Afghan Clerics Denounce Media
Religious leaders in western Afghanistan have warned the government that they will refuse to publicly condemn terror attacks if media outlets continue to broadcast material they deem to be un-Islamic.
Farouq Hussaini, a mullah who acts as spokesman for the “ulema” or council of Muslim scholars in the west of Afghanistan, claimed that suicide bombs were less harmful than the output of some media outlets in the country.
“The suicide attackers take people’s lives, but the programmes of some media outlets destroy the faith of the Afghan people,” he said at a meeting called to condemn a suicide attack which killed Logar provincial governor Arsala Jamal in October.
The material the religious leaders deem offensive includes music shows and films which show women in an “immodest” manner. The mullahs also object to the fact that soap operas and political programmes far outnumber religious broadcasts.
Media professionals said Hussaini’s comments amounted to a direct threat against journalists and freedom of speech.
The Afghan media scene has flourished since the United States-led invasion toppled the Taleban in 2001, with some 50 TV stations and 180 radio outlets now operating alongside hundreds of print publications.
Journalists still face many dangers, and the struggle for free speech continues in the face of pressure from the government, local powerbrokers and the insurgents.
“Calling TV programmes more dangerous than the suicide attacks that kill innocent people shocks me. These words will serve as important tools for those who want to attack journalists and media outlets,” said Farouq Faizi, a reporter in Herat. “Some government officials, insurgents and political parties would like to undermine media outlets by exploiting these statements.”
Khalil Amiri, head of the Afghan Journalist Support Centre, said Hussaini’s words implied conditional justification for suicide attacks and amounted to blackmail.
“If it takes this kind of stance, the ulema will lose their credibility and reliability among the public,” he said.
Wahidullah Tawhidi, head of the Nai – Supporting Open Media organisation, said the threat went against fundamental Islamic teachings.
“God says that after blasphemy and ‘shirk’ [polytheism], the biggest sin is to kill a person. So how can we equate the sin of killing with broadcasting so-called immoral TV programmes? This judgement is far removed from the fairness and justice of Islam.”
Tawhidi added that ulema members should concentrate on more important matters, adding, “Delivering such statements will inflame and intensify the efforts of hard-line groups against journalists and media outlets, and perhaps lead to journalists’ lives being threatened.”
He added, “We acknowledge that some TV programmes run contrary to Islamic and Afghan values, but we can never compare inappropriate broadcasting with suicide attacks and bomb explosions.”
Aria Raufiyan, director of the Herat government department for information and culture, said his office had designed a strategy for overseeing media outlets and “amending” TV programmes that it deemed inappropriate.
Some journalists suspect that Hussaini’s remarks fall within a broader campaign to curtail independent media, especially ahead of the 2014 withdrawal of NATO forces.
“Hussaini’s words showed that certain groups can’t stand freedom of speech,” Abdul Wahab Seddiqi, a reporter for Aser TV in Herat, said. “Some of these groups are working to end this freedom before 2014. These individuals and groups use religion to incite public opinion against media outlets and against democracy.”
This view was echoed by Ali Jan Fasihi, an expert on civil society in Herat, who said he expected a propaganda war to erupt in the media after the international forces withdrew.
“Some individuals are trying to limit the relative freedom of speech that has been achieved over the last several years, but they won’t succeed,” he said.
Despite the vocal criticism, Hussaini remained unrepentant.
“The behaviour of some media outlets in Afghanistan provides armed opposition groups with an opportunity to carry out and justify suicide,” he said. “In fact, it’s these media outlets that foster suicide attacks.”
Herat residents interviewed by IWPR said they generally appreciated the value of the media.
“I don’t agree with some of the programmes, but I can’t dismiss how effective the media are,” Safia, an English teacher at a private school, said. “Both men and women have learned many things about women’s rights through the media. In the past, men didn’t have much information available to them about women’s rights, but media outlets now provide them with information, and women are able to leave their houses and go to work, and advocate for their own rights.”
Abdul Zahir, from the Pashtun Zarghun district in Herat province, said he had learned a great deal about politics, in particular.
“My family and I have gained a lot from the media,” he said. “All a suicide attacker can offer me is death.”
Mustafa Alokozay is an IWPR-trained reporter in Herat.