Area: 652,090 sq.km.
Languages: Pashto, Dari, Uzbek
Chairman of the Interim Authority: Hamid Karzai
The adoption of a new constitution and the first election of a president by universal suffrage were 2004’s key developments. The constitution guarantees press freedom but within limits imposed by Islamic law. The polling took place in a climate of relatively free expression but the state media were for most part enlisted in support of Hamid Karzai’s presidential candidacy.
Afghanistan adopted a new press law in March 2004. While giving the media a relatively liberal framework in which to develop it also lets the political authorities maintain a degree of control over the press. New newspapers and printers, for example, must get a licence from the information ministry. The commissions in charge of regulating the print and broadcasting media are under the government’s thumb. And foreign investment in the media is strictly limited.
The government and the UN mission in Afghanistan praised this "historic step for the Afghan press" but many journalists voiced disappointment. "Why is the commission that evaluates the media run by the government," asked Shukria Dawi Barekzai of the weekly Aina Zan. An editorial in the Kabul Weekly said the new law would do nothing to improve the lot of Afghan journalists.
While the new press law says everyone has the right to disseminate information without prior permission, article 31 bans the publication of news which is contrary to Islam and other religions or dishonours or defames persons. Article 34 of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’s new constitution also says the right to inform is guaranteed.
The commission that evaluates the press is chaired by the information minister and includes no representatives of news media owners or independent journalists. Article 2 of the press law empowers it to censor news media.
In a report analysing the press law in detail, the press freedom group Article 19 criticised the lack of consultation prior to the law’s approval and called for 10 of its provisions to be rescinded, including article 30, which forces editors to grant someone who is criticised a right of reply with as much space as the original criticism.
Under threat from warlords and conservatives
It is very hard for journalists to work in areas where the Taliban and the most aggressive warlords hold sway, especially in the south and southeast. "Threats from gunmen are an everyday event," said the BBC World Service’s stringer in the south.
The United Nations said in July that "all regions of Afghanistan suffer from the self-censorship syndrome" and that the "media remain under the strict control of the local authorities." Because of delays in the programme for disarming private militia, there was no reduction in the risk for government opponents, women and journalists before the presidential election in October.
Conservative clerics, whether supporters or opponents of the government in Kabul, continued to be the chief enemies of the independent press. Clerics in Herat demanded the expulsion of foreign correspondents in March, accusing them of "plotting." The authorities in the eastern city of Jalalabad banned women on television in April.
But the main resistence to the emergence of diversity in the news media came from the supreme court, a conservative stronghold. Its judges waged a campaign against cable TV during Ramadan in November. The court’s president, Fazl Hadi Shinwari, ordered the closure of 10 cable operators on 10 November.
Under pressure, information minister Sayeed Makhdoom Raheen intervened with the managers of state and privately-owned TV stations to get them to stop broadcasting programmes deemed "Islamically incorrect," above all Indian and western films. The authorities said the cable TV station were broadcasting programmes showing unveiled women with behaviour that was shocking for Afghans.
President’s Karzai’s cabinet went on to ban cable television altogether and threatened to withdraw the licences from only privately-owned broadcast TV station, Tolo TV, if it was established that it was broadcasting programmes contrary to Islam and Afghan culture. Karzai agreed to set up a commission that would evaluate TV programming and give operating permission to those that did not broadcast "anti-Islamic and immoral films and songs." The commission issued its decision on 20 November: cable operators were allowed to resume operating subject to increased control of content.
Observers claimed the temporary ban was not just linked to Indian and western programmes, but also to critical political commentaries during the presidential election. The state-owned media, especially Radio Television Afghanistan, mobilized in support of Karzai’s presidential candidacy. According to figures quoted by the BBC, 75 per cent of the political news reports broadcast by the state-owned radio and television during the presidential campaign were about Karzai.
As nearly 65 per cent of the population is illiterate, a strategic role is played by television and radio, which receive considerable support from international organisations. There are now at least 45 FM radio stations in Afghanistan. The print media, on the other hand, have been undermined by recurring financial problems. Abdul Sami Ahmed, the editor of an independent monthly in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, deplored the fact that most newspapers are financially dependent on one of the three main factions: the former mujahideen, the king’s supporters or those backing Karzai.
Sentenced to death for the murder of four journalists
Reza Khan, was sentenced to death by a national security court on 20 November for his role in the murder of four journalists on 19 November 2001, a few days after the fall of the Taliban regime. Khan had made contradictory confessions. He at first admitted to killing "the oldest of the four journalists," Spanish reporter Julio Fuentes of El Mundo. He later said he had shot Afghan photographer Azizullah Haidari of the news agency Reuters.
The four journalists had been stopped by a group of about 10 men while travelling on the road from the eastern city of Jalalabad to Kabul. Khan said he had acted on the orders of two local warlords, Mohammad Agha and Mahmood Zar Jan, who were never detained. Jan was linked to the Taliban.
Observers said the trial failed to determine whether or not the murders were politically motivated. In an interview broadcast by the state TV station, Khan said the gang he belonged to had attacked the journalists with the aim of robbing them.
The good news in 2004 was the ousting of warlord Ismael Khan as governor of the western province of Herat. Known for his hostility to the independent media, he had imposed a climate of fear and strict control over the local media. One of the first measures of his successor, Sayed Mohammed Khair Khuwa, was to restore national TV programming in the province’s network. "Today, journalists have the right to criticise officials," a Herat journalist told Agence France-Presse, but only on condition of anonymity. Like this source, many of Herat’s journalists still fear the situation could change again.
1 journalist was kidnapped
6 were physically attacked
and 9 were threatened