Attacks on the Press 2006: Afghanistan


The Taliban Islamist militia re-emerged in Afghanistan while the government of President Hamid Karzai wavered in its commitment to Western-style media. Despite the proliferation of media outlets since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001, reporters complained of little or no cooperation from officials, who were unwilling to meet with them or allow public offices to release information.

This antimedia approach was driven home on June 12 when the government summoned representatives from Tolo TV, Kilid magazine and Radio Kilid, Kabul Weekly, Sibat, the Pajhwok Afghan News agency, and other news organizations to a meeting with Hassan Fakhri, an official with the National Security Directorate. After lecturing them on the role of the media, Fakhri handed them a two-page document listing 17 recommendations on press conduct.

According to several of those who attended the meeting, the document was signed by Amrullah Saleh, head of the government’s intelligence service. The group was told not to copy or distribute the document, which many of them immediately did. A similar document, unsigned and with minor changes to the text, was sent to more media groups in Kabul on June 18. Among the guidelines:

• Publication and broadcast of provocative statements of armed organizations and terrorist groups should be halted.

• Journalists should not report material that erodes people’s morale and causes them disappointment.

• Criticism of the U.S.-led coalition or International Security Assistance Force troops should be prohibited.

• Interviewing “terrorist commanders” should be banned, along with videotaping and photographing them.

• News of antigovernment attacks or suicide bombings should not be a lead news story.

Karzai quickly distanced himself from the guidelines. At a press conference on June 22, Karzai told reporters, “If we want to be a democratic country with public accountability, we need a free press.” Yet earlier statements issued by the office of the president’s spokesman sought to justify the government’s intervention in the work of the press, saying the guidelines were needed to “refrain from glorifying terrorism or giving terrorists a platform.” Regardless of Karzai’s involvement, Kabul journalists said, the government had effectively sent a message that the press should temper its criticism.

After a brief postwar respite, Afghanistan grew increasingly violent in 2006, with a resurgent Taliban engaging coalition forces in the south and a rash of car bombings and political assassinations in Kabul and Kandahar.

Three journalists were killed. Aryana television cameraman Abdul Qodus died July 22 in a double suicide bombing in Kandahar. Qodus had just arrived at the scene of a suicide car bomb when a second attacker with explosives strapped to his body blew himself up. Qodus died of head injuries at a local hospital.

On October 7, Karen Fischer and Christian Struwe were fatally shot in a tent they had pitched along a road near Baghlan, about 95 miles (150 kilometers) northwest of Kabul. The two, who were researching a documentary for the German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle, had recently visited several United Nations Children’s Fund projects in northern Afghanistan.

Journalists also faced widespread physical assault. Reporter Noorullah Rahmani and cameraman Qais Ahmad of the independent station Tolo TV were beaten on July 29. Gunmen attacked the crew at a demonstration against member of parliament Abdorrab Rasul Sayyaf in Paghman, Kabul province, according to the director of the station.

Low-powered radio stations and satellite TV are the most effective means of reaching audiences in outlying areas of Afghanistan, a country with a population of 27 million spread over 252,000 square miles (653,000 square kilometers) of inhospitable terrain; the illiteracy rate is roughly 65 percent. About 60 percent of Afghans had access to some sort of media in 2006, with six TV broadcasters and more than 60 independent radio stations providing content.

Print media were not regulated and new publications were easily launched. About 450 newspapers and magazines published in 2006, most tied to a political bloc or ethnic group. A number of business failures were reported in what had become a saturated market.

The Ministry of Information and Culture was generally supportive of broadcast media, particularly radio stations, although some of these outlets came under attack at the local level. Radio Istiqlal in Loghar, the province south of Kabul, was firebombed on August 11. It had not been threatened directly, but a “night letter”–an anonymous warning distributed by hand and posted on walls–had appeared in the town a few days before, condemning “corruption and decadence.” Istiqlal broadcast a mix of news and entertainment, programming that often targeted women.

Journalism careers in Afghanistan continued to combine high risk with low pay, but members of the press played prominent roles at the village and community levels. Radio workers said stations run by women, or those where women could be heard on the air, were likely to anger local religious leaders in a country where, outside of a few urban areas, most women were expected to remain in the home as much as possible. The situation was aggravated when women called in to radio stations to voice their opinions. Most stations stood up to local pressure, but there was a growing fear that a conservative backlash could erase the government’s support.

The pressures on women in the Afghan media are formidable, and the few female journalists working in the country have spoken of continual frustration. Aunohita Mojumdar, a freelance reporter from New Delhi who has found a way to survive in Kabul despite the high cost of housing and tight security, said she had seen incremental improvements in the rights of women since the Taliban left, but her ability to move around freely remained extremely limited. “Being a woman is the biggest problem, not the lack of security,” Mojumdar said. “Being out in a public place makes me squirm as a woman. It’s not the male physical threat. But the scrutiny is so intense, and men are trying to get close to you physically. To a lot of Afghans, an unescorted woman on the street is assumed to be a prostitute.” She added, “I’m here to experience the country, but I’ve learned to put up a barrier to keep men at a distance. I don’t want to do that, but I must do it to survive.”

Added Farida Nekzad, head of the independent Pajhwok Afghan News: “I’m an editor, and I no longer like to go outside to report. And my female reporters complain that they are not respected when they assert themselves and take the microphone for questions at press conferences.” But Nekzad added that Pajhwok, which had about 10 female reporters among its staff of roughly 50, was committed to bringing more women into the media, “even though there is still male resentment and discomfort.”