The South Asia Channel

Afghanistan’s not-so-free press

In November 2008, I received a phone call at my home in Afghanistan from Information Safety and Freedom (ISF) an Italian nongovernmental organization that supports free speech, notifying me that I (and Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, a journalism student at Balkh University), were the two international journalists to receive its award. The winners, I was told, ...

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

In November 2008, I received a phone call at my home in Afghanistan from Information Safety and Freedom (ISF) an Italian nongovernmental organization that supports free speech, notifying me that I (and Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, a journalism student at Balkh University), were the two international journalists to receive its award. The winners, I was told, would travel to Italy for an awards ceremony. But I knew that would be impossible — Kambaksh was in Kabul’s prison. In October 2007, Afghan police arrested him for blasphemy, after he allegedly downloaded and distributed information about the role of women in Islamic societies, and he was sentenced to death in early 2008. His sentence was later commuted to 20 years in prison, after outcries from Afghan journalists and right groups. I received the ISF award for my work on a weekly satire cartoon magazine and blog, which was shut down in 2004. I received numerous death threats and was forced to leave the country for seven months that year.

After that phone call, I knew I had to tell Kambaksh about his award. I talked to Kambaksh’s brother, Yaqub Ibahimi, who advised me not to say I know him or his case because authorities might not allow me to meet him, or I could be questioned myself. So, later in November, I had to make up a story. My cover story — that my father, a pious man, had asked me to visit Kambaksh on the Muslim holy day of Friday — got me past a few checkpoints at the prison, and I emerged with a series of stamps and signatures on the skin of my right hand. Inside the prison, there was a police office who held a handy loudspeaker to call prisoners by their names and cell numbers. After waiting half an hour, Kambaksh, appeared behind the bars. While two police officers were accompanied me, I moved forward and leaned on the bars so Kambaskh could hear my voice. After saying, "Salam and how are you," I was roughly pulled back by the officers and told to keep my distance. When I protested that other visitors were allowed to reach that point, one of the officers shouted that Kambaksh was not a normal prisoner. Amidst the noisy uproar of inmates chattering and doors clanging, I told Kambaksh he had won a freedom of expression award. He smiled, a grin full of bitterness. "I need help to get out of here," he told me. The officers pushed me back and asked me to leave.

I went to Italy alone in December 2008 to represent both of us and to diffuse Kambaksh’s message. In Siena, I accepted an award for journalistic freedom on behalf of a journalist who wasn’t free. A month later, when I returned back to Kabul, Kambaksh was transferred to Pul-e-Charkhi prison, where visiting him was quite impossible. A group of Afghan journalists sent a letter to Afghan President Hamid Karzai to ask for permission to give Kambaksh his award in jail, but never received a reply. Two years later, I am still carrying Kambaksh’s freedom of expression award.

Since 2001, 19 journalists have been killed in Afghanistan, five Afghans and 11 foreigners. In spite of international efforts and pouring billions of dollars into Afghanistan to bring peace, security and stability, the country still lacks freedom of speech and an independent media. Afghan journalists have suffered physical attacks by militants and verbal attacks by government officials on radio and TV stations. Afghan journalists suffer daily from death threats, intimidation, censorship, pressure from the government, warlords and political parties, and even honor killings. Female journalists seem to have been the most vulnerable to attacks. Foreign forces attempting to bring security have been problematic for journalism because some of their actions may have inadvertently contributed to the deaths of journalists in what has been something of a double standard between the treatment of foreign and Afghan journalists.

Under the Taliban’s rule, television and radio were banned across the country; only one public radio station operated in Kabul, used by the Taliban to broadcast religious songs, sermons, and propaganda. But after the fall of the Taliban government in 2001, hopes of a free press were born in Afghanistan. In 2004, Afghanistan’s new constitution enshrined the principle of freedom of expression, bounded by the so-called "national assets or national policy clause," which prohibits coverage that might harm the rights of others and public security. Nearly anything can be interpreted as harming "national policy," it seems. For example, in 2008 a private Afghan channel called Ariana Television broadcast a serious of interviews with prominent scholars and politicians some of whom were critical of Afghan President Hamid Karzai; the program was denounced by the Afghan government and Nasir Fayaz, the director, was arrested.

Earlier this spring, militants attacked a guest house in Kabul frequented by foreigners, which was covered minute-by-minute by Afghan and international news organizations, humiliating the Karzai government, which was unable to stop the attacks. A few days later, the Afghan government announced a ban on live coverage of such attacks, ostensibly because of the risk of allowing militants to see how security forces are responding. Journalists, officials in the U.S., rights activists, and even the Taliban protested, calling it censorship.

The Afghan government is, of course, not the only threat to freedom of the press in Afghanistan; Afghan militants provide a stern check to female reporters in particular, some of whom have been threatened and killed. In 2005, Shaima Rezayee, a television personality with the privately-owned broadcast television station Tolo TV, was shot dead in her room in Kabul. Rezayee was one of the first female presenters in Afghanistan, hosting a program called "HOB," which mainly focused on western music and hip-hop, rarely seen and heard in Afghanistan’s conservative history. She dressed to reflect her content, in a western style that contradicted Afghan traditions. Before her death, the Council of Ulemas (council of clergy) urged the government to put a stop to her program, which they deemed "immoral and anti-Islamic." Religious extremists were not angered as much by what Shaima reported, but by the fact that a woman was a correspondent at all.

The danger appears particularly acute in conflict zones, like Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province. All sides claim victory; none want negative news about them broadcast. Abdul Samad Rohani, a reporter for BBC’s Pashtu service, was shot in early June of 2008 after being kidnapped and tortured, presumably by the Taliban seeking to prevent him from continuing to file stories on conflict between the Taliban and coalition forces, poppy cultivation, and refugees. Three years after his death, the Afghan government’s investigation has gone nowhere.

Afghan journalists also seem to be more at risk than their Western colleagues, as demonstrated by the death of Sultan Munadi, an Afghan reporter and translator who was kidnapped in the fall of 2009 from Kunduz, along with Stephen Farrell of the New York Times. British Special Forces raided the house where Munadi and Farrell were held, and Munadi was killed in the crossfire, a move heavily criticized by journalists in Afghanistan, some of whom alleged Munadi was shot by British forces. Similarly, in 2007, an Italian journalist and his Afghan fixer and driver were kidnapped in Helmand; the Taliban beheaded Ajmal Naqshbandi, the fixer, and Sayed Agha, the driver, allegedly because the Afghan government refused to capitulate fully to the militants’ demands, even though the Italian reporter Daniele Mastrogiacomo was freed after five Taliban prisoners were released.

My freedom of expression award co-recipient Kambaksh’s case is similar to that of Ali Mohaqiq Nasab, the editor of an Afghan women’s rights magazine who was sentenced to two years in prison for blasphemy by a court in Kabul after he questioned the harshness of sharia law. Sharia is a sensitive topic in Afghanistan; it often contradicts with seemingly basic human rights and is inextricably linked with Afghan traditions. Nasab was released before his sentence ended, after an appeal. And in September of 2009, after spending 20 months in jail and after more than 100,000 signatures from journalists and activists petitioning for his release, Kambaksh was finally freed. He immediately fled Afghanistan, much to the dismay of some of Afghanistan’s fundamentalist authorities, who lambasted the Karzai government.

Six years after the Afghan constitution was passed and nine years after the fall of the Taliban, Afghan journalists struggle with threats from the government, political parties, militants, and occasionally foreign forces. Afghan society has also played a role in self-censorship, perpetuated by the lack of a vibrant independent media. Without an independent media, freedom of expression is meaningless. And in Afghanistan, limitations on the media will only serve to bolster the views of powerful fundamentalists, and empower the belief among Afghans that the international community, which promised to institutionalize the freedom of expression and with it, democracy, has failed them.

Nasim Fekrat, a freelance journalist and blogger who is a winner of awards from Reporters Sans Frontieres and Information Safety and Freedom, is the editor of the Afghan Lord blog and a political science student at Dickinson College. He is also the director of the Association of Afghan Blog Writers.

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