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Former BBC Kabul correspondent William Reeve
"It was often difficult getting the Taleban to say anything."
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Wednesday, 14 March, 2001, 16:28 GMT
The Taleban and the BBC
Taleban fighter
Officially any photographs - like this Taleban fighter - are banned
By BBC News Online's Bernard Gabony

Even before the hardline Islamic Taleban movement took control of much of Afghanistan, the position of BBC correspondent in Kabul was one of the most sensitive foreign postings within the organisation.

A staggering 60% of the Afghan population are estimated to listen to the BBC's broadcasts in Pashto and Persian, relying on it as the main outlet for impartial news of their country.

As such it is far and away the most important broadcaster in the country.

"Ordinary life would stop while people gathered around their radios for the BBC broadcasts," recalls former BBC Kabul correspondent, Alan Johnston.

The English-speaking correspondent's reports have always been regularly translated to form a key element of the news bulletins.

Afghan veiled woman
Veiled women are one of many cultural adjustments for foreign reporters
But the arrival of the Taleban added a further twist to this hazardous posting in which a scrupulous need for accuracy and even-handedness is even more important than in most other of the world's hot-spots.

The expulsion of the BBC's Kate Clark appears to have nothing to do with her own reporting, but rather with Taleban anger at the views of a professor at an American university broadcast on the Pashto service.

Turning a blind eye

William Reeve worked for the BBC in Afghanistan both before and after the Taleban took control of most of the country.

Some aspects of Taleban rule definitely made his job harder.

The Taleban interpretation of Islam bans all images of humans and animals. Hence their ban on television sets. And it also means that journalists cannot, officially, film.

In practice, officials often turn a blind eye. At other times, they actually encourage filming. After US planes bombed what they said was a camp of Saudi-dissident Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in August 1988, the Taleban were eager for the BBC and other journalists to film the scene as soon as possible.

And last month, the BBC's Matt Frei was allowed into the western city of Herat to witness the plight of 80,000 refugees living in desperate conditions of hunger and cold.

BBC correspondent Kate Clark
Kate Clark was not obliged to cover her face like Afghan women
For a foreign, male, non-Muslim journalist, getting interviews with women in Taleban areas - a subject of intense outside interest - has been fraught with difficulty.

"I did speak to women, with difficulty in their homes," says William Reeve.

"In the streets it was just about impossible and just about anywhere it was forbidden for me to speak to Afghan women... because of the rules of the Taleban."

Afghan women are not supposed to talk to men who are not related by blood to their families.

Obviously that has not been a problem for the BBC's Kate Clark. And as a foreign woman she has not, unlike local women, been obliged to cover her face. But she has had to cover her head.

Culture shock

Alan Johnston says the Taleban never tried to force him, as a Christian, to conform to their rules of dress and appearance, such as the stricture that men should not trim their beards.

But as a western reporter, the initial culture shock on arrival in Kabul can be great.

"When you enter Taleban-held Afghanistan, most basic things like music, television, as well as drink, suddenly become an issue. You adapt to not expecting those things around, to never seeing the faces of women apart from the occasional foreign aid worker."

At the same time, the Taleban is not the monolithic, unified extremist body that it is often portrayed as, believes William Reeve.

"Even within the leadership there's a range from the extremely fundamentalist, through to what could be described as pragmatic."

Overall, Reeve believes the Taleban are less interested in what the outside world thinks of them than in what is going on within the country.

The destruction of the Buddhist statues at Bamiyan is the result of a power struggle within the leadership, he says, in which considerations of the views of the rest of the world have not played a part.

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14 Mar 01 | South Asia
Full text of Taleban statement
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