Attacks on the Press 2000: Afghanistan

AFTER 21 YEARS OF WAR, AFGHANISTAN IS ONE OF THE POOREST COUNTRIES in the world. Its people are starved for food, but also for information. The local media are dominated by the country’s ruling Taliban militia, which, though it produced increasingly sophisticated propaganda, propagated religious pronouncements and official edicts rather than news. As a result, Afghans get much of their news from foreign short-wave radio broadcasts.

Shunned by the international community for its repressive rule, the Taliban leadership is divided on how to treat the foreign media. A conservative core remains openly hostile, while other officials argue that press attention could help secure desperately needed aid and diplomatic recognition. The government did make some effort to recast its image in 2000, and foreign journalists were allowed in with greater frequency than in years past.

Several foreign news agencies have offices in Kabul, including the BBC, The Associated Press, Reuters, and Agence France-Presse. In January, a Foreign Ministry official announced that CNN would be permitted to set up a Kabul bureau, but the deal apparently fell through because of the Taliban’s allegedly Quran-based ban on photographing or filming people. (This ban is only sporadically enforced, but anyone with a camera is vulnerable to the whim of an overzealous militant.)

The Taliban has imposed numerous regulations on news organizations, requiring that all locally hired staff obtain official authorization and that foreign correspondents notify the foreign ministry before traveling outside Kabul. These restrictions allow the Taliban to monitor the activities of the foreign press.

All journalists reporting in Afghanistan are keenly aware that they work at the mercy of the Taliban, without meaningful legal or physical protections. In December, Taliban officials arrested Abdul Saboor Salehzai, a translator for the BBC, and said he would be released only after the BBC dismissed him. Salehzai’s forced resignation raised serious concerns about the ability of foreign news organizations to work independently in the country.

Abdul Saboor Salehzai, BBC

Taliban authorities detained Salehzai, a translator for the BBC in Kabul, and held him incommunicado. “We asked the BBC to dismiss Salehzai several times because we believe he is a Communist,” Mohammad Osman Sheryar, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, told reporters. “He will remain in detention until the BBC has removed him.”

The BBC said in a statement that it could not comply with the Taliban’s request for Salehzai’s dismissal, and that his detention was “unacceptable.”

On December 18, CPJ wrote to the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar, urging him to order Salehzai’s immediate release and allow him to continue his work at the BBC without further interference. Salehzai was released on December 21, after he agreed to leave his post at the BBC.