This week, CNN revisited the story of Parwana. And while the Thursday evening segment was presented as an “update,” it reflected the cable network’s efforts to essentially re-report aspects of a story that had come under fire from Afghan journalists whose sources told them the father’s original tale was fabricated.
Ultimately, CNN signaled that it is confident in its original interpretation of Parwana’s story. That story has now resolved with a charity group engineering the girl’s return to her family and travel to safe harbor, crediting CNN’s reporting for making it possible.
Questions first emerged about the story shortly after it aired. While the problem of child marriage has long been endemic in rural parts of Afghanistan, exacerbated by the economic and humanitarian crisis in the country, some skeptics questioned why a family would allow an international camera crew to film such a transaction.
The man seen purchasing Parwana in CNN’s report said he would “treat her like a family member” and that she would work in his home, though he gave varying explanations of whether he considered the relationship a “marriage.”
On Nov. 12, a fledgling news collective founded last year to tell the stories of Afghan women took direct aim at the CNN report. Building on skeptical coverage in local Afghan media outlets, Rukhshana Media reported that “several people connected to the family, including the father himself, have [claimed] that the story was fabricated.”
In an interview, the girl’s father denied to Rukhshana Media that he sold his daughter into marriage. Instead, Abdul Malik said, he merely loaned the girl to his uncle — not to an unrelated older man — as collateral for a loan he needed to repay. Even more damning for CNN, Malik alleged that a journalist had asked him to “reenact” the transaction on camera. The Rukhshana report also cited a representative for the internal displacement camp where Malik’s family resided claiming that the father and his uncle made up the story as a way to get much-needed financial assistance.
CNN hotly denied the claims, including the reenactment allegation. “We fundamentally reject the entire premise of this article,” a spokesperson said at the time. “We stand absolutely by our reporting, which was put together by trusted, experienced Afghan journalists and CNN staff with deep knowledge of Afghanistan.”
Beyond that statement, though, CNN stayed quiet — until it broadcast its update, once again on Tapper’s show, that included a rebuttal to skeptical stories about the report.
From the beginning of the new report, the network reaffirmed that the transaction was for a “child bride.” The network had re-interviewed the father, who admitted that he had changed his story “out of embarrassment for what he had done,” and “under duress from the community and some local media outlets,” in the words of CNN international correspondent Anna Coren.
Coren noted in her follow-up report that “there was widespread [local] backlash toward Parwana’s father and the buyer, after our story went to air, with claims they brought shame on the community.” And it was that backlash, CNN told viewers, that empowered an aid organization called Too Young To Wed to help secure Parwana’s release and rescue. After returning home, she, her mother and her siblings were given permission to leave their camp and travel to a safe house several hours away, where they currently reside.
“They rescued me. They’ve given me a new life. I thank the charity for helping me,” Parwana says in the piece.
A CNN representative told The Washington Post the network had waited to air the follow-up piece until after her safety had been secured.
The dispute over what really happened to Parwana may reflect the challenges of reporting in Afghanistan under Taliban rule. The dangers faced by journalists — especially female reporters — has prompted many news organizations to do more work from afar, relying on Afghan-based stringers to help gather reporting and make sense of complex dynamics like the interplay between Parwana’s father and the other man.
CNN’s Coren was working on the story from outside Afghanistan with the help of a reporting crew based in the country. But so, too, was Rukhshana Media’s editor Zahra Nader, who co-wrote the critique of CNN’s work from her home base in Toronto, with the help of an Afghanistan-based reporter whose first initial and last name appear on the report; Nader she said she could not be fully named for safety reasons.
After the CNN follow-up report aired, Nader criticized it as a “coverup” and claimed that CNN only had one source for the story. The network told The Post it has multiple sources beyond Parwana’s father.
“The entire story, it doesn’t really make sense,” she said in an interview on Friday. “We talked to so many sources who said that this story was staged and that the two men are relatives.” But, she acknowledged that she cannot be 100 percent confident in the father’s denial to her outlet, and said that whatever the arrangement, she is happy that Parwana is now safe.
Photojournalist Stephanie Sinclair, who founded Too Young to Wed, told The Post that Parwana’s rescue required “a lot of negotiation” with local activists and the individuals involved in the transaction. Her group is also helping deliver aid to the internally displaced people camp she resided in.
Sinclair cannot be sure whether the girl was exchanged for money, to pay off a debt, or for a future marriage — she and members of her team who spoke directly with the girl believe it was the latter — but said it ultimately did not matter.
“The main thing for us was to move her to safety, because either way, she was not in a safe situation,” she said. “For me, it’s a bit irrelevant. She’s not property to be given over as a servant, as payment of a debt, or as a wife, in any way. She’s a child. She’s a minor.”
Nick Grono, the chief executive of the Freedom Fund, an organization that works to eradicate modern slavery, made a similar point, noting that amid a “horrendous humanitarian crisis,” Afghan families “are often confronted with deeply awful choices.”
“Even considering the complexity, let’s not lose sight of the fact that a girl was being offered up to another family for money,” Grono said. “It’s still horrendous exploitation, on whatever fact scenario you’re talking about.”