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Afghan media rail against censorship plan

The most surprising thing about a new set of draconian instructions telling Afghanistan’s journalists what they can and cannot say is the reaction - vocal accusations that the government is trying to curb media freedom.

The furore began on June 19, when the Afghan intelligence agency, the National Security Directorate, circulated a list of bans and restrictions on journalistic activities to local media outlets.

The document contains no information about how the vaguely-defined proscriptions will be interpreted in practice, or what sanctions will be used to enforce them. Nor is it clear how it is supposed to fit with the constitution’s free speech provisions or the liberal media law adopted late last year

President Hamed Karzai appears to have sanctioned the instruction, although it bears no signature or official seal.

In a 24-point list, the media are told not to publish reports or interviews that are “against the government's foreign policy with regard to neighbouring countries” or “against the presence of the International Coalition Forces and ISAF [International Security Forces] in Afghanistan".

The statement also takes sides, banning contact with the Taleban and forbidding criticism of the forces now in government.

It orders journalists not to interview or film commanders or combatants of “terrorist groups” – for which read the Taleban and their allies - or to relay "provocative statements” by such groups.

The term "warlord" is not to be used for leaders of the former mujahedin - the militia groups which fought first the Soviets, then each other and finally the Taleban. Many of these leaders now sit in the Afghan government or parliament.

Emigres who came back after the demise of Taleban rule in 2001 to take up posts in government must not be described as "westernised".

Finally, the directive says media reporting must not represent the Afghan National Army as weak, and should instead promote a "spirit of resistance and courage in the armed forces in the capital and provinces, and particularly in border areas".

In a country where until four years ago, media rights had been restricted or non-existent for two decades, the response from journalists was robust. Their first act of rebellion was to translate the document into English from the Dari original and circulate it widely.

At a meeting at the Centre for International Journalism in Kabul, participants condemned the new regulations which they said amounted to a “censorship document” that sought to destroy freedom of speech. The document’s contents ran contrary to the Afghan constitution and media law, and enjoyed no legal status, they said.

Article 34 of the constitution stipulates, "Freedom of expression is inviolable. Every Afghan has the right to express his thoughts through speech, writing, illustration or other means…. Every Afghan has the right to print or publish material without submitting it in advance to the state authorities.”

At a press conference on June 22, Karzai indirectly suggested that his office had been consulted about the letter, and urged the media bear in mind the current difficult security environment.

"The directive presented to the media by our security authorities is about terrorism. For security and national interests to be maintained, certain principles need to be considered," he said.

However, Karzai insisted that this was not an attack on liberty. "We have accepted freedom of speech, and we will continue to do so,” he said. “We defend press freedom because without it the country cannot develop. So you should be confident that there will be press freedom and that I will support it."

In an interview for IWPR, Abdul Ghafoor Liwal, a political analyst who heads the Centre for Regional Studies, voiced support for the tougher rules, saying it was common practice in other countries to curtail some rights to uphold overriding national interests.

"Some media outlets and journalists work against security and the national interest, and they should be reined in," he said. "All countries in the world, including America and Europe, that regard themselves as models of press freedom and democracy have some restrictions over the press in order to maintain security and national interests."

But most journalists and analysts interviewed by IWPR were dead against any restriction on the ability of journalists to write what they feel is right.

"If Karzai really did agree to this action, it was a very big mistake, and he is to blame,” said Shukria Barakzai, a member of the Wolesi Jirga or lower house of parliament. “It will place Afghanistan’s status and reputation under question in the international community."

Political analyst Mohammad Qasim Akhgar said, "The issuing of this letter is a warning to democracy and press freedom in this country.”

He suggested that the regulations were the work of elements in the government which had never bought into the post-2001 administration’s commitment to democracy, free speech and human rights.

"Karzai's government have accepted freedom of speech, press freedom and democracy in words – but not in their hearts," he said.

Questions remain about how much Karzai’s office and the government as a whole knew about the security agency’s directive before it came out.

Sayed Hussain Fazel Sancharaki, a former deputy minister for information and culture, said the president’s office definitely must have been aware of plans to muzzle criticism of the authorities.

"In my view, such a statement could not be issued without the agreement of the state leadership and the ministry of information and culture. In doing so, they are trying to cover up the government’s weak points," he said. "I think that the president's advisers, who are always making Karzai change his mind, may have got him to agree to this a directive by telling him the media creates a lot of problems for the country."

However, the Ministry of Information and Culture, the government department that deals with the press, has said it was left completely in the dark.

Shah Zaman Weriz Stanikzai, the ministry’s head of publications, said it was not aware of the directive and did not accept it as a legal document now.

"Indeed, it is not a statement but a night letter,” he said, referring to the kind of leaflets that the Taleban circulate covertly.

"This is a conspiracy by the National Security Directorate to defame the government and place freedom of speech under pressure," said Stanikzai.

Rahimullah Samandar, who heads the Independent Journalists’ Association, suggested the security agencies are hitting back because they were rattled by uncensored reporting on the rioting in Kabul last month, in which police were accused of standing by and doing little to halt the violence.

"The extensive media coverage of the May 29 riots in Kabul led to the interior minister and the head of the National Security Directorate being subjected to tough questioning by the Meshrano Jirga [upper house of parliament]. So the government has grown intolerant of press freedom and tried to create obstacles in the media’s path," he said.

"If the government has problems with the media, it should solve it through the ministry of information and culture, not through the security directorate.”

Hafizullah Gardesh is IWPR’s editor in Afghanistan. Wahidullah Amani is an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul.

Date posted: June 28, 2006 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 7