Pressure on Afghan Journos

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By: Alisa Tang

Political talk show host Razaq Mamoon never held back with the cameras rolling. He railed at former warlords now in government and accused Afghanistan’s Parliament of being a den of war criminals and drug smugglers.

Not surprisingly, he caught the attention of government leaders.

“I started receiving messages from them: ‘We don’t know who you’re with or who you’re against. You attack everybody,'” Mamoon said.

His employer, Tolo TV, came under intense pressure from government ministers, and soon Mamoon was fired, he said, though Tolo disputes that version.

Hailed as a major success of five years of democracy-building, media freedom in Afghanistan is under increasing pressures. Those include a proposed law that would cripple media rights, and threats and physical abuse of journalists by government and military officials.

“Effectively we’ve moved from an open media environment to a state-controlled media environment, which is a considerable turnaround from the direction media was heading in Afghanistan up until 2005-06,” said Adrian Edwards, spokesman of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

The Afghan media has changed radically since Taliban times, when there were no television stations and only a handful of newspapers that were completely state-controlled. There was just one Taliban radio station — broadcasting news and religious poetry but no music.

Now there are more than 40 private radio stations, seven TV networks, and more than 350 newspapers and magazines registered with the information ministry. Afghan TV broadcasts everything from breaking news to cooking shows and the local version of “American Idol.”

But critics say the new legislation, expected to be debated in Parliament within weeks, is an ominous sign that Afghanistan’s experiment with open media is on borrowed time.

Fazil Sangcharaki, chief of the Afghan Journalists’ Association and former deputy information minister, said the proposed law is being pushed by former warlords-turned-politicians who would rather have past deeds be forgotten, and by Islamists worried the media is corrupting Afghan culture.

If passed, it would give the Ministry of Information and Culture direct control of state-owned Radio and Television Afghanistan (RTA) and increased power over private media. It would even make it possible to jail journalists such as Mamoon for reporting news deemed “humiliating and offensive.”

Many journalists see it as a reaction to reporting on corruption and war crimes, and an attempt by President Hamid Karzai’s elected government ? that succeeded the fundamentalist Taliban regime that fell in late 2001 ? to reel in the free press.

“The government was not happy with my investigative work,” Mamoon said at the office of Emroz, the new media company where he now works. “The government is facing criticism, which is new for them. It is embarrassed.”

Tolo denies it fired Mamoon, saying the company was going to cut Mamoon’s salary for budget reasons, so he resigned of his own accord. Tolo believes firmly in free speech and will never succumb to government pressure, said Massoud Qiam, Tolo’s director of political programming.

The proposed law would turn RTA into a “state propaganda tool,” Edwards said. The information minister would be granted the power to appoint and pay commissioners who regulate the media.

“You don’t want to have a minister of information who can literally haul in journalists or influence private media through salaries of commissioners … That would be worrying in any country,” Edwards said.

Several vaguely-worded prohibitions in the law could be used to black out almost any news story.

It would prohibit the “propagation of religions other than the holy religion of Islam”; stories that “affect the stability, national security and territorial integrity of the country” and “articles and topics that harm the physical, spiritual and moral well-being of people, especially children and adolescents.”

UNAMA officials and others lobbying for press freedom have met with President Karzai and Information Minister Abdul Karim Khurram, but the outcome for the media is not clear.

Halim Tanweer, Khurram’s media adviser, said the information ministry believes “100 percent” in free speech and a free press.

“We broadcast any news in the national interest of the Afghan people,” Tanweer said. “We are trying to be impartial. (State TV) does not work for the government.”

However, evidence of efforts to muffle the media is rapidly piling up.

— On Feb. 22 in the western city of Herat, Afghan police beat and confiscated the camera of an Ariana Television cameraman Eshaq Quraishi, who was filming a victim wounded by police gunfire at a protest, according to Afghan press rights organization Nai. A report by Nai quoted Herat police chief Ahmad Shafiq Fazli as saying that Quraishi “was not beaten up by the police … and their camera was stolen by protesters.”

— And in a sign it’s not just Afghan authorities constraining the press, U.S. troops deleted the photos and video of Afghan journalists ? including a freelance photographer and a cameraman of The Associated Press ? covering the aftermath of a suicide bomb attack March 4 in eastern Afghanistan.

— In Kabul, RTA television reporter Besoodi Forgh was dealt two black eyes by a team of seven men from the information ministry, he said. The men showed up in his newsroom late last month and accused him of spying for Iran. Two men held his hands behind his back, and one man punched him four times in the face and three times on back of the head.

“I’m not a spy. I’ve never even been to Iran,” he said.

He was fired.

But in a sign that Afghan journalists won’t bow down quietly, he’s gone public about his ordeal. Mamoon said he would stand up for his professional rights, “even if it costs me my life,” although he remains pessimistic about the future.

“The government has lost the trust of the Afghan media. The media is wondering who will defend us now? We have nobody,” Mamoon said. “This is very dangerous for Afghanistan’s democracy. There is no difference between Taliban times and now.”

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