Press freedom under attack in Afghanistan

Supposedly temporary restrictions on freedom of expression in the run-up to Afghanistan’s presidential vote are drawing protests from the country’s press. Media outlets are standing firm against a government call not to broadcast reports of violence on election day, charging that it violates their constitutional rights. Fahim Dashti, the editor of the English-language Kabul Weekly newspaper, told Associated Press that the demand was “a violation of media law” and a constitution that officially protects freedom of speech. Kabul fears that voters will be scared away from polling booths by the reports.

Two Afghan journalists were killed and more than 50 attacks and kidnappings against members of the press were reported in 2008. Three more have died this year so far. Information Minister Abdul Karim Khurram has largely responded to this situation not by reinforcing Article 34 of the constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression, but instead invoking the Article 3 requirement that “no law shall contravene the tenets and provisions of Islam.” Khurram’s ministry and Afghanistan’s domestic intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), have issued a series of vaguely worded warning messages on so-called “appropriate content” and the dangers of ”foreign influence” in the media. Many of these draw strongly from the conservative opinions of the country’s Ulema Shura, a government-sponsored council of religious scholars.

A new mass media law passed in last September, despite President Karzai’s attempt to veto it, is still waiting to be formally enacted. The sticking point is the bill’s intention to reassert the independent public service role of Radio Television Afghanistan (RTA). RTA was praised for facilitating an open debate between Karzai and challengers Ashraf Ghani and Ramzan Bashardost on Aug. 16, but also criticised by the country’s media commission for its bias in favor of Karzai.

Another test case is that of Sayeed Parvez Kambakhsh, charged with offending the Koran by circulating an Internet article on women’s rights and Islam, whose death sentence was commuted to 20 years imprisonment on appeal to the Supreme Court in February. (Index on Censorship, Aug. 19)

See our last post on Afghanistan.

Please leave a tip or answer the Exit Poll.