Working with the Afghan media in Helmand

This news article was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

As an Afghan Media Officer for Task Force Helmand, Army Captain Niall Taylor helps Afghan journalists tell Afghan people about the work of British and ISAF personnel. Report by Sharon Kean.

Captain Taylor is based at the British HQ in Lashkar Gah but spends a lot of his time travelling out to the surrounding districts such as Nad ‘Ali, Gereshk and Sangin, taking local Afghan journalists with him:

It’s better for the Afghans to tell the Afghans what’s going on,” he explains. “I take journalists out for two or three nights at a time to look at the different things being done by our military and provincial reconstruction teams.

Captain Taylor’s role involves working closely with civilian stabilisation team leaders - UK civil servants deployed to Afghanistan - to find out about projects, and then arrange visits to them. There are now well-documented schools projects, mosques are being built and bazaars are being refurbished:

They are also building park areas because there are very few areas in the districts for people to socialise,” he says. “In Nad ‘Ali district centre the school is thriving, the medical centre now has two buildings fully refurbished and in use, and they’re currently building a women’s waiting area, so there is a place for them to socialise without having to be near the men.

Captain Niall Taylor
Captain Niall Taylor [Picture: Corporal Dave Blackburn RAF, Crown Copyright/MOD 2010]

I meet Captain Taylor in Camp Bastion en route back to his base in Lashkar Gah. Travelling with him was Jawad, one of two local journalists he’d escorted to the district of Nad ‘Ali.

Jawad is a 20-year-old freelance journalist who typically makes 30-minute current affairs TV documentaries. He is also based in Lashkar Gah but works further afield, travelling most days of the week, often accompanying Provincial Governor Gulab Mangal as he moves around Helmand province. His work as an independent journalist in Helmand province is far from risk-free:

We get threats from insurgents if we do not publish what they say,” he explains. “For example, a Taliban journalist called me up to say they attacked a convoy of foreign troops and killed 23 foreign soldiers. I said I didn’t know about this. He said ‘I am saying it so you should broadcast it’.

Jawad reported the comments, but clearly attributed them to a Taliban spokesperson:

I also said that foreign forces said no incident happened when I filed my report,” he said.

In his five-year career as a journalist, Jawad has come under direct fire several times:

When I leave the office every day to get stories I don’t know if I’ll come home alive. Six months ago one of my colleagues was shot and killed. The bullet went through my sleeve as I was sitting next to him.

He refers to the words of Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai when describing his willingness to work in such a dangerous profession:

If we don’t shed our blood we can’t make this country into a stable country.

Although Captain Taylor acts as a military escort for journalists such as Jawad, he encourages them to speak to the local people rather than the British military:

I think the original expectation was that because we are taking them, they have to talk to us,” he explains. “But I’ve tried to introduce the journalists to the District Governor and then step back and let them plan what they want to do.

An Afghan cameraman films two local boys outside an ISAF patrol base
An Afghan cameraman films two local boys outside an ISAF patrol base [Picture: Corporal Dave Blackburn RAF, Crown Copyright/MOD 2010]

Being able to communicate with the Afghan media is an essential part of Captain Taylor’s job, which means a working knowledge of Pashtu - one of the many languages spoken in Afghanistan - is necessary. Captain Taylor’s training for his role involved a 15-month course at the Defence School of Languages in Beaconsfield before deploying to Helmand in February.

I can converse enough to interact quite freely with the journalists,” he says, although he describes Pashtu as one of the most difficult languages he’s encountered. “Not only do they have regional dialects - like a Scotsman talking to a Welshman - but they have village dialect variations too.

Dialects often mix Pashtu with the other languages spoken by Afghans, which include Dari, Urdu, Farsi, Baluchi and Arabic:

We are in Afghanistan to deal with the Afghan people, to support them. I thought the most important thing I could be doing was learning their language, so I could ask them what they actually wanted and be able to tell them what we are doing and discuss with them if it was the right way to be doing it,” he says.

Working with the Afghan media has been a steep learning curve for Captain Taylor whose military career prior to learning Pashtu was as a vehicle troop commander with the Royal Logistic Corps:

On my first day in the job at 8am I was told the Afghan journalists were coming onto camp for a press conference with David Cameron,” he says.

I was thrown straight in and introduced by my translators to a mob of reporters, who all wanted to meet me. Conversing with them in a foreign language was pretty scary. I spoke to the head journalist in the area first, then tried to meet everyone else after.

The role of Afghan Media Officer depends upon good working relationships with local journalists, which, in a country with very different cultural values, is not always easy:

They get very angry about things that we might not consider to be major issues, but perhaps are in Pashtun culture,” he explains. “At a news conference we ran for a VIP visit, local journalists had to be searched by an extra security team and they just didn’t understand why. The majority of them haven’t been outside of Afghanistan so they haven’t had to deal with international security measures.

See Related Links to read Captain Taylor’s take on his role on page 24 of the June issue of Defence Focus, where he describes the challenge of competing with Taliban spokesmen for the attention of the Afghan media.