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

The Limits of Press Freedom

As more than one journalist has found to his peril, press freedom has fairly narrow limits in Afghanistan.
By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi
Until last year, Salim was a successful journalist in the northern province of Jowzjan.

“I liked my job, and I was good at it,” he said. “I was exposing corruption among local influential figures.”

Salim is not this man’s real name – he did not want to be identified, because he has received death threats from powerful local figures.

“These people rule the area, so I had to leave [the publication],” he said. “My family’s life is more important than my job.”

Salim now runs a shop. “My mouth has been gagged,” he said.

The media scene in Afghanistan has changed dramatically since the fall of the Taleban more than four years ago. Television, once banned, is flourishing, with Bollywood movies, music videos and satirical programmes enlivening the airwaves. Radio stations are broadcasting everything from rap music to soap operas.

According to Deputy Minister of Information and Youth Sayed Aqa Hussain Sancharaki, the media scene looks positive.

“Right now, there are nearly 400 publications, 50 private radio stations, five news agencies, and six TV channels operating in Afghanistan,” he said. “Soon we will have another eight television networks. Under the Taleban, there was only one state-run radio station.”

But the proliferation of media outlets, and the undeniable progress that has been made, can obscure some unpleasant underlying realities: there are topics - and people - that cannot be touched. The print sphere, especially, is having a difficult time.

Mohammad Hassan Wolesmal, a political analyst and chief editor of the Afghan Milli Jarida (Afghan National Magazine), is well known for his critical stance vis-à-vis the government. Following an article in the March issue of his magazine entitled “Karzai’s government lacks a national strategy”, all the windows in his office were broken, he said. He later received a phone call warning him to be more careful about what he published in the future.

“Media freedom ends the minute you touch a warlord or a government official,” he said.

Rahimullah Samander, head of the Afghan Independent Journalists Association, said real progress has been slow in the media sector, despite the obvious changes.

“Some people who have been in power for a long time and are supported by armed militias are an obstacle - they do not believe in free speech,” said Samander. “ Provincial governors and other influential figures tell journalists what to print and what not to print. That is censorship, and it means journalists are not able to reflect reality.”

According to Samander, there were more than 40 attacks on journalistic freedom in 2005, including the murder of two journalists, abductions, beatings and the detention of several others.

Farid Hakimi, chief editor of Andisha-e-Naween (New Idea), a monthly in Mazar-e-Sharif, has also been threatened many times for his articles.

“If this continues, only a very small number of journalists will dare to write the truth,” he said.

Nor is the problem confined to the provinces, observers say.

“The existence of extremist groups in parliament is more dangerous than the existence of local powerful men in the provinces,” said Fazul Rahman Orya, a political analyst and chief editor of Payam magazine. “There are two factions in parliament - supporters of the government, led by Abdul Rab Rassul Sayyaf, and the opposition, led by [parliamentary speaker] Younus Qanuni and [former president] Burhanuddin Rabbani.

“Neither faction believes in freedom of speech, and they will be a big hindrance to the media in the future.”

The parliament has adopted a very conservative position towards the media. Many observers say that Sayed Makhdoom Raheen, who had served as minister of information and culture since early 2002, failed to be confirmed in post by the legislature because lawmakers objected to what they saw as his permissive attitude to the media.

Zarghona Saber, a media analyst in northern Afghanistan, is more optimistic for the future.

“The past four years have been a battle between powerful figures who were afraid of reality and journalists who wanted to make people aware of the facts,” she said. “This is not uncommon in a society where the gun has always ruled.”

While it is true that warlords still hold sway in some areas, she said, they are now losing power.

“The media is the winner in this game,” she said. “People realise what the warlords are. They no longer have a place in society. The media is getting stronger every day.”

Deputy Minister Sancharaki characterised attempts to stifle the media as a positive, not a negative sign.

“In the past, the media was not free in Afghanistan, so nobody tried to interfere with it,” he said. “When local powerful men who are unused to a free press feel threatened by the media, they try to interfere. That indicates that the media is getting stronger.

“As Afghanistan is moving towards democracy, this situation will improve.”

Political pressures are not the only problems the media face. Many print outlets are feeling a severe financial pinch.

“A lot of publications have been funded by non-governmental organisations and powerful men over the past four years,” said Orya. “Now the funding is cut, these publications are beginning to close.”

Shafiq Payam was chief editor of Baztab daily in Mazar-e-Sharif, but had to shut down after just a few months.

“We cannot cover our costs by selling our newspaper because people are not used to reading papers in Afghanistan,” he said. “And there are not enough traders to pay for advertising.”

Musawer Qaderi, chief editor of the Sahar daily in Mazar-e-Sharif, confirmed that the lack of demand was a difficulty.

“We have to teach people that buying a newspaper is necessary for them,” he said.

But it may be a hard sell, judging by the voices on the street.

Abdul Rahman, a 40-year-old shopkeeper in Mazar-e-Sharif, said he would like to get information about Afghanistan from the newspapers, but he finds the local publications uninteresting.

“These papers are not able to say anything about corruption in government offices,” he said. “Whom should we trust? I don’t know whether these journalists are afraid or just don’t know anything.”

Ajmal Aryan, a student at Balkh University, said, “All the young people want to learn about the political situation of their country through the newspapers, but we don’t see anything in the papers worth paying for.”

Mohammad Gul sells magazines and newspapers in Mazar-e-Sharif.

“These magazines are from a year ago last January,” he said, pointing at some old stacks. “I can’t sell them.

“I think people would give money to a beggar before they’d buy a magazine.”

Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.