Attacks on the Press 2003: Afghanistan

Press freedom conditions have improved dramatically since the fall of the hard-line Taliban regime in December 2001. However, Afghanistan’s rocky transition to democracy has not removed all obstacles for the media, and local journalists remain under threat.

In 2003, supporters of powerful government officials and military leaders intimidated, harassed, and attacked independent journalists in retaliation for critical articles, resulting in widespread self-censorship. In April, Zahur Afghan, editor of the Kabul-based daily Erada, received eight death threats in a 24-hour period after publishing an article that criticized the Education Ministry. That same month, a knife-wielding man attacked Dr. Samay Hamed, a prominent journalist and a recipient of CPJ’s 2003 International Press Freedom Award, after he denounced the power of local warlords in an interview with the BBC. Hamed sustained injuries to his chest, arms, and hands.

In the western province of Herat, local governor and warlord Ismail Khan, who has been widely accused of human rights violations, continued to clamp down on the local media. At the opening of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission office in March, Radio Liberty reporter Ahmed Behzad was beaten, thrown in jail, and expelled from the region on Ismail Khan’s orders after he overheard the reporter asking the interior minister about the human rights situation in Herat. A group of Herat-based journalists went on strike in protest and traveled to Kabul to meet with President Hamid Karzai about the incident, but their actions had little impact. Two days after the attack on Behzad, Ismail Khan condemned journalists who work for foreign radio broadcasters, warning that they would “meet a bad end.”

In Kabul, police told Sayeed Mirhussein Mahdawi, editor of the independent weekly Aftab, that they could not guarantee his safety after he published a series of controversial articles in March and April calling for a secular government and condemning crimes committed by senior Afghan leaders in the name of Islam. In April and May, Mahdawi and his assistant editor Ali Payam Sistany received numerous threatening phone calls and visits from individuals pressuring them to stop writing.

The journalists continued publishing Aftab until June, when Mahdawi penned a controversial article accusing senior leaders of the Northern Alliance, other mujahedeen leaders, and the Taliban of wrecking Afghanistan in the name of Islam. On June 17, Mahdawi and Sistany were arrested and charged with blasphemy, and Aftab was closed. They were released from jail on June 25, but their arrest and prosecution raised new questions about the future application of Shariah, or strict Islamic law, in Afghanistan, as well as the influence of the country’s conservative Supreme Court.

Almost mirroring the views of the former Taliban regime, Afghanistan’s Chief Justice Mawlavi Fazl Hadi Shinwari closed cable television channels across the country in January because their programming was “offensive” and “un-Islamic.” Shinwari told Reuters that the channels were airing “half-naked singers and obscene scenes from movies.” The ban was lifted in April and then re-imposed in Jalalabad in September because of reported complaints about “shocking” Western and Indian programming showing men and women dancing together.

Journalists remained vulnerable in 2003 amid a basic lack of security, renewed fighting between armed factions, guerrilla warfare, and terrorist activities. In April, officers from the criminal division of the local police beat and threatened television and radio broadcasters in the eastern province of Nangarhar for not broadcasting stories about the officers’ work, according to local journalists. That same month, a local Reuters journalist was robbed by armed gunmen in Mazar-e-Sharif.

There were far fewer reports of interference in the press by U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2003, in contrast with the year before, when U.S. soldiers threatened a Washington Post reporter and barred him from working near the site of a U.S. missile strike, and when a Pakistani journalist was detained at the Afghan-Pakistani border on suspicion of being a Taliban member.

In 2003, a growing number of journalists in Afghanistan received professional training in news and reporting from such organizations as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. New radio stations and publications opened throughout the country, including several dedicated to women’s issues, such as the Voice of Women radio station. Unfortunately, political and ethnic rivalries in the journalism community thwarted attempts to form an independent journalists’ union in May.

No journalists were killed for their work in the country in 2003. Far fewer foreign journalists were operating in Afghanistan since the world’s attention shifted to the conflict in Iraq. In April, Afghan security forces arrested several people suspected of involvement in the killing of four foreign journalists in late 2001 while the Taliban were collapsing across the country, but the two main suspects were reportedly freed a few months later. On November 7, the U.S. State Department issued a warning to U.S. journalists in Afghanistan and foreigners working for U.S. media outlets that they could be targeted for kidnapping in exchange for Taliban members in U.S. custody.

In the run-up to the presidential elections scheduled for June 2004, Afghan journalists find themselves increasingly caught in the growing tensions between moderate and conservative government factions. President Karzai and other officials have promised to uphold press freedom in the country’s newly revised constitution, which was ratified in January 2004. Debates about the extent of presidential powers and the role of women in the country’s future have dominated discussions about the constitution. However, with parts of the government advocating the application of Shariah to the press, it remains to be seen whether hard-line Islamists or moderates will shape Afghanistan’s new media.