x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Afghanistan media in grip of warlords, government

The Afghan government and warlords empowered by the West are a greater threat to the country's media than the Taliban, local journalists say.

KABUL // The Afghan government and warlords empowered by the West are a greater threat to the country's media than the Taliban, local journalists say. Reporters working for newspapers and TV stations have said free speech rights were now being eroded faster than at any other time since the US-led invasion. Those accused of trying to silence them include officials, former Northern Alliance commanders and foreign intelligence agencies. The problem has become so acute that some fear Afghanistan's very stability is being placed in jeopardy by those trying to manipulate the media for their own ends.

"Why do major media outlets belong to these sides who until yesterday were playing with weapons and guns in military groups? Now they have put guns to one side and taken up mikes and cameras. They are fighting the same war with new tools," said Rahimullah Samander, the president of the Afghan Independent Journalists' Association. In a country where it was once illegal to watch television, the large number of newspapers, magazines, TV networks and radio stations is perhaps one of the most striking differences between the Taliban regime and life under US and Nato occupation.

For years it has been used as a sign of Afghanistan's progress and the spread of democracy. News bulletins are given in Dari, Pashto and English, political debates are screened during the evenings, talent shows are broadcast to huge nationwide audiences and magazines feature articles on everything from Bollywood to poetry. But according to local reporters attempting to cover the most controversial subjects, all is not what it seems. They claim that a number of topics are made off-limits by unofficial laws. If certain red lines are crossed, the result is an anonymous phone call and then later possibly a death threat or even death itself.

"We have other issues that are more important than censorship from officials," Mr Samander said. He listed corruption, warlordism, drug trafficking, human rights abuses and the misuse of power by the government as areas "Afghan journalists are not able to touch". This was confirmed by others who talked about direct threats to their lives as if it was a perfectly normal problem to face. Fatal Rahman Oriya, a political programmes manager at Shamshad TV, said the dangers come from two main quarters. "The first level is the government, the second is the commanders, the third is the Taliban. The Taliban have good relations with journalists and they are giving them any kind of help and information."

In his work in both TV and newspapers, Mr Oriya has received threats and survived kidnapping attempts. One of the most difficult subjects to broach was the drugs trade, he said. "We know people are trafficking drugs in police vehicles, in ministry of defence vehicles and other [government] cars," he said. "We can also see people in high positions in the government are responsible for robberies, kidnappings, murders, every kind of crime, but we cannot write about that."

Officially, there are few restrictions imposed on journalists. Here in this deeply conservative country the most legally sensitive subject is Islam and anyone deemed to have insulted the religion could face severe punishment. The Supreme Court recently upheld a decision to sentence Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh, a student, to 20 years in prison for blasphemy. However, critics claim his conviction had more to do with the fact his brother is a reporter whose work has angered some warlords.

In another high-profile case, Jawed Ahmad, a journalist who had previously been detained in US custody for 11 months, was murdered in Kandahar on Tuesday. Farida Nekzad, formerly of Pajhwok news agency, has received a steady flow of threatening phone calls over the past couple of years. One said: "You gave our numbers to the police but the police can't do anything to us. We will kill you or if we don't kill you we will put acid in your face." An abusive e-mail described her as a "daughter of America".

She became a target after attending the funeral of her friend, Zakia Zaki, head of Radio Peace, who was shot to death sleeping alongside her infant son in the northern province of Parwan during the summer of 2007. Mrs Nekzad said she has been offered asylum abroad, but refuses to take it. "We have few women leaders in the media. And if I leave Afghanistan what will happen with the future of the young generation and other female journalists?" she said.

Much of the trouble faced by reporters originates from within the industry itself, where some of the country's most powerful and notorious personalities operate. Warlords who have received the money and backing of the United States control TV networks and newspapers. Abdul Rashid Dostum, for example, has his own television station based right next to his mansion in Kabul, where militiamen - and statues of lions - guard the front gates.

Faheem Dashty is the chief editor of Kabul Weekly, a newspaper founded by Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was a Mujahideen commander before being assassinated in 2001. "Most of the media are dependent on political parties, or individual politicians, governments, some foreign countries and even some foreign intelligence services. This is one of the problems that makes the environment a little bit dark," he said.

"Whenever there is an issue, a big issue - political, security or whatever - ordinary Afghans are getting their information through the media, but this information is fake. Mostly this information is based on the interests of this politician or that, or this political party or that, or this country or that. So of course this is a big danger." Din Mohammed Mobarez Rashedi, the deputy minister responsible for the media, said there were 600 registered newspapers and 20 TV stations in Afghanistan. The press was, he said, thriving.

"Of course it happens in some of the provinces where there are lots of commanders. If a journalist writes something against them maybe there will be a reaction. But in Kabul, journalists are free, they are even directly writing stories about the president," he said. csands@thenational.ae