Free press commitment from both contenders for Afghan presidency

With little good news coming from Afghanistan amid the escalating violence and electoral standoff, here is something that goes against that tide. A coalition of Afghan journalist groups has got both presidential candidates in the disputed runoff election to endorse a 12-article statement of support for Afghanistan’s media — “Commitment of the Candidates of the Presidential Election’s Runoff Phase In Support of Free Media and Journalists.” Article 1: “I respect the value as an [sic] non-violable principle and pledge to spare no legal measures to promote and protect press freedom and freedom of speech.” (The letter is also available in Dari and Pashto.)

The even better news is that the document was drafted by a significantly broad group — the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee (AJSC), Afghanistan’s National Journalists Union, Nai, and the Afghan Independent Journalists Association — which then acted in consort to get the endorsements, Najib Sharifi, director of AJSC, told CPJ. It’s extremely encouraging that the groups could act in a concerted effort to bring this off. As we’ve noted before, very often there has been a discouraging lack of unity within the journalist community.

The agreement from the two candidates, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, comes soon after they declared that they would reverse the decision of the Karzai government to expel New York Times reporter Matthew Rosenberg in late August because a story he wrote on the stalled elections was “considered divisive and contrary to the national interest, security and stability of Afghanistan,” according to The New York Times. Rosenberg, who was ordered to leave the country within 24 hours on August 20, became the first Western journalist to be expelled publicly since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, CPJ noted at the time.

Even with the express support of both candidates, the situation for local and international journalists remains precarious. According to AJSC’s report in January, violence against journalists increased by 60 percent compared with the same period the previous year. AJSC, with which CPJ cooperates closely, says government workers, including security forces, are responsible for 63 percent of the instances of violence against journalists. And while it’s good that both potential candidates for the presidency have pledged to support journalists and journalism, don’t expect that trend to reverse any time soon. Anecdotal evidence since then seems to indicate that trend has only worsened.

With the standoff between the candidates nearing a potentially violent standoff, a commitment to a free press might seem like a small victory. But it is a victory of many dimensions. I have said this before, but it is too soon to write off Afghanistan as a totally lost cause. Clearly, Afghan journalists have not.