The world witnessed a series of democratic milestones in postwar Afghanistan in 2004, from a newly ratified constitution in January to the first direct presidential election in October. Conditions for the blossoming Afghan press improved in many areas, with a significant expansion of news media outlets and fortified constitutional protections for freedom of expression and the press. Yet considerable challenges remain. The lack of security, ethnic and cultural tensions, and a lack of access to information impede and endanger reporters. Afghanistan's powerful warlords, armed groups, security services, and even government ministries continue to pressure, threaten, and harass journalists who report on their activities or cross sensitive cultural barriers. As a result, local reporters say, self-censorship became more prevalent in 2004.
Demand for local media grew dramatically, along with the number of independent community and state-run radio outlets. Forty-seven stations were operating in the country, Deputy Minister of Information Abdul Hamid Mobarez told The Washington Post. Radio is Afghanistan's most accessible medium for news and information since only approximately 30 percent of the population is literate, according to the United Nations Children's Fund. The media development organization Internews has trained journalists and provided technical support to as many as 25 independent community radio stations, forming the country's first nationwide network.
In many areas, these stations brought local programming to previously unreachable audiences, especially women. The stations also broached taboo subjects. In the capital, Kabul, the popular private station Radio Arman aired music, regular news updates, and a popular evening program called "Young People and Their Problems," which featured letters from young people about their love lives and social issues and discussed them on the air.
Outside Kabul, press freedom conditions varied widely and regionally. In rural provinces, where regional governors can wield absolute power, journalists were particularly vulnerable to intimidation. Two reporters in the eastern province of Herat, Nassim Shafaq of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Masoud Hassanzadah of Voice of America, received death threat letters in July in retaliation for their reporting, according to local journalists and news reports. They were forced to leave the region soon after. Ismail Khan, the ruthless warlord and former governor of Herat, denied responsibility for the threats, but he has routinely bullied other journalists. In another incident, armed guards occupied Radio Sahar, a women's independent radio station in Herat, for a week in June under Khan's orders, according to Internews. President Hamid Karzai removed Khan from office in September, a move that local journalists welcomed, even as they expressed concern that the former governor may return to power by force, according to news reports.
That concern may be warranted. In late December, Karzai announced that strongman Khan had joined his government as the water and power minister. And reports of attacks on journalists working in Herat continued into 2005; in January, armed guards reportedly loyal to Khan severely beat a local correspondent for Agence France-Presse in Herat, according to the Committee to Protect Afghan Journalists, a local press advocacy organization.
Afghanistan's female journalists made progress in 2004 but still faced risks. Under the Taliban regime, television and print media were banned, and women were not allowed to work. Since 2002, female journalists have presented news programs and appeared as reporters on television and radio, although this has not been universally welcomed. In April, Haji Din Mohammed, governor of the southeastern Nangarhar Province, ordered a ban on women "performing" on television and radio—including reporting the news—because it was "un-Islamic," according to international news reports. Although President Karzai lifted the ban days later, it demonstrated the obstacles female reporters continue to face.
Ethnic divisions also posed problems for the media. Soldiers at a military checkpoint outside Kabul beat Salih Mohammed Salih, editor of the Pashto-language monthly Hosey (Deer), and destroyed hundreds of copies of his magazine. The Afghan army is dominated by ethnic Tajiks and other minority groups that are often biased against ethnic Pashtuns, whom they perceive as sympathetic to the deposed Taliban regime.
Afghanistan ratified a new constitution and enacted a new media law in 2004 that reflect the sometimes opposing values of democracy and Islamic law. Observers say that Article 34 of the constitution, which protects freedom of expression and speech as "inviolable," provides an enhanced legal framework for journalists. In practice, however, Afghanistan's conservative High Court still exercises significant influence over the application of constitutional law and Islamic Shariah law.
Karzai signed the country's latest media law behind closed doors in late March without input from the press. The measure revised an April 2002 law that was criticized for prohibiting content deemed "insulting" to Islam. Reporters questioned restrictions in the new law, including a continued ban on insulting Islam, and a requirement that media outlets register with the Ministry of Information. The legislation is vague about criminal penalties for press offenses, observers say, leaving open the possibility of punishment in accordance with conservative Shariah law. Officials defended the media law, saying it offered the press protection from unlawful prosecution in rural areas. Under the new statutes, officials noted, journalists can only be detained with the approval of a seven-member commission composed of government officials and journalists.
Local journalists say the rule of the gun still prevails in many press issues; even government ministers can be at risk. After Deputy Minister of Information Mobarez wrote several articles in the spring calling for more openness and an end to censorship, armed men raided his home. Mobarez did not blame any specific group for the raid, but local journalists say the assailants were likely associated with powerful warlord Abdul Rasul Sayyaf.
Covering Afghanistan's first direct national election in October was a landmark for the media. Despite widespread predictions of violence and disruption, more than 8 million Afghans cast their ballots in polling that went smoothly and, for the most part, peacefully. Karzai won handily in the first round of voting with more than 4 million votes. Internews, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, and other international nongovernmental organizations conducted extensive training for journalists in the run-up to the campaign.
After more than 20 years of conflict, not all of the 18 presidential candidates ran media-savvy campaigns. According to press accounts, Karzai used the media more deftly than the other candidates, some of whom did not show up for live broadcasts and press conferences. Still, journalists played an important role in educating their audiences and monitoring events on election day. Local journalists say the wide international coverage of the election and the presence of the foreign press corps helped ensure successful polling. Journalists were cautiously optimistic that Karzai's victory would improve press freedom, and that a popular mandate would strengthen his hold on power and his ability to place moderate leaders in government.
In November, however, the conservative High Court flexed its muscle by appealing to Karzai's Cabinet for a ban on cable television in response to racy programming, such as Bollywood movies that feature provocative dancing. After Chief Justice Fazl Hadi Shinwari complained to the president about the "wicked films," Karzai obliged by shuttering the channels until regulations could be instituted, The Associated Press reported.
Also in November, Islamic militant Reza Khan was convicted of robbing and murdering four international journalists in November 2001: Azizullah Haidari, a Reuters photographer; Harry Burton, a cameraman with Reuters Television; Julio Fuentes of El Mundo; and Maria Grazia Cutuli with Corriere della Serra. Khan, who was also convicted of raping Cutuli, received the death penalty. The four journalists were ambushed in Jalalabad in Nangarhar Province, 55 miles east of Kabul, during the lawless and chaotic days following the fall of the Taliban. During court proceedings, Khan claimed that he was acting on orders from a Taliban leader.
The resignation of Deputy Minister of Information Mobarez at the end of December reflected criticism of the media policies of Karzai's new government. Mobarez accused the Information Ministry of censoring his speeches in the press, thereby undermining freedom of expression in Afghanistan.
The ongoing presence of U.S.-led coalition troops in Afghanistan posed risks to reporters in 2004. Kamal Sadat, a well-known stringer for the BBC and Reuters in the eastern city of Khost, was taken from his home on the night of September 8 by a group of U.S. soldiers who confiscated his laptop computer and notes. Sadat was flown to Bagram Air Force Base and held overnight on suspicion of being a "threat," according to a coalition statement. The BBC reported that Sadat was interrogated and held in a small, windowless room before being released on September 10. U.S. forces apologized for his detention, but some local journalists speculate that he may have been held as a warning because of his reporting in the Khost region along the border with Pakistan, an area known for Taliban activity. Sadat covers regional issues, including military operations.