Attacks on the Press in 2008: Afghanistan

The security situation deteriorated as reporters came under increasing threats, both political and criminal in nature. At least three foreign correspondents and two local reporters were kidnapped across the country, not only in the provincial areas that became exceedingly dangerous after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, but in the area surrounding the capital, Kabul, that had once been considered safer.

Freelance documentarian Sean Langan was working for Britain’s Channel 4 program “Dispatches” when he was abducted near the border with Pakistan on March 28 by a Taliban group. He was released three months later. Dutch journalist Joanie de Rijke, who wrote for the Belgian magazine P, was released November 7 after being held captive for six days near Kabul. She had been working in an area near the city. On November 8, CBC reporter Mellissa Fung was freed after a month in captivity. She had been grabbed while conducting interviews at a refugee camp near Kabul, which had been considered a safe area for foreigners.

And on November 30, Taliban militants freed two Afghan journalists—Dawa Khan Menapal of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and local television reporter Aziz Popal—after holding them captive for three days, The Associated Press reported. Kidnappers seized the two as they were driving on the Kabul-Kandahar highway in Ghazni province. In some cases, the journalists’ media outlets asked that colleagues observe a news blackout during the abductions, citing concerns that publicity could endanger the captives’ lives. The blackouts were widely observed by media and CPJ.

The pressures facing journalists reflected conflicts within Afghan society as a whole. The push to modernize under a liberal economic model collided with traditional forms of Islam, a clash compounded by one of the world’s lowest standards of living. Violence and corruption were common.   As with other segments of the population, Afghan journalists were targeted by all sides: resurgent Taliban and al-Qaeda factions, prospering drug dealers and arms traders, feudal clan leaders, and government officials cashing in on international aid largesse.

One journalist was killed in direct connection to his work. Carsten Thomassen, a reporter for the Oslo daily Dagbladet, was among eight people who died January 15 in a suicide bomb attack conducted by three men at Kabul’s Serena Hotel, a gathering place for much of the country’s expatriate community. The attack came during a visit by Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, who was in the hotel but was uninjured.

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, which included more than 47,000 foreign troops, resorted to increasingly heavy-handed tactics, leading to civilian casualties and eroding the government’s popularity and political control. The case of a local journalist who was jailed for 11 months by the U.S. military reflected the sort of tactics that sowed discontent. Afghan journalists told CPJ that they were angered by the military’s handling of the case.

On September 21, Jawed Ahmad, 22, was released from Bagram Air Base north of Kabul. He had been held as an “unlawful enemy combatant” but was never charged with a crime or provided due process; military officials did not explain the basis for his prolonged detention. He was working under contract as a field producer with the Canadian broadcaster CTV when he was picked up by Canadian troops at the International Security Assistance Force’s Kandahar air base and moved to the American facility at Bagram.

Ahmad, who is known by his nickname, Jojo, and also uses the surname Yazemi, said he did not know why he had been freed or why he was detained in the first place. During his detention, he told reporters, he was frequently beaten—two of his ribs were broken—and was deprived of sleep. In a statement, CPJ said his detention added “to the U.S. military’s appalling record of detaining working journalists in conflict zones, without a modicum of due process, based on allegations which are shrouded in secrecy and have apparently proved to be unfounded.”

The only explanation for his release came from a U.S. government statement that said Ahmad had been released because he “was no longer considered a threat.” The statement offered no further explanation for the 11-month detention. A military spokesman told CPJ that Ahmad suffered broken ribs in an altercation with other detainees but was not mistreated by U.S. forces.

One journalist remained jailed in an Afghan prison in late year. Parwez Kambakhsh, a college student who wrote for the daily Jahan-e-Naw, was sentenced to death in January in a provincial court in Mazr-i-Sharif, in the northern province of Balkh. He was accused of anti-Islamic activities, including distributing an online article that critiqued the role of women in Islam and making irreligious comments in classes at Balkh University. His brother, reporter Yaqub Ibrahimi, had produced critical pieces for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, leading many journalists to believe that the prosecution was retaliatory.

In October, a Kabul appeals court overturned the death sentence and imposed a 20-year prison term. Defense lawyers said they would take the case to the Supreme Court, and they urged international advocates to ask President Hamid Karzai to intercede in the case. The high court was expected to hear the appeal in early 2009.

Kambakhsh denied the charges. He declared himself a devout Muslim and said he had been coerced into signing a confession after he was beaten. Kambakhsh did not have a lawyer when the provincial court, acting on the recommendation of local clerics, sentenced him to death on January 22. Several defense lawyers declined to represent him because of the religious implications of the case and fears for their own safety, according to local journalists.

The Karzai government found itself in a difficult position with Kambakhsh. The charge of blasphemy is considered extremely serious within Afghanistan. The government had to balance the demands of powerful traditional sectors of the population with the expectations of largely Western donors, who saw the young reporter’s case as one of free expression.

As the government’s popularity waned, so did its commitment to open media. According to the Nai Center for Open Media, a local nongovernmental organization, the government was responsible for at least 23 of 45 instances of press intimidation, violence, or detention between May 2007 and May 2008. That reflected a 130 percent increase over the same period a year earlier, the center said.

Some cases had potentially sweeping ramifications. On January 4, Karzai met with influential clerics who called on him to ban popular music shows and Indian soap operas broadcast by privately owned Tolo TV because they were deemed un-Islamic. Shortly after that meeting, Minister of Culture and Youth Abdul Khurram directed all private channels to halt programming “contrary to Afghanistan’s culture and laws” on threat of prosecution, according to a copy of his letter obtained by CPJ. Khurram’s ministry is responsible for the government’s media policies.

In 2002, Karzai pledged to turn state-owned Radio Television Afghanistan (RTA) into a public service broadcaster. But Karzai rejected draft legislation in 2007 and 2008 that would have established a commission of legislative and judicial representatives to govern RTA, saying the measure would be unconstitutional. RTA’s director of planning and foreign relations, Abdul Rahman Panjshiri, resigned in September 2007, citing Culture Minister Khurram’s efforts to curb the station’s independence. “During my 29 years of service with RTA I have not seen such an attempt to suppress freedom,” he said in comments published on the Web site of Radio Netherlands.

Breshna Nazari, a respected Afghan reporter, wrote to CPJ in September with a reminder for colleagues worldwide. “We have many journalists who really work in difficult circumstances, even killed for their struggle for freedom of the press,” he wrote. With conditions deteriorating for journalists, CPJ honored Danish Karokhel and Farida Nekzad, director and deputy director of the national news agency Pajhwok Afghan News, with International Press Freedom Awards in November. Pajhwok maintained a network of bureaus throughout the country, staffed and managed by Afghans. Karokhel and Nekzad are also media rights activists, both committed to the advancement of press freedom since the fall of the Taliban. The pair said they accepted the award in the name of all Afghan journalists.

ASIA: Regional Analysis
Media Freedom Stalls as China Sets the Course

ASIA: Country Summaries

Afghanistan Pakistan
Burma Philippines
China Sri Lanka
India Thailand
Malaysia Vietnam
Nepal Other Attacks and Developments in the Region

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