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Afghan Press Freedom More Mirage Than Reality

This has been the worst year so far for Afghan journalists, say media watchers.
By IWPR Afghanistan
Afghanistan’s media have enjoyed remarkable degree of freedom over the past six years, making this one of the most visible achievements of the post-Taleban era,. But increasingly, as security deteriorates and the public mood sours, media outlets are coming under pressure from government and other powerful elites.

In addition to intimidation and assault, reporters face obstruction from officials who routinely deny them access to information, in clear violation of the law.

In recent incidents, five staffers from a popular Afghan daily were arrested and interrogated after the security services took exception to a letter to the editor they published. Armed men arrived at the office of another newspaper to arrest the editor after he published an analysis that some deemed insulting to a national hero. A journalist was beaten for trying to record the aftermath of a suicide bombing.

The case of Cheragh, a daily newspaper based in Kabul, illustrates the new, more precarious position the press finds itself in.

According to Sayyed Najibullah Hashemi, who sits on Cheragh’s editorial board, unidentified men surrounded the newspaper’s offices after publication of a letter to the editor that blamed the government for a suicide bombing in Baghlan that killed more than 50 people.

Five staff members were detained by National Directorate for Security, NDS, officers as they left the building that evening.

“First, someone came to the office and asked for our director [Kathreen Wida], but she wasn’t there,” said Hashemi. “Then, at about 2 pm, seven men arrived in two cars and encircled our office. We were afraid they might be kidnappers, and we called the police. When the police came, these men left, but they returned in even greater numbers after the police had gone. We called the police again, and they came back, spoke to the men, and told us that they could do nothing - the men were from the NDS.”

The men did not enter the office, said Hashemi, but remained in the area and picked up five staffers as they were leaving the building in the evening. The five were taken to NDS offices for interrogation.

When Hashemi went to try to free the Cheragh employees, he was told they had been detained because of a letter to the paper’s editor that placed blame for the Baghlan bombing and other political murders on the government.

“They said the subject matter was provocative, and we accepted that,” said Hashemi.

NDS officials demanded that Cheragh publish an apology, and once Hashemi agreed to this, the staff members were released.

Hashemi and the newspaper’s staff are now concerned about intimidation, having seen for themselves how the security service can put direct pressure on the media.

“They should have addressed their complaint to the government’s media commission,” said Hashemi. “What they did was completely illegal – they can ask for explanations through the media commission.”

Sayed Ansari, a spokesman for the NDS, denied that his agency has mistreated journalists, and said he had not seen any report concerning the detention of journalists from Cheragh.

“We cannot say anything until we receive a report,” he said.

The government is not the only force capable of putting pressure on the media. As certain political elites gather strength, they are flexing their muscles through the press.

Fazel Rahman Oria, the editor of the Erada daily in Kabul, was forced into hiding after his newspaper published a five-part analysis that contained a reference to Ahmad Shah Massoud, the mujahedin leader widely hailed as an Afghan national hero. After the author, Azam Sistani, called Massoud a “warlord”, armed men arrived at the paper’s office to take Oria away.

“I hid,” said Oria. “Then I was summoned to the committee for cultural affairs in the lower house of parliament, but I didn’t go, since they have no standing in this case. The upper house also summoned me, and once again, I refused to go.

“I told all of them that the Commission on Media Violations should ask me to present explanations. I finally to publish a piece in defence of Massoud, prepared by the Massoud Foundation, and thus I resolved the matter,” he said.

According to Rahimullah Samander, director of the Independent Association of Journalists of Afghanistan, 2007 has been the worst year for reporters since the fall of the Taleban.

“Violations against journalists are increasing year by year,” said Samander, adding that the government and parliament have been particularly active in threatening and censoring journalists.

The number of violations has jumped from about 50 in 2006 to more than 70 so far this year, according to Samandar.

He said he personally was threatened with arrest by the NDS after investigating some of these cases.

Such incidents fly in the face of Afghan law. Article 34 of the constitution states, “Freedom of expression shall be inviolable. Every Afghan shall have the right to express thoughts through speech, writing, illustrations as well as other means.”

Article 5 of Afghanistan’s Public Media Code, meanwhile, requires the government to provide information requested by journalists or other citizens unless it endangers national security, the country’s territorial integrity or the rights of others.

A new media law has been drawn up and passed by both houses of parliament, but it has been held up for more than two months by President Hamid Karzai. The president is technically required to pass new laws within 15 days or send them back to legislators for revision.

On December 10, some of Afghanistan’s largest media organisations issued a joint statement calling on Karzai to clarify the status of the bill.

Meanwhile, abuses of journalists continue, and some of the culprits are unrepentant.

On December 4, police officers beat Mohammad Omar Mohammadi, a reporter for the popular radio programme Salam Watandar, as he prepared to file a report from the scene of a suicide bombing near Kabul International Airport.

“I was busy recording the voice-over when they arrested me and seized all my equipment,” said Mohammadi, who accused district police chief Qasim Aminzoi of personally assaulting him.

Aminzoi said the journalist was assaulted for his own protection.

“We made efforts to prevent him from entering the scene because another explosion might take place, but he ignored these warnings. Then he was beaten by the police. I did my job there and I am not worrying about it,” he said.

As Aminzoi was being interviewed, a demonstration was in progress outside the offices of the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan. “If that journalist is found there we will beat him again,” he threatened.

Violations of press freedom are not restricted to Kabul.

Ariana TV reporter Basher Ansari said the authorities in Balkh province in the north of the country routinely deny him interviews.

He recently covered an incident where highway police were following a vehicle being used to smuggle drugs, and local police accused them of protecting the traffickers. Ansari could not get an officer to comment on record – an increasingly common experience, he said.

Shamshad TV reporter Latif Sahak told similar stories. At one point he was denied persmission to interview prison officials and eyewitnesses after a prisoner hanged himself in Balkh, apparently in protest at the dismal conditions in jail.

Noor Mohammad Shahbaz, a freelance journalist in Kandahar, said officials in that province are also loath to provide information and interviews.

Alam Rahman, of Azadi Radio, reported the same troubled relationship between journalists and authorities in Jawzjan province.

According to a survey carried out by the Independent Association of Journalists, 70 per cent of Afghan reporters return empty-handed when they go to government departments and ministries to collect information.

Deputy Minister of Information and Culture Mubarez Reshedi admitted that the trend is worsening, but said his ministry has no power to force other government bodies to abide by the law.

“We always send letters to all ministries and administrations urging them to stop treating the journalists badly and provide them with information in accordance with the law,” he said.

The situation recently caught the attention of the International Federation of Journalists, which issued a December 11 release condemning a series of attacks on journalists.

The Federation cited a number of incidents, including a December 3 attack on Afghanistan Radio and Television, ART, producer Ali Asghar Akbarzada, who was fired at by unknown gunmen as he drove home from work.

Another ART journalist, Ehsanullah Shahidzai, was released from detention on December 4, a week after he had been accused by the authorities of having links with the Taleban.

Wahidullah Amani is an IWPR staff trainer, reporter and editor in Kabul. Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.

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