Boston University project to train Afghan reporters stirs debate
Boston — A Boston University program to train Afghan guerrillas as journalists is slowly getting off the ground. But BU journalism faculty members and other journalism professionals still question whether it is proper for a university to be involved in what they claim is a propaganda effort of the United States government. The program aims to teach media skills to the guerrillas so they can better report the Soviet occupation and their resistance efforts, especially to the third world.
At present, Afghan journalists have little credibility because their reporting is ``unsophisticated, sentimental, and vague,'' says H. Joachim Maitre, head of the project and dean ad interim of the College of Communication at Boston University. A special appropriation of $500,000 was voted by Congress in 1985 to help establish the program.
The controversy at BU centers on $180,000 awarded to the college in a grant by the United States Information Agency (USIA), which is the official voice of the US government overseas. The traditional journalist says that any collaboration between journalism and government is taboo, says Everette E. Dennis, executive director of the Gannett Center for Media Studies at Columbia University in New York.
The other $300,000 was granted to King Features/Hearst Metrotone News to set up an Afghan news agency to distribute the stories.
The program will train, in Pakistan, 30 Afghans, most of whom have a high school education and are already working journalists. Two six-week sessions will be interspersed with hands-on training, Dean Maitre says. The entire course will last about one-half year.
Although the curriculum is being translated and equipment planned, classroom training will not begin until January, says a member of the USIA staff.
Several journalism teachers will be sent to Pakistan, Maitre says. Faculty and student sources say privately that the program has been having trouble recruiting faculty to go to Pakistan as instructors. They say only one person, a BU alumnus, is now scheduled to go.
Maitre denies this and says there is a waiting list of 14 people for the four open positions. But he declines to release the names of the instructors or the final site, for ``security reasons.''
Various sites for the program are being considered, says a member of the USIA staff, including Peshawar and Islamabad, Pakistan, but nothing is firm yet.
Late last year, when grant applications were being drafted, the BU journalism faculty was bitterly divided over whether the training should take place in Boston or in Pakistan, as was called for in USIA's guidelines.
Bernard S. Redmont, then dean of the College of Communication, and much of the journalism faculty said the journalism training should take place in Boston. Their position was based on logistical and administrative difficulties in Pakistan, possible danger there, and on concern that the program might be considered more a propaganda effort than a journalistic one if conducted abroad.
The agency argued that it would be too expensive to bring the Afghan journalists to Boston and that culture shock would disrupt their studies. The proposal from the university was submitted by BU's provost because Dean Redmont refused to endorse a Pakistan-based training program. In July, Redmont resigned as dean.
The program has since received criticism from both the journalism community and the academic community.
Michael Gartner, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, says he is concerned about Afghans being trained as journalists to portray ``one side of a dispute'' in a program funded by USIA. But Maitre says he ``doesn't see the problem.''
Maitre, an East German native, defected to the US in 1953. An expert in defense issues, his outspoken support of official US policy on Central America, Afghanistan, and nuclear arms has caused some of his colleagues to doubt his journalistic objectivity.
Maitre said that BU is simply training Afghan students in journalistic techniques, not disseminating information. The news services pick up what they want, he said.
Speaking for USIA, Lesley Vossen insisted that ``the grantee [BU] shall have full control over all aspects of the program.''
Says Gannette Center's Mr. Dennis: ``I don't think that [the Afghan training program] is a proper role and function for a journalism school. If Boston University wants to do a program like this, OK. But I personally wouldn't do it.''
Some on the BU journalism faculty still object to the principle of the thing. Bernice R. Buresh, an associate professor of journalism at BU, insisted that ``it is inappropriate for people who ought to be disinterested to be involved in a propaganda effort.
``If you want to be believed you have to establish yourself'' as someone who tells both sides of the story, she said. ``Our students here are really being misled.''