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Afghan Journalists Angered by Media Bans

Information ministry accused of meddling after television stations shut down.
By Fariba Wahedi

Journalists and media rights activists in Afghanistan are warning of a growing threat to freedom of expression, while officials contend that restrictions are imposed on media outlets only in response to irresponsible reporting.

The flourishing Afghan media scene is one of the success stories of the post-Taleban era, but the country’s ministry of information and culture has come under fire for imposing bans on several television stations.

Most recently, the Pashtu-language news website Benawa was banned on September 10 after it erroneously reported that Afghan vice-president Mohammad Qasim Fahim had died.

Benawa officials said the article was corrected within half an hour, and they accused information minister Sayed Makhdum Rahin of slapping the barring order on them because of stories they had published about him in the past.

Rahin, a former journalist, rejected any suggestion that his decision had been coloured by personal feelings, but said Benawa site was known for carrying unfounded articles.

“The Benawa website has published a lot of accusations against me – not only me; they have insulted many other people. They have called me an agent of Iran,” he said.

Freedom of speech is enshrined in the Afghan constitution and there are 850 newspapers and magazines, most of them privately-owned, plus 20 television channels, 100 radio stations and six news agencies with licenses to operate.

Journalists still face many challenges, including intimidation from government officials and the insurgent forces, and the widespread practice of self-censorship.

Conservative values are also a strong force, and many media outlets have been accused of carrying morally offensive material. Some of this criticism has come from the Commission for Monitoring Media Misconduct, a body set up by the information and culture ministry.

Afghan internet service providers have been told to block thousands of websites that contain pornography or are linked to insurgent groups like the Taleban.

Another recent ban applied to Emrooz TV, a privately-owned Dari-language station broadcasting out of the western city of Herat and known for its fierce criticism of Iran as well as its music and entertainment programmes.

In late July, the information ministry, acting on direct instructions from the Afghan cabinet, ordered the station to halt its broadcasts on the grounds that it was fomenting sectarian rifts and acting against the national interest.

Najibullah Kabuli, Emrooz TV’s head, insisted the order was politically motivated, arguing that the station had been silenced for exposing what he said were Iranian plots against Afghanistan.

“The main reason behind the Emrooz TV ban was a live programme in which a Sunni cleric, Mir Faruq Hussaini, was speaking,” Kabuli told IWPR. “He made threats towards [Shia] Iran, and we were unable to stop him since it was a live broadcast.”

Rahin reiterated the official view that Emrooz had been promoting sectarian hatred. While acknowledging that the media misconduct commission should have looked into the case first, he explained that the cabinet ordered the temporary closure because the matter was seen as urgent.

The ban was lifted last week, he added.

“Now that officials at this media outlet have realised their error, they’ve been permitted to resume broadcasting,” he said.

Rahin’s ministry banned Saqi TV, another private broadcaster in Herat province, on September 5, accusing it of encouraging people to stage a protest at plans by an American preacher to burn copies of the Koran.

“Saqi TV, due to lack of either thought or experience, raised the issue in a way that could have created a big problem in Herat,” Rahin said.

Saqi’s head Tariq Nabi rejected allegations that it had had incited violence.

“We never asked people to protest; instead, we called on them to remain calm,” he said. “I personally appeared as a guest on Saqi TV that night and we have a recording of the programme, which we will provide to other media if they ask for it.”

The minister insisted that placing curbs on a small number of media outlets did not amount to a general attack on freedom of speech. On the contrary, he continued, such actions were intended to improve the media.

However, Zia Bomia, head of the South Asian Free Media Office in Afghanistan, claimed that Rahin had displayed double standards on the question of freedom of speech.

“These media outlets were closed for publishing false reports, insulting someone, or publishing something that’s against the national interest. Yet there are other media busily putting out that kind of material day and night, and they don’t get not banned or closed,” Bomia said. “I can therefore can say his decisions are unlawful and based on his personal tastes.”

Sediqullah Tawhidi, head of the Media Watch organisation, accepts that certain media outlets do not maintain professional standards of accuracy and fairness. He attributes this to inexperience and the current instability in Afghanistan.

However, he says, any ban or restriction placed on the media must follow a suitable investigation and go through the proper legal mechanisms.

“We want the government to deal with the media according to the law,” he said. “Interfering in broadcasts without following these mechanisms and banning media does not fall within the remit of ministers. It must be decided by the courts.”

Nasrullah Stanikzai, a law professor in Kabul university, agreed that it was unconstitutional to limit freedom of speech.

“The law must be upheld,” he said, arguing that restrictions should only be enforced on the orders of a court.

Rahimullah Samander, head of the Afghan Independent Journalists’ Association, blamed domestic and foreign interference for decisions made by the information ministry, which he said were unconstitutional.

“When Emrooz TV was banned, we protested vigorously, but there’s the hand of political parties and even foreign countries at work behind this,” he added.

But Samander, too, acknowledged that parts of the media did not adhere to the principles of free and fair journalism, and instead used their outlets to promote their own agendas.

On an individual basis, many Afghan journalists complain they are denied information and treated heavy-handedly by the Afghan authorities. They contrast this unfavourably with the increasingly media-savvy Taleban, whose spokesmen are often available for comment.

“I have been beaten several times by national security and police forces in Kabul, because I have a beard and wear a pakol [traditional Afghan hat],” said one freelance journalist who asked to remain anonymous. “Once I was nearly shot by American forces, because I was preparing a report from an area where they’d been fighting the Taleban. They broke my camera and threatened to kill me. I think it’s easy for the government and international forces to kill journalists, because they have done so several times.”

Fariba Wahedi is an IWPR-trained reporter in Kabul.
 

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