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

'Blasphemy' Journalists Released

Two Kabul editors accused of insulting Islam released, but likely to face trial.
By Rahimulah Samander

Two Kabul journalists arrested for alleged blasphemy have been released on the orders of President Hamid Karzai following intense international pressure.

Sayed Mir Husain Mehdavi, editor of the Aftab weekly newspaper, and his Iranian deputy Ali Reza Payam, were arrested on June 17 after the publication of an article titled "Sacred Fascism", which criticised a number of crimes committed in the name of Islam.

The move drew condemnation from the international community. President Hamed Karzai's transitional administration initially refused to relent, but eventually released the duo on June 25.

However, the blasphemy charges have not been dropped, and the journalists are still facing trial at some as yet unspecified date.

Ironically, Mehdavi's deputy Payam had immigrated to Afghanistan after he was arrested by Iran's clerics for writing articles deemed to be "un-Islamic".

Aftab was shut down shortly after the duo were detained. The closure order read, "No infidel has ever insulted Islam so badly. Such articles have a bad effect on people and give them a negative impression of the democratic process". The authorities are yet to specify how long the ban will be in place.

While still in custody, Mehdavi gave an interview to the Arman-e-Malli newspaper, in which he said, "We have rights as journalists to express our ideas, to defend [them] and to present proposals for social, political and religious reforms."

Analysts now believe that the journalists' arrest could have serious implications for the war-torn country's development. Human Rights Watch spokesperson John Sifton said, "The [Afghan] government's message to journalists is clear - 'You are not protected'.

"In Afghanistan today, dominant government officials or powerful clerics can order journalists arrested, and President Karzai won't stop them. The situation has grave implications for Afghanistan's future constitutional debates."

But Karzai insists that the duo will have a fair trial, and has denied that his transitional administration had failed to uphold international press freedom standards. "We support freedom of the press and we defend it," he told a press conference on the day the journalists were released.

"However, when it is the Afghan people's religion which is being called into question … we have to assume responsibility and take measures.

"Our journalists - our brothers and sisters - must be aware that the freedom of the press does not mean that we should harm and cast doubts on the religion of 25 million people in Afghanistan."

The section of "Sacred Fascism" which caused the greatest controversy in Kabul read, "If Islam is a perfect religion and the final law in heaven, then why do so many of its disciples behave so badly?

"To such Muslims, religion is as unknown as it is to atheists. People think that the Ulema [religious leaders] are symbols of ethical behaviour and pillars of religion - but they are actually farther away from religion than ordinary people."

This was the second time in a number of months in which Aftab had fallen foul of the authorities. In April, Mehdavi was arrested in connection with a story headlined "Religion plus Government equals Dictatorship".

Mehdavi, who is considered politically independent by Kabul intellectuals, finances Aftab with his own money. In order to defend himself and his employee against the charges, he has asked for help from the culture and information ministry and Afghanistan's human rights commission among others.

It is not the first time Mehdavi and his paper have been in trouble. He has received many death threats, mostly by telephone, after his articles outraged Afghanistan's conservative society.

Many threatening calls allegedly came from supporters of Jamiat-e-Islami, the party that evolved from the Northern Alliance which fought to defeat the Taleban.

One caller warned that 300 university students had decided to set the Aftab offices ablaze but that elders would not permit them to do so.

Other opponents have played the ethnic card, accusing Mehdavi - who is Hazara, one of Afghanistan's minority ethnic groups - of not holding his own community up to the same scrutiny as others.

The Aftab editor denies this, claiming that he frequently criticises Hazara leaders such as Planning Minister Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, who is the deputy head of the Hizb-e Wahdat party.

Afghanistan was recently named as the fourth most dangerous country for reporters to work in, according to the US-based media watchdog, the Committee to Protect Journalists. The report was released of World Press Freedom Day.

Rahimulla Samander is an IWPR editor/reporter in Kabul.