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Media Law Seen as Over-Restrictive

Journalists voice opposition to rules banning criticism of Islam and insults against public officials.
By Farida Nekzad

A new law governing the news media, quietly approved and put into effect several weeks ago, bans criticism of Islam or insults to officials.

The statute also creates a seven-member commission with powers to decide whether journalists accused of violating the new law should face prosecution in the courts.

The law has come under attack from both journalists and legal experts for its vague provisions and imposition of a form of censorship.

The new law, signed late last month by President Hamed Karzai and approved by his cabinet, is only the latest in a series of controversial press laws that have been on the books since the 1920s.

Abul Hamed Mubarez, deputy minister of culture and information, defended the new law. He insisted that it was designed to protect journalists, especially those in remote provinces which remain under the control of powerful governors and former mujahedin commanders, who may disregard the dictates of the central government.

But Fahim Dashti, editor of the Kabul Weekly, questioned the need for a commission to regulate journalists. Rather than investigating them, the commission should be defending their rights, he said.

The commission is to be chaired by the minister for information and culture and includes a representative from the Afghan Academy of Sciences, two members of the journalism faculty at Kabul University, two members of the state union of journalists, and one from the Afghan Human Rights Commission.

The law does not make clear who appoints the commission.

Among the most controversial provisions of the law are prohibitions against journalists writing articles that are critical of Islam or are insulting to public or private individuals.

Journalists complained that the law lacks specific definitions of what constitutes either an insult or a criticism of Islam, leaving both offences open to interpretation by the commission or religious authorities.

Nasrullah Stanikzai, a professor of law at Kabul University, said the establishment of a press commission creates a conflict with the duties assigned to state prosecutors, who are responsible for investigating crimes. Instead of immediately investigating suspected violations of the law as they are required to do, Stanikzai said, prosecutors must wait for the commission to make a ruling against a journalist before they can act.

Stanikzai agreed that the law should contain a definition of what constitutes an insult. Without it, prosecutors have no basis on which to conduct investigations, he said.

The new law does eliminate some of the restrictions included in earlier statutes. For example, criticism of the national army and the publication of photos of partially clothed women are no longer banned.

Hamed Almi, Karzai's deputy press secretary, said it was unlikely that the new law would be amended any time soon. He suggested that journalists unhappy with the statute bring their appeals to the new parliament, which is due to be elected in September.

Farida Nekzad is an IWPR editor and trainer in Kabul.