Originally published on Mangal Media
There is a colonial relationship that exists within the media. Western journalists and bureau chiefs parachute in and stamp down pre-existing plans as all settler colonizers do. Local press is at their disposal and destroyed communities are their subjects. The stories and life experiences of the oppressed are a commodity; something to exploit and move on from when the blood runs dry.
Our lives have become mere footnotes in the fantastical adventures of white journalists; Something that fetches them handsome paychecks.
To put things in the clearest terms: these colonial journalists are making a killing off of death – be that in the US with reporters making a paycheck off police brutality and black death, or the ones in Afghanistan who live behind blast-proof walls and cannot leave their compounds without an Afghan handler. These colonial journalists will then be invited to give lectures as experts on our suffering. In the colonial scheme of things, maximizing profit on the other’s pain is simply an industry policy.The ability to assume expert knowledge is the logic of white supremacy which prioritizes an orientalist viewpoint over the lived reality of those who suffer.
White People Wearing Keffiyehs
A bizarre series of events that began with the surfacing of a potential US war crime in Afghanistan, unfolded on Twitter this past January. It forced a confrontation between historical foes: the occupiers and the occupied, the colonizers and the colonized, empire and its others.
On January 6th, journalist Murtaza M Hussain tweeted out a war montage video as the latest footage of US military actions in Eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province. Within this “war porn” montage made by a US Special Forces featured a brief scene showing a US military armored vehicle driving past a truck in Afghanistan and shooting directly into the driver side window, an act which could be considered a war crime.
The video was then picked up by fellow Afghan journalists and activists. We coordinated with our various networks to begin a rigorous campaign directed at the US and NATO operations in Afghanistan known as Resolute Support to demand answers in public fashion.
To avoid the story being buried, we pushed towards a process that superseded yet another self-appointed investigation by the US military or US Central Command.
Relinquishing investigative authority to Central Command will accomplish nothing beyond redeeming the US military in public opinion. This is as foolish as allowing the US police to investigate themselves for the wanton brutality they engage in against dark-skinned populations throughout the country.
Over the course of the days following the release of this video, my colleagues and myself fielded questions from activists and journalists throughout the world and began a discussion with our contacts within the Afghan government and those who could potentially make our case on the homefront.
On January 10th, Virginia-based US media outlet Politico published a story about the surfacing of the video with quotes from General Votel of CENTCOM who accepted that the acts shown in the video appeared to be an instance of wrongdoing but reserved further judgement pending investigation.
The random white journalist from POLITICO who authored the story did not contact us as many other journalists did. This colonial journalist then proceeded to tweet that he had “brought the issue to the attention” of Resolute Support. Something we had already done nearly a week ago, in a public fashion while demanding answers publicly.
Western journalists who fail to give credit are robbing colonial subjects of their due justice. In this case, three Afghan war refugees who made the decision to risk state retaliation by confronting the US Military apparatus with evidence of a war crime.
One by one other media outlets followed suit crediting POLITICO for a scoop that was not theirs. Having worked with Mangal Media on past projects, the incredible amount of irony in the situation did not go unnoticed – a white boy in a Keffiyeh just stole credit for our work! On top of that, this colonial journalist stole our story, and made money in the process – what fucking year is this?!
On a surface level, it may seem petty or silly to take offense at a common practice widely used inside the media industry: the theft of the work of journalists and activists from the global south, but the issue in question is much more insidious than that. The issue is that this type of practice has almost become standard procedure.
By failing to communicate with those of us who were engaged in demanding answers publicly, this colonial journalist shifted the attention and narrative from our demand by prioritising his resumé over the empowerment of affected communities.
Not only was the labor of journalists and activists from the global south exploited in lock step with white colonial power, but this white guy in a keffiyeh also stole what little justice we could have attained with our collective efforts – making him an accomplice to the US military and therefore a cog in the colonizers’ war machinery.
If You Want Change, A Confrontation is InevitableWhite people in keffiyehs have access to high ranking officials. The resources their media agencies provide are used against local journalists; such resources perpetuate their white privilege against a weaker and sidelined native media. White, American, Western, European – all become signifiers of professionalism, objectivity, authority, and knowledge.
If one dares speak out against this culture of racial nepotism, they run the risk of being blacklisted – ostracized, vilified, labeled an angry brown person by editors who slander you to other potential employers. To raise concerns about appropriation and techniques of silencing exposes yourself to the threat of silencing and runs the risk of tarnishing your professional image. This often spells economic disaster to a family already struggling in a third world job market.
The expectation is that the native is to be subservient and thrilled at even the prospect of having a job at all.
The amount of fear, paranoia, infiltration, arbitrary arrests and surveillance one already faces as a political dissident and independent journalist is enough to make any human buckle under the weight. The development and aid industry is invested in creating these cultures of dependency rather than empowering locals.
Under these conditions, however, it has somehow become not just acceptable, but fashionable for leftists in “international” media to call Muslim activists and journalists “Terrorist” on public platforms. Everyone in the industry is aware of being labeled a “belligerent journalist” by the US government – that is to say, someone they can neither silence nor stop; this has rendered us targets on the infamous US “Kill List”.
Islamophobia and War on Terror talking points are now being weaponized against Afghans, Syrians, Somalis, Iraqis, and others, by all segments of the left; this is a shared trait across liberals, progressives, socialists, communists, and anarchists. Yet we find ourselves facing charges of “dividing the left” for not cowering to this dangerous, silencing tactic.
Opposing racist narratives and the manipulation of historical truths for one’s own ideological end should be a starting point for any discussion. If the ‘anti-war’ movement cannot face its own racism and Islamophobia, it is not a movement aimed at our wellbeing and dignity. If the bar is this low for the left, then yes – let us be divisive. If this is what is to be accepted by whatever the “antiwar movement” is – then yes! Let us completely destroy it. What use is it to us if these people call themselves “anti-war,” but commit themselves to a dogmatic left-statist position where the crimes of Soviets or modern-day Russia are whitewashed in whataboutisms.
Why stop there? If the political left won’t reform, it should either be wholly abandoned or totally destroyed. We will have to create our own language and pave the way for what comes next that reflects a commitment to creating something that represents our youth without degradation. Without some colonizer feeling safe to tell an Afghan that “the Soviet occupation was good for you” – when it killed up to two million people.
We need to engage in a decolonizing struggle within all areas of political struggle. And this also means a similar process of decolonization must take place within the global media apparatus. An enduring confrontation must take place between marginalised and occupied communities and neo-colonial journalists who are determined to maintain their gatekeeper status. None of this can happen without a confrontation.
Adhering to this struggle and accepting its risks, it’s important to do so with sincerity. We only want what’s best for youth and the elders;whatever it takes we have no problem fighting to achieve that.
We know that the first one through the door gets shot. The first to engage in this battle in a meaningful and serious way will be demonized. It would be foolish not to anticipate and prepare for a backlash from the gatekeepers of the media. One of the most insidious weapons will be the use of our people against us. Some will perhaps be the staunchest opponents. Malcolm X historically referred to these people as “House Negroes,” such being those who work at the master’s behest because they enjoy the bread crumbs and the illusive superiority it offers them over the rest of the colonized.
In one particularly disgusting episode, a colleague and I published an article covering a Taliban attack on a Kabul restaurant and an adjacent guesthouse. I was a few blocks away, between Qalai Fateullah & Taimani streets when a suicide car bomber detonated himself, sending violent quakes to the restaurant I was sitting in.
I must have taken about 10–15 minutes to get there, but I kept stopping to try to use my shit phone which wouldn’t stay online. There is always the possibility that state security or other agencies may shut down service in the vicinity of an attack or jam social media altogether to stop either the attackers from communicating or us from reporting – often both.
It was the usual chaos you see after any bombing in Kabul. Hyper-alert and paranoid security forces tried to control crowds while others staged themselves to start conducting sweeping operations. Everyone was nervous about the risk of a second suicide bomber coming to detonate in the middle of unsuspecting crowds of civilians and first responders.
After being threatened for the third time I decided to leave. I wasn’t trying to push my luck with my non-existent Dari and my barely adequate Pashto. Similar situations had already gotten me detained and arrested several times.
I had already been fielding calls from the international media, three of which wanted a story or at least information from me about the violence unfolding up the street.
As the casualty reports began to surface, we learned a security guard and a 12-year-old boy had been killed in the explosion. 15 others were injured. No foreigners. All Afghan. And mainly all poor & working class.
A horrible, tragic event had just taken place.
It was a particularly cold, lonely and violent winter in Kabul city; the intermitten electricity made it so that I couldn’t even get any work done. On top of this, a few weeks prior I had gotten myself caught in a crossfire between the Afghan security forces and the Taliban.The militant group had detonated a suicide car bomb that brought down the gates of the Spanish embassy, allowing for the Taliban gunmen to besiege the building. I ended up OK, but such violent & jarring experience hardly ever vanish without messing with you. One by one, all the media agencies called me back.
The first one was a major French media outlet:
“Oh heeey, the wires are telling us the siege is over.. Thankfully you’re OK, you know?”
“Yeah, I heard a child had been killed in the attack, it’s horrible … I also…”
He cut me off mid-sentence with an urgent newsroom update, “So, no foreigners or Frenchmen were killed or injured so we will pass this time.”
As annoyed as I was, I was also relieved that I didn’t have to deal with three outlets. Two was plenty. It would pay for another month of reporting and figuring out what projects to join or initiate. Before I could make the 9 city blocks back to where I was staying on my colleague’s couch, the other two outlets canceled as well, in a similar fashion. It doesn’t slip past our daily emotional inventory as war reporters that we usually make our money when something heinous or violent occurs. As Afghan journalists, we also bear the additional burden of knowing that these explosions are happening in our own country.
“Am I a war profiteer?” is a common thought to anyone who is not an asshole.
One way or another, you figure out how to rationalize what you’re doing – something I’m glad I’ve managed to do thus far (more on this later). After complaining to my colleague about how disgusting and racist my interactions with the media were that night, we decided we would return to the scene of the attack the next morning to gather more information and take pictures of the destruction and convince the media outlet my colleague worked for to publish this important story. It wasn’t something I was able to do by myself at that point in time.
The next morning back at the devastated area, I approached an elderly man who seemed angry and agitated by either the attack, the police, or the children running around while pools of blood were still visible for all to see – maybe all of it? I didn’t realize it was his home I was standing in since the outer wall of the property had now been reduced to rubble. The front half of his home wasn’t doing much better.
He told me how his neighbor’s son, aged 12, was killed in the explosion and questioned why a luxury restaurant that had been warned of attacks was on a residential, mixed poor to middle-class street. “It was a whorehouse ” he shouted, hoping for everyone around us to hear his frustration. Why, why was it here in our neighborhood?”
The Taliban had rented a house on the same street as the restaurant – which had been warned many times of a possible attack due to its clientele being both “expats” and Afghan political elite. There were no foreigners at the restaurant at the time of the attack, because it was New Year’s Day and all the “expats” had been on holiday since before Christmas, a week prior to the bomb.
The initial blast failed to fully destroy the massive gate that secured the restaurant, but the blast succeeded in destroying the homes of poor locals who were left completely unguarded when the restaurant reinforced its own property.
We decided that, although the allegation of the restaurant being a “whorehouse” was not true, we still wanted to include the quote in the piece in order to show the man’s anger and not to censor him. We also wanted show how indignant the locals of that neighborhood were with the utter indifference of the restaurant, the police and of course, the Taliban.
After much deliberation about how the story would affect our relationships to our local community, we concluded that our solidarity must remain with the will of the people. No pass would be given to Kabul’s elites, nor the state, nor the main armed opposition group, the Taliban.
Our story was met by a coordinated attack online by non-Afghan journalists crying foul over the aforementioned quote. They claimed that we had engaged in “victim blaming” – apparently, the “victims” they were referring to were themselves, for no longer having this exclusive French restaurant to mingle with other assholes.
All we had done was refusing to silence the anger of a poor, local population or sideline them in favor of the usual quote from another boring ass military colonizer.
A euro-colonizer journalist for the Guardian took things even further.
This guy had the story translated into Dari and brought the translation to the owner of the restaurant.
This privileged white euro colonizer who parachuted into Afghanistan, who couldn’t do a damned thing himself inside the country or outside his home without the 24-hour-a-day assistance of a local Afghan, who is making money from a job that should have belonged to a local Afghan, had the nerve and felt safe enough to go and create fitna between us and our people – on his terms.
Taking Back AfghanistanWhile each and every media outlet on the planet publishes report after report on current political and social justice movements from Me Too and women’s equality to racial discrimination and police murders to attract readers, these same media outlets continue to stand on the heads of women and men from the global south in their journalistic practice. This is an abuse white men and women engage in together against dark populations.
Inside Afghanistan, the colonial relationship is anything but subtle; it is an accepted material reality. Nearly every bureau chief in the country is a white person. Nearly every story pitch is either denied or approved by a white person determining what is and is not of value. Behind every single story is an Afghan fixer, stringer, or journalist who gets cheated out of a proper wage and receives no recognition. The very presence of the colonial media agent is only possible due to the protection of Afghans, though the only time foreigners are polite to local Afghans is when they want our hash.
There are major news bureaus within Kabul city that segregate the colonial journalists who have parachuted in from local Afghan journalists. These agencies will surely produce excuses as to why the foreign team has the main house to themselves while the local Afghan team is not allowed inside and restricted to a guesthouse or more likely, workers’ quarters as though they were the servants of the western colonizer.
Just like the US and NATO send in their bumbling soldiers to experiment in Afghanistan, major media outlets send us their bumbling, disrespectful, and racist reporters to use us as a training ground for more important regions of the world.
We are forced to give them cookies for pronouncing our names correctly, while they steal our story ideas.
The locals who are unfortunate enough to be forced to work for these media outlets as guards, cooks, or groundskeepers receive a payment that does not remotely resemble an acceptable international wage; such injustice would prove scandalous to any international criminal court.
One of the efforts colleagues and myself are making in the struggle against oppressive power structures is Documenting Afghanistan.
Documenting Afghanistan is a project for Self-Determination. A living wage is essential, and the power over narrative must be returned to us by the colonizers. Either they abandon it voluntarily, or we will take it from them. In order to help those who need the tools to engage in this struggle, Documenting Afghanistan will mentor, train and work in collaboration with local Afghan journalists to build skills and confidence while we simultaneously engage in a protracted struggle to bust down the gate of the international mainstream media industry.
One challenge we are facing is that we cannot expect that journalists and activists on the ground in Afghanistan can afford to engage in this extremely important and urgent political work without being compensated;jobs are not easy to come by anywhere, let alone in Afghanistan.If you refuse to work for the occupying forces or the National Unity Government, the difficulty is multiplied.
We promote and collaborate with Afghan activists, journalists and other dedicated political actors throughout the world to confront colonial power structures in the media industry. The only alternative to engaging in this confrontation is to betray our youth by allowing white people in keffiyehs to continue making a name for themselves as the champions of our struggles and assume custodianship while monetizing, then profiting, from our misery.