The Afghan government, having lost legitimacy over the past 12 years due to corruption, clientelism and brutal repression, and aware of the impact the exposure of official malfeasance can have on public opinion, is increasingly cracking down on critical reporting.
At the end of March, the Afghan media organisation, NAI published their annual statistics on attacks against local journalists. They recorded 71 cases - defined as killings, threats, beatings or arrests - over the course of the previous year, an increase of almost 10% on 2011, and in the majority of the cases the responsibility could be traced to members of the government. According to NAI’s figures, attacks have increased again this year: thirty-one cases were recorded for the year to March, compared to 12 over the same period a year earlier, and again the authorities were responsible in the majority of incidences. Also in March, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RWB) released a statement condemning the Afghan government for their recent closure of two radio stations, and the Afghan police for attacking and arresting a dozen journalists already this year. Both NAI and RWB denounced the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of these crimes.
For more than 12 years, Afghan journalists, whilst enduring the usual hazards of operating in a warzone, have faced a hostile environment created by the government and its allies, who intimidate, censor, and restrict access to information. The security forces, widely condemned by human rights groups for grievous abuses against the population, have beaten and detained journalists covering sensitive topics. Recently, for example, the police attacked 10 journalists when they tried to cover the after-effects of a suicide bombing, including one cameraman who said that he was physically assaulted three times in less than 15 minutes. At the beginning of February, the Afghan attorney general drew criticism from press freedom groups when an arrest warrant was issued for a popular Afghan writer on charges of libel after he published a letter between two government officials implicating the Minister of Transport in acts of corruption and electoral fraud.
Afghan country director for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), Noorrahman Rahmani told DCMF: “Based on my experience working with Afghan journalists they have not been free to report on the problems they see in their regions. The Afghan government and its international allies have not been very cooperative in comparison to the anti-government militants, particularly the Taliban.”
“Our journalists,” said Rahmani, “have had to abandon their stories and investigations after pressure from local government officials because they were investigating issues which indicated the government's involvement.” Given the threats, self censorship is considered common, but some journalists are still willing to take on the risks in order to expose government corruption. One of IWPR’s own reporters, who revealed an illegal land deal between Afghan power brokers and NATO forces, recounted how he received an unprecedented number of “serious threats” after publishing the story.
Codifying Restrictions on Press Freedom
Attacks and intimidation aside, the Afghan government has issued specific decrees designed to limit critical reporting. President Hamid Karzai previously banned the coverage of insurgent attacks in the run-up to elections. And in October last year he issued a directive that allows for the punishment of media outlets considered hostile to “the national interest.” Officials have also enacted restrictions on content, in what some consider a move designed to placate grievances of more conservative elements of the society, including the Taliban; in February, the use of foreign accents and languages on radio and television was banned.
Proposed amendments to a 2009 media law, if enacted, will further stifle press freedom. The revisions would delegate control of the media to a “High Council,” and even goes as far as to grant them authority over the choice of words in press reports. Thanks to the resistance of local journalists, the amendments have been sidelined for the time being. Journalistic associations - some of whom have formed a consortium to coordinate the publication of stories critical of the government in an attempt to cooperatively confront repression or accusations of treason - continue to struggle for better access to information without fear of government accusations or reprisals.
But better laws on paper mean little if they are not respected. “If the situation for journalists is to improve, the government of Afghanistan must uphold its commitment to journalists which is clearly defined in the Afghan constitution and other laws, as well as through international conventions,” said Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar, executive director of NAI, adding “the international community must also support freedom of expression and freedom of the press in Afghanistan.”
An ‘Independent’ Media
After the invasion in 2001, Afghanistan was hailed as having entered a new era of press freedom, exemplified by the enormous expansion in the number of independent media outlets (according to the Committee to Protect journalists, around 400 are in operation today). But the quantity of outlets is not an indication of press freedom. “The amount of Afghan TV stations growing at a dizzying speed does not stand for a rise in journalistic quality nor is it necessarily a sign of a more vivid civil society,” says Martin Gerner, a senior editor with German Deutschlandfunk radio, journalist and filmmaker with substantial experience in Afghanistan as a correspondent and trainer of local journalists.
With foreign troop levels drawing down, and international attention moving away, funding for the media is drying up. The result is a concentration of ownership among the powerful and wealthy, and a tendency for print publications to dwindle as, in a country with high levels of illiteracy, advertising revenue is attracted to TV and radio.
Gerner told DCMF: “National or regional power brokers, more generally called warlords, very much fear the impact of critical media and reporting. In return and with growing impact from 2006 onwards, a number of them have responded by mounting their own media, easily influencing an audience very much orientated to consumer orientated entertainment with serials or game shows.”
Then there is the influence of foreign actors on the media in Afghanistan. A USA Today investigation last year exposed the extent of United States secretive “info-ops” in the country, which include over 11 hours a day of unattributed radio and television programmes designed to “tell Afghans who their real enemies are, why Taliban propaganda was wrong, what the Afghan government is accomplishing, how non-governmental organisations are helping them, and why they should serve in the security forces” and are used “to bolster local officials, who are viewed with suspicion by many Afghans because of their ties to corruption”. The USA Today journalists who broke this story themselves became victims of a misinformation campaign after they published their findings.
A pernicious mix of local economics, repression, government policy, foreign media manipulation and the structure of power within Afghanistan, means that at a crucial moment, when serious and critical journalism is an imperative, the Afghan people are increasingly being presented with a jeopardised and officially sanctioned view of what is happening in their country. If current trends are allowed to continue, Khalvatgar warns that “journalists here will lose public trust, many good journalists will be lost due to threats and violence, the government will continue to work against journalists and restrict freedom of expression, and the country will experience more corruption and insecurity.”