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British media significantly underreporting explosive violence incidents in Afghanistan, review reveals

July 2019 was the worst month for civilian casualties from explosive weapons in Afghanistan for almost a decade, according to data from Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) . AOAV has been recording casualties worldwide from English language media report as part of the Explosive Violence Monitor since October 2010 and, in July 2019, Afghanistan saw over 1,000 civilian casualties from explosive weapons there. Prior to this, the month with the highest level of civilian casualties in that South-Central Asian country was May 2017, when 741 civilian casualties were recorded.

In July 2019, civilians made up 66% (1,013) of the total casualties from explosive violence (1,540) in Afghanistan. Of those civilians killed and injured, 89% (901) were from improvised explosive devices (IEDs), 5% were from airstrikes, and 6% were from ground-launched explosive weapons. Suicide attacks alone accounted for over half of all civilian casualties (53%).

In the first seven months of 2019 as a whole, there have been 2,340 civilian casualties from explosive violence in the beleaguered nation. For 60% (1,396) of these casualties, AOAV was able to record the perpetrator. Of the civilian casualties where the perpetrator was known, nearly 70% (963) were caused by the Taliban.

This high level of Taliban-perpetrated casualties comes during discussions between the Taliban and the US. This has even included the Taliban meeting Afghan government officials at peace talks in Doha and sitting down with female representatives. These continued attacks on civilians by the Taliban may represent an attempt to gain leverage in the peace talks and exert pressure on both the US and Afghan government.

Faced with these rising levels of violence, AOAV set out to examine whether the record levels of civilian casualties in Afghanistan have been reflected in the UK media’s coverage of the conflict there. It did so aiming to assess whether the recent surge in casualties caused an increase in press coverage or whether there was perhaps a weariness, or absence of reporting, on the Afghanistan conflict in British media.

To do this, AOAV examined the reporting of explosive weapons incidents which caused civilian casualties in Afghanistan for the first seven months of 2019. We examined BBC News Online, the Guardian, the Daily Mail, and the Independent websites. This set of outlets represents a broad spectrum of ideological positions, readerships, and styles, and thus hopefully builds a full picture of the dominant online press of the UK media.

In order to examine their coverage for BBC News Online, the Guardian and the Independent we used Google advanced search. We set the time limit for each day from 01/01/2019 to 31/07/2019 and searched the respective outlet plus ‘Afghanistan’. We then read each article pulled up and counted the number of civilian casualties reported per explosive weapons incidents. We also made sure to exclude duplicated incidents. For the Daily Mail, we had to adapt this methodology. This was due to the fact that Google advanced search did not include articles that had been sourced from an external agency such as Reuters. We thus had to rely on the paper’s own internal search engine.

Key Findings

Three news outlets in this report, BBC News Online, The Guardian, and The Independent, were found to have severely under-reported civilian casualties from explosive weapons in Afghanistan during the first 7 months of 2019.

The Daily Mail provided a more comprehensive coverage of these incidents. However, the Daily Mail’s output overwhelmingly relies on external agencies and they have only written a handful of articles themselves reporting on explosive violence these incidents.

BBC News Online

From 1st January to 31st July 2019, the BBC reported just 13 incidents of explosive weapons civilian casualties in Afghanistan. These incidents resulted in 378 casualties, of which 254 (67%) were injuries and 124 (33%) were fatalities. The BBC also wrote two more general articles on civilian casualties Afghanistan, one as an overview of 2018 and another on the increased civilian casualties perpetrated by Afghan forces.

This coverage represents 16% of AOAV’s total recorded number of civilian casualties for this period (2,340) and just 3% of AOAV’s total recorded number of incidents (401).

The lack of reporting here by the BBC Online News has implications for the quality of their casualty reporting for Afghanistan.

The Guardian

Through 2019 up to the end of July, the Guardian reported five incidents of explosive weapons civilian casualties in Afghanistan. These incidents recorded 333 civilian casualties in total, of which 61 (18%) were fatalities and 272 (82%) were injuries. These represent 14% of AOAV’s total number of recorded civilian casualties (2,340) but only 1% of AOAV’s total number of recorded incidents (401).

This discrepancy means that the Guardian recorded a much higher proportion of casualties per incident than AOAV. On average, the Guardian report 67 casualties per incident whereas AOAV record just six. This suggests that the Guardian may only report on incidents which have a high level of civilian casualties, rather than reporting on the broader spectrum of explosive violence incidents in Afghanistan.

The incidents recorded by The Guardian in July account for 85% (294) of the total number of casualties recorded by them since the beginning of the year (347). This reflects the increased levels of civilian casualties from explosive weapons witnessed by AOAV.

The Guardian also produced two general reports on the civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Like the BBC, one of these was an overview of 2018 and the other was examining the Afghan Forces role in civilian casualties. This coverage is based on reports by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).  UNAMA produce quarterly and annual reports on the protection of civilians in Afghanistan. UNAMA is often the main source of civilian casualty statistics in Afghanistan.

This is in contrast to the Syrian conflict which has a well-established network of NGO casualty monitors, such as The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights or Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered, who provide granular, daily updates on the conflict.

Afghanistan does not have the same proliferation of casualty recorders which may prohibit media outlets from giving more detailed, regular coverage on explosive violence incidents.

The Independent

The Independent also reported on just six incidents between January and the end of July 2019; 1% of AOAV’s recorded incidents (401). These five incidents resulted in 216 civilian casualties; 9% of the number identified by AOAV (2,340). The Independent recorded two incidents for July. However, its coverage was too minimal to draw conclusions as to whether this marked an increase in their general coverage. One of the incidents recorded was an airstrike.

The Independent’s reporting would reflect a higher number of casualties per incident than AOAV’s data. On average, The Independent have identified, on average, 36 civilian casualties per incident. AOAV, however, record six per incident. This suggests that the Independent, as well as other media outlets included in this report, only report on incidents that witness a high level of civilian harm. This has implications for the public perception of the Afghanistan conflict and explosive weapons incidents as a whole, perhaps suggesting that it is a conflict of a few, high-impact events and not an enduring threat.

The Daily Mail

The type of reporting on Afghanistan in the Daily Mail is notably different to that of the BBC, the Guardian and the Independent. They use far more wire services in their coverage.

Accordingly, the Daily Mail recorded 43 incidents of explosive weapons causing civilian casualties in Afghanistan from January to July 2019. This represents 11% of the number of incidents recorded by AOAV in this period (401).

The incidents covered by the Daily Mail resulted in 1,504 civilian casualties, 422 fatalities (28%) and 1082 fatalities (72%). This coverage accounts for 64% of the casualties recorded by AOAV in Afghanistan in this period, the highest proportion in this report.

The Daily Mail recorded 12 incidents in July 2019. These incidents resulted in 836 casualties. July represents 56% of the total civilian casualties recorded by The Daily Mail (1,504) since the beginning of the year. It is the highest month in this period both in terms of civilian casualties and in terms of incidents. Thus, the Daily Mail’s coverage of civilian casualties caused by explosive weapons in Afghanistan broadly aligns with AOAV’s own findings.

There are issues with the coverage, however. AOAV identified that the high level of casualties in July 2019 was due to attacks by the Taliban. From January to the end of July 2019, the Daily Mail ascribed 10 incidents to the Taliban, the highest number of their total number of incidents where the perpetrator was identified (18). However, only three of these incidents occurred in July, the same number as in May. Thus, while the Daily Mail’s overall coverage of civilian casualties caused by explosive weapons has increased, the number ascribed to the Taliban has not. The Daily Mail acknowledge the possibility they may be behind other attacks in July, however do they do not confirm this.

It should be noted that of all incidents in 2019 in Afghanistan to date, the Daily Mail has predominantly used wire services for their reporting with few articles generated using in-house reports.

Conclusions

The media outlet which provided the most coverage of civilian casualties from explosive weapons in Afghanistan, the Daily Mail, significantly increased their reporting for July 2019. This is in line with AOAV’s findings of increased violence in the country. However, it did not report a significant increase in the number of incidents perpetrated by the Taliban in July. This may be due to the fact that while it is highly likely the Taliban are behind such incidents, they have not explicitly claimed them due to the ongoing peace talks.

The other three outlets examined in this report, BBC, The Guardian, and The Independent, recorded only thirteen, five, and five incidents respectively. These each represent less than 3% of AOAV’s incidents (401). It is thus difficult to assess for these publications how responsive they have been to July’s high levels of explosive weapons due to how small their dataset is. For the BBC and The Guardian, the limited coverage of articles may be reflective of their dependency on UNAMA for their data on civilian casualties in Afghanistan. While this more totalised coverage is useful, it perhaps misses the granularity afforded by more frequent, localised reporting on explosive violence.

Overall, the UK’s media significantly under-reports on explosive violence in Afghanistan.  With other conflicts dominating the foreign news agenda – such as violence in Syria and Yemen – Afghanistan has increasingly been side-lined in news reports.  The violent quagmire that Afghanistan finds itself in today is one increasingly unknown by a British audience, despite British military intervention there.  This raises concerns about the accountability and the consequence of British foreign policy, and the long-term benefits and harms that British military intervention may have caused.

 

For the data, please see here.