For once, news channels were ruled by a foreign hand.
No sooner had the Taliban advanced upon Kabul Sunday, Indian news channels dropped ‘Amrit Kal’, 15 August celebrations and the Prime Minister’s speech from the Red Fort in Delhi, to head out for the Afghan capital – where they have since remained for ‘the biggest story, the biggest coverage,’ explained CNN News18.
But while reactions by governments and the international media to developments in Kabul have been cautious, Indian news channels have thrown caution to the wind and already pronounced judgements on the ‘Taliban Takeover’ of Afghanistan: ‘Taliban reign of terror’ (Republic TV ), ‘Terror group wins Game of Thrones (NDTV 24×7), ‘Afghanistan Apocalypse’ (India Today), ‘The Taliban Siege’ (CNN News18), ‘#TalibanIslamistTerrorBack’ (Times Now).
Wonder what the Narendra Modi government, which has been most circumspect in its comments, thinks of headlines such as, ‘Terrorists set to rule Kabul again’, ‘Taliban Terror Tsunami’ (India Today), ‘See the reality of the Islamist brutes’ (Times Now) and the accompanying video purportedly from Jalalabad in Afghanistan that claims the Taliban opened fire on protestors; or Republic TV’s ‘Taliban begin targeted killings’ with a video accessed from social media of men with guns.
Confluence of significant leaders is important; Panjshir (where anti-Taliban movement gathered momentum) is a land-locked region; they need support of more territories to have resources incoming: Capt (R) Alok Bansal
Director India Foundation https://t.co/3AdouRdizw pic.twitter.com/hCvyPVKeAI
— Republic (@republic) August 18, 2021
These and similar stories across Hindi and English news channels have focused on alleged atrocities by the Taliban—at a time when many Indians are still in Afghanistan, several of whom have spoken to the same news channels about their fears and desire to return home.
So while the stories may well be true, is it wise to take such a stringent position when their return, or indeed lives, may still be at stake?
Also read: ‘Burn my degrees, photos of me without hijab’: Afghan women in India tell families back home
How Al Jazeera, CNN, BBC covered it
This is a dilemma for the media and one that could explain CNN International’s lacklustre coverage compared to BBC World or Al Jazeera’s. On Sunday, when the Taliban reached the outskirts of Kabul and politely waited for now ex-President Ashraf Ghani to fly off in a helicopter, BBC World and Al Jazeera devoted themselves to the Taliban’s unexpected arrival and Ghani’s hasty departure while CNN International dwelt on the earthquake in Haiti and the continuing squabble between US Democrats and Republicans on masking up for Covid.
The channel appeared to be going soft on the Taliban and on President Joe Biden and his decision to pull out American troops from the war-torn country — even its interview with Secretary of State Antony Blinken anchor Jake Tapper tamely spoke of how “poorly this was done” and “ineptly planned”.
It was Al Jazeera’s reporter at the United Nations who called it “a catastrophic policy failure” and quoted MSNBC’s interview with former US war veteran and analyst Matt Zeller who said, emotionally, “This is a disaster, I am deeply ashamed of my government.”
MSNBC’s Brian Williams on Biden’s speech: “He didn’t run from it, he owned it. He owned this decision. He owned the fact that, as he put it, the buck stops with him.”
Afghan vet @mattczeller: “I feel like I watched a different speech than the rest of you guys. I was appalled!” pic.twitter.com/AMSulYnNrp
— Justin Baragona (@justinbaragona) August 16, 2021
Meanwhile, BBC World interviewed Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban’s international spokesman, on what to expect from Taliban 2.0 and asked him hard questions on the fate of women.
“Women can have access to education”
Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told the BBC that people in Kabul have no need to worry and their properties and lives are safehttps://t.co/cn9P1Vm8Q2 pic.twitter.com/lgTjsCCr2x
— BBC News (World) (@BBCWorld) August 15, 2021
By Tuesday, CNN was rather more forceful in its criticism of the Biden administration with the likes of Christiane Amanpour taking everyone to task including former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who admitted that the US never ‘understood’ the ‘culture’, the ‘religion’ or ‘tribalism’ of Afghanistan. CNN’s correspondent in Kabul, Clarissa Ward, made up for the channel’s shortcomings with her ground reports — on Tuesday, she stood by the wayside, with armed Taliban preening themselves behind her, and reported that while the streets appeared safer, people were still ‘petrified’– she could ‘smell the fear’.
Al Jazeera, based in Doha, had the advantage of more visuals from the ground, none more extraordinary than the sight of the Taliban lounging about in the Afghanistan presidential palace, Sunday night. It also had the most informative reporting from the Afghan-Pakistan border where there was ‘no panic’ and on Pakistan’s reaction to the rapid change of government in Kabul.
The BBC’s Yalda Hakim with her contacts and knowledge of Afghanistan was in control of covering the fluid situation – there were well-thought-out interviews with experts such as Professor William Malley and diplomats such as Sir Nicholas Kay who had served in the country (‘I hang my head in shame’) along with ground reports from her colleagues. If you wanted a well-rounded picture of what was happening or conversely, not happening in Kabul, go to the BBC.
Also read: ‘Typical BBC reporter’: Afghan envoy slams journalist for tweet on Taliban violence
Over to Indian TV and ‘Taliban Bachao Gang’
The Indian news channels didn’t have boots on the ground although TV9 Bharatvarsh did have a reporter in Afghanistan, a fortnight earlier.
So by the time the Taliban arrived at the gates of Kabul, the news channels scoured around to cover the dramatic turn in events from home. Channels such as India Today and Republic TV found international or local reporters for regular updates from the capital; they took footage from CNN International, BBC World, Al Jazeera, Reuters and ANI. News 24 created a mock Afghan terrain and plonked the anchor right in the middle….
All of them had panels hefty with military experts and former diplomats; the English channels hosted foreign journalists/scholars, too; they repeatedly telecast the frightening visuals out of Kabul airport, they were at Delhi’s airport when the first batch of Indians returned from Kabul; they were at Hindon airbase on Tuesday for the next contingent.
They talked to Indians in Afghanistan and Afghans in India, particularly Delhi—Zee Hindustan discovered one Pandit Raj Kumar of a Hindu temple somewhere in Afghanistan who vowed he would not leave his mandir. The anchor was so excited by this, she began screeching—what is it with Zee Hindustan anchors, why do they screech so?
By Tuesday, the Indian Air Force C-17 Globemaster, ferrying Indian diplomats and others home, became the focus of attention for Indian news channels as well as the Samajwadi Party’s Shafiqur Barq who reportedly lauded the Taliban and the AIMPLB’s Maluna Sajjan Nomani who apparently greeted the Taliban with ‘Mubarak ho’—the AIMPLB has denied that such comments reflect its official position.
Be that as it may, news channels went after ‘India’s Taliban apologists’ (CNN News18), ‘Taliban Bachao Gang’ (Zee News) or the ‘Gangs of Taliban’ (News 24), Tuesday afternoon and most of Wednesday—that is when they could tear themselves away from footage of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with India’s Olympics athletes.
#TalibanBachaoGang : WATCH #TaalThokKe LIVE with @AmanChopra_
— Zee News English (@ZeeNewsEnglish) August 17, 2021
A word about pronunciation, here: can someone please teach anchors and reporters that it is pronounced not as the ‘Olumpics’ but as ‘Olimpics’?
But who cares how the commentators at Lord’s pronounced Bumrah or Siraj—the Indian cricket team beat the English at the famous venue and that was all that mattered Monday night ( Sony Ten).
Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)