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Afghanistan 10 April 2003

Radio Free Afghanistan journalist flees Herat

Ahmad Behzad, correspondent in Herat for Radio Free Afghanistan, fled the northwestern city on 7 April, three days after the Herat provincial governor, warlord Ismael Khan, told a meeting of the Islamic Council for Solidarity with the Afghan Peoples that journalists working for Western radio stations were trying to destabilise the country and that the money they got for their work "will go towards their burial shrouds." Abdol Hadi Ghaffari, of the Iranian radio station Iran Broadcasting (IRIB)’s Dari-language service, was sacked for taking part in a journalists’ strike in Herat. He had told a Kabul newspaper he stopped work in solidarity with the local journalists.


The official news agency Bakhtar carried an interview with Herat governor Ismael Khan in which he said he would like to see the return of the journalists who went to Kabul to protest the expulsion of one of their colleagues. "Herat is the home of all Afghans... this incident is a misunderstanding," the governor said. The journalists have reportedly decided to return to Herat on 2 April.


Radio Free Afghanistan journalist attacked and expelled from Herat

Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières) said today it was very concerned about a wave of repression aimed at the independent media in the Herat region of Afghanistan and called on provincial governor Ismael Khan to stop abuses of authority and violence against journalists there.

The Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent in Herat, Ahmed Shah Behzad, was expelled from the western Afghan city by Governor Khan on 24 March, a few days after local security forces had physically attacked him. Most of the city’s journalists have gone on strike to protest against repeated attacks on press freedom in the province.

"It is a pity that Herat now has curbs on free expression similar to those during the rule of the Taliban," the organisation said in a letter to Khan, urging him to allow Behzad to return to the city as soon as possible. Radio Free Afghanistan is a branch of the US-government funded Radio Free Europe. Behzad was told by local security chief Nasim Alawi on 24 March to leave the province the next day and was banned from living there. About a dozen correspondents for international radio stations, including Massod Hasanzada (Voice of America) and Mohammad Qazizada (BBC), then stopped work in protest and went to Kabul to tell the authorities about the harassment they were being subjected to. Several local publications, including the weekly Takasus and the monthly Shugufa, also joined the protest movement, which called on President Hamid Karzai to intervene to protect freedom of the media in Herat.

The Herat-born Behzad was physically attacked on 19 March while covering the opening of the Herat office of the independent Afghan Human Rights Commission. Governor Khan did not like the questions Bezhad was putting to officials at the event, especially interior minister Ali Ahmad Jalali, and insulted the journalist and ordered him out of the building.

Outside, he was hit in the face by security chief Alawi and then beaten up by Khan’s henchmen. He was taken to a police station for interrogation and finally released six hours later after Jalali (a former head of Voice of America’s Pashto-language service) intervened.

Two days later, Khan criticised media coverage of human rights in Herat and said the province’s journalists were like those who had backed the Soviet occupiers. He warned them that "they will meet the same end."

Pressure on the media in Herat has increased in recent months. The authorities shut down the privately-owned Mutbai Aslami printing works in February, preventing the appearance of several independent publications. On 1 March, a religious decree banned the broadcast in public places of satellite TV programmes and foreign films on grounds they might encourage immorality and advocate things that were taboo. The sale and advertising of foreign films and posters about them was also banned.

Reporters Without Borders said last November in a report "Press freedom a year after the fall of the Taliban" that the situation was "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."

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