I've been making the rounds of journalists and organizations in Kabul for the last several days. As I mentioned in my last post, I've been asked to come up with a support plan for journalists after next year's presidential elections, the drawdown of international troops, and an expected reduction in international aid.
This afternoon, I was in the office of Fahim Dashdi, a board member of the Afghan Journalists Federation, a year old group that represents the concerns of media organizations. The federation, for example, helped critique a government media bill.
When I arrived, Dashdi was in discussion with a journalist who had just been released after two weeks in prison. Abdolrahman Sakhizadeh, who works for the independent daily Mandegar, had been held on libel charges in connection with a May 15 story alleging corruption in the High Office for Oversight and Anti-Corruption (HOOAC). The offended party was Azizullah Ludin, HOOOAC's chairman. Sakhizadeh says he has the documents to back up his reporting. A small circle of Afghan media lawyers will defend him.
Sakhizadeh, who had been released after the apparent intervention of President Hamid Karzai, is also a writer and academic. I asked about his two weeks in Kabul Provincial Prison, during Ramadan and one of Kabul's hottest periods. With a shrug of the shoulders, he responded, "prison is prison." When I asked if he felt leaving the country was a viable option if his case looked unwinnable in court, Sakhizadeh demurred. He didn't see it as a realistic option and did not want to flee the country because of intimidation by a government official.
What I've found while I've been here is that Afghan journalism is under mounting pressure at the local, regional, and national levels. The threats and harassment come from all the players on Afghanistan's political stage: the government; the military; the security apparatus from the village level to the capital; and regional and ethnic powerbrokers who seek to return to power. Add to that a whole array of insurgent groups, some with a national agenda, others only seeking to reclaim a local mosque or enforce stricter adherence to their interpretation of Islam. Though a few embassies tell me of a growing number of visa applicants, journalists do not seem ready to leave. What lies ahead will be determined largely by the person Afghans elect as leader, and whether that person achieves office through a voting process perceived by Afghans as legitimate. As I said soon after I got here, to a much lesser extent do they see their future determined by the presence of foreign troops or more foreign development assistance.
My brief when I came here was to plan for the future, which I'm doing. But there are still plenty of problems to address in the present, and what I've found is that Afghan journalists are increasingly confronting them on their own. Looking at the working journalists I've been meeting, it seems Afghan media are in good hands.