Attacks on the Press 2010: Afghanistan

Top Developments
• Two killed, but press fatalities don’t rise in proportion to overall dangers.
• Kidnappings an ongoing hazard; two French journalists held captive.

Key Statistic
13: Foreign journalists killed in Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S. invasion.

Journalists faced numerous challenges from a multifaceted war, instances of government censorship, a culture of official corruption, and factionalism within the domestic media. Two journalists were killed and two others were held by kidnappers throughout the year. The Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, an agency funded by the European Union and European governmental aid agencies, said in September that Afghanistan was at its most dangerous level since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Insecurity reigned even as the NATO-led security mission in Afghanistan, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), raised troop levels, largely through the addition of about 30,000 U.S. forces. By the end of November, the United States had about 90,000 troops in Afghanistan, and ISAF troop levels stood at more than 130,000.


Main Index
Regional Analysis:
Partisan Journalism
And the Cycle
of Repression

Country Summaries
Sri Lanka
Other nations

But while the war intensified, the number of combat-related media deaths did not rise in proportion, a reflection of cautious coverage tactics and increased reliance on embedding with the military. But embedding could exact a high price, too. Rupert Hamer, a veteran war correspondent for Britain’s Sunday Mirror, was killed in January near Nawa in the southern province of Helmand. Hamer and Sunday Mirror photographer Philip Coburn, who was injured in the blast, were embedded with a U.S. Marines unit when their armored vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb. A U.S. Army reporter, James P. Hunter, who wrote for the Fort Campbell Courier and other U.S. military publications, was killed in June when an improvised explosive device detonated as he was covering operations in Kandahar. He was the first Army journalist killed in action in Afghanistan since the U.S. military began operations there in October 2001, according to CPJ research.

Thirteen of the 19 journalists killed in Afghanistan since the U.S. invasion in 2001 were foreign reporters, a pattern unlike that seen in most other countries, where local journalists have borne the brunt of violence. New York Times photojournalist João Silva was severely injured in October when he stepped on an anti-personnel mine while embedded with U.S. troops near the town of Arghandab in southern Afghanistan. Although he received immediate help from medics, both his legs were lost below the knees. “Those of you who know João will not be surprised to learn that throughout this ordeal he continued to shoot pictures,” Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, wrote in a memo to his staff.

The death of a local reporter in a 2009 British military rescue operation remained unexamined. In a March letter to Prime Minister Gordon Brown, CPJ appealed for a second time for an investigation into the September 2009 operation that rescued Stephen Farrell, a British-Irish New York Times correspondent, from Taliban kidnappers but led to the crossfire death of Afghan colleague Sultan Munadi. The case had become a flashpoint for many Afghan journalists angered that the life of a local reporter was not worthy of scrutiny. In a reply to CPJ, the British Ministry of Defense expressed regret for the loss of life but said “an inquiry is not warranted.” The British government took a different stance in October when British aid worker Linda Norgrove was killed during an unsuccessful U.S. military effort to free her from Taliban captors. In that case, British Prime Minister David Cameron secured a joint U.S./U.K. investigation into the circumstances.

Local and foreign reporting teams faced risk of kidnapping. France 3 television journalists Hervé Ghesquière and Stéphane Taponier, their translator, Mohammed Reza, and the group’s unidentified driver were still being held in late year by kidnappers in eastern Kapisa province. They were abducted in December 2009. From the beginning, the case was fraught with tension between French journalists and authorities. The administration of French President Nicolas Sarkozy initially expressed irritation at what it perceived to be the reporters’ imprudence. A French general raised the issue of how much a rescue operation would cost. The media themselves were slow to publicize the case. As CPJ Senior European Adviser Jean-Paul Marthoz wrote on the CPJ Blog, “In the first weeks of the drama, the directors of France 3 appeared hesitant. They refrained from publicizing the names of the two journalists until April, arguing that the secrecy would better guarantee their safety. Many in the media, however, felt that this attitude looked like a disavowal of two seasoned journalists who had reasonably assessed the risk of their trip and met with bad luck.”

At least one other reporter was held captive during the year. Japanese freelance journalist Kosuke Tsuneoka spent more than five months in captivity before he was released to the Japanese Embassy in September. He had gone missing during a reporting trip in a Taliban-controlled region of northern Afghanistan in late March. Tsuneoka’s case illustrated the ambiguity that made the country such a dangerous place to work. Even after his release, the identities of his abductors remained unclear. Afghan security officials said in June that Taliban militants had claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. Tsuneoka said after his release that the kidnappers were not Taliban insurgents, but “a group of corrupt armed factions” whose commander had links to the Afghan government. A Japanese government spokesman insisted that the government had not paid a ransom to the kidnappers.

President Hamid Karzai’s government was behind two prominent cases of censorship. In July, the Ministry of Information briefly shut down private broadcaster Emrooz TV, whose youth-oriented programming had drawn criticism from conservative Islamic leaders. The station’s owner, Member of Parliament Najib Kabuli, said the Iranian ambassador in Kabul had also exerted pressure on the government. A government spokesman denied that Iran influenced the decision. “To create religious division or to create religious problems is against the constitution of Afghanistan,” spokesman Abdul Hakim Hashir told the BBC by way of explanation. The station resumed operations within days.

In June, the Ministry of Communications instructed local Internet service providers to blacklist websites that promoted alcohol, gambling, and pornography, as well as ones that hosted dating and social networking services. But three months after the rules went into effect, the government targeted a news website, the Pashto-language Benawa. The site had angered the government when it incorrectly reported that the first vice president, Mohammed Qasim Fahim, had died. (The site corrected the error within a half-hour.) The site eventually came back online, apparently with government approval, after the case drew widespread attention.

Even in the middle of the armed conflict, and with a government reluctant to work with reporters, Afghan media outlets were burgeoning, at least in terms of numbers. According to Mujahid Kakar, the head of news and current affairs for Moby Media Group, Afghanistan’s largest media company, the country had more than 20 private TV channels, 220 radio stations, and 300 newspapers. While many were tied to politicians or their political parties, wealthy businessmen, or leaders of armed factions, there were enough genuine media operations to begin to form a critical mass.

Afghan journalists had yet to organize themselves into a single professional organization, as several groups vied for predominance. But there was a unified response in March when, in a series of individual meetings, Afghan National Directorate of Security spokesman Said Ansari told media managers not to report live from the scenes of terrorist attacks. Reuters, The Associated Press, and other international media outlets also received the instructions in separate meetings. After a strong negative response from news media, Karzai’s office distanced itself from the directive and said it was merely formulating guidelines. A few days later, a group of Afghan editors, journalists, and media owners developed their own voluntary guidelines for live coverage.

Media outlets came together again in July, when they joined with civil-society organizations to press the government to pass legislation to ensure access to public information in conformance with Article 50 of the Afghan Constitution. Motivated by the country’s suffocating culture of bribery and corruption, they urged legislation that would define public information, set procedures to obtain information, and provide complaint mechanisms.

When Moby Media Group’s Kakar spoke at the United Nations on World Press Freedom Day in May, he said media training and professionalism had not kept pace with the growth of the Afghan press. He urged the United Nations and other international groups to provide support and training to Afghan journalists. “Quite honestly, what Afghan journalists need right now is moral support, because we know that we can survive if we have international support,” Kakar told CPJ shortly after he had spoken at the United Nations. “Since the fall of the Taliban, media have been growing rapidly in Afghanistan. There are a lot of people who believe that they have a role in providing information, organizing civil society to prevent human rights abuses, women’s rights abuse. Moral support is essential.”