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

The Limits of Afghan Press Freedom

Helmand journalist describes police mistreatment on return from reporting trip to Taleban territory.
By Aziz Ahmad

The Taleban now seem to welcome reporters, but officials punish us for going to meet them.

On Monday, November 5, four of us set out for Musa Qala, a Taleban-held town. Besides me, there were Aziz Ahmad Shafe, who works for the BBC as well as several other organisations; Abdul Wadood Hejran, from Ariana Television, and Abdul Samat Samim, from Al Jazeera.

We went by invitation of the Taleban, but we also told the governor of Helmand we were going, as well as the head of the department of information and culture, Jan Gul Khan.

We were scared to death going into Musa Qala. Although we had coordinated every step of the way with Qari Yusuf, the spokesman, there are many Taleban groups here, each with its own power and authority. You never know what will happen.

We also remember what the Taleban were like before. But when we got to the bazaar in Musa Qala, they were waiting for us, all smiles.

We spoke to many people, we took films of the Taleban on parade. They had a lot of vehicles, over 100, with weapons. They let us do what we wanted.

I did not get nervous until we were on the way back. In Greshk, the car I was in was stopped by the police. When they saw my equipment bag they asked me what was in it.

“I am a journalist,” I told them.

“Get out,” said the policeman.

The checked everything, they made me show them the pictures I had taken. Then they listened to my interviews. One was with a man who was complaining about NATO and their bombs.

“They have destroyed our mosque, now we do not even have a place to pray to God,” said the man.

When he heard this, the policeman got angry and began to shout at me.

“Why do you record such things?’ he said angrily.

They also asked me a lot of questions about the trip. They wanted to know where I had stayed in Musa Qala, who I had been with. They asked for names and phone numbers.

While all of this was going on, I saw that they had brought in Samim, from Al Jazeera, who had left Musa Qala a little after I did.

They took my mobile phone, but before they did I managed to make a call to a friend of mine in Kandahar. Thank God I did. I think he made some calls of his own, because after about half an hour, they released both of us. They did not seem happy about it, though.

“We only do what they tell us,” said the policeman. “They have told us to leave you alone.”

I got back to Lashkar Gah about 1:30 in the afternoon, and did some work at the media centre there. Then I went home. I was very tired, since I had not slept very much for the past two nights, when we were with the Taleban.

But that evening I began to get phone calls, from men saying they were the police, and demanding that I come down to the station. But I told them, “Who are you? I don’t know you, I don’t want to talk to you.”

At 8:00 pm, the police came to my house. They surrounded the place, and they knocked on the door. They were asking for me, but my brother told them I was in Kandahar, and they left.

I thought to myself, “Wow, so now journalists are also terrorists.”

I did not know what I had done wrong. Had I committed some crime? So I called the chief of police, Huseeinm Andiwal, who spoke to me quite coldly, although I know him from other reporting I have done.

“If you have the Al Jazeera reporter with you, or any other guests, hand them over,” he told me.

I called the head of the national security directorate, a man whom we know only as “rais”(chief). He told me that he had no idea who it was who was looking for me.

But someone is. I have gone many times with the government to visit war-torn areas. But this time, when I went with the Taleban, the government started harassing me.

You know it is very hard to be a journalist in Helmand. We risked our necks going to Musa Qala, and the government knew about this. We were aware of the danger - we knew there was a possibility we would not come back alive. And now the government, who is supposed to ensure our safety, is trying to imprison us. They do things that are worse than the Taleban.

Aziz Ahmad Tassal is an IWPR reporter.

Also see Story Behind the Story, published 16 Nov 07, ARR Issue 273.

The Story Behind the Story gives an insight into the work that goes into IWPR articles and the challenges faced by our trainees at every stage of the editorial process.

This feature allows our journalists to explain where they get the inspiration for their articles, why the subjects matter to them, and how they personally have felt affected by the often controversial issues they explore.

It also shows the difficulties writers can face as they try to get to the heart of a story.

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