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Did NZ journalism fail in Afghanistan?

August 18, 2013

By John McCrone

DONALD MATHESON: People are looking for a different kind of journalism.

DONALD MATHESON: People are looking for a different kind of journalism.

Film-makers Auckland University professor of media studies Annie Goldson and director Kay Ellmers are honest about why they wanted to make a documentary about New Zealand’s involvement in the Afghanistan war.

The truth of the country’s longest single military engagement had passed them by, Ellmers admits. “I was quite embarrassed actually about how little I knew. And when I started talking to friends, I realised none of us really knew.”

And indeed, their story, He Toki Huna, screening this Sunday as part of the Christchurch International Film Festival, became about this surprising information vacuum.

Or more pointedly, about the apparent failure of the mainstream media to do its job as the fourth estate, penetrate the Government’s comfortable spin and create a proper public debate about why Kiwi troops were supporting what now, in retrospect, only looks like a mad Yankee imperialist adventure.

As the doco argues, traumatised by 9/11, the United States invaded Afghanistan on the pretext of rooting out Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. Yet the bad guys were across the border and into Pakistan by the time they arrived.

Instead of running a tight police and intelligence operation as advised, the US decided to make the Taliban the enemy, regime change a goal. New Zealand got dragged in because, well, the US made it clear it was time for its friends and trading partners to stand up and be counted.

So some understandable heat of the moment decisions. But where was the media scrutiny following that, asks Ellmers?

He Toki Huna – originally commissioned by state-funded Maori TV, as nobody else was going to pay for it, says Ellmers – focuses on two independent journalists, Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson, who were prepared to dig where the traditional media did not.

Ellmers says what the public were being told was that the New Zealand Defence Force’s (NZDF) Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) had been dispatched to the impoverished province of Bamiyan to do what it said on the label – peacekeeping reconstruction.

Our other contribution, the New Zealand Special Air Service (NZSAS) was there mostly for training and mentoring. The special forces elite would be teaching the Afghan security forces how to create stability in their own country.

However, Hager and Stephenson tell a different story.

Journalist Jon Stephenson

Journalist Jon Stephenson

The PRT role arose in 2003 because the US had built the Bamiyan military base for its occupying forces, but needed those troops for its next big regime-changing war in Iraq. The Kiwis obligingly took over its running.

And Hager claims the push to join in came more from senior defence officials – eager to re-establish a big brother/little brother relationship with the US – than government ministers.

The “reconstruction” tag was merely a public relations message that the NZDF knew would play well back at home. Hager says he has the leaked media strategy documents to prove it.

Stephenson, who travelled independently to Afghanistan, says he found the same on the ground. PRT troops were spending most of their time on patrol with Afghan forces. On camera, a PRT director admits “security and development” would have been a more accurate job description. Read more in The Press.

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From → Analysis, News

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