Journalism is a powerful weapon, which is why most tyrants and despots like either to control or ban the media. Even in so-called democracies, governments are well aware of the power and influence that the media can have on voters. Critical front pages and commentaries can win or lose elections, garner the backing of the public and even start wars.
The then US President George W Bush and his sidekick in London, Labour Party leader and Prime Minister Tony Blair, knew the power of spin and used it almost twenty years ago. In their hands, headlines and broadcasts deceived the world about non-existent weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq. The media's own weapons of mass deception worked a treat. Some years later, several leading newspapers and journalists apologised for being complicit in propagating lies in their coverage of the Iraq war.
Iraq's Saddam Hussein was no stranger to the power of propaganda. He knew that if he had the Iraqi media in his grip then the hearts and minds of the people would follow. This is why no newspaper published in Iraq ever questioned the 100 per cent turnout of the electorate who swept him back into power in October 2002. I was in Iraq at the time. He was re-elected for another seven-year term by a unanimous vote of all 11,445,638 eligible Iraqis on the electoral roll, eclipsing the 99.96 percent who voted for him in 1995. Try as I might, I could find no one prepared to question the result and soon discovered, escorted everywhere by government minders as I was, that it was folly even to ask.
Dissenting voices and critical columnists are not beyond the reach of thin-skinned tyrants who do not take kindly to criticism. Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi paid for his critical words with his life in 2018 when the Saudi dissident was murdered and dismembered in the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul, apparently on the orders of petulant Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. That was the conclusion reached by US intelligence; it was ignored by Donald Trump.
It is going to be fascinating, therefore, to see how the new Taliban government deals with the media in Afghanistan as it rolls out its administrative programme. I hope that it allows the local media to flourish, because freedom of speech and a transparent media are always a sign of good governance.
Despite their criticism of the Taliban, in which the lack of freedom of speech figures prominently, the Western and other foreign media — including those in India and Israel — have been deplorable in their coverage of events unfolding in Afghanistan. Like it or not, the Taliban swept into power after a crushing defeat of US, British and NATO forces. It took 20 years and the movement could not have done it without support from ordinary Afghans. That's a fact, but you'd hardly know it from the media coverage..
Western media commentators are still in a state of shock, which is hardly surprising after more than 20 years of undiluted demonisation of the Taliban. They've pushed out so much disinformation, lies and propaganda, and repeated it so often, that they've come to believe it themselves.
Although often characterised as "backward, primitive and medieval", the Taliban has actually shown that it is quite capable of strategic planning and coordination, with an ability to adapt to and counter anything thrown at it by NATO forces. The movement's leadership has learned from past mistakes, and exploited the weaknesses of the US-led coalition accordingly.
I've watched a seemingly endless conveyor belt of Colonel Blimps on TV, sneering political commentators and defence experts rubbishing the Taliban's ability to organise a functioning government. Some of these people are citizens of the same country which elected reality TV host Donald Trump as its president in 2016; enough said. Anyone else fancy government-by-Twitter? No? I thought not.
The truth is that for more than a decade the Taliban has set about building a parallel administration, developing nationwide logistics and introducing a legal system much preferred to the corrupt courts operating in major towns and cities under the Karzai and Ghani puppet governments. I'm also reliably informed that the movement has an impressive intelligence network. If that's true, then the media narrative driven by the West has probably suited the Taliban's purposes very well.
Fake news wasn't invented in the Trump era. I remember when Kabul was "liberated" the first time around and there were TV images of women burning burqas and men shaving off their beards. What the cameras failed to show was the cash offered to these people by dollar-rich media outlets which wanted to provide "happy" pictures for the folks back home. Colleagues told me that they were able to get Afghans to "perform" for the media for $50 each, about a month's wages over there. With dollars in their pockets, and scissors and burqas and some lighter fuel in their hands, they happily gave front page performances.
Enterprising Afghanis were not slow on the uptake, and lots of false documents started to emerge revealing Al-Qaida's deadliest secrets. One foolish journalist parted with $500 for Osama Bin Laden's nuclear plans, which turned out to be the contents of a physics text book. Equally innovative Afghans managed to make money out of cash rich reporters wanting images and stories to make people back home believe that the US-led invasion and occupation was worthwhile.
Fast-forward 20 years, and thanks to social media fake news is an industrial-scale problem. However, this time, the roles have been reversed, with the Taliban arriving rather than fleeing on the outskirts of Kabul. Instead of hailing the movement for its relatively peaceful takeover of the Afghan capital, we were fed more anti-Taliban spin with dramatic footage of a young man using black paint to cover cosmetics advertisements showing fully made-up women on a beauty shop window. The image went viral. I wonder how much he was paid to perform for the cameras, or if it was genuine.
At the time of writing, I can tell you that my female Afghan friends confirm that the hairdressers and beauty shops are still in business. I can also tell you that beauty shops existed in upmarket areas of Kabul under the Taliban, where even the most conservative of the movement's leaders would not dare to come between a woman and her curling tongs.
When the 2021 Taliban took control of Kabul the media was braced for signs of rape, looting and unruly behaviour. Isn't that what conquering armies do? Didn't we see it in Baghdad when US troops arrived in the Iraqi capital in 2003? Despite them being told not to act like conquerors, there were enduring images of soldiers clambering over fallen Saddam statues waving American flags, burning and looting.
Much to the annoyance of politicians and their compliant media, in stark contrast the Taliban behaved like model schoolboys on a trip to the local museum; some members of the movement even smiled and posed for photographs as they entered the presidential palace. That didn't stop a run of false images of women in all-encompassing black abayas being led down Afghan streets in ankle chains with captions such as "The Taliban has arrived".
No politicians were seen swinging from the gates of the presidential palace with cigars in their mouths and dollars stuffed in their pockets; that would have been difficult since most members of the Ashraf Ghani government, including the president himself, had done a runner, allegedly taking millions of dollars with them.
Undeterred by these early signs of peace and stability, Western journalists roamed the streets, dressed ironically in black abayas, claiming to hear chants of "death to America". The footage I watched on one particular US channel, which I replayed several times, showed Taliban soldiers merely shouting, "Takbir… Allahu Akbar". To cap it all, some playful Taliban soldiers were photographed driving dodgem cars in a fairground. How dare members of this evil, brutal, regime enjoy rides in a theme park?
Unable to file reports of gang rapes, slave markets, public stoning and hangings, the fourth estate had to be content with scenes reminiscent of Saigon 1975 as desperate souls chased after an outgoing aircraft on the runway of Kabul's Hamid Karzai Airport. However, much to journalists' collective annoyance, I suspect, the airport was under US control at the time, and these harrowing events happened on Washington's watch.
Another journalist walked "courageously" through the streets in downtown Kabul with his camera crew remarking on the conservative Islamic dress worn by people and opined that this would be down to the arrival of the Taliban. No mate! You're reporting from a Muslim country and this is the cultural dress of ordinary Afghan people. All those previously wearing Western dress were probably Westerners on their way to the airport and a quick exit.
The liberation of Kabul from US and NATO occupation has exposed a plethora of media lies and manipulation, and that is why so many in the West are staggered by events in Afghanistan. The demonisation was lazy journalism by reporters posing as heroic truth tellers before a gullible audience.
The Taliban isn't falling for it any longer, though. Having been the victim of an abusive, manipulative media for more than two decades, would the movement ban journalists or restrict their work? Well, no, it didn't. Instead, it held a held a press conference for its detractors and spoke about women's rights, human rights, peace, reconciliation and an amnesty for its enemies. Journalists were left reeling; US and European politicians were outraged; and even the most rabid demonisers in the West were speechless. Almost.
They soon found their voice and, in the absence of facts, supercharged spin was unleashed across satellite TV channels, radio stations and chat shows. The words of the Taliban leadership were dismissed as a pack of lies and even "chilling". Politicians who routinely lie through their back teeth, army officers and so-called experts who spewed out hate and bile without evidence, inquiry or justification — and with more than a touch of irony — claimed pompously: "These people can't be trusted."
No wonder Afghans were queuing thigh-deep in sewage ditches at the airport for hours on end waiting to get out of Kabul. The fear and panic was palpable. None of the TV commentators bothered to ask British and US politicians why the Taliban could not be trusted. If that was really the case, then why were British and US troops being protected by the Taliban as the mass evacuation got underway?
I do not deny that many Afghans had good reason to flee. They had worked as translators for American and NATO forces and intelligence services, the same forces that had brutalised, tortured and killed Afghans. Despite assurances by the Taliban that there would be no retribution, they feared for their lives, and who can blame them? Many ordinary Afghans have scores to settle over loved ones detained and tortured in the notorious Bagram Air Base or simply forcibly disappeared.
All brutal military occupations end eventually — take note Israel — and in the chaos and the vacuum left behind, revenge, pay-back and retribution are at the top of many agendas. This is a problem that the Taliban leadership will have to grapple with.
Meanwhile, it will take an army of spin doctors to overturn the deceit, hype, planting and concealing of evidence used to demonise the Taliban over the past two decades and more. There is a complex relationship between journalists and their sources also at play and very often those sources are based within opposition groups or individuals who have their own agendas to discredit the movement. These journalists must try to hold their sources to account, as many of them are in self-denial.
We've already had headlines about Afghan journalists being attacked by the Taliban, but when you look beyond them the story is not so clear. In fact, it's often more about men carrying out crimes while posing as Taliban soldiers. For money, valid reasons or just revenge? Who knows?
There is still a lot of propaganda clogging up the airwaves and our TV screens. The BBC and all of its news departments, including the World Service and its international correspondents, still push the story that the Taliban closed schools and stopped girls from being educated. This is a lie but the BBC has repeated it for so long now that the broadcaster cannot correct it without admitting that it has misled its viewers and listeners for the past 20 years. Other TV, radio and print media have the same problem.
Fellow journalist Robert Carter contacted me recently about the problem of what he called "the West's Taliban hysterics". He quotes one particular commentator in his YouTube video as saying: "The Taliban haven't changed. They're still the barbaric savages they were 20 years ago, and if not probably worse now because they are emboldened by absolute power. You know reports in May, they bombed a school full of girls in May and killed 90 of them."
It is true that the Syed Al-Shahda School for Girls in the Dasht-e-Barchi neighbourhood of Kabul was bombed in May. While it suited the now discredited President Ashraf Ghani to blame the Taliban, it has since emerged that it was down to the fanatics of ISIS-K. The Taliban denied responsibility and condemned the killings in the Shia neighbourhood. The truth is that such right wing commentators as the one quoted by Carter don't know ISIS-K from their elbow. As far as they're concerned, "they" are all the same. Hence, the perpetual lies about marauding Taliban rape gangs, sex markets, slaves and people trafficking.
I'm not going to name and shame this ignorant commentator, but she's one of many. Sometimes people have to be protected from their own stupidity, but if she bothers to read this perhaps I can enlighten her and other equally ignorant commentators on the position of the Taliban when it comes to sex abuse and rape. I researched and wrote about it in my 2001 book In the Hands of the Taliban.*
"The Taliban were formed [in 1993] by Mullah Muhammad Omar Akhund, a religious scholar who was 43 years old at the time… Omar's original group were said to be 'united in their anger over the lawlessness into which the Mujahideen rule had sunk', said Asiaweek. The lawlessness referred to daily extortion at highway tolls, where robbery and rape were everyday occurrences. In July 1994, a Kandahar military leader raped and killed three women, which caused outrage in the city. Justice from Omar and his Taliban was swift. The leader was executed and his men offered their services to Omar. It was a defining moment for the Taliban, which grew from strength to strength." (In the Hands of the Taliban, p85)
Now if that's what the Taliban did in 2001, and — as this commentator insists — "They're still the barbaric savages they were 20 years ago, and if not probably worse now…" why on earth would they promote gang rape today or have "marauding Taliban rape gangs"? The leadership today is as puritanical and conservative as it ever was. They were appalled by the behaviour of ISIS-K and stories of ISIS rape of Yazidi women in Iraq, slave markets in Raqqa and the sexual abuse of women.
I can understand why it may seem confusing to occasional followers of Middle East and Asian politics, but that's why it is the duty of journalists to cut through the propaganda and deliver the truth. It sounds simple enough, but I still haven't been forgiven by some former colleagues in the profession for stating that my Taliban captors 20 years ago treated me with "respect and courtesy".
It's a sad fact that some journalism has been criminalised in the West. Look at the case of Julian Assange, publisher of WikiLeaks, who is languishing in Belmarsh high security prison in London. He faces extradition to America and criminal prosecution under the US Espionage Act. He has been charged with publishing the Afghanistan and Iraq war diaries and US embassy cables, important documents that many journalists around the world have used and helped to publicise. The "War Diaries" provided evidence that the US Government misled the public about activities in Afghanistan and Iraq, and committed war crimes.
Of course, it is still very much early days and we can't judge the Taliban by their words alone. We need to see if their words are matched by their actions, so the sooner that they turn their pledges into deeds the sooner it can be reported. My hope is that the 2021 Taliban has higher moral and ethical standards than many of us here in the West, not least the journalists and politicians amongst us.
*Yvonne Ridley is the author of In the Hands of the Taliban which is available as an ebook.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.