Afghanistan: Constitutional crisis brews in Kabul over new government media restrictions
|Publication Date||3 March 2010|
|Cite as||EurasiaNet, Afghanistan: Constitutional crisis brews in Kabul over new government media restrictions, 3 March 2010, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4b966e752.html [accessed 30 September 2014]|
|Disclaimer||This 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.|
Aunohita Mojumdar: 3/03/10
Afghan journalists have a mixed reaction to a government ban on live broadcast coverage of Islamic militant terror attacks. Many in Kabul say the ban places Afghan media outlets on the slippery slope of state censorship. Some journalists, however, see the restrictions as a reasonable response to a set of threatening and extraordinary circumstances, while others are remaining silent out of concern that criticism of the government could invite official retaliation.
The Afghan Government's National Directorate of Security (NDS), the nation's intelligence agency, issued an order March 1 banning media from broadcasting live images of terror attacks. Officials justified the ban by arguing that live images of property damage and loss of life abetted the Taliban insurgency. Journalists violating the ban will be subject to arrest, along with the confiscation of their equipment.
The prohibition applies to both national and international media outlets. Its imposition followed a February 26 attack on two guest houses in the center of Kabul city that left at least 22 people dead and over 40 wounded. The insurgents stormed the guest houses and held off government security forces for several hours during the sophisticated and well-coordinated operation. Local media provided live coverage of the attack as it was playing out. The coverage was a PR disaster for the government, creating an impression that security forces were not as combat-capable as their Taliban opponents. The incident led to the resignation of senior police personnel in Kabul, although the resignations were not immediately accepted amid an ongoing official investigation.
Representatives of President Hamid Karzai's administration have come out forcefully in support of the ban. Waheed Omar, a presidential aide, said the government wanted to ensure two things: "the protection of the lives of the journalists; and a mechanism that will ensure that the enemy does not use live broadcasts to plan, or to get instructions to their people at the scene, which makes not only the security forces vulnerable, but also civilians and journalists."
The ban is not the first attempt by the government to curb media coverage of the insurgency. Most recently, the NDS banned reporting on any incidents of violence during the polling hours of the 2009 presidential election.
The March 1 ban met with immediate criticism from journalist groups, including the Committee for Protection of Afghan Journalists and the Afghan National Journalists Union. Media-related non-governmental organizations, as well as a large number of media outlet owners and reporters, also came out against the restrictions.
"NDS, like most of security/intelligence agencies, puts its mission ahead of any other consideration. They [NDS officials] forget that they are bound to the same Constitution that is ensuring the freedom of information/expression" said Shahir Zahine the chairman of the Killid Media Group and a media activist.
Like Zahine, many journalists are basing their opposition on constitutional grounds. Article 34 of the 2004 Afghan Constitution specifically states: "Freedom of Expression shall be inviolable. Every Afghan has the right to express his thought through speech, writing, illustration or other means by observing the provisions stated in this constitution. Every Afghan has the right to print or publish materials without prior submission to the state authorities in accordance with the law."
"I don't know why they [NDS officials] have instituted a ban that violates all laws," said Mujeeb Khalvatgar, a media activist.
In a possible prelude to a constitutional challenge, Zahine said he would instruct journalists working for the Killid Media Group to ignore the ban. Khalvatgar likewise stated that he was advocating non-compliance.
Acceptance of the ban, other journalists contended, could encourage the government to impose additional restrictions in the future. Ultimately, some worried, the Karzai administration may harbor desires to snuff out independent media voices.
"I think the media should not accept the ban" said Waheed Hashemi, the executive director of Nai, an Afghan media group supporting free media. "This time they want to ban live coverage. Next time they will say don't report at all on the attacks."
Not all journalists are so adamantly opposed to the NDS restrictions. Some say that government worries about the impact of such images are legitimate, but add that officials are not addressing those concerns in the proper way. Barry Salaam, who heads a radio station, Good Morning Afghanistan, said that "NDS has a valid point to make, but they don't know how to make it." Salaam added that it was important for Afghan media outlets to ensure that they do not inadvertently become propaganda mouthpieces for anyone, including the Taliban. "We must protect the very basis of freedom of expression and should not endanger it by irresponsible reporting."
Salaam said media outlets had to be careful in covering security-related issues, and report only "as much as our audience needs." Khalvatgar, however, argued that Salaam's position could open the door for self-censorship. "It is not what the audience needs to know, but what they have to know. It is not a need, but an obligation."
Some media outlets are wary of taking a public position for fear of attracting the ire of the security agencies, or being denied future access to government information. "The Afghan media already have problems in accessing information and it will become more difficult to get access. The NDS can create problems for us, especially in provinces where they can stop us because they are armed" said Danish Karokhel, the director of Pajhwok an independent Afghan news agency.
Karokhel also expressed concern that the NDS restrictions would create an uneven playing field between local and international media outlets, since foreign journalists may well ignore the ban. US officials have questioned the wisdom of such reporting restrictions, and have indicated that they will raise the issue with Karzai administration officials.
Moby Capital, a media group that owns the hugely popular outlets Tolo TV and Arman FM, has yet to take a position on the restrictions, said Mohammad Abdullah, a lawyer and host on Tolo TV. The head of Tolo news, Mujahid Kakar, was reported as saying that any order concerning news coverage in Afghanistan should come through the Ministry of Information and Culture. Without commenting on the pros and cons of the restrictions, he was quoted as saying that any government order that appeared to contravene the Constitution was problematic.
The Ministry of Information and Culture itself has remained silent on the controversy. The new information minister, Sayed Makhdoom Raheen, is largely seen as more supportive of media independence.
Media activists said they intend to convene meetings of journalists over the next few days in an attempt to formulate a unified response to the NDS restrictions. "We, as media actors, need to get together and made our point to the parliament/government and to the public. We need to reclaim the space that is our due and is given to us by law" said Zahine.
Editor's Note: Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for the past 19 years.