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Attacks on the Press in 2003 - Afghanistan

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 2004
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 2003 - Afghanistan, February 2004, available at: [accessed 18 December 2017]
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.

Press freedom conditions have improved dramatically since the fall of the hard-line Taliban regime in December 2001. However, Afghanistan's rocky transition to democracy has not removed all obstacles for the media, and local journalists remain under threat.

In 2003, supporters of powerful government officials and military leaders intimidated, harassed, and attacked independent journalists in retaliation for critical articles, resulting in widespread self-censorship. In April, Zahur Afghan, editor of the Kabul-based daily Erada, received eight death threats in a 24-hour period after publishing an article that criticized the Education Ministry. That same month, a knife-wielding man attacked Dr. Samay Hamed, a prominent journalist and a recipient of CPJ's 2003 International Press Freedom Award, after he denounced the power of local warlords in an interview with the BBC. Hamed sustained injuries to his chest, arms, and hands.

In the western province of Herat, local governor and warlord Ismail Khan, who has been widely accused of human rights violations, continued to clamp down on the local media. At the opening of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission office in March, Radio Liberty reporter Ahmed Behzad was beaten, thrown in jail, and expelled from the region on Ismail Khan's orders after he overheard the reporter asking the interior minister about the human rights situation in Herat. A group of Herat-based journalists went on strike in protest and traveled to Kabul to meet with President Hamid Karzai about the incident, but their actions had little impact. Two days after the attack on Behzad, Ismail Khan condemned journalists who work for foreign radio broadcasters, warning that they would "meet a bad end."

In Kabul, police told Sayeed Mirhussein Mahdawi, editor of the independent weekly Aftab, that they could not guarantee his safety after he published a series of controversial articles in March and April calling for a secular government and condemning crimes committed by senior Afghan leaders in the name of Islam. In April and May, Mahdawi and his assistant editor Ali Payam Sistany received numerous threatening phone calls and visits from individuals pressuring them to stop writing.

The journalists continued publishing Aftab until June, when Mahdawi penned a controversial article accusing senior leaders of the Northern Alliance, other mujahedeen leaders, and the Taliban of wrecking Afghanistan in the name of Islam. On June 17, Mahdawi and Sistany were arrested and charged with blasphemy, and Aftab was closed. They were released from jail on June 25, but their arrest and prosecution raised new questions about the future application of Shariah, or strict Islamic law, in Afghanistan, as well as the influence of the country's conservative Supreme Court.

Almost mirroring the views of the former Taliban regime, Afghanistan's Chief Justice Mawlavi Fazl Hadi Shinwari closed cable television channels across the country in January because their programming was "offensive" and "un-Islamic." Shinwari told Reuters that the channels were airing "half-naked singers and obscene scenes from movies." The ban was lifted in April and then re-imposed in Jalalabad in September because of reported complaints about "shocking" Western and Indian programming showing men and women dancing together.

Journalists remained vulnerable in 2003 amid a basic lack of security, renewed fighting between armed factions, guerrilla warfare, and terrorist activities. In April, officers from the criminal division of the local police beat and threatened television and radio broadcasters in the eastern province of Nangarhar for not broadcasting stories about the officers' work, according to local journalists. That same month, a local Reuters journalist was robbed by armed gunmen in Mazar-e-Sharif.

There were far fewer reports of interference in the press by U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2003, in contrast with the year before, when U.S. soldiers threatened a Washington Post reporter and barred him from working near the site of a U.S. missile strike, and when a Pakistani journalist was detained at the Afghan-Pakistani border on suspicion of being a Taliban member.

In 2003, a growing number of journalists in Afghanistan received professional training in news and reporting from such organizations as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. New radio stations and publications opened throughout the country, including several dedicated to women's issues, such as the Voice of Women radio station. Unfortunately, political and ethnic rivalries in the journalism community thwarted attempts to form an independent journalists' union in May.

No journalists were killed for their work in the country in 2003. Far fewer foreign journalists were operating in Afghanistan since the world's attention shifted to the conflict in Iraq. In April, Afghan security forces arrested several people suspected of involvement in the killing of four foreign journalists in late 2001 while the Taliban were collapsing across the country, but the two main suspects were reportedly freed a few months later. On November 7, the U.S. State Department issued a warning to U.S. journalists in Afghanistan and foreigners working for U.S. media outlets that they could be targeted for kidnapping in exchange for Taliban members in U.S. custody.

In the run-up to the presidential elections scheduled for June 2004, Afghan journalists find themselves increasingly caught in the growing tensions between moderate and conservative government factions. President Karzai and other officials have promised to uphold press freedom in the country's newly revised constitution, which was ratified in January 2004. Debates about the extent of presidential powers and the role of women in the country's future have dominated discussions about the constitution. However, with parts of the government advocating the application of Shariah to the press, it remains to be seen whether hard-line Islamists or moderates will shape Afghanistan's new media.

2003 Documented Cases – Afghanistan

MARCH 19, 2003

Ahmad Behzad, Radio Free Afghanistan

Security agents in the western city of Herat assaulted and detained Behzad, a reporter for the U.S. government­funded Radio Free Afghanistan (RFA), after the journalist raised questions about the human rights situation in Herat Province. The incident occurred immediately following opening ceremonies at the newly established Herat office of Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission.

According to Behzad, he was conducting an interview with Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali, who was among the officials present at the opening of the human rights office, and began questioning him about sensitive subjects, including allegations of discrimination against women in Herat. Herat Governor Ismail Khan, who was standing nearby, suddenly interrupted the journalist. The governor berated Behzad for being "shameless" and "impudent" and ordered him out of the room, according to the transcript of an interview Behzad gave to RFA.

Ismail Khan is one of the most powerful warlords in Afghanistan and has consolidated his power in part by stifling the development of independent media in the region.

Just outside the human rights office, Nasir Ahmed Alawi, head of the Herat branch of Amniat-e Mille, the national security force, slapped Behzad in the face in front of dozens of witnesses, and other Amniat agents also treated the journalist roughly before taking him into custody. Ismail Khan controls the Amniat office in Herat. Behzad was detained for six hours but says he was not further harmed in custody.

He and several other journalists left Herat in protest and met with senior government officials, including President Hamid Karzai. Behzad returned to Herat on April 3, after Ismail Khan made a statement pledging to assure the safety of journalists in Herat. However, on April 4, Ismail Khan delivered a speech before the Islamic Council for Solidarity of the Peoples of Afghanistan in which he condemned journalists who work for foreign news agencies, accusing them of trying to destabilize the country. He warned that "the money received for working with Western broadcasters will go toward those people's burial shrouds," according to RFA's translation of an article about the speech published by the Herat newspaper Ittifaq-i Islam, which Ismail Khan supporters control. In response to this renewed threat, Behzad again left Herat.

APRIL 9, 2003

Sayeed Mirhassan Mahdawi, Aftab
Ali Payam Sistany, Aftab

Mahdawi and Sistany, editor and deputy editor, respectively, of the Kabul-based independent weekly Aftab, began receiving death threats after they published a series of controversial articles and cartoons in March and April that criticized many powerful government officials and warlords, such as Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim and former President Burhanuddin Rabbani. The articles also called for a secular government and criticized fighters in the 1990's civil war who committed war crimes.

Shortly after the articles and cartoons appeared, Mahdawi received several anonymous death threats over the phone. In addition, several military commanders and government officials visited his office in person warning and threatening him to stop writing critical articles. Afraid for his life, Mahdawi went to the Ministry of Information and Culture to ask for help but could not obtain police protection because a senior official at the Ministry of Interior Affairs thought he should be punished.

APRIL 23, 2003

Zahoor Afghan, Erada

Afghan, 40, editor of the independent, Kabul-based daily Erada, began receiving frequent anonymous death threats and was briefly detained by police after he wrote a critical article about Afghanistan's education minister, Yonis Qanooni.

The article, which ran in Erada on April 17, lampooned the minister and alleged that he spent only two hours a week in his office. A few days later, on April 23, Afghan reported in his paper that he had received eight death threats in a 24-hour period. In an interview with The Associated Press, Afghan said that the callers told him, "We've killed hundreds of people, we can kill you too."

On April 30, police briefly detained Afghan on the orders of Deputy Minister of Education Zabihollah Esmati. Afghan has since been summoned repeatedly by the State Prosecutor's Office, which is reportedly trying to build a case against him. Afghan has vowed to continue working as a journalist but told Human Rights Watch that he felt intimidated, and that he would be more careful about what he wrote in the future.

APRIL 26, 2003

Abdul Samay Hamed, freelance

At around 4:30 p.m., an unidentified man approached prominent freelance writer and doctor Hamed while he was shopping in the Microryan neighborhood in the capital, Kabul, said, "Doctor, take this letter," and handed him the letter. The man then quickly drew a knife and slashed the journalist across his chest, arms, and hands. Hamed managed to fight off his assailant, who then called out to a friend hiding nearby. Both men escaped together. Passersby took Hamed to a nearby clinic, where he was treated for his wounds.

Hamed told CPJ that in the days preceding the attack, he had criticized the power of local warlords on a BBC radio program. He had also published articles in the local press about the various problems facing Afghanistan. Hamed believes that the attack was clearly intended to silence him, but he could not identify who was responsible.

JUNE 17, 2003

Sayeed Mirhassan Mahdawi, Aftab
Ali Payam Sistany, Aftab

Mahdawi and Sistany, editor and deputy editor, respectively, of the weekly newspaper Aftab, were arrested in the capital, Kabul, and the newspaper was closed after it published an article that Afghan authorities considered blasphemous.

According to Agence France-Presse (AFP), Afghanistan's Supreme Court ordered the journalists arrested on charges of defaming Islam, which the court claims violates Article 31 of the Afghan Press Law. In a telephone interview from prison with the BBC Persian Service, Mahdawi denied the charges.

The charges stem from a series of articles published in Aftab that criticized senior leaders of the Northern Alliance, called for a secular government in Afghanistan, and questioned the morals of Islamic leaders. In particular, the Supreme Court deemed an article titled "Holy Fascism" "an offense to Islam."

After intense international pressure, the journalists were released from prison on June 25. Afghan President Hamid Karzai said in an interview with the BBC Persian Service that he had personally ordered their release pending trial. Karzai defended the charges, saying, "freedom of expression must not violate the religious beliefs of the Afghan people and the national interests of the Afghan people." He said that he had ordered an investigation into the article, and that detaining the journalists was a necessary part of that investigation.

The chairman of Afghanistan's Supreme Court, Mowlawi Fazl Hadi Shinwari, told the Afghan Islamic Press news agency on June 24 that a trial against the journalists would occur in accordance with Islamic law, or Shariah, and that the case against them would be presented in a lower court in Kabul in the near future. However, a trial date has not been set.

Since their release, both journalists have been forced into hiding for their personal safety. Local sources told CPJ that the Ministry of Information held a closed hearing about the case in July. The ministry said the journalists should be cleared of the blasphemy charge, but a document from the Supreme Court's Fatwa Department leaked to the press in Kabul in August detailed the court's intention of pursuing the death penalty in the case.

JULY 17, 2003


Afghan authorities confiscated hundreds of copies of the July 17 edition of the pro­Northern Alliance weekly Payam-e-Mujahed from newsstands because the paper called on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to resign.

Payam-e-Mujahed is the official newspaper of Jamiat-e-Islami, the leading party of the Northern Alliance, which is headed by Afghan Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim. According to news reports, Fahim ordered the confiscation of the newspapers in an attempt to distance himself from the article.

Payam-e-Mujahed called on Karzai to resign because he apologized to Pakistani President Pervez Musharref after an angry mob attacked the Pakistani Embassy in Kabul in early July. The article also called Karzai a puppet of foreign powers who were trying to weaken the role of the mujahedeen in the Afghan government.

OCTOBER 31, 2003
Posted: January 28, 2004

Christian Science Monitor

Four alleged Taliban members stopped a vehicle used by reporters from the U.S. daily Christian Science Monitor on the road near Khost, a town in southwestern Afghanistan. They then beat up the hired driver of the car and stole the vehicle, according to Agence France-Presse.

The journalists, who had driven to the region from Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, in the car, were not in the vehicle at the time of the incident. Editors at the Monitor confirmed that the attack took place, but declined to name the reporters using the car.

Following this incident, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul issued a warning on November 7, 2003, to American journalists in Afghanistan urging them to take additional security precautions. The embassy said that U.S. journalists and local journalists working for Western media organizations were at risk of being targeted for kidnapping by Taliban members in exchange for prisoners held in U.S. custody.

The warning came amid heightened security measures for U.S. embassies worldwide because of reported terrorist threats.

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