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Afghan journalists debate election restrictions

CPJ spoke with three Kabul-based journalists to learn how they and their colleagues around the country responded to the government's request to mute coverage of violence during polling hours today.

Danish Karokhel is the director and chief editor of Pajhwok Afghan News agency, which publicly rejected the government's edict. Karokhel accepted CPJ's International Press Freedom Award in 2008 on behalf of the agency.

"Lots of TV and radio stations didn't report any violence, but we reported all security incidents," Karokhel told me by telephone from his office. "None of our reporters were arrested, everything was OK." Authorities in the provinces also asked local Pajhwok reporters to restrict coverage, he said. "In some areas the authorities refused to give certain information until the end of polling," Karokhel said.

Barry Salaam is a news producer and presenter of the popular daily radio programs "Good Morning Afghanistan" and "Good Evening Afghanistan."

"I think this is the first time in the past eight years that the media was not under pressure, but willingly responded to a government request, not fully, but partially," Salaam told me. "Journalists somehow realized there is a point in what the government wanted, and I believe it was not done under pressure but out of a realization that it was somehow necessary."

Salaam witnessed journalists being arrested and beaten while trying to cover an incident, he said today. But he did not felt any pressure on his own shows, partly because of early and late time slots, which largely avoided the embargo. Early on, he was critical of the government's request, he said. "But now voting has come to an end, more incidents which happened during the day are being reported. 

"If the election failed, it would be the biggest success you can imagine for terrorists ... so what are you going to do? On the one hand, you need to allow access to information. On the other hand, as a journalist, you see it, you can sense it--you do realize that if you're too critical of the security situation you might undermine the whole process." Salaam pointed out that a middle way between full coverage and a total ban might be a solution, but that the government's letter had left news outlets to decide what to do. "It's a really difficult decision for the media to make."

Rahimullah Samander heads the Afghan Independent Journalists Association and has been fielding calls from reporters around the country, getting their views of the government order and registering reports of harassment.

"Our local members in all 34 provinces all rejected the government's request, and we issued a statement and told members to continue reporting all day the same way they have in the past," Samander said. Foreign Ministry spokesmen had spoken with him several times by telephone, trying to persuade the organization to change their position. "They were not threatening, they were asking for our help in telling everyone in the country to obey, but I explained it wasn't possible because it was against democratic values," Samander said. "It's more problematic for the public if we don't report."

"I was beaten myself [today] when covering an incident in eastern Kabul," Samander said. "Three to five suicide attackers were killed inside a building, and local and international reporters were trying to get footage. Some were arrested for half an hour. Police were beating them back with their guns," he said. "There are many, many stories still to write tonight." 

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