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Afghan journalists living with fear

KABUL -- As a cameraman in the Afghan parliament, Omid Yakmanish thought he had a routine job, until he was attacked and threatened with death.

It began when he filmed a parliamentary brawl and an attempted attack on a female MP last month. His footage was an embarrassment to many politicians, and the reaction was swift and violent.

First he was confronted and slapped by an MP who had once been a senior Taliban official. A day later came the death threat. "Slaughtering a sheep is difficult for me, but killing you would be easy," the MP told him.

Then came another threat, this time from an anonymous caller on his cellphone.

"We know where you live," the caller said. "We could do anything against you."

For the next 10 days, Mr. Yakmanish went into hiding. He became one of the growing number of Afghan journalists who have faced severe pressure from the Afghan authorities, including threats, intimidation, even imprisonment and murder.

Last year alone, there were more than 40 attacks on journalistic freedom in Afghanistan, including two murders and several cases of abduction, assault and imprisonment, according to the Afghan Independent Journalists Association.

"In the rest of the world, journalists have rights," Mr. Yakmanish said in an interview. "But in Afghanistan, I was slapped and threatened. I expected it would be discussed the next day in parliament, but nobody said a word about it."

The attack can be seen on his video record of the incident. A hostile crowd of MPs rushed toward the female parliamentarian, Malalai Joya, after she criticized some of the Muslim fighters who battled the Soviet army in the 1980s. As the cameraman filmed the bottle-throwing confrontation, an MP turned angrily to him and said: "Why is he filming? Kick him out." Then he was slapped twice by another MP, the ex-Taliban official, and pushed out of the chamber.

After the death threat the next day, Mr. Yakmanish went to the national prosecutor's office to file a complaint. But no action was taken.

"We don't have much freedom," he said. "Journalists in Afghanistan are restricted. We cannot broadcast freely."

Mr. Yakmanish's television station, Tolo TV, is the most popular channel in Kabul and is often the target of threats. Several of its journalists have quit the station or fled abroad. Another was jailed by intelligence agents after interviewing a Taliban official this spring.

In some ways, the media have flourished since the ousting of the Taliban regime in 2001. Hundreds of newspapers and broadcasting outlets have opened, and standards are more liberal.

But warlords and government officials are often unhappy with the media outlets, especially when they expose cases of corruption or war crimes, and they make it known.

Last fall, two journalists were kidnapped while they were covering a candidate in the parliamentary election. Two other journalists were beaten and detained by security agents for "illegally taking photos of prohibited places" while covering Afghan President Hamid Karzai at an event for International Literacy Day. And the editor of a women's-rights magazine was sentenced to two years in jail for "blasphemy" because of an article discussing whether Muslim women can leave Islam.

"Threats against journalists in Afghanistan have become alarmingly routine," said Ann Cooper, executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, in a statement last year. "Journalists should not face harassment or threats for simply doing their jobs, holding officials accountable for their actions and investigating alleged corruption."

For the fledgling Afghan media, some of the hardest cases to cover are the suspected war crimes of political leaders who remain influential today. The warlords have never been prosecuted, and many journalists are afraid to report on their wartime activities.

"If we try to report about war criminals, we are told that we are damaging national unity," said Masood Qiam, host of an investigative-news program on Tolo TV. "It's a very hot and sensitive subject. Some issues are too dangerous to report."

He recalls how his own staff received threats of violence when he broadcast a report on suspected corruption in the sale of villas that had belonged to Afghanistan's royal family.

"These kinds of threats are very common," he said. "After 30 years of war, it's common now for people to threaten to injure you, or to break your teeth. I expect more of these threats in the future."

Date posted: June 13, 2006 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 8