Taliban still learning art of media relations'

The Taliban are learning the power of the media, but are far from being experts at manipulating the news, according to Channel 4 News correspondent Ian Williams.

He was among 15 Western journalists taken to the village of Khorum in eastern Afghanistan by the Taliban in what he described as "a bizarre propaganda exercise".

He told Press Gazette: "The US makes them sound like ace media consultants, and it has been said that they are winning the PR battle. But they are some way behind in the art of media relations. They are a group of mullahs, many of whom are illiterate or have spent a lot of their lives in religious schools. They have banned television and see all images as irreligious and have little experience of the outside world or the media."

Williams said the Taliban officials who escorted the journalists to the village made no attempt to censor what they said in their reports. "They obviously controlled what we saw and were very paranoid about us talking to anybody," he said.

"It was a very crude attempt and when it came to us putting our reports together they didn’t try to influence what we said."

After they spoke to the villagers, Williams and Nic Robertson from CNN persuaded their minder to take them to the hospital. "A slicker propaganda outfit would have taken us to the hospital immediately, but he said we could go perhaps after some tea," said Williams. "We told him it was important to take us to the hospital to verify how many were injured, to put a human face to the story."

He said he saw enough to convince him it was a civilian area that had been bombed and that, while protests they saw were undoubtedly staged, the anger that confronted them in Khorum was genuine.

On the trek through the tribal areas to the border, their car was stopped by guards who said Washington and Islamabad officials had described the vehicle and told them to stop foreign journalists crossing to Afghanistan.

"I think that convinced them that we were not spies and that we had an element of independence," said Williams. "I think that incident convinced them even more of the power of the media in this conflict."

By Julie Tomlin

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