Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghanistan: Sep ‘08

Kabul government clamps down on trading centre after IWPR report revealed arms-for-drugs transactions.

After many years spent trying to illustrate the concept of a watchdog media, I find it gratifying that a piece published in IWPR’s Afghan Recovery Report provided a textbook example. Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi’s story about an arms-for-drugs bazaar in Badakhshan, Turning Afghan Heroin into Kalashnikovs (ARR 295, 20 Jun 2008), spurred the government to take action against a dangerous source of weapons for the Taleban.

IWPR has learned that, over the past two months, the Afghan police and border authorities have stepped up restrictions on the Joint Bazaar, which sits in the Panj River between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. This formerly booming trade centre has been all but closed, making it much more difficult for drug smugglers to exchange their wares for weapons to arm the Taleban insurgency in the south.

It was not easy. Ibrahimi received several irate telephone calls from officials accusing him of blackening the image of Badakhshan province. But his journalist training was sound; no one found any inaccuracies or fabrications in the piece. Soon the authorities stopped trying to “spin” the story and began to tackle the problem.

Another piece, Fears Over “Islamicisation” of the Afghan Judiciary (ARR 301, 30 Sep 08), has also received wide attention, and has helped to publicise the unhappy fates of the two journalists whose cases are highlighted in the story.

IWPR has been one of the main avenues for information on the case of Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh, the young journalism student who recently had his death sentence for blasphemy commuted to 20 years in prison.

Since publication, many organisations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Amnesty International, have contacted IWPR asking for updates. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation also asked for an interview on the case.

Ghaus Zalmai, the other journalist mentioned in the piece, has received much less attention from the international media, although his case has been widely publicised inside Afghanistan. Zalmai helped to produce a new, vernacular version of the Koran, which offended some of the more conservative mullahs in Afghanistan.

After publication of the IWPR piece, a man contacted the London office saying he was the son of the original translator, and wanted to help. He outlined the conditions for the translation, the circumstances under which it was produced, and defended the decision to publish the Koran in the vernacular, rather than the stilted, literal translation of the Arabic that has been used up until now.

IWPR will return to the story, with the help of the translator and his son, who are both now in the United States.

In both the Kambakhsh and Zalmai cases, IWPR’s reporting will help to build pressure on the Afghan authorities to free these two unfortunate journalists, who have fallen victim to a hardening political situation.

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