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

Khan Stifles Local Press

Information-starved residents of Herat resort to reading Kabul newspapers to find out what's going on
By Ahmed Zia

With his white turban and long, flowing white beard, Ismail Khan is the very image of a benevolent autocrat, gazing down at his people from thousands of huge posters and paintings positioned all over the ancient cultural capital of Herat. The influence of the wealthy provincial governor and self-styled "Emir of the west and south", is as inescapable as his gaze - and nowhere is it exercised more strongly than in Herat's media.


The city's main daily newspaper is owned and funded by Khan, local journalists complain of being harassed and officials say they are not aware of a new press law recently passed by the transitional administration in Kabul to bolster freedom of expression.


"After the defeat of the Taleban, Herat's broad-minded society was expecting the rise of new and independent publications which could express the views and problems of the people. This hasn't happened yet," said city journalist Hasan Zada.


Herat, with its 300,000 inhabitants, has long billed itself as Afghanistan's cultural capital, and with good reason. From the 15th century, when the Timurid dynasty took the city as its base, and through two centuries of Moghul rule, the city became famous for literature, philosophy and the arts. That legacy continues today in the form of a respected university and a well-educated urban elite.


Abdul Zahir Maihanyar, deputy minister of culture and information, told IWPR that continual efforts were being made to improve the city's main newspaper Ittefaq-e-Islam, a weekly that has recently upgraded to a daily. However, as Khan's government finances the publication, every issue faithfully reflects the official line on all events.


When Kabul sent officials to take up posts in Herat and Khan refused to accept them, Ittifaq-e Islam did not report on the move. Likewise, it has not answered the tricky question of how much money Khan has sent to Kabul from customs duties levied at the border crossing with Iran.


"Ittefaq-e-Islam is really 'Ismail Khan Nama' - 'the Ismail Khan newspaper'. It has nothing in it except official government news," complained university student Hasibullah.


Khan's is not the only newspaper in Herat. There are three other local print publications - Awrang-e Hashtum and Kodak, Herat Writers' Association newsletters, and Takhasus, published by the independent Professional Shura Association. However, they do not deal with current affairs or seek to provide impartial political coverage. Aurang-e Hashtom concentrates on educational issues, Kodak is for children, and Takhasos deals with internal organisational issues.


Abdel Hadi Fayeq, who works at the local office of the ministry of culture and information, said journalists had approached his department seeking permission to launch other publications. However, the ministry has not given the go-ahead for these projects because it was not aware of a new media law - which states that newspapers can be published freely without supervision or a license - issued in Kabul earlier this year.


In interviews, Khan has repeatedly stated that anyone is free to write whatever they like, but in practice the writers and journalists who might launch new titles simply do not believe him.


"He is stronger now than when the Taleban fell," said one international observer. "There was a feeling six months ago that he had to tread carefully yet now he gets quite aggressive with international organisations. There is a general sense that he feels he no longer has to be so careful."


Khan has been a dominant figure in Herat for more than two decades. He came to prominence in 1979 when, as an army captain, he led an uprising that led to the deaths of more than 200 communists and Soviet advisors who had made their base in the city. Now 57-years-old, the strength of his private army has been estimated at 30,000 men and his income from the region's cross border trade is believed to be 40 million US dollars - half the transitional administration's budget in Kabul.


Posters of him can be seen in all government offices, on the streets, and in shops and hotels. He is pictured centre stage with President Hamid Karzai, or side by side with the assassinated Jamiat-e-Islami military commander Ahmed Shah Massood, or simply by himself.


The region's television and radio programmes are under similar control. Broadcasts - which run for five hours every night - show endless static shots of officials in meetings. Bureaucrats claim to receive "hundreds" of positive letters from viewers every day and say the only problems with the service are mainly technical ones, caused by their old, mainly Russian-made equipment.


While this situation persists, many Heratis are seeking their information elsewhere. Schoolteacher Sayed Akbar told IWPR that he waits eagerly for newspapers to arrive from Kabul, over a thousand km away by road.


"Sometimes I can get Kabul Weekly, Kelid and Andeshai brought to me, and I read them all. In Herat, there has not been anything worth reading," he said.


At least the city's residents have alternative forms of entertainment since the downfall of the student militia. Families can watch foreign channels received through satellite dishes. And hotel and café owners treat their customers to Indian blockbusters broadcast on DVD players purchased in Iran.


Ahmed Zia Siamak is a Herat-based journalist


More IWPR's Global Voices