Taliban cry foul over press curbs
By Abubakar Siddique
An unlikely voice has joined the chorus of criticism directed against the
Afghan government's commitment to civil liberties - the Taliban.
In a statement issued this month, the Taliban said it considered the Afghan
government's decision to ban live war coverage, on the basis that militants
were using it to their tactical advantage on the battlefield, "a flagrant
violation of the recognized principle of freedom of speech".
"The monopolization of activities of independent mass media outlets by the
Kabul puppet administration is a clear-cut violation of norms and regulation of
neutrality, independence and liberty of speech and has no justification in the
light of national and
international laws," the statement continued.
In releasing the statement, the group renowned for its oppressive rule over
Afghanistan, added its own unique take to the upbraiding and expressions of
concern Kabul has received from media watchdogs and foreign officials.
It also put itself in direct competition with Kabul's efforts to regulate the
media, lauding "the courageous efforts of the fact-finding and investigative
journalists, reporters, and photographers who continue their duty to reflect
the ground realities of the Afghan issue despite threats and obstacles that
they are facing in their way."
Farida Nekzad, editor of the Kabul-based Wakht News Agency, was among the
representatives of Afghan media outlets summoned this week to the headquarters
of the Afghan intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security (NDS).
In what she described as a "friendly" atmosphere, Nekzad was informed by a
senior intelligence official that she and her fellow journalists in the country
would be working under severe restrictions when it came to reporting on the
ongoing insurgency. "He said that the electronic media should be very careful
while covering suicide attacks, or the type of attack we recently witnessed,"
Nekzad adds that she was told that the media should not provide live coverage
of insurgent attacks "because it raises concerns among people, [and that]
insurgents or terrorists can benefit from such coverage."
In officially announcing the decision during a press conference later that day,
presidential spokesman Wahid Omar addressed rapidly increasing criticism of the
move at home and abroad by saying the new guidelines had not yet been drawn up,
and promising they would not amount to "censorship".
But many among the Afghan media remain unconvinced, and suggestions abound that
ulterior motives are at play.
There are suggestions that the Afghan government wants to have an upper hand in
the propaganda war against insurgents, and is increasingly unnerved by the
coverage and criticism of Afghanistan's mushrooming media outlets.
There is also the argument that the ban, which comes just weeks after President
Hamid Karzai took control of an Afghan electoral watchdog, shows that he now
seeks to tame a media whose rapid expansion has meant it has outgrown the
The argument goes that Karzai, still struggling to gain parliamentary approval
for his cabinet, might be particularly concerned about protecting his
government's image with parliamentary elections slated for this autumn.
Editor Nekzad, who is also vice president of the South Asia Media Commission -
a regional body that promotes press freedom - says that the situation in
Afghanistan is fragile. "These kinds of signals raise concerns," she tells
"I think these are the restrictions that begin with requests and suggestions
but eventually might have very serious consequences for the journalists. I
don't see a good year ahead for the journalists."
During a March 2 press conference, presidential spokesman Omar said the ban was
necessitated by the discovery that militants have been using televised coverage
of battles to their tactical advantage, "and this has caused serious threat to
Coordinated suicide attacks in Kabul that targeted guests’ houses frequented by
foreigners is cited as the leading example of insurgents using live coverage of
the attacks to alter their tactics on the ground. Sixteen people, including
nine Indians, an Italian diplomat and a French filmmaker were killed in the
course of the attacks and ensuing gun battles.
Saeed Ansari, a spokesman for the NDS, claims that live footage from the nearly
two-hour long carnage provided insurgents a window into the counter-measures
being taken by Afghan security forces. "Live coverage does not benefit the
government, but benefits the enemies of Afghanistan," he says.
Ansari says that from now, on journalists will only be allowed to film the
aftermath of attacks after securing permission from the NDS. Afghan authorities
have conveyed to journalists that it might invoke a national security law to
detain journalists or seize the equipment of journalists who violate the ban.
This has led to worries within the Afghan media that the ban will deprive
people of up-to-date information about security while the attacks are underway,
particularly in large sprawling cities like the capital Kabul, where a lack of
timely information will only add to the chaos.
International media watchdogs agree. "It is for news organizations to determine
whether it is safe for their staff to report," Robert Mahoney, deputy director
of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a statement on
March 2. "The Afghan authorities should allow reporters to work freely and
clarify whether it is considering restrictions on broadcast coverage."
Washington has indicated that it will raise the issue with Kabul. Talking to
journalists this month, US President Barack Obama's special envoy Richard
Holbrooke said that they "don’t like restrictions" on the press. "I and the
[US] Secretary of State [Hillary Clinton] are concerned and we will make our
support of free access by the press clear to the [Afghan] government," he said.
Kabul is already sending signs that it might soften the ban, leading some
observers to see an avenue for the government and the media to work out an
arrangement similar to that in neighboring Pakistan. Last November, eight major
television news networks in that country agreed to adhere to a voluntary code
of conduct on how to cover terrorism.