Attempt to Steer the News Backfires in Afghanistan

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 22, 2006

KABUL, Afghanistan, June 21 -- An unofficial attempt by Afghanistan's national intelligence service to quash sensational and negative coverage by the Afghan news media appears to have backfired badly this week, provoking both outrage and ridicule among journalists and opinion makers, and swift repudiation by the office of President Hamid Karzai.

But Afghan and foreign observers said the incident could still have a chilling effect on local news reporting about such crucial issues as terrorist attacks and official corruption, at a time of intensifying insurgent violence and public disillusionment with the Western-backed government.

Some analysts, however, said it cast a useful spotlight on the tendency of the fledgling Afghan news media, especially several private TV stations, to sensationalize violence, denounce allegations of wrongdoing without proof and relentlessly attack Karzai.

The controversy erupted Tuesday when an unsigned but official-looking document was delivered to Afghan media outlets, listing 17 instructions. Some were vague: the press should not publish or broadcast material that "weakens public morale or damages the national interest." Others were nit-pickingly specific: the press should use "freedom fighter" instead of "warlord" to describe former anti-Soviet militia leaders.

The document contained language suggesting that it carried official authority, and it followed similar verbal warnings made at two recent meetings between intelligence officials and Afghan media owners.

The intelligence service has not denied writing it, and several Afghan and foreign officials said they had confirmed its source.

The document ended with a stern warning against copying or distributing the contents, which ensured that hundreds of photocopies were floating around the capital within hours.

Karzai's office, flooded with media calls, quickly issued a statement saying the government had issued no such instructions. However, it also seemed to echo the disavowed document by calling on the media to "refrain from glorifying terrorism or giving terrorists a platform."

Afghan journalists expressed a mixture of anger, confusion and amusement over the incident. They pointed out that the government had enacted a comprehensive media law last year spelling out the role and responsibilities of news organizations, and that officials often invoked media freedom as a hallmark of the country's new democracy.

"This is very serious. It shows the government is trying to hide its weakness and take revenge on the media for pointing out all the problems," said Rahimullah Samandar, president of the national journalists' association. He said the government had been especially irked by aggressive local coverage of riots in the capital on May 29, and of Karzai's recent appointment of controversial figures to senior police posts.

Samandar's organization formally rejected the document Wednesday as "illegal," but he said it could still discourage some smaller media outlets from aggressive reporting. If the document does reflect the thinking of President Karzai, and is not just a rogue attempt by one powerful agency, he said, "it could be very dangerous."

Other observers said the incident suggested two possibilities: one, that Karzai has no control over the national intelligence agency, which has undergone a number of restructurings under Western government guidance, or two, that the document was actually the product of senior officials in the government seeking to indirectly intimidate the press.

Mark Laity, a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force that patrols Kabul, the capital, said the media should "basically ignore" the document, on grounds it had been clearly rejected by the president and had no validity. He made light of one instruction that ordered the media to refrain from criticism of foreign military forces here.

"Let me make it clear: ISAF is not worried or afraid of criticism," he said. "We are an alliance of democratic nations supporting a democratic nation, and it is entirely appropriate that what we do should be open to debate and criticism."

The Afghan press, which started almost from scratch four years ago after decades of war and repression, has come under sporadic attack since then. A writer was jailed by the courts after publishing magazine essays questioning strict Islamic laws. A television reporter was beaten after filming a dispute in parliament. Journalists in rural areas have reported being threatened by local militia commanders.

Nader Naderi, a member of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, said he worried that the document would create a tendency to self-censorship among reporters and editors, but he also said the fledgling local media suffered from a lack of objectivity and professionalism, a tendency to criticize without evidence, and an irresponsible, sensationalistic approach to covering insurgent violence.

"There have increasingly been one-sided, negative reports on the government, mostly based on rumors or false information," Naderi said. "Just because someone is doing bad journalism doesn't mean you should impose limits on them, but criticism should be constructive, and it should not go against the long-term interests of the nation."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company