Kabul Weekly went on sale again at news-stands in the capital on 24 January 2002 after a gap of more than five years. It was the first independent news weekly to appear since the fall of the Taliban in November 2001 and was followed by more than 120 other privately-owned publications.
The war and Taliban rule brought the media to its knees, leaving printing plants and distribution networks destroyed, communications infrastructure in ruins, journalists ill-trained and primitive radio and TV programmes. But in 2002, the media was reborn and Afghans could again read news weeklies, women’s magazines, satirical publications and political newspapers. After five years during which the Taliban had turned Afghanistan into "a country without news or pictures" (as a Reporters Without Borders survey in September 2000 called it), the national TV station resumed broadcasting and the radio began to play music again.
The Afghan media now has "unprecedented freedom," says Kabul Weekly publisher Fahim Dashty, but it was hard-won in the face of efforts to control it by the new government dominated by the Northern Alliance. Press freedom was often violated in some provinces, especially Herat, where local governors and warlords controlled virtually all the media and tried to silence, sometimes by force, journalists who criticised them. This was well beyond the control of the central government and the United Nations and they very rarely condemned the situation
In a country where most people are illiterate, the written press is not very important and television is very expensive, so radio is the key source of news. Foreign radio stations, led by the Pashto and Dari language services of the BBC, increased their air-time and broadcasting power during the year. A BBC survey before the US air attacks on the country in 2001 showed that 72 per cent of Pashtuns and 62 per cent of Persian speakers listened to the BBC every day. Its main competitors were Radio Free Afghanistan, Voice of America, RFI and Deutsche Welle.
The central government, whose writ is mostly confined to the Kabul region, controls the main media - at least 35 publications and virtually all broadcasting - and uses them to publicise its policies. Government media contain very little criticism of the authorities. "You just have to read the items put out by the official Bakhtar news agency, which are then broadcast word-for-word by TV and radio stations, to realise how much these media are vehicles of government propaganda," says a journalist in the Pashto service of a foreign radio station.
The government has kept in place structures that can be used to gag journalists. The seventh division of the intelligence service (Amniat), which monitors the media, still operates, even though President Hamid Karzai has often said he supports press freedom and good-quality public media.
The year saw a sharp improvement in press freedom in Kabul, but there was very little in the provinces. Efforts were being made with the help of the international community, but they risked clashing with the interests of local potentates.
New information on journalists killed before 2002
An interior ministry official announced on 9 February 2002 the arrest of two suspects in the killing on 19 November the previous year of reporters Maria Grazia Cutuli, Julio Fuentes, Harry Burton and Azizullah Haidari on the road between Jalalabad and Kabul. In March, defence minister Marshal Mohammed Fahim told his Italian counterpart (Cutuli was Italian) that suspects had been identified. Despite these statements and repeated requests by Reuters news agency, for which two of the victims worked, the authorities did not give the names of the suspects or explain the evidence against them. "They told us in March to wait for the results of the investigation," said the Reuters correspondent in Kabul.
In August however, intelligence officials told the agency they had identified someone who could help them arrest suspects but that Reuters would have to pay money first. Reporters Without Borders received apparent confirmation that intelligence agents had arrested a mujahideen commander in July in Sarobi province called Mohammed Tahir, who had the belongings of the four journalists. He claimed he had bought them "so as to find out who committed the crime," but one of his associates reportedly told police about him. Reporters Without Borders has had no confirmation that Tahir or any other suspects have been arrested and detained.
Three journalists imprisoned
Rafiq Shaheer, editor of the weekly Takhassos, published by the shura (association of professionals) in the western city of Herat, was arrested on 27 May 2002 and roughed up by the local governor’s intelligence service (Amniat) during elections for the Loya Jirga tribal assembly. Police took him in the middle of the night to a cemetery outside the prison for a mock execution. He was freed after two days. Governor Ismael Khan denied there had been attacks and pressure on the staff of the weekly, which had been greatly harassed by the authorities since it was founded. It had printed an article about the use of taxes collected by the governor. After Shaheer’s arrest, the weekly changed its editorial line and rarely criticised the authorities.
Hayatullah Khan, correspondent of the Pakistani daily The Nation in Mir Ali, in the tribal area of northern Waziristan, was arrested and handcuffed by US soldiers in Paktia province on 3 July when he asked if he could talk to officers at a US training camp in this frontier region between Pakistan and Afghanistan. He was put in a dirty cell two metres square, not allowed water and interrogated while handcuffed and blindfolded by US and British officers who accused him of giving information to terrorist organisations, including Al-Qaeda.
They cited the fact that his address book contained phone numbers of Afghan and Pakistani religious leaders. Khan explained they were contacts he needed to do his job as a journalist in the region. "I denied their accusations and repeatedly said I was a working journalist," he told Reporters Without Borders. During his interrogation, American soldiers told him he should "prepare to die." After colleagues and the Reporters Without Borders correspondent in Pakistan, Iqbal Khattak, approached US diplomats in Peshawar, his status as a journalist was confirmed to his captors and he was freed on 7 July. But when he crossed the Pakistani border, he was detained for several hours by Pakistani paramilitary forces who accused him of giving the Americans information about Pakistani troop movements.
Abdul Ghafur Aiteqad, publisher of the privately-owned weekly Farda (Tomorrow), was arrested at his Kabul office on 19 December after printing a cartoon on 15 December showing President Karzai playing a harmonium and singing "Reconstruction! Reconstruction!" before a group of Westerners who were dancing and brandishing dollar bills. The UN representative in Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, was shown at the microphone saying: "Soon we’ll have another World Bank money-borrowing ceremony - but with interest to pay." His arrest was reportedly ordered by defence minister Marshal Mohammed Fahim. Aiteqad, who was freed on 23 December when President Karzai returned to Kabul, was kept for four days in a small cell with eight common law prisoners.
Four journalists arrested
During the second round of elections to the Loya Jirga tribal assembly in May 2002, henchmen of Herat governor Ismael Khan seized a reporter who had come from Kabul to cover the event locally. The journalist, who did not want his name used, told Human Rights Watch that the men said they were intelligence agents. "I showed them my press card but they said they would have to check. They drove me to see one of their leaders, who accused me of interviewing bad people and advised me to confine my reporting to how the city was being rebuilt. Then they locked me in an empty room for five hours. After the elections were over, they let me out."
Gul Rahim Naaymand, a stringer for the Pashto service of Voice of America in the northern city of Kunduz, was arrested on 23 July and detained for a day by soldiers who took away all his tape-recordings to listen to them. After the intervention of officials of the radio station in Kabul, he was released.
Sayed Hashmatolla Moslih, an Australian cameraman with the pan-Arab TV station Al-Jazeera, and Wali Shaeen, the station’s correspondent à Kabul, were roughly arrested on 19 December by German soldiers of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) while reporting on suicide grenade attack on the ISAF’s Camp Warehouse in Kabul. A driver with the media aid organisation AINA was killed in the attack and two journalists wounded. The TV crew were detained, interrogated and manhandled at the camp for more than six hours by troops who accused them of being linked with the attackers and supporting Al-Qaeda.
Journalists physically attacked
In the weeks after the fall of the Taliban regime, many foreign journalists were physically attacked by civilians while filming or interviewing Afghan women. A group of boys threw stones at Agence France-Presse (AFP) journalist Jean-Luc Porte and an AFP photographer on 15 January 2002 as they were interviewing girls in a street in the capital. Stones were also thrown at a crew from the French TV station France 2 as they were filming women in the street.
Kathleen Kenna, southern Asia correspondent of the Canadian daily the Toronto Star, was wounded in the leg by a grenade on 4 March in an ambush between the eastern towns of Zurmat and Gardez while driving with her husband and a photographer, Bernie Weil. They said a man threw something at the car while others attacked it from the opposite side. Kenna was taken to hospital in Gardez, and then to a US base in Uzbekistan, to Turkey, Germany and finally back to Canada.
Ebadullah Ebadi, a translator and assistant to Boston Globe reporter Indira Lakshmanan, was attacked on 10 April by armed men in the Sarobi region, east of Kabul. When the journalists approached a 10-vehicle convoy of US troops and Afghan soldiers loyal to Jalalabad warlord Hazrat Ali, some of the Afghans stopped them. When they asked for an interview, the Americans made a sign to one of the Afghans, who rushed towards the journalists. He released the safety catch of his rifle while others kicked and beat Ebadi with their rifle butts as the American soldiers watched. One of the US Special Forces officers then approached told the two and said "soldiers don’t like being interviewed." He refused to say anything about the attack on Ebadi. An Afghan commander apologised however and said Ebadi was free to punish the soldier who attacked him. He refused.
In early October, Afghan cameraman Najibullah Quraishi was kidnapped, beaten and left for dead by thugs in the city of 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. Rashid Dostom and US forces. The cameraman was hidden by friends and then he and his family were sent to live in Britain.
Doran said Dostom’s men had gone about systematically killing anyone who had seen the massacre. The attack on Quraishi was an example of "what happens when you investigate the doings of warlords and their American patrons," he told Reporters Without Borders in November. A few days later, a UN mission confirmed that witnesses to the killings had been arrested and tortured by henchmen of Gen. Dostom, who denied any knowledge of this.
In early 2002, Amrullah Umeed, publisher of the official daily Nangarhar, in the eastern city of Jalalabad, was threatened with reprisals by provincial warlords for writing an article attacking the warlord system. "They don’t like to be criticised and now I’m wary of them," he told Reporters Without Borders. By October, there were still no independent publications in the region and the inhabitants read papers from Pakistan such as Wahadat.
US soldiers aimed their rifles at Washington Post journalist Doug Struck on 11 February when he tried to approach the site of a US missile attack near the eastern city of Khost, where civilians had been taken for members of Al-Qaeda. The soldiers threatened to shoot him if he came any closer. The next day, the commander of the US base at Kandahar airport denied this had happened, but a few days later, a Pentagon spokesman said the soldiers had been right to keep Struck away from the site.
A spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Capt. Graham Dunlop, warned on 6 March that foreign journalists were in great danger of being kidnapped, especially in Kabul, and that they and all Western civilians should be "very careful."
The vehicle of Olivier Weber, a reporter for the French weekly magazine Le Point, was flagged down by a small group of attackers on the road between Jalalabad and Kabul on 18 March. The driver managed to escape the ambush and he and the journalist were unharmed. Weber said he had been threatened while he was in Kabul.
Sayed Salahuddin, the Reuters correspondent in Kabul, reported in May that during a meeting of the Loya Jirga, defence minister Marshal Mohammed Fahim had threatened the husband of the sole candidate for the post of president. The next day, someone from Fahim’s office came to warn the journalist. "Nothing happened then, but I fear the consequences of these threats," the journalist told Reporters Without Borders. In subsequent weeks, he was summoned by foreign ministry officials and accused of "biased reporting" of the Loya Jirga and of events in the country. For nearly two months, the ministry spokesman refused to talk to him.
In early July, a journalist based in Herat was summoned by the Amniat intelligence police. He told Human Rights Watch (asking for his name not to be used) that he was threatened with reprisals if he continued to send "false reports" to Kabul. "If you want to have good relations with us, don’t write such things," he was told.
In early September, the Al-Qaeda network distributed leaflets in the eastern province of Khost offering rewards of 100,000 euros for the capture of foreigners, including soldiers, aid workers and journalists.
Pressure and obstruction
The foreign ministry refused in January 2002 to renew the work permit of Danesh Karokhel, correspondent in Kabul of the Pashto-language Peshawar daily Wahadat. "Until November 2001 [when the Taliban fell], I wrote regularly for the paper," he told Reporters Without Borders. "I presented letters of recommendation from aides of President Hamid Karzai, but the foreign ministry’s media department told me the minister did not want a reporter for Wahadat in Kabul." Though repeatedly censored, Wahadat can be bought at some Kabul news-stands.
At the beginning of the year, a light entertainment programme on Herat’s only TV station was banned after three shows because, according to one of its producers, the girls that appeared on it, had "sometimes recited satirical poems." The station censors all news and film that contravenes governor Ismael Khan’s policies, especially about non-veiled women.
The government enacted a press law on 20 February largely based on the previous one of April 1965. It guaranteed news diversity, but included questionable clauses, as in chapter 7 (about banning publications) where news that "offends Islam" or "weakens the Afghan army" is banned. Penalties, listed in chapter 8, are to be meted out in accordance with the Islamic sharia laws.
However, a publication can be banned if it prints "forbidden material." Only Afghan citizens can print publications (articles 4 and 11). Publishers of privately-owned media must also get government permission. The authorities retain control (article 40) of distribution of foreign publications, which must also get authorisation from the foreign ministry. But the law provides for more diverse broadcasting.
The authorities at first rejected criticism from press freedom organisations. Until May, the information ministry was involved in reforming the law. After recommendations made in September by an international conference in Kabul on press freedom, deputy information minister Abdul Hamid Mubarez proposed amendments to the justice minister.
Mubarez told Reporters Without Borders on 26 October that he had suggested dropping the requirement for prior permission to publish and that press offences no longer be considered crimes. The conference also asked that journalists be legally exempted from strict application of the sharia laws and for a fair process to be set up to assign broadcasting frequencies.
Between February and March, the weekly Payam-e-Milat (The National Message) got three warnings from the information ministry about "unsuitable" articles. The paper, whose launch was backed by the international media aid group AINA, bills itself as an investigative weekly.
Staff of Radio Solh (Radio Peace) were threatened and harassed throughout the year by local mujahideen commanders, especially Rasul Sayef, around Jebel-e-Sharat, north of Kabul. The station’s women journalists were not able to work freely in the town. Local leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami (part of the Northern Alliance) banned them, for example, from interviewing other women in the street. Police confiscated tape-recordings from one of the station’s journalists, Mohamad Yonus Mehrin, during a demonstration by women in front of the women’s affairs ministry in Kabul in June. He was also threatened after interviewing the protesters.
In April, President Karzai’s office asked the information minister to punish a journalist with the state TV station, Kabir Omarzai, who had asked the president a question about an Afghan-Pakistani border dispute at a joint press conference with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. The journalist was dismissed but after protests by local journalists and international organisations, he got his job back. Information minister Raheen told him that press freedom did not extend to him and that journalists "must not ask this kind of question."
A few days later, ministry officials went to the offices of Kabul Weekly and demanded an explanation for its publication of an article and a letter from Reporters Without Borders to the minister about the incident.
The paper was warned again that month after it printed an article on 25 April about the federalist ideas of Gen. Rashid Dostom. In the absence of publisher Fahim Dashty, his deputy, Breshna Nazari, was reprimanded by deputy minister Mubarez, who threatened to close down the paper if it persisted in printing such articles. Journalists had "the right to express their ideas in print," he said, "but not where the unity, security and independence of Afghanistan was concerned. We cannot tolerate that." Dashty said at the end of the year that the paper had not had a summons or threat since May and that the paper’s only problems were technical and financial.
In May, US and Afghan soldiers seized the transmitter of a radio station in the eastern province of Khost belonging to warlord Kamal Khan, who was fighting the officially-appointed governor for control of Paktia province. The authorities in Kabul said it was putting out anti-government news. The transmitter was near Khost airport, which was controlled by the US army.
The Hong Kong daily the South China Morning Post reported that German soldiers of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) destroyed the film of three photographers who witnessed an incident on 12 June between the soldiers and troops of the Northern Alliance. The Afghans, armed with AK-47 rifles, had tried to pass through a checkpoint near the main entrance to the Loya Jirga assembly. The German foreign ministry denied German soldiers had destroyed or seized any film.
On 3 July, President Karzai dismissed the head of the state radio and TV station, Abdul Hafiz Mansoor, after he had refused at least twice to resign. Information and culture minister Raheen said complaints about poor-quality programmes were behind the move. The conservative Islamist Mansoor, a member of the Northern Alliance, was briefly information minister after the fall of the Taliban regime. The real reason was thought to be his refusal to broadcast programmes in which women sang. He was supported by the Islamist-controlled judiciary. His successor was named on 4 July as Mohammed Isaq, also of the Northern Alliance.
In July, US military officials barred journalists from a southern village where about 50 Afghans had been killed when US planes bombed a wedding celebration. TV crews, including Associated Press Television News, were prevented from covering the incident until 4 July so their reports would not be broadcast during US Independence Day celebrations.
An information and culture ministry official in Herat told the media in July that the local governor had refused to authorise the launching of any independent newspapers, saying he was not aware of the details of the new press law enacted in Kabul.
A group of Afghan journalists was stopped by henchmen of Herat governor Ismael Khan in August from covering clashes between the governor’s forces and Pashto tribesmen in the western region of Ghorian. One journalist told Human Rights Watch that the soldiers had threatened to arrest them or expel them from the city if "negative" articles were printed about the governor.
Officials in Herat refused in August to renew permission for Sazed Kahim Shendandwal, local correspondent of the Pashto service of the Voice of America, to work in the province and he lost his job. The officials said he was "not known in the city." Stringers in Herat for the local language services of the BBC and Radio Free Afghanistan were harassed by the authorities, who threatened not to renew their work permits if their reporting was too critical.
The supreme court endorsed on 31 August a decision by the state radio and TV to ban Indian films and women singing because of their supposedly over-explicit nature, despite the opposition of President Karzai and his information minister. The vice-president of the court, Fazl Ahmad Manawi, said the media in other countries of the region should ban them too. He said the court’s theological advisers should be consulted about media programmes throughout the country, including Kandahar and Mazar-i-Sharif, where scenes of women singing were being shown.
Information and culture minister Makhdoom Raheen called in September for an end to the harassment of journalists in the provinces at a meeting in Kabul with all provincial governors. He told Reporters Without Borders that he regularly got complaints from local journalists who were threatened or forced to obey local authorities. "I asked the governors to put a end to this and since then, I have had no complaints," he said.
In mid-September, the Kabul prosecutor suspended the privately-owned weekly Nawa-i-Abadi for "insulting Islam." It had reported the remarks of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi about Islam being "inferior."
In early October, a group of foreign journalists, including Agence France-Presse reporter Barry Neild, cut short a visit to Mazar-i-Sharif to investigate mass graves of Taliban fighters discovered there by a reporter from Newsweek magazine, after a foreign ministry official in the city warned them they would be going to the graves area "at their own risk" and that attacks on them could not be ruled out. He said the official empowered to give them permits to do this was absent.
The supreme court, controlled by conservatives close to the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party, ordered the authorities in the eastern city of Jalalabad on 18 December to stop the local Afghan Cable TV company from relaying foreign stations, especially Indian ones, which it said broadcast programmes that were "contrary to Afghan customs." Nangarhar provincial officials, notably police chief Ajab Shah, closed down the cable operation the next day.
Anonymous leaflets had circulated in the city for several weeks calling for the company to be shut down. Its director, Muhammad Humayan, told a Reporters Without Borders representative in October that the firm had already connected 600 households in the city after getting permission to operate. But he said he exercised self-censorship by not relaying stations with vulgar or obscene material.