Afghan Media Reforms Under Scrutiny

The new Kabul authorities say they've jettisoned Taleban-era press censorship, but some journalists aren't so sure.

Afghan Media Reforms Under Scrutiny

The new Kabul authorities say they've jettisoned Taleban-era press censorship, but some journalists aren't so sure.

A teenage boy stands in the street hawking magazines and newspapers - featuring striking designs and colour pages - and calls out the headlines from the top stories.

For Kabul residents, long accustomed to the stultifying blandness of the former regime's strictly controlled media, such a site is nothing short of a revelation.

The deputy editor of the official daily Anees, Faizullah Muhtaj, also worked for the paper when the Taleban were in charge - a time when only rigidly Islamic opinion was tolerated. "They were hostile to almost all civil and modern values, to the media, to the very idea of public opinion," he said.

The student militia determined the news agenda and the editorial approach. "They censored the domestic press, though they could do nothing about the international media, which really angered them," continued Muhtaj.

The Taleban's opposition to women going to work was well known, yet some, like Khaleda Qyami who worked for the official daily Haiwad, somehow managed to retain their jobs.

"The paper's editor was a Taleb," she recalled, "but he sent me to cover the commemoration of World Day for Women at Rabia Balkhi hospital (the Kabul clinic assigned to women by the Taleban).

"There the doctors and nurses complained about the regime and especially their restrictions on women staff and patients. I reported it all carefully. But when it was published most of it had been censored."

Those who defied the Taleban press restrictions faced heavy punishments.

Abdul Qadir Hakimi of the weekly Itifaq Islam in the western city of Herat was publicly flogged for an article in 1999 calling on the state to allow nurses and doctors to return to work at the city's main hospitals, then desperate for trained staff.

Hakimi's colleague Abdul Muneer was banned from working as a journalist and local writer Nazari Aryana was dismissed from the Herat literary society for proposing theological Arabic be replaced by Dari. "This request was interpreted as an insult to Islam as they regarded Dari as a language of profit," said Aryana.

International free expression groups estimate that more than 60 journalists working for the Taleban-controlled media were arrested, tortured or sacked while the student militia was in power.

The interim administration pledged to free the media, lifting the state's monopoly on broadcasting and introducing a new press law empowering journalists and their employers.

"In the weeks following the collapse of the Taleban, more than 88 daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly publications were founded in Kabul alone," said Sultan Ahmed Baheen, director of the semi-official Bakhtar Information Agency.

But recent incidents have highlighted the precarious nature of the new media freedoms.

In May, the head of the interim authority, Hamid Karzai, silenced Kabul TV journalist Kabeer Omarzai when he tried to raise the old unresolved issue of the country's border with Pakistan, at a joint press conference with Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf.

Karzai's action drew criticism from at least two Kabul newspapers and the Society of Journalists in the city. The Paris-based media rights group Reporters Sans Frontieres lodged an official protest.

Even employees of state publications such as Anees accept that they are limited in what they can report. "Government publications still have to watch what they print," said Anees reporter Abdul Wahid Shabroz..

Restrictions are often justified on the grounds that discussion of certain themes and ideas will destabilise the country's fragile democracy. Muhtaj is frank. "As I am paid by the interim authority, I must fulfil my duty and defend their objectives," he said.

But he also believes that media plays a key role in alerting and informing the public, something, he admits, the Afghan media has largely failed to do.

So far a good deal of effort has gone into establishing press freedoms in Afghanistan, but while they exist on paper it seems that it will be some time before they are properly put into practice.

Breshna Nazari is deputy editor of the independent Kabul Weekly.

Pakistan, Afghanistan
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