Attacks on the Press 1999: Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban militia continues to maintain a hostile attitude toward journalists and journalism. There are no independent local media, because of the Taliban’s famous intolerance and because resources are scarce in this war-ravaged country. Although several news agencies–including the BBC, The Associated Press, and Agence France-Presse–maintain bureaus in Kabul, visas to foreign correspondents are granted only sporadically, and access to conflict areas and to the north of the country, where opposition forces are still entrenched, is routinely denied. Officially, the religious prohibition on photographing or filming people remains in place. “Because of the ban on photography and television, Afghans do not even know what their new leaders look like,” wrote journalist Ahmed Rashid in the November 1999 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.

The Taliban government has sharply curtailed the rights of women and girls to receive basic education and health care, forbidden women to work alongside men, and brutally enforced an oppressive dress code for women–requiring them to wear the all-encompassing, shroud-like burqa gown outside the home. These restrictions are more stringently applied in urban centers such as the capital, Kabul, than they are in rural areas.

Still, the regime is perhaps beginning to understand that its image problems at home and abroad have much to do with its restrictive policies and excessive secrecy. The Ministry of Culture and Information held several meetings this year to discuss issues such as “the role of the mass media in explaining the aims and achievements of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” according to reports in the Taliban-controlled press. In July, the officially sanctioned weekly newspaper Shari’ah, published in Kabul, printed an editorial suggesting that the Taliban’s Radio Voice of Shari’ah “must be changed fundamentally.” (The two media outlets are unrelated; “Shari’ah” means “Islamic law.”)

According to Shari’ah, the radio station could better serve the national interest by producing “programs of a general nature…enhancing cultural values, public awareness, national coordination, and understanding between various strata of people who live in different regions in the country.” At year’s end, Radio Voice of Shari’ah continued to air mostly religious programming and official pronouncements. Though the Taliban may simply be trying to refine their propaganda apparatus, more sophisticated programming objectives could conceivably foster some independent journalism.

Some Taliban representatives claim to have urged their government to allow more foreign correspondents into Afghanistan, in the hope that journalists will conclude that human rights conditions are not as abysmal as have been widely reported. But when journalists and human rights workers do manage to get access, they have often found the reality as disturbing as the rumors. In October, New York Times correspondent Barry Bearak reported on the plight of refugees in the Panjsher Valley, where they had come to escape the Taliban’s summer offensive in the Shomali region, north of Kabul. Though the Taliban denied that it was responsible for civilian atrocities, Bearak recorded the vivid testimony of survivors describing a systematic campaign to uproot the area’s ethnic Tajiks, and estimated that 65,000 refugees had fled to the Panjsher Valley.

“This has not been a high-profile crisis because this is no longer a high-profile place,” Bearak wrote. “These days, few people are watching.”

See related article: “Journalism under the Taliban.”

September 3
Marc Brunero, free-lancer ATTACKED

Brunero, a French free-lance reporter on assignment for the Belgian daily Le Soir, was wounded by shrapnel during a Taliban bombing raid on the northern Afghan city of Taloqan. A bomb fragment lodged in Brunero’s abdominal muscles caused severe internal bleeding. In early news reports, Brunero was incorrectly reported to have been killed.

Along with anti-Taliban guerrilla leader Ahmad Shah Masood, three American journalists, and two aid workers, Brunero had just flown in by helicopter from Dushanbe, the capital of neighboring Tajikistan, when the airfield came under fire. The two aid workers were also wounded by shrapnel in the attack.

Soldiers loyal to Masood took Brunero to a small hospital in Taloqan. There he received emergency treatment before being flown back to a Russian military hospital in Dushanbe, where he underwent surgery. Having been hospitalized for 22 days, Brunero was scheduled to return to France in December for more medical treatment.

September 7
Salim Safi,News Network International IMPRISONED
Mohammad Azam, News Network International IMPRISONED

Safi, Peshawar bureau chief for the private Pakistani news agency News Network International (NNI), and Azam, a correspondent for NNI, were arrested by the Taliban on suspicion of spying for neighboring Iran. Peshawar is a city in northwest Pakistan, just across the Afghan border.

Safi and Azam were reportedly detained in Kunar Province, after returning from a reporting trip to the opposition-controlled northern areas. Both men had obtained proper visas for Afghanistan, and were in the country on a journalistic assignment.

The Peshawar-based news agency Afghan Islamic Press quoted an unnamed government official as saying that the two men “appeared to be journalists, but were collecting military information for Iran…. Action against both will be taken under Islamic laws of the Islamic Emirate [of Afghanistan].”

After protests from NNI, the Peshawar-based Khyber Union of Journalists, and the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, the government of Pakistan negotiated with representatives of the Taliban for their release. The two journalists were freed on September 12.