Last Updated: Wednesday, 07 December 2016, 12:47 GMT

Afghan Media: Free Agents or Obedient Servants?

Publisher Institute for War and Peace Reporting
Author Mina Habib; Hafizullah Gardesh
Publication Date 2 May 2013
Citation / Document Symbol ARR Issue 453
Cite as Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Afghan Media: Free Agents or Obedient Servants?, 2 May 2013, ARR Issue 453, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/51879d0a4.html [accessed 8 December 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Experts offer sharply opposing views on progress since 2001.

A diverse and free media environment is often cited as one of the major achievements of post-2001 Afghanistan, but some local commentators say that is far from the whole truth.

To mark World Press Freedom Day, May 3, IWPR asked working journalists and media-watchers in Afghanistan for their views on how much things have improved in recent years.

Abdul Qahar Jawad, who lectures in journalism at Kabul University, is among the optimists.

"Whenever we hear from the media that some individual is involved in seizing land, taking bribes or violating human rights - regardless of what impact the report has - it's clear evidence that free speech exists," he said. "Such things would have been impossible under past governments."

Since the Taleban administration was ousted in 2001, Afghanistan has seen a boom in broadcast and print media. The country now has 53 television channels, 15 radio stations and hundreds of print publications. As Jawad pointed out, freedom of expression is enshrined in the Afghan constitution.

"Compared with previous periods, freedom of speech and media has undergone a 100 per cent improvement," Abdul Hamid Mobarez, chairman of the National Union Journalists,told IWPR, adding that "by world standards, though, we face many problems".

Mobarez sees the biggest single achievement of the last decade as the elimination of state monopoly ownership.

"In terms of quality and quantity, our media are fairly unique in this region," he told IWPR. "Neighbouring countries can't compete with us in that regard."

After the "decade of democracy" from 1964 to 1973, press freedom was squeezed out of existence. The last Soviet-backed leader, President Najibullah, allowed some independent media to start up, but those tentative steps were swept away in the civil war that followed the mujahedin takeover in 1992. The Taleban, in power in Kabul from 1996, even cut out the one state-run TV station, leaving their Voice of Shariah radio as the sole broadcaster.

"Under that regime, it was considered a sin to take photographs," recalled Danesh Karokhel, director of the Pajhwok news agency. By contrast, he said, the changes following 2001 allowed the media to develop into a real force that helped make the public much more politically and socially aware.

"We can therefore conclude that this has been a great opportunity for us, and that media freedom in Afghanistan is in good shape," he said.

Mobarez acknowledges that multiple challenges remain, chief among them the failure to institutionalise a "culture of democracy" in Afghanistan. Government officials are frequently uncooperative, and reporters face security threats not just from the Taleban but also from their own side and from the international forces operating in the country.

The Nai - Supporting Open Media in Afghanistan group says 39 journalists have been killed since 2001, and 1,000 more injured, assaulted or imprisoned.

Abdol Mojib Khelwatgar, executive director of the Nai group, says the government has failed to live up to its own commitments.

"Freedom of speech is a coin - on one side there's the right to freely comment, criticise and make suggestions; the reverse is that the government and state have to assume their responsibilities. Unfortunately, that reverse face of the coin hasn't been in evidence in the last 11 years".

Nabi Asir, who reports for Deutsche Welle radio from northern Afghanistan, said the "gift" of freedom of expression came with too many strings attached.

"Freedom of speech and media was never institutionalised because the external forces which back the warlords and the national and local strongmen imposed on people by force of arms have given them monopoly control over free speech," he said. "Freedom of speech has been held hostage over the past 11 years, and it still is. Journalists and media outlets enjoy freedom of speech as long as they don't say anything against the interests of these powerful individuals and thieves. If they do, there will be no freedom for them."

Writer and journalist Mohammad Hassan Wolosmal went further in his criticism.

"I would question whether a country under occupation can claim to have freedom. The media are occupied in the same way as our country is occupied by the United States. They are controlled by western countries, by Pakistan or Iran, by domestic political parties, factions and strongmen."

He continued, "Every media outlet is a political project created by somebody. Let's consider the extent to which the media's activities have converged with our national interests or with the interests of others. That kind of assessment will tell us whether or not we have freedom of speech and media. The actual number of media outlets is irrelevant."

Funding is at the heart of this debate. With limited opportunities for advertising revenues, media businesses tend to rely on foreign donors or wealthy private benefactors. Either entails the risk of accusations of bias. (See Lean Times for Afghan Journalism.)

"Any media outlet that receives money from others cannot claim to be free," asserted political analyst Abdul Ghaful Lewal, who believes self-sufficiency is a basic precondition for editorial independence.

Lewal blames poor journalistic standards for the failure to turn many outlets into viable commercial entities.

"Anarchy has come to reign, in the name of free speech. The media became so critical that their role was devalued. The people in power became immunised against all the criticism, so that it doesn't touch them any more," he said. "Many journalists began working for outsiders as paid employees. The public lost faith in the media, and people's faith, historic and cultural values were misused. The lack of transparency in media funding also made people mistrustful."

Despite sharing some of his colleagues' criticisms, Khelwatgar says things could be a lot worse.

"If - God forbid - the media stop operating in Afghanistan even for just one day," he said, "there will be a tenfold increase in the crimes committed by the Taleban, by the bully-boys, and by those who lie coiled like serpents in the bosom of state and nation, just waiting to drink more of the people's blood."

Copyright notice: © Institute for War & Peace Reporting

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