Attacks on the Press 2009: Afghanistan

Top Developments
• Government tries to curb reporting on Election Day violence.
• Abductions target foreign reporters, endangering local journalists, too.

Key Statistic
20: Years that Parwez Kambakhsh would have spent in jail on an unjust charge. He was freed in August.

Deepening violence, flawed elections, rampant corruption, and faltering development provided plenty of news to cover, but the deteriorating national conditions also raised dangers for local and foreign journalists working in Afghanistan. Roadside bombs claimed the life of a Canadian reporter and injured several other international journalists. A series of kidnappings mainly targeted international reporters, but one captive Afghan journalist was killed during a British military mission that succeeded in rescuing his British-Irish colleague.


Main Index
Regional Analysis:
As fighting surges,
so does danger to press

Makings of a Massacre
Country Summaries
North Korea
Sri Lanka
Other developments

Insurgent groups sought to disrupt the August 20 presidential elections with an array of bombings and other attacks, prompting the government to issue a directive urging news media not to report on Election Day violence. Officials followed up with phone calls seeking to discourage such reporting, saying the coverage would deter turnout. Some Afghan news media toned down coverage in response, journalists told CPJ, but most reported events as they ordinarily would. “Our local members in all 34 provinces all rejected the government’s request, and we issued a statement and told members to continue reporting all day the same way they have in the past,” Rahimullah Samander, head of the Afghan Independent Journalists Association, told CPJ. International journalists reported obstruction by police seeking to enforce the directive. P.J. Tobia, a correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, reported that police were “ripping video and still cameras off the shoulders of photographers and television reporters” seeking to cover the aftermath of a Kabul firefight. At least three international journalists and several local journalists were briefly detained in various parts of the country on Election Day.

Reports of fraud emerged as quickly as tallies showing President Hamid Karzai ahead. The United Nations, which was charged with overseeing the vote, found the official counts in some provinces exceeded the estimated number of voters by more than 100,000. U.N. officials eventually said that nearly a third of the ballots for the incumbent were fraudulent and should be thrown out, leaving Karzai with less than 50 percent of the vote. U.S. and international pressure persuaded Karzai to agree to a runoff, but chief presidential rival Abdullah Abdullah withdrew from the race on November 1, saying the voting would still be rigged. Barely an hour after the Afghan Independent Election Commission announced on November 2 that Karzai had won by default, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul issued a statement congratulating him and calling the election “historic.” Though the vote was marred by a lack of security, low turnout, fraud, and voter intimidation, many other countries accepted the result as well. During a pre-election trip to Kabul in July, CPJ was told by diplomats and international aid agencies of the importance of stability and continuity before and after the voting, and they warned of a dangerous “political vacuum” if the election were inconclusive.

The problem-plagued election deepened the risk in places such as Kandahar. The city and the surrounding areas have long been a focal point of military conflict between NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Taliban groups, but journalists said the southern province became even more dangerous as the election arrived. “Besides the daily threat of being caught up in an attack by insurgent groups, several local journalists tell CPJ they fear beatings, detentions, or worse in retribution for their reporting,” Executive Director Joel Simon wrote in a letter to Karzai in September. CPJ’s letter noted that local reporters were also concerned about threats from officials connected with the provincial council, headed by the president’s brother and campaign manager, Ahmed Wali Karzai. News outlets that carried allegations of Ahmed Wali Karzai’s involvement in drug smuggling and campaign corruption were among those targeted.

With violence continuing, the United States and some of the 41 other countries that make up the ISAF increased troop commitments in late year. In November, a week after five U.N. staff members were killed by militants who targeted their Kabul housing compound, the United Nations evacuated about 600 of its 1,100 international staff, at least initially calling it a temporary move. 

Abductions remained a pernicious problem, raising not only security issues but difficult questions about how best to secure the freedom of captives and how to report the stories. Since 2007, at least 15 journalists were reported abducted by the Taliban and other militant or criminal groups. Although international journalists appeared to be targeted, local reporters—often serving as guides, interpreters, and fixers for their international counterparts—were also snatched and placed at risk. Three cases offer different insight into the issue.

In November, in one of the most recent abductions, Norwegian freelance television producer Paal Refsdal and his translator, Seraj-u-den Ahmadzai, were released from captivity in Kunar province, near the Pakistan border. Their freedom came after quiet negotiations between the Norwegian Embassy and a Taliban group holding them, with the cooperation of the Afghan government. 

The September kidnapping of New York Times reporters Stephen Farrell and Sultan Mohammed Munadi ended much differently. Four days after the two were taken by Taliban forces south of Kunduz, British commandos rescued Farrell, a British-Irish national, but did not save Munadi, who was killed during the mission under circumstances that were not explained. The Times told CPJ it had expressed reservations about the mission beforehand to British officials. In November, CPJ wrote to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown urging his government to investigate whether organizers of the mission had identified Munadi’s rescue as a central objective and whether troops had sufficient information to identify him as a captive. Brown’s office said he had referred the matter to the Defense Ministry, which did not immediately respond to CPJ. The death of Munadi, a respected local reporter, resonated deeply in the Afghan press corps. Local journalists formed the ad hoc Munadi Group, which called on the Afghan government, NATO, the United Nations, and the British government to explain how and why Munadi had been killed.

David Rohde, a prominent New York Times reporter on leave to write a book, and his local colleague, Tahir Ludin, managed to escape their Taliban captors in June 2009, after seven months in captivity. The two were abducted in November 2008 while on their way to interview a Taliban commander in Logar province, south of Kabul, and were taken to Pakistan’s North Waziristan, near the border with Afghanistan. During the time Ludin and Rohde were held, The New York Times suppressed reporting of the abduction. The paper’s staffers in New York contacted editors and bloggers to say that a media blackout was in the men’s best interests. CPJ and others honored the request, which the paper said had come from Rohde’s family. In the aftermath, the case stirred debate in the United States over the ethics of withholding the news story from the public.

Danish Karokhel, who runs the Pajhwok Afghan News agency, said he faces such difficult decisions regularly. He told CPJ in Kabul that he refrains from covering many stories for fear of angering powerful figures and, thus, endangering his reporters. But then, he said, he has to deal with complaints from local people who want their story told and want to know why it is not being reported. “As a reporter in this country, what are we supposed to cover? Every story has to anger someone; that’s what makes it news,” said Karokhel, a 2008 CPJ International Press Freedom Awardee.

The Afghan press corps covered violence and corruption forcefully, although political influence on news outlets was pervasive. Many media outlets are tied to influential political figures and tribal leaders, and the government often allocates broadcast licenses to local figures to curry political favor. Reporting on the drug trade was especially hazardous. The 2008 murder of Abdul Samad Rohani, a BBC and Pajhwok Afghan News reporter who had covered drug trafficking in Helmand province, remained unsolved. 

In late December, a reporter embedded with Canadian troops was killed along with four soldiers while traveling in a military convoy. Michelle Lang, who was working for the Calgary Herald and Canwest News Service, was covering the activities of a reconstruction team when its vehicle hit a roadside bomb just south of Kandahar.

The year was marked by one positive note. Parwez Kambakhsh, a 24-year-old Afghan journalist and student unjustly convicted of blasphemy, was freed from Kabul Detention Center in August, apparently on a presidential pardon. Kambakhsh had been arrested in October 2007 and accused of distributing an Internet article about women’s rights in Islam. He was initially sentenced to death during a brief, closed-door proceeding at which he was denied legal representation. The death sentence was later reduced to a 20-year prison term.

CPJ had waged a vigorous international campaign on behalf of Kambakhsh, and had visited the young reporter in jail in July. The case was politically sensitive for Karzai, who had to strike a balance between international pressure and the expectations of the country’s conservative religious leadership. Yaqub Ibrahimi, the journalist’s brother and a reporter himself, thanked CPJ for its advocacy in the case and said the release was “a victory for freedom of speech in Afghanistan.” Wary of future reprisals, Kambakhsh and his brother left Afghanistan for undisclosed locations.