One year after the flight of the Taliban from Kabul, 150 publications are being sold on the streets of the city. Electronic media projects are springing up and dozens of journalists are taking advantage of the various forms of training established by international organisations.
The change is radical. After five years of Taliban domination, which had turned Afghanistan into "a country without news or pictures" (according to a Reporters Without Borders report in September 2000), the Afghan press today enjoys "unprecedented freedom," says editor Fahim Dashty of Kabul Weekly, the first privately-owned newspaper to reappear after the Taliban departure.
But this freedom has been achieved in the face of attempts to impose control on the part of the new government, which for the most part has its origins in the Northern Alliance. Furthermore, the situation of press freedom is still fraught in certain provinces such as Herat, where governors and warlords control almost all the news media and sometimes use force to muzzle journalists who criticise their power. The central government seems for the most part unable to stop these abuses, which have rarely been denounced by the United Nations.
Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières) sent a fact-finding mission to Afghanistan (Kabul and Jalalabad) from 24 to 29 October to look into the situation of press freedom there. This report assesses the first year of President Hamid Karzai’s administration.
With 150 publications just to itself, the Afghan capital is enjoying a "media springtime." But appearances are deceptive. Firstly, almost all of these publications are weeklies in the Dari language (the form of Persian spoken by Afghanistan’s second-largest ethnic group, the Tajiks). Kabul has only one privately-owned publication exclusively in Pashto, the language of the largest ethnic group. This is the magazine Kegdai, which focuses on Pashto culture. "Obviously, there is discrimination against the Pashtos," said Mohamad Ajmal, who works with IWPR, an NGO that trains journalists. "No one dares to start an exclusively Pashto-language newspaper giving a Pashto view of the situation."
Furthermore, the state owns at least 35 of these publication and almost all of the electronic news media. The central government maintains a predominant role in the Afghan news media and criticism of the authorities is rare. "All this is a hangover from the communist era," a UN diplomat said. "Most journalists practice journalism in a very Soviet fashion."
"This is the time for rebuilding the country and turning it into a democracy," said radio reporter and ACPC (journalists group) member Ekram Shinwari, adding that "the press does not level any severe criticism against the government or the warlords." His colleague Abdul Hai Warshan said, "There is no independent radio station or newspaper that dares tackle or investigate the actions of certain of the regime’s strongmen. Journalists are afraid of being accused of supporting the Taliban or Al Qaida." Alexandre Plichon of the media support organisation AINA said Afghanistan’s journalists were not yet ready to take big risks when it comes to criticism. "You won’t find any cartoons of strongmen such as Marshal Fahim, even in the satirical weekly Zanbil-e-Gham."
Nonetheless, press freedom has increased since May. Previously, during the first months of the interim government, the authorities did not hesitate to target independent publications. The information minister threatened the editors of Kabul publications at least five times. President Karzai’s staff demanded that an Afghan television journalist be sanctioned. The foreign minister turned down requests for accreditation from Afghan journalists who worked for foreign news media.
Following pressure from the United Nations, from local and international organisations and from certain embassies in Kabul, such direct attacks ended in May. The UN spokesperson in Kabul, Manoel de Almeida e Silva, was optimistic: "State censorship no longer exists in Kabul, but we still see tension between the reformist and conservative camps within the government. This has repercussions on press freedom." The same conflicts are also found within the newspapers themselves. For example, the weekly Payam-i-Mujahid, which has close links to Jamiat-e-Islami, an Islamist party in the coalition government, has a very conservative editorial line and published an insulting article about one of the women ministers in the government. Its editor, when director of Kabul TV, banned female singers from appearing on television. These conflicts have also affected the journalists union, which recently split into two distinct groups.
The Afghan state has also maintained departments that are pre-disposed to crack down on journalists. For example the secret services (known as the Amniat Millz, or National Security) have not disbanded a section that is tasked with surveillance of the news media.
A press law in need of reform
On 20 February, President Karzai’s (photo)government promulgated a press law largely based on a law dating from April 1965. It guarantees plurality of information, but contains articles that curtail press freedom, especially Title 7 concerning "forbidden publications." It is forbidden to publish information that "offend Islam" or "weaken Afghanistan’s army." Sanctions are defined in Title 9 and must follow the sharia (Islamic law). A publication can be suspended when the article on forbidden content is violated.
The authorities at first rejected the criticism coming from organisations that defend press freedom. But for the past six months, the information ministry has been committed to a process for amending the law. Deputy information minister Abdul Hamid Moubarez proposed a series of amendments to the justice minister following recommendations made by participants in an international seminar on press freedom in Kabul in September. Moubarez told a Reporters Without Borders representative on 26 October that he had, in particular, proposed decriminalising press offences and eliminating the requirement for publications to obtain prior authorisation. However, the seminar made other recommendations, which Reporters Without Borders supports. They included protecting journalists by law from strict application of the sharia, and the creation of a mechanism for the fair distribution of radio and TV frequencies.
The penal code must also be revised as soon as possible because, as a study by the media support organisation Internews recently pointed out, it contains no less than 37 articles that provide for punishing journalists with prison sentences in connection with their work.
State-owned media serving the government
"You just have to read the style of dispatches put out by the Bakhtar news agency, which are repeated word for word by the television and radio, to realise that these media continue to be propaganda tools for the government," said a journalist with an international radio station’s Pashto service. Television, radio and news agency certainly continue to be very dependent on the government, but the authorities have agreed to begin liberalising the electronic media. "We are not afraid of competition and it will help us to be more independent," state-owned television director Azizullah Aryafar told Reporters Without Borders.
Despite certain initial reticence, radio and television are open to programmes produced by NGOs or foreign stations. Thus, the news and entertainment programme Good Morning Afghanistan has been broadcast daily by the national radio station. "In eight months, we have never been censored," said Bent Norby of the Baltic Media Centre, which is responsible for this project. At the same time, he acknowledges being at the mercy of a government decision. "Our programme could be eliminated from one day to the next if it displeases the information ministry." Deputy information minister Moubarez, for his part, said he no intention of intervening in the content of programmes. "We are in the process of establishing a commission that will enable Afghan television and radio to become public media and not government media," he told Reporters Without Borders.
The deputy information minister nonetheless maintains direct control over many decisions concerning the state-owned media. Journalists who work for these media said he intervenes in the choice of reports carried by the Bakhtar news agency. In May, Khaleel Menawee, the agency’s deputy director, acknowledged that if "they refused to publish certain reports, they would risk losing their posts." Furthermore, in addition to his ministerial responsibilities, the minister heads the state radio and television reform commission and the commission for the granting of licenses. Nonetheless, UNESCO, the United Nations and certain development organisations have decided to provide a considerable amount of assistance to the public media. "It is necessary to build real public service media," UN spokesperson de Almeida e Silva said.
Because of the mediocre quality of the public radio programming, many Afghans listen to the dozen international stations that broadcast in Dari or Pashto. The BBC continues to be the radio station with the most listeners in Afghanistan. The BBC, Voice of America and Radio Free Afghanistan are all available on FM in Kabul. The national television competes with satellite and cable TV, which are developing.
Provincial media: the voice of the governors and commanders
"The provincial radio and television stations have been completely taken over by the governors," said Allan Geere of the press training organisation IWPR. "The content is very poor, just propaganda or local information. It’s really Radio Governor." The journalists are under the thumb of the local authorities and cannot imagine working in an independent fashion. Information and Culture Minister Makhdoom Raheen raised this issue at a meeting in Kabul in September with all the provincial governors. He told Reporters Without Borders: "I received very regular complaints from local journalists who had been threatened or forced to obey local authorities. I firmly asked the governors to have this intimidation stopped. Since then, I have received no more complaints."
In Faisabad, capital of the northeastern province of Badakshan, the local television and radio stations and the local newspaper are all housed in the same government building. "The governor has direct control over the content of reports and the journalists are not allowed to put out reports from abroad," said a foreign journalist who recently visited Badakshan. In a report published in November, Human Rights Watch said the local television station in the western city of Herat censored all reports and video footage, especially footage of unveiled women, contrary to Governor Ismael Khan’s (photo) instructions. An entertainment programme was taken off after its third edition because, according to one of its presenters, "young girls recited poems that were sometimes satirical."
The independent print media are hardly any better off. Takhassos, a weekly published in the large western city of Herat by the Choura association of professionals, has been the target of repeated intimidation by the authorities since its creation. For example in May, at the time of the elections of the Loya Jirga traditional assembly, editor Rafiq Shaheer was detained and mistreated by members of the governor’s Amniat (security services). Governor Khan denied that there have been any attacks or intimidation of the journalists who produce Takhassos, which published an article on the use of the taxes levied by the governor. Since then, the weekly has significantly modified its editorial line and criticism is now virtually absent.
Local journalist Hasan Zada said: "After the fall of the Taliban, the inhabitants of Herat expected the appearance of private independent publications that would express the people’s hopes and problems. But that has not happened yet." The control exercised by Governor Khan’s security services is the reason for this delay. The only publication that is really tolerated is the weekly Ittefaq-e-Islam which carries "Khan’s propaganda."
Since setting up in the Panshir valley north of Kabul, those in charge of Radio Solh (Radio Peace) have been the target of threats and intimidation from local commanders, especially Rasoul Sayef. One of the station’s directors, Zakia Zaki, a woman, was threatened with death at the time of the station’s installation in the city of Jebel-e-Sharat. Since then, the station’s women reporters have been unable to work freely in the city. The local chiefs of Jamiat-e-Islami (a member of the Northern Alliance) have forbidden them to interview other women in the street.
Journalists in the eastern city of Jalalabad told Reporters Without Borders they got threats from mujahideen commanders. "Here we don’t have the press freedom President Karzai talks about in Kabul," said Muhammad Zubair, head of programming at the Jalalabad TV and radio station. At Mazar-i-Sharif, where there local warlords confront one another, at least 22 privately-owned publications have already been launched. But at Kandahar, privately-owned publications are rare.
Surveillance of Afghan journalists working for the international press
Foreign journalists, eight of whom were killed during the last armed conflict, are no longer harassed as they were under Mullah Omar. Only the threats of armed groups, especially the Taliban, still pose a risk to the international press. A Canadian journalist was seriously injured in March by Taliban fire in the south, and anonymous leaflets have circulated in eastern Afghanistan calling for the abduction of "foreign reporters."
But the government still keeps a close watch on Afghan or Pakistani journalists working for the foreign media. In the weeks following the liberation of Kabul, Pakistanis recruited as drivers or fixers by foreign journalists were questioned and told to leave Afghanistan under threat of reprisals. The foreign ministry also opposed the presence in Kabul of correspondents of newspapers published in Pakistan. Danesh Karokhel, for example, was refused authorisation to be the permanent correspondent in Kabul for the Peshawar-based Pashto-language daily Wahadat. He told Reporters Without Borders: "Before November 2001, I regularly sent articles to this newspaper. In January, I requested a new authorisation from the foreign minister. I had supporting letters from members of President Karzai’s cabinet. But the person in charge of the media department at the foreign ministry told me the minister did not want any Wahadat correspondent in Kabul." After being repeatedly censored, Wahadat is again available in certain newspaper kiosks in Kabul.
At the time of the Loya Jirga in May, Reuters correspondent Sayed Salahuddin reported that Marshal Fahim, the defence minister, had threatened the husband of the only woman candidate for president. The next day, a member of Fahim’s staff came and gave the journalist a warning. "Nothing happened to me, but at the time I was afraid of what might follow the threats," Salahuddin told Reporters Without Borders. In the weeks following the Loya Jirga, he was summoned by foreign ministry officials and criticised for his "biased coverage" of the Loya Jirga and the situation in Afghanistan. And the ministry’s spokesman refused to speak to him for nearly two months.
Gul Rahim Naaymand, a stringer with the Voice of America’s Pashto service in the northern city of Kunduz, was detained for a day by the military on 23 July. Officers took all his tape recordings in order to listen to them. He was released after Voice of America staff in Kabul intervened.
Sazed Kahim Shendandwal, the Voice of America Pashto service’s stringer in Herat, found that his request to renew his authorisation to work in the province was turned down by Governor Khan’s administration at the end of August. He lost his job as a result. The reason given by the local authorities was that he "is not known in the city." Herat-based stringers for the local language services of the BBC and Radio Free Afghanistan have also been subject to pressure from the local authorities, who have threatened not to renew their permits if their reports are overly critical.
"The list of taboo and sensitive subjects is long. Journalists are moving forward step by step," said Eric Davin, director of the AINA media centre in Kabul. Islam, ethnic tension, the crimes of the warlords, national unity and the figure of Shah Massoud are all subjects that journalists approach with the utmost caution. In mid-September, the Kabul public prosecutor closed the weekly Nawa-i-Abadi for having allegedly "insulted Islam." The newspaper had translated and published Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s recent comments on Islam’s supposed inferiority. Babrak Miankhel, a stringer in Jalalabad for the Pashto service of the BBC, said he felt in danger every time he did a story about the activities of the mujahideen chiefs. "I have to always remember that the people I’m talking about mustn’t feel they’re being attacked. If they do, it’s big trouble for me," he told Reporters Without Borders.
The authorities have also penalized journalists who have broached embarrassing topics. In April, President Karzai’s staff asked the information minister to sanction state-owned television journalist Kabir Omarzai after he asked the president about the border problem between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Omarzai was removed from his post at the television station only to be reinstated after protests by Afghan journalists and international organisations. At that time Information Minister Raheen had told Omarzai that press freedom did not apply to him and that journalists "should not ask this kind of question."
Information ministry officials also went to the offices of Kabul Weekly to ask why it had published an article about this incident and, subsequently, the text of the letter which Reporters Without Borders sent to the information minister on the same subject. Kabul Weekly received a second warning in April after publishing an article on General Rashid Dostom’s federalist views. Dashty (photo), the newspaper’s editor said: "We have received no summons or threat since May. Our only problems now are technical and financial ones."
In early October 2002, an Afghan cameraman known as Najib was kidnapped, beaten and left for dead in Mazar-i-Sharif, after he had helped a British reporter, Jamie Doran, make a documentary called "Massacre in Mazar" about the death of thousands of Taliban soldiers at the hands of Gen. Dostom and US forces. The cameraman was hidden by friends and then he and his family sent to live in England.
Doran said Dostom’s men had gone about systematically eliminating anyone who had witnessed the massacres. "I’ve just learned that two such people were killed by them and that others are in danger. This is what happens when you investigate the doings of warlords and their American patrons," he told Reporters Without Borders.
A group of foreign journalists including Barry Neild, an English-speaking Agence France-Presse correspondent, went to Mazar-i-Sharif in early October to investigate Taliban mass graves discovered in the region by a Newsweek reporter. A foreign ministry official in Mazar-i-Sharif told them that the person in charge of issuing authorisations for journalists had left for several days, so he could not give them one. He warned them that if they went to the region where the mass graves were located, they would be doing so at their own risk and attacks could not be ruled out. The reporters viewed this as a threat, and returned to Kabul.
The US military, deployed in most of the country, have on several occasions kept journalists at a distance from certain operational zones or from their "mistakes." At least six reporters have been struck by US soldiers or their Afghan auxiliaries since November 2001, especially in the Tora Bora zone. A Pakistani journalist was detained for four days by US soldiers when he was investigating the presence of troops along the border with Pakistan for the daily The Nation. In May, US and Afghan soldiers seized a radio transmitter in the eastern province of Khost that was broadcasting reports hostile to the central government.
US army authorities have also tried to prevent journalists investigating the death of more than 50 Afghans in the bombing of a marriage in southern Afghanistan. Television crews, especially Associated Press Television News, were denied access to the zone until 4 July so that no reports could be put out during the US independence day festivities. According to the Kabul correspondent of the British daily The Times, former journalists are working in Afghanistan alongside the armed forces to orient media coverage, especially reporting of "collateral damage." Finally, the US government has never responded to the accusations made by several organisation, including Reporters Without Borders, about the deliberate bombing of the Kabul installations of the Arabic-language satellite TV station Al Jazeera in November 2001. Several journalists in Kabul at the time claimed that the strikes deliberately targeted the Qatar-based station’s technical installations in the Afghan capital.
Enquiry into the November 2001 murder of four journalists - manipulation and incompetence
On 9 February, an interior ministry official announced the arrest of two suspects in the murder of reporters Maria Grazia Cutuli, Julio Fuentes, Harry Burton and Azizullah Haidari on the road between Jalalabad and Kabul on 19 November 2001. In March, Defence Minister Fahim told his counterpart from Italy (Cutuli’s country of origin) that suspects had been identified. Despite these two statements, and despite repeated requests from Reuters (which employed two of the victims) the authorities have never revealed the identity of the suspects or the evidence against them. The Reuters correspondent in Kabul said, "they told us in March that it was necessary to wait for the results of the investigation." However, in August, secret service officials told Reuters that they had identified someone who could facilitate the arrests of the suspects, but "the agency would have to pay."
Reporters Without Borders obtained information that tends to confirm that the secret services arrested a mujahideen commander from Sarobi province, Mohammed Tahir, in July. During interrogation, he reportedly claimed to have "bought personal effects of the four journalists in order to be able to identify the perpetrators of the murders." Tahir maintains his innocence, although he was reportedly denounced to the secret services. Since July, Reporters Without Borders has obtained no confirmation that Tahir is still being held nor any confirmation as to the arrest of other suspects.
One year after the defeat of the Taliban and the installation of President Karzai’s government, most of the people questioned by Reporters Without Borders in Afghanistan gave a "positive" assessment of the situation of press freedom.
There is no shortage of initiatives designed to consolidate independence and pluralism in the news media. Independent radio stations are expected to spread quickly throughout the country. Women’s publications, such as Seerat, Malalai and Roz, are developing. The media centre established by AINA is a model that should be repeated in the provinces. The creation of a national distribution network by the Afghan humanitarian organisation DHAC is another encouraging sign. Khilid, a weekly published by DHAC, and eight other publications are already available in 28 of the country’s 31 provinces. One of Khilid’s editors said it is being published "not to upset but to inform as many as possible." With a print run of more than 17,000 of which close to 90 per cent are sold, Khilid is one of the finest successes of the Afghan press.
Reporters Without Borders asks the Afghan government to accelerate the reform of the press law, so as to make it compatible with the international instruments that protect freedom of expression, especially the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The organisation also calls for a political will to promote press pluralism throughout the country. Press freedom must be respected in all parts of Afghanistan.
The organisation asks the interior and defence ministries to provide detailed information about the state of the investigation into the murder of the four journalists in November 2001, and it deplores certain quasi-announcements by authorities that were followed by no concrete progress.
Finally, Reporters Without Borders calls on the international community, in particular the United Nations and its mission in Afghanistan, to reinforce its assistance to the private news media, especially in the provinces. The organisation believes that assistance for the state-owned news media should be conditioned on the defence of greater pluralism in information.