Afghanistan must uphold its commitment to free press

March 13, 2012

President Hamid Karzai
Islamic Republic of Afghanistan
C/o The Embassy of Afghanistan
2341 Wyoming Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20008

Via facsimile: 202-483-6487

Dear President Karzai:

We are deeply concerned by the potential repercussions of a March 10 statement released by Ministry of Defense spokesman Gen. Zahir Azimi over an article written by The Wall Street Journal reporter Maria Abi-Habib. The statement, which personally attacks the journalist, sends a chilling message to other reporters who write about alleged government misconduct. We call on you to publicly address Azimi’s statement and ask all government officials to refrain from attacks on journalists. We also ask you to uphold your commitment to a free press in Afghanistan that you have made many times in the past.

Abi-Habib’s March 8 article reported on accusations that Afghan Air Force personnel were involved in drug and weapons trafficking while using AAF aircraft. The story cited officials from the International Security Assistance Force openly saying they were investigating misconduct within the AAF. The article also said a separate investigation was being carried out by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

The article also quoted several high-ranking Afghan government officials, including AAF spokesman Lt. Col. Mohammed Bahadur and Minister of Defense Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak. But Azimi’s statement, released two days later, contained personal attacks on the journalist in a seeming attempt to discredit her:

Miss Maria Habib, a journalist of The Wall Street Journal deals with these matters with ultimate obsession; her untruthful reports are well-known amongst national and international media.

Perhaps even worse, the statement ended on a threatening note:

In reviewing this story by The Wall Street Journal it appears that political groups from different countries pay certain journalists such as Miss Habib who are seeking fame to broadcast such baseless and untruthful reports.

Stating that someone is being paid by “political groups from different countries” is a serious charge, one that puts any reporter in serious danger. The accusation is even more dangerous in a country like Afghanistan, where rule of law is relatively weak and threats, attacks, and murders take place with near-complete impunity.

In addition, these barely veiled threats send a chilling message to all other reporters, local or foreign, who dare to write critically of the government.

As an organization dedicated to the protection of journalists around the world, we urge you to uphold your commitment to a free press in Afghanistan. We call on you to publicly address Azimi’s statement and also ask all government officials to refrain from such potentially lethal attacks on local and foreign reporters.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Joel Simon
Executive Director