independence and professionalism.
On January 3, residents of Haska Mena, where the U.S. military operation was conducted, called upon the government to investigate civilian casualties, forcing the NATO mission in Afghanistan to issue a statement stating that they are “aware of reports regarding civilian casualties” as a result of the military operation in Nangarhar province on January 1. However, mainstream media ignored this statement completely.
Such self-censorship and dwarfing civilian casualties arise from within corporate news media which suppress the voices of war victims because they do not conform to mainstream political and economic perspectives. In other words, they undermine U.S. foreign policy goals in Afghanistan.
All this makes it hard to be optimistic about truly democratic and plural media in the so-called free and progressive West.
As the citizens of humanity, all those who stand for democratizing the media sector must look for democratic alternative which offer more public opinion.
We should build a media civic sector by allowing the public to participate in the media through different means, such as the Internet, which provides new ways of democratic communication locally and internationally.
Profit-driven elite news media outlets are a poison pill for the basic tenants of democracy. The richer they become, the poorer we are as a society and as a democracy. We must stop relying on them as a source for reliable, factual news and information.
By Aimal Faizi: