The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemns the recent arrests of Sayeed Mirhassan Mahdawi and Ali Payam Sistany, editor-in-chief and deputy editor, respectively, of the weekly newspaper Aftab. On Tuesday, June 17, the two journalists were arrested in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, and the newspaper was closed after it published an article that Afghan authorities considered blasphemous.
According to Agence France-Presse (AFP), Afghanistan’s Supreme Court ordered the journalists’ arrests on charges of defaming Islam, which the court claims violates Article 31 of the Afghan Press Law. In a telephone interview from prison today with the BBC Persian Service, Mahdawi denied the charges.
The charges stem from a series of articles published in Aftab that criticized senior leaders of the Northern Alliance, called for a secular government in Afghanistan, and questioned the morals of Islamic leaders.
Unfortunately, press freedom in Afghanistan has been eroding in recent months, marked by a sharp increase in threats and attacks on the press there. A growing number of journalists, including Mahdawi, have received death threats for their reporting.
As an independent organization dedicated to defending press freedom worldwide, CPJ believes that journalists should never be imprisoned for their work. Imprisonment, or the threat of it, stifles criticism and open discussion in the media and in society itself. Openness is particularly crucial in Afghanistan at this moment as the country seeks to rebuild from years of conflict.
We urge you, Your Excellency, to ensure that all journalists are free to work without fear of reprisal, and we call on you to do everything within your power to see that the charges against Sayeed Mirhassan Mahdawi and Ali Payam Sistany are dropped.
Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters. We await your response.
Ann K. Cooper