Time-ly propaganda?

July 31 2010

Something curious has been going on around here lately. This blog is very low traffic – it’s a dumping ground for thoughts and occassionally stories which I don’t think have been covered elsewhere, and not intended to generate massive numbers of hits. So why has a small  story I posted months ago about one of National Geographic’s photographers hunting down the subject of a cover picture been generating lots of page impressions lately?

I can only asume it’s because the cover in question is a famous one showing an Afghan girl from a rural village with piercing green eyes, and Time’s latest issue is led by a dark homage to this image, which show a young Afghan girl from today whose nose has been cut off by the Taliban. The headline reads: What happens if we leave Afghanistan.

It’s an incredibly powerful story: the brutaility of a culture which mutilates teenagers for shaming their family. Have Time researchers been pummelling my bandwidth to find a link to their own magazine in the run up to publication?

Maybe. It’s a controversial issue that they must have been paranoid about putting out. And Aisha’s story is one that neeeds to be told, that the world needs to hear. But it does feel like Time has come out with some some timely (forgive the pun) propaganda for war, just as support for the Afghan campaign is at its lowest.

If only there was a question mark at the end of the coverline, and more of an attempt to grasp the complexity of the Afghan situation, it would have been a potentially stunning journalistic landmark. (See how useful they are in the bad headline at the top of this post – the Time feature may not be propaganda, it may be a genuine and heartfelt plea, but there’s a question to be rasied about it).  The fundamental principle of journalistic impartiality could even demand that at a shot of women and children mutilated or murdered by coalition bombs with a caption ‘This is what happens if we stay’ should be present – sort of like  The Economist’s brilliant treatment of its drug legalisation story recently.

I don’t know much about Afghanistan, but what I do know from the media adn going out and talking to Afghanis living in Britain, is that there’s no ‘one size fits all’ way to look at the country. Like Kyrgyzstan, about which I do know more, it’s not just multi-faceted, it wouldn’t be recognisable as a single entity if it weren’t for the map. Kyrgyzstan was relatively stable, and look at what over-simplification of issues did there.

Look at the last part of this story in the Guardian today, about a female aid worker in Afghanistan. Did you know there are also female priests there? No one image can tell the whole tale.

Coming less than a week after the Wikileaks publication of military reports, which document hundreds of civilian casualties and ‘blue on blue’ incidents, Time’s cover feels like it debases its subject and is nothing more than a heavy handed attempt by CNN to drum up support for the ‘war’.

I’m sure that the truth is more complex, and there’s every likelihood the writer and editor were acting in good faith. But at the very least it feels like Time is jumping the shark, at worst it’s an instrument of government propoganda (as one of the BoingBoing commentators points out, using images of disfigured women to inspire sympathy for the campaign was explicitly suggest in a CIA memo – also publushed on Wikileaks – in 2006).

There’s all kinds of conspiracy that can be read into the fact the US government knew pretty much to the day when the New York Times was going to publish a story about the military reports from Wikileaks. Seen from just slightly distant, it looks almost exactly like the plot from De Niro and Hoffman’s over the top parody of the Balkan war in Wag the Dog.

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