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Courage and truth-telling: Afghan journalist explains how to report from a conflict zone


Global Business Journalism reporter

“Conflict” is a crucial element that makes a story newsworthy. But reporting from conflict zones can be especially challenging for journalists.

An Afghan journalist, Sami Mahdi, who worked for several independent news organizations in Afghanistan including TV stations, newspapers, and magazines in the past 15 years, shared his stories with the Global Business Journalism Program.

“Fear has been there in the atmosphere.”

Sami Mahdi

Taken over by the Taliban last year, Afghanistan has long been a country in turmoil since the 1970s. The most recent conflict between the Taliban and a U.S.-led NATO force lasted 20 years. The seemingly endless civil war shaped the media landscape.

According to Mahdi, TV, music, and cinema were banned during the Taliban’s first regime from 1996 to 2001. Though a media revolution happened in Afghanistan after the 2001 intervention of the international community toppled the Taliban government, the suppression and even violent assault on media and journalists still exist. Since the Taliban regained its power, more than half of the media organizations stopped operating, according to The New York Times, and women are forced to cover their heads and faces.

In the two decades of civil war, journalists in Afghanistan were under particular threat. “Over 100 media workers and journalists were killed, and the Taliban was responsible for most of them,” Mahdi said. “I have lost more than 10 colleagues in the past 15 years.”

“Tell the truth and keep reporting.”

For Mahdi, it’s been an enormous challenge to maintain objectivity and professionalism when reporting on conflicts in which journalists themselves are the victim.

“I won’t say we can keep the balance all the time,” Mahdi admitted, mentioning the attack in 2016 that a Taliban bomber killed seven of his colleagues and injured 18 others. “That day, we thought of banning all news from Taliban. But we realized that we just happen to be victims as many others have been in this country for the past 40 years. That doesn't mean we have to stop what we have been doing.”

Despite facing constant threats from the Taliban, Mahdi chooses to keep his journalistic integrity. In a TV program he produced, Mahdi invited people from different parts of the political spectrum, including government authorities, foreign ambassadors, and Taliban members.

“It is a commitment to the profession.” said Mahdi, who has witnessed the beginning of the media revolution during his school years. “Media is the only window that can let us challenge the top-down system. I will commit my life to the ideal, which for me is to tell the truth and keep reporting.”

“No story worth losing a life”

For journalists in conflict zones, how to tell a story truthfully while preserving people’s lives is also a major concern.

“Every journalist wants to be courageous, running to the scenes of conflict and war,” explains Mahdi. “But I must say, as a war zone reporter, no news worth the lives of yourself and your colleagues.”

Targeted attacks can happen to journalists as bombs can explode again after they rush to the scene to report the first incident, he said.

What’s more, it’s also vital to draw a line between reporting objectively and protecting interviewees. In Mahdi’s TV program called “Nikab” or “The Mask,” discussing domestic abuse on women, guests appeared on the show and shared their stories with their faces hidden.

“Truth is always multi-dimensional.”

In the era of social media, it’s always harder to differentiate between rumors and facts. Especially in conflict zones, truth never has just one dimension.

“Knowing the 100% truth is almost impossible,” stressed Mahdi.

Based on his experience, Mahdi shared his thoughts on reporting objectively in conflict zones:

1) Cross-checking with different people from different angles is always helpful.

2) Don’t rush to the judgment.

“Rushing to judge who is the villain and who is the hero of every story is a trap for journalists," he said.

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