Afghanistan’s draft media law slowed, but not stopped

For now, the Afghan government’s apparent attempt at railroading through a less-than-media-friendly new Mass Media Law without consultation seems to have been sidelined, though not derailed. On Sunday in Kabul, representatives of the Ministry of Information and Culture received recommendations from civil society workers and journalists, including some from the provinces, which were drawn up at a June 27 meeting organized by Internews‘s Nai Media Institute in Afghanistan.

The document included 19 specific proposals to the law’s 54 articles. You can access a PDF of the proposed changes here.

The greatest concern in the media community was initially that the government had not allowed any time for exactly such input before putting the bill in front of the legislature for debate.  It isn’t clear if that was a purposeful decision or an oversight due to political ineptitude on the government’s part–theories vary depending on who you talk to in Kabul.

After we raised this in a blog post, Lotfullah Najafizadah, head of current affairs at Afghanistan’s largest news operation Tolo News, messaged to add Tolo’s concerns about the proposed law. He noted that, as it is written, the Media Supreme Council that would set editorial policy would be chaired by the Minister of Information and Culture, an alarming direction that would let the government restrict media activities, especially those of news channels.

The draft would also restrict the ability of media to debate or report on areas such as national security and religion; these rules are vague, Najafizadah says, and he worries that the government could hand down punishment for any report or talk show which it might not like, using national security as an excuse.

Before the international donors’ conference earlier this month, I had called on Afghan journalists and media support groups attending the meeting in Tokyo to pressure governments to commit support for Afghan media as 2014 approaches, with its withdrawal of NATO troops and potential political instability. As many Afghan media organizations and their international supporters have pointed out, much of the country’s vibrant press will face a crisis of survival if it doesn’t continue receiving foreign support. But Human Rights Watch’s Kabul-based researcher Heather Barr was in Tokyo, and she said that only Finland’s delegation apparently raised the media issue there.

Barr also raised concerns that the law might be passed as is, without incorporating the journalists’ recommendations. “Given that it’s being championed by the president’s chief of staff, I worry that we could see it passed overnight by presidential decree while Parliament is in recess. So I hope we can keep the pressure on,” Barr told me in an email.

Not a bad suggestion. Despite the input of some Afghan journalists, it’s not time to lose sight of the fact that Afghans might well be facing new, harsher restrictions on the press.