Hamid Karzai goes conservative on media

As if a faltering media industry and rising risks to endangered journalists as NATO reduces its forces in 2014 aren’t bad enough, add in a president pandering to religious conservatives in a pre-presidential election run-up. Reporting from Kabul, Reuters said Wednesday:  

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has agreed with a call from the country’s conservative religious council for a crackdown on television stations, calling some of their programs “immoral and un-Islamic,” officials said on Tuesday.

Reuters goes on to note that the announcement “may alarm some of Afghanistan’s international backers, who have invested heavily through 12 years of war in promoting liberal values and freedom of expression.”

Maybe. Or maybe not. Over the years, international backers have become accustomed to seeing proposals for restrictions on Afghanistan’s media bubble up. We have written to President Karzai several times (such as here, here, here, and here) to express our concerns.

But, as human rights activist Ahmad Nader Nadery, now at the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, pointed out to me when I was in Kabul,

The government’s attitude toward media has been mixed and inconsistent. Its response seems to be driven more by individuals than by a broad or coherent policy. There has been no systematic attempt to restrict media, but individuals within the government working on their own group’s political agendas have made attempts.

It’s probably wise to view this most recent Karzai announcement in that light. While he will most likely step aside after the 2014 elections, he will be positioning a yet-to-be-announced candidate to be his successor. Playing to the vast voting bloc of religiously conservative Afghans, calling for a restrained media does Karzai little electoral damage, and is another way to distance himself from the foreign forces in Afghanistan, a tactic he has increasingly been using.

But what next? Wednesday’s announcement criticizes “immoral and un-Islamic” programming but stops short of accusing broadcasters of “promoting prostitution,” as the Ulema council of clerics did in their meeting with Karzai on April 19. It was that meeting that led to Wednesday’s announcement.

There was no mention of stifling the still-vibrant news environment, though there have been government attempts in the past. But a lot of the programming that would fall under the “immoral and un-Islamic” classification is actually a main revenue stream for broadcasters and helps support their news programming. And that will have an impact. With ad revenues thin and international donors drawing down, add one more worry to the list facing Afghan media.