Afghan media push bill to ensure access to information

When we report on Afghanistan, it’s often about something horrific—a deadly explosion, a murder, a kidnapping. But when you ask many Afghan journalists about the biggest challenge they face daily, it’s not danger or harassment that they cite. Although Article 50 of the Afghanistan Constitution guarantees access to public information, journalists say that obtaining such information from the government is their greatest ongoing concern. 

So dozens media and civil society organizations, timing their effort to the July 21 international conference in Kabul, have pressed the government to pass legislation to ensure access to public information. Their proposed bill would:

  • Ensure the right to information that is either held by or under the control of public and private bodies, including assistance providers and subcontractors.
  • Provide fines and sanctions for officials who withhold public information.
  • Publicize the procedures for getting information and specify the responsibilities of civil servants.
  • Ensure the right to photocopy original documents so individuals can study the information on their own.
  • Provide complaint mechanisms, including a hotline.

The groups, motivated by the country’s suffocating culture of bribery and corruption, want to ensure an enforceable right to get information from the government. You can find the groups’ statement here. Another explainer and petition, from the Afghan Analysts Network, is here. The widely respected Afghan analyst, Barnett Rubin at New York University, draws an analogy between the right of Afghans to access to clean water and nutrition and their right to know what their government is doing.

Despite enormous challenges, the Afghan press corps is dynamic and the media landscape burgeoning. Afghanistan is home to more than 20 privately owned TV stations, scores of FM radio stations, and a vibrant print media centered in Kabul. Afghanistan’s literacy rate is only about 12 percent according to the United Nations, so broadcast news predominates.

For journalists and others, the next step is to push the right-to-information proposal through the legislature and get it turned into a law. Even with all the battles Afghan journalists face on a daily basis, it’s an important task. And then once there is a law affirming their constitutional rights, they will have to convince government officials to honor it. And that will be a whole other battle.