Afghan News Media Find Foes on All Sides
Violence, Politics Imperil Press Freedom

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 7, 2007

KABUL -- Ajmal Nakshbandi was not the first Afghan journalist to die in this increasingly dangerous and corrupt country since the advent of civilian rule more than five years ago.

But the young interpreter's gruesome beheading by Taliban insurgents last month -- after the government negotiated a deal to release his Italian employer -- struck a well of outrage in an Afghan public that feels whipsawed between a violent insurgency and a government it no longer trusts.

"I am angry at the Taliban because they are wild men who would do anything, but I am also angry at my government, because it was their job to save my brother," said Munir Nakshbandi, 23. "He was an innocent person, and he had just been married. Was the life of an Italian journalist worth more than his?"

In recent months, the Afghan press -- a struggling institution that was virtually extinct less than six years ago but has gradually emerged as a powerful force for social and political change -- has come under attack from all quarters of this conflicted and confused society.

The greatest physical danger comes from the insurgents, who regularly attempt to use local journalists as conduits for their declarations but also target them for kidnappings and bombings. The Taliban has repeatedly warned Afghan journalists or interpreters like Nakshbandi not to work for the foreign or government media. One Afghan reporter was killed by a suicide bomber last year.

According to journalists associations and human rights groups, however, intimidation and harassment of the Afghan news media have come from a variety of sources, including government prosecutors, police, regional militias, parliament, Islamic clerical councils and U.S.-led military forces. Unlike their foreign counterparts, Afghan journalists cannot easily leave the country and are more vulnerable to official pressure.

"We are very concerned about the state of press freedom. The security situation is getting worse and worse, and the behavior of the authorities is getting worse and worse," said Fazel Sangcharaki, a former deputy minister of information who now heads the National Union of Journalists. "Some officials want more control of the press. The government is getting weaker, and they do not want the media to expose its flaws."

A comprehensive list of threats to press freedom from January 2006 to February of this year, compiled by Media Watch Afghanistan, an advocacy group, included the beating and jailing of journalists, among other incidents. One provincial radio station was set on fire, a TV discussion show was dropped under government pressure, and a magazine editor was detained by U.S. forces for three weeks without charge.

In many cases, the problems stem from resistance by officials or influential groups to press investigations or negative attention, a new phenomenon in a country where for a full generation the media were essentially an arm of the state or political factions during successive phases of communist rule, civil war and Islamic oppression.

The establishment of the country's first independent TV stations in the last several years has exacerbated the tensions, since the immediacy of the medium is so powerful. In 2001, while Afghanistan was under Taliban rule, television was legally banned in the country. Now, according to a private poll conducted this spring in major cities and provincial capitals, 67 percent of people surveyed said they watch TV every day or almost every day.

Tolo TV, a popular independent television channel that has a Western-style entertainment and news format, has clashed repeatedly with Afghan authorities. Its camera crews have been prohibited from covering parliamentary debates and its hard-hitting talk show was banned.

Last month, a nasty clash erupted between Tolo and the country's attorney general, an aggressive and flamboyant figure who took issue with a video clip of his comments suggesting that certain accused criminals would be executed soon, even though they had not yet been convicted. He accused the TV channel of misquoting him and sent a large squad of police officers to the Tolo offices, where they detained several staffers. The incident set off a high-profile bureaucratic and legal battle that is still playing out.

"Things are going wrong for the government, and they are trying to kill the messenger," said Saad Mohseni, one of three brothers who own Tolo TV. "It is the only sector that is holding the government accountable, but they see any criticism as a direct threat."

Afghan officials assert that the press is often unprofessional and sensationalistic, freely mixing opinion with news and carrying political water for various ethnic or political factions. They also complain that some TV entertainment is sexually unseemly for a conservative Muslim country where most rural women still cover their faces with veils if they leave their village compounds.

They point out that freedom of the press is guaranteed under the 2004 constitution and that the growth of private media since the collapse of the Taliban has been pell-mell. There are now about 40 private radio stations, seven TV networks and more than 300 newspapers and magazines officially doing business in the country.

A recently established media law provides general guidelines for press rights and responsibilities, and a commission has been set up by the Ministry of Information and Culture to assess and judge accusations of unfairness, bias or pressure by or against the press.

Now, however, a group of legislators led by a former Islamic militia leader is trying to enact a harsher media law that would outlaw any news coverage that disturbs the public or has an "un-Islamic" theme. It would also give the Ministry of Information and Culture full control of state-run broadcast media. Despite widespread criticism by foreign agencies here, some form of the new law is expected to pass.

"They want the word 'Islam' in every article. But how do you define what is 'anti-Islamic' news?" said Shukria Barakzai, a member of parliament and former journalist. But she said she agreed with criticisms that the Afghan press corps -- full of eager but poorly trained young journalists -- is often unprofessional and biased.

"Press freedom is very important to developing our democracy, but it does not mean being able to broadcast whatever you want," Barakzai said. "We must support media freedom, but does that mean freedom to support the Taliban, or political leaders? That is clearly crossing the line."

In several cases, reports of media harassment have stemmed from alleged misdeeds by U.S.-led coalition forces. In one high-profile case in March, U.S. troops deleted video from Afghan camera crews trying to cover an incident in which U.S. Marines fired on civilians in eastern Afghanistan, killing at least 10, according to a preliminary U.S. military investigation. U.S. military officials have said they are still investigating what happened.

Far more often, though, the pressure comes from Afghan authorities, who are widely seen as corrupt, heavy-handed and intolerant of public questioning. This growing perception helped explain the outpouring of grief and anger that came after the execution of Ajmal Nakshbandi and the quick rush to blame President Hamid Karzai, who freed five Taliban prisoners in exchange for the Italian journalist, Daniele Mastrogiacomo, but refused to release two more in exchange for the Afghan man.

"If the government had taken action, my brother would be alive today," said Munir Nakshbandi. "I thank all the world journalist groups who tried to get him released, but unfortunately my government did not help its own son. I have lost all hope in them now."

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