CPJ Condemns Taliban Restrictions on Foreign Journalists

New York, September 10, 2001—The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemns the recent official harassment of journalists covering the trial of eight foreign aid workers whom the ruling Taliban militia accuses of preaching Christianity.

“Reporters serve a crucial role as witnesses,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “If this trial is to have any international credibility, journalists must be permitted to cover all proceedings without interference.”

The foreigners—two Americans, two Australians, and four Germans—were arrested in early August along with 16 Afghan colleagues from the German-based charity Shelter Now International. In July, the Taliban announced that the penalty for a foreigner suspected of proselytizing was jail and expulsion. Afghans who preach or convert to a religion other than Islam face the death penalty.

The trial of the eight foreign aid workers began on September 4. Though the Taliban’s foreign minister, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, had initially promised that the trial would take place in an open court, he later clarified that journalists, diplomats, and other outside observers would be admitted only during the “second phase” of the proceedings. As it turned out, journalists were allowed to cover the trial on September 8, when the aid workers appeared for the first time since their arrest, but were prevented from returning the next day.

On September 9, authorities barred journalists from leaving Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel, and searched some of their rooms for cameras, pictures, and videotapes. Taliban officials said they took action against the journalists for illegally photographing and videotaping the detainees. The Taliban officially forbid all forms of photography on religious grounds, but have relaxed these rules during major news events.

Authorities also briefly detained the government interpreters who were accompanying the journalists, apparently because the interpreters did not prevent them from taking pictures, according to international wire service reports. A Foreign Ministry spokesman denied that the interpreters had been detained, claiming they were attending a seminar, according to Agence France-Presse.

Foreign correspondents and photographers covering the aid workers’ trial have been required to stay at the Intercontinental Hotel and travel in the company of an official interpreter.

Journalists have had no access to the detained Afghan employees of Shelter Now.

Assassins pose as reporters
In an unrelated incident, CPJ is disturbed by reports that two men disguised themselves as journalists in an attempt to assassinate Ahmed Shah Massood, military leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. Opposition spokesmen said Masood was giving an interview to two “Arab” journalists in Afghanistan’s northern Takhar Province on September 9 when a bomb went off. The explosive had either been concealed in the video camera or was strapped around the waist of one of the assailants, both of whom were reportedly killed in the blast. It is not yet clear whether Massood survived the attack.