Attacks on the Press 2005: Afghanistan


The number of news outlets grew yet again, continuing an expansion of the media that began with the fall of the Taliban regime in December 2001. With journalism’s higher profile, however, came increases in threats, attacks, and detentions targeting the press. These cases had a chilling effect on the news media, leading to greater self-censorship and creating a more complex press freedom landscape.

Conservative religious elements clashed with liberal factions over journalists’ rights, and the country’s recently ratified media laws ensnared journalists in a volatile cultural debate. Afghanistan retains deeply traditional societal mores that have been tested by the rapid emergence of electronic media and print publications that push boundaries on sensitive topics such as religion, women’s rights, and the regional warlords who continue to control much of the country. Those who broached these subjects faced threats, harassment, arrest, and jail time as part of an emerging pattern of press freedom abuse that targets such reporting as “anti-Islamic.”

The editor of a magazine on women’s rights, Ali Mohaqiq Nasab, received a two-year prison sentence after he was convicted on blasphemy charges in a Kabul court in October, stunning the local journalism community and international press freedom groups. According to international news accounts, religious leaders complained after Nasab published an article questioning the use of harsh punishments under traditional Islamic law, such as amputating the hands of thieves as punishment for stealing, and publicly stoning or whipping those found guilty of adultery.

Writings considered anti-Islamic are prohibited under a revised media law signed in March 2004, but the law is vaguely worded, and local journalists have been uncertain about what constitutes a violation. The media law also stipulates that journalists be detained only with the approval of a 17-member commission of government officials and journalists. Police did not have such consent when they arrested Nasab on October 1, yet he was convicted three weeks later.

Judge Ansarullah Malawizada said that his ruling in Nasab’s case was based on recommendations from the conservative Ulama Council, a group of the country’s leading clerics. “The Ulama Council sent us a letter saying that he should be punished, so I sentenced him to two years’ jail,” Malawizada told The Associated Press. Although an appeals court in December reduced Nasab’s sentence and ordered him released, local journalists said the case had a damaging effect on the press.

Another target for religious groups was the progressive and controversial Tolo TV, which can be seen throughout much of the country. The channel draws younger audiences with hard-hitting investigative news programs and a groundbreaking music video program called “Hop,” which tested traditions by showing male and female presenters in the same shot. Some religious leaders believed Tolo went too far. In March, the Ulama Council condemned Tolo for broadcasting programs “against Islam and other national values of Afghanistan.”

A female music video presenter, Shaima Rezayee, was fired soon afterward and was found murdered in her home in May. Police blamed members of her family for her murder but were unable to substantiate those accusations, and no arrests were reported. Women still present videos on “Hop,” and Tolo employed a large number of women by local standards—almost one-third of its 200 employees, according to a report by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR).

Another popular presenter, Shakeb Isaar, a member of the Hazara ethnic minority, was threatened and forced to flee the country in the summer. A senior journalist with the channel was forced off the air for several months. Sayed Sulaiman Ashna, host of the evening news program “Tawdi Kharabari” (Hot Talk), began receiving threatening phone calls after an interview with ex-Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil. He told CPJ that unidentified callers threatened to kill him and his family. He left Kabul for several months before returning to the show in late September.

Even in the face of controversy, the demand for television programming continued to grow. Tolo broadcast 24 hours a day. The Ariyana Television Network was launched in five cities in August, becoming the nation’s fourth private channel. The channels broadcast local and international news and informational programming in both of the country’s languages, Dari and Pashto, as well as Indian films and other foreign-made programs popular with young audiences.

Radio remained the most popular news medium because of the country’s low literacy rates and mountainous terrain, which makes transporting newspapers and magazines difficult. International broadcasters such as the BBC and two U.S. government–funded stations, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America, continue to draw wide audiences and respect. However, they now compete with the 29 local community radio stations established since 2003 by the international media development organization Internews, along with roughly 20 other commercial stations. The new generation of radio reporters says it faces growing risks. A study by the Afghan media organization Nai found that 54 percent of radio reporters reported being intimidated, primarily by warlords and local government officials.

In June, after two years of debate within the media community, journalists finally formed two organizations dedicated to protecting press freedom, publicizing attacks against local journalists, and pressuring authorities to defend their rights. The Afghan Independent Journalists Association and the Committee to Protect Afghan Journalists monitored and documented press freedom abuses, met with officials to lobby for their colleagues, and alerted the international community when egregious attacks on the press occurred, such as the jailing of editor Nasab.

Afghanistan’s media helped monitor the country’s first free parliamentary elections in September, when almost 6,000 candidates ran for the lower house, or Wolesi Jirga, and for provincial assemblies. Covering the campaign brought risks. Unknown assailants kidnapped Mohammed Taqi Siraj, editor of the weekly Bayam, and cameraman Baseer Seerat on September 14 as they returned from Nuristan province, where they had filmed the campaign of a female parliamentary candidate, Hawa Alam Nuristani. They escaped from their kidnappers one week later.

Self-censorship affected election coverage, Western observers alleged. The press was seen as overly cautious in its coverage of the candidates out of fear of reprisal; there were few probing questions about candidates who had been military commanders, warlords, or drug traffickers, or who had acted as their surrogates. More than half of those elected to the parliament were regional warlords, according to the government-sponsored Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. Local journalists worried that the new body could be openly hostile to the press and might try to amend the freedoms guaranteed to journalists in the country’s constitution and media law.

Coming one year after the country’s groundbreaking presidential elections, the parliamentary elections were supposed to be another significant step toward establishing democratic institutions in Afghanistan. Reports of irregularities at the polls and lingering questions about many of the candidates, however, raised questions of legitimacy, according to international news reports. The Christian Science Monitor reported protests in Kabul and across the country in October against mujahedeen, warlords, and former Taliban commanders accused of paying off voters, stuffing ballot boxes, and using intimidation tactics. Election officials threw out 680 ballot boxes because of suspicions of irregularities, the Monitor reported.

Among the winners was Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a powerful warlord whom human rights groups accused of committing atrocities during the country’s civil war.

In October, a court sentenced two brothers to death for their role in the November 2001 murders of four journalists from Western news organizations who were traveling from Pakistan into Afghanistan during the fall of the Taliban. The victims were Reuters cameraman Harry Burton, Reuters photographer Azizullah Haidari, El Mundo reporter Julio Fuentes, and Corriere della Sera reporter Maria Grazia Cutuli, who was raped before being murdered. Zar Jan and Abdul Wahid, brothers, confessed to involvement in the killings, which took place on a highway 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of Kabul. Another suspect in the brutal slaying, Reza Khan, was found guilty of the murder last year and sentenced to death. Khan claimed that the group had acted on the orders of a Taliban commander.

Despite many obstacles, journalists continued to start independent newspapers, radio stations, and television channels. In addition to the 60 publications circulating in the northern regions, the first independent daily, Baztab, was launched in the northern city of Mazhar-i-Sharif in April, according to the IWPR. Samay Hamed, an Afghan writer, publisher, and press freedom advocate honored by CPJ in 2003 with its International Press Freedom Award, published the newspaper.

Editor Shafiq Payam said his daily intended to spread free expression to the region so that warlords could no longer monopolize information. The launch could have an impact. One of Payam’s colleagues, editor Qayoum Babak, told the IWPR: “The publication of this daily is the beginning, and it will encourage journalists and other media outlets to publish the facts. If this type of publication spreads, the warlords’ hold on the north will collapse.”