The manner in which mainstream newspapers and news broadcasts have presented the annual UN report on opium production in Afghanistan offers a classic example of news manipulation and distortion.
Without exception, the media have concentrated on the “good news” connected with the fact that this year’s crop was practically halved compared to 2009 (down from 6,900 to 3,600 tons), “thanks to” a disease that affected poppies in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, in other words due to unpredictable natural causes.
None of them, however, highlighted the much less positive key statistic: namely that the area devoted to poppy cultivation, falling since 2007, this year stayed the same as the previous year, at 23,000 hectares.
This means that, if it hadn’t been for the providential poppy parasite, the harvest would have as large as last year… or larger, since the number of growers has risen slightly.
The UN report actually opened its summary by stressing that the cultivation of opium “has not changed” since 2009, thus singling it out as the most significant piece of information in the report.
The Associated Press was the only press agency to relay the news correctly, under the headline “UN: Afghan opium production stable, despite the efforts”, not mentioning the parasite story until line twenty-four. But all the major papers and TV channels gave an entirely different slant to their reporting.
The mass media also tended to stress that opium production is concentrated in Taliban-controlled areas. The fact is that this year poppy cultivation has fallen in some nominally ‘Taliban provinces’, such as Zabul (-58 %), Badghis (-45 %), Uruzgan (-20 %), Helmand (-7 %) and Kunar (-6 %), while it has risen in areas controlled by the government and the Allied forces, such as Nangarhar (+145 %), Badakshan (+97 %) and Laghman (+73 %).
There has also been a marked increase (+ 30% on last year) in opium plantation in the province of Kandahar, the centre of the USA’s military ‘surge’ and the feud of the notorious drug trafficker Ahmed Wali Karzai, younger brother of the Afghan President and key CIA ally in the region.