Why Afghan media spun election day

An Afghan woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Mazar-i-Sharif April 5, 2014.</p>

An Afghan woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Mazar-i-Sharif April 5, 2014.

We may never know exactly what happened in Afghanistan on April 5, when voters went to the polls to elect a new president. We may not be able to assess with any degree of certainty the true level of violence, the incidence of fraud, or the voter turnout.

The international headlines were unequivocal: “triumph of democracy,” “blow to the Taliban,” and “civics love fest” were just a few of the encomiums heaped on the process.

In Afghanistan as well, officials and the media rushed to praise the courage of the voters, the professionalism of the Afghan security forces, and the weakness of the insurgency.

“Democracy has landed in Afghanistan,” proclaimed Afghanistan Today, an online magazine devoted to current affairs.

But despite all the hype, no one is quite sure how successful the ballot was.

The reason for this is simple and disquieting: A portion of Afghanistan’s journalists, many trained and formed by Westerners like myself, chose not to cover issues that could discredit the process, such as Taliban attacks on election day.

They were not motivated by fear; given the Taliban threats to disrupt the ballot, this would have been understandable, if regrettable. But Afghan journalists are an abnormally courageous lot.

In fact, they faced reprisals for not covering attacks — the Taliban carry out their mayhem in part for publicity purposes, and wanted their acts of violence to reach the widest possible audience. Journalists said that they were getting angry phone calls from Taliban on Election Day, demanding that they report on the attacks.

Neither was the reporters’ silence a factor of incompetence or laziness. Over the past 13 years, Afghan journalists have amply demonstrated their energy and skills, honed in countless battles and bombings.

But on election day they took part in a nationwide charade, a conscious effort to paint the poll in the best possible light. And they did it out of patriotism.

The decision to impose a news blackout on Taliban attacks was “based on the national interests of the country,” said Abdullah Azada Khenjani, head of the news division at 1TV, an Afghan television station, speaking to Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network. Journalists, he insisted, should not “diminish the elections … [or] jeopardize the future of the country.”

But once a journalist begins to skew the truth to fit another set of interests, he or she is in very murky waters.

According to the few media outlets that did try and document violence on election day, there were actually more attacks than in previous polls.

It is true that news of bombings or other incidents would probably have depressed turnout. If voters had been given full information they may have decided to stay home, not to risk life and limb for a vote that may or may not reflect their choice.

According to a survey by the Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan (FEFA), in the run-up to the elections, only 25 percent of Afghans thought that the vote would be free and fair.

So why did they come to the polls in such large numbers? According to official figures, more than 6 million valid votes were cast, reflecting nearly 65 percent of registered voters.

More from GlobalPost: What's next after Afghanistan's election?

But we don’t really know what the turnout was. Yes, in Kabul and a few other cities where international observers and reporters were monitoring, there were long lines. But, as Afghan journalist Fazal Rahman reported for AAN, there is anecdotal evidence that in more remote areas the election process barely registered.

In Ghazni province, less than 80 miles from Kabul, Rahman found that many of the 47,658 votes reported may have come from “ghost polling centers” — where no voters actually cast ballots.

“Out of the 32 open centers claimed by the IEC [Independent Election Commission], I was only able to find evidence that 12 actually opened,” Rahman wrote.

But this is an isolated report; we have little news from other areas where such fraud was reported in previous elections. Is this because the vote was actually free and fair, or is it because Afghan journalists did not want to “diminish the elections”?

I have a great deal of sympathy for Afghan journalists, and am well aware of the pressures they face. I encountered something similar in my reporting of civilian casualties in Afghanistan — I was sometimes accused of “making the international forces look bad” by documenting cases where bombs had gone astray or soldiers had acted badly.

I did not get death threats, just veiled hints that I could lose my job or have my project defunded. Still, the decision to go ahead with a story that could provide ammunition for Taliban propaganda was never an easy one.

Of course Afghan journalists cannot help but be influenced by their own history and experience, their families and ethnic backgrounds. Western journalists have succumbed to bias with much less justification — for some, their reporting on the Iraq War, for example, is a permanent blot on their careers.

Afghan journalists have been credited with making the vote a success, and they richly deserve this praise. Pre-election coverage of debates, campaigns, and voter concerns was impressive, even if, as The New York Times pointed out, “the country’s gadfly class has eased up on the criticism and taken on more of a cheerleader role for the political process.”

But on election day, those who chose to lie by omission were not doing their jobs. More than that, they bear a certain amount of responsibility for the day’s deaths and injuries. Voters who went to the polls lulled by a false sense of security only to encounter bombs or snipers may not be as positive in their assessment of the Afghan press.

The war in Afghanistan is winding down for the international forces; in a certain sense, we are seeing these elections in the rear view mirror.

Afghan journalists do not have that luxury; they will have to live in the aftermath of this vote. Putting their skills at the service of “national interest” may sound like patriotism; it may turn out to be just the opposite.

Jean MacKenzie spent seven years in Afghanistan; for much of that time she was training Afghan journalists for the Institute of War & Peace Reporting, IFES, and other, as well as serving as senior correspondent for GlobalPost.