CAIRO — When the bombardment of Afghanistan began, those in the country were unable to follow the events on TV or radio, but ironically, those in the West could watch the outbreak of war broadcast by the Al-Jazeera TV headquarters in Kabul.
“Radio coverage through Kabul Radio and Shaariyat Voice (Taliban’s radio) was stopped after the raids started because electricity went out in Kabul,” says one Afghan journalist.
“Here in Afghanistan, TV is banned and only a handful of people have small, portable radios, but they don’t always have access to batteries for these radios. People in villages gather together at the homes of those who have radios to hear the news. They mostly get outside news in the three languages (Farsi, Urdu and Afghani) through Voice of America, Radio Free Europe in the Farsi Persian language and the BBC.”
Although Qatar-based Al-Jazeera TV recently pacted with CNN for special telecast rights from Afghanistan, its consistent access to Taliban leaders has generated reprimands from the American and British government.
“We’ve expressed our concerns about some of the kinds of things we’ve seen on their air, particularly inflammatory stories, totally untrue stories, things like that,” U.S. State Dept. spokesman Richard Boucher says.
“Al-Jazeera is a news satellite following international standards,” counters Al-Jazeera Cairo bureau chief Hussain Abdul Ghani. “Does any journalist miss any opportunity for coverage? Our coverage is very balanced; we have had interviews equally with Tony Blair, Colin Powell and the Taliban from our bureaus in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“During the Gulf War, CNN dominated the coverage and made their name. Nobody blamed CNN for their interviews. In 1999, we had the opportunity to set up a bureau in Afghanistan, as did CNN, which opted not to take the chance. Our special news coverage is the harvest of our investment and efforts.”
Through images telecast by Al-Jazeera, the West is trying to comprehend a country previously associated with tales like Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” as an adventure-filled mountainous land.
Recent films with Afghan-related themes like Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s “Kandahar,” Fabrizio Lazzaretti, Alberto Vendemmiati and Giuseppe Pettito’s “Jung (War): In the Land of the Mujaheddin” and “Baran” by Majid Majidi reinforces the cultural divide.
An official at the Afghanistan Embassy in Cairo says it has been a long time since there were cinemas and Western music in the country.
“We got to know about Michael Jackson and other pop musicians before the Taliban came to power, so in that sense we do know what is going on,” says Samir, an Afghani student in Cairo. “For example we knew about the movie ‘Titanic,’ and Leonardo DiCaprio’s haircut was very popular among young boys. People now get their information on U.S. pop culture from magazines mostly obtained from Peshawar, Pakistan.”
“People listen to music in secret,” concurs the Afghani journalist. “For example, a cab driver will play a religious tape if he thinks his ride is a Taliban, and then when he is safe on his own, he will play pop and other kinds of music. There is no music heard on the radio, it is only news.”
There appears to be no upcoming relief of film entertainment for the populace.
“There have been no movie theaters since the Taliban took over, they are all closed. In the past 20 years of war, Afghanistan has lost everything,” says Mohamed Mahmoud, an Egyptian photographer covering Afghanistan.
“Where there used to be buildings, now there is nothing, not even the remains of buildings because people have taken even the steel that was part of the building, to sell in Pakistan or to use for something else. Very few people have electricity or running water.”