MANY Pakistani TV outlets, both those seen as close to Pindi and neutral ones, have recently shown interviews of Afghan Taliban officials. It is being asked whether the media should interview a group accused of committing acts of terror and abuses against women and minorities.
The Taliban are not on the US terrorist list. Many, including ex-US officials, say this is just to keep them engaged, as they meet terrorism definitions in deliberately killing civilians. Several Taliban officials have been on the UN terrorism list for long. Their abuses against women are well known, eg keeping them housebound unable to study or work. Such abuses are resurfacing now as they capture more territory. Against this is the fact that Afghanistan, global powers, Pakistan and the UN are talking to them on power sharing.
But some say the media must exhibit higher moral norms than politically driven states and still boycott the Taliban. In our case, there is also the moral dilemma for media that they are efforts on the part of some to present the Taliban as legitimate and “now mature” stakeholders who will serve our interests in Afghanistan. The media should not wittingly or unwittingly become a mouthpiece.
Others say the media has a duty to report events and perspectives to the public. Even Western media interviews insurgent groups which had engaged in terrorism and later entered peace negotiations, eg in Northern Ireland. Western media also repeatedly interviewed terrorists like Osama bin Laden who never become legitimate stakeholders.
It is important not to normalise such groups.
The media aims to serve the public interest. So how is public interest served by giving space to terrorists and/or human rights abusers? There is the blunt fact that such interviews get media groups wide viewership which some say falls within the rubric of public interest. But such interviews can serve the public interest in other ways too if they challenge and expose the gruesome acts of such groups. This involves first knowing the different roles media plays.
The first, most basic, role is reporting events neutrally. The second is analyses, ie reviewing the likely impact of major events. The final role is activism, which means not only analyses but also pushing preferred outcomes based on one’s values. Many media outlets and even individual journalists play all three roles. But good ones conscientiously and clearly differentiate and keep news reporting separate and neutral. TV talk shows are clearly not reporting platforms and focus largely on analyses. Many also play an activist role by challenging politicians and others performing badly. Thus, strong activism and not reporting or even analyses is the right mode for such interviews. In doing so, media will not compromise its neutral reporting on other platforms.
Interviews with such groups are not ordinary ones and media groups must develop written ethical protocols for them. The first ethical issue is that thousands of families in Pakistan and Afghanistan have lost close relatives to the two Taliban groups on both sides of the Durand Line. Media must acknowledge their suffering before starting the interview and explaining the rationale for doing it.
Secondly, it is important to not unwittingly help normalise such groups. So in flipping channels, if people frequently see politicians on one channel, social activists on the second and militant groups on the third being interviewed similarly, this may help in normalising them. The tone of the interview must be harsher. The interviewee must be grilled and confronted with evidence of recent abuses. If they remain unrepentant, this will expose them on TV and help build public pressure against embracing them officially.
Finally, at the end of the interview, viewers must again be reminded of the abuses the group has committed and that the media group condemns them. Even the interviews done by the best Pakistani and Western channels often fail to do this strongly enough.
But one can’t criticise media and not the external states, especially the US and Pakistan, whose acts have led to the mediaeval Taliban becoming official stakeholders. The US did so by failing to crush them over 20 years and Pakistan by its past support to them. For us, it is especially critical to know that the Taliban have not changed and continue to cling to their violent ways.
A Taliban regime in Kabul formed via conquests may be worse for us than the current one despite its close ties with India as it may help unleash more terrorism in Pakistan than anything Kabul/Delhi purportedly unleash. A Taliban regime in Kabul will encourage Pakistani terrorist groups to become more active as before 2017. Thus, its critical for us and other states to keep the Taliban in check and make it impossible for them to win militarily.
The writer is a political a political economist with a doctorate from Berkeley.
Published in Dawn, July 27th, 2021