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Afghan Report: May 7, 2006

7 May 2006, Volume 5, Number 13
The Afghan media environment appears to have embarked on an upward trend since the anomalous days of fundamentalist Taliban repression ended in October 2001. The media might, in fact, be poised for better days than at any other time in Afghan history. But ensuring a healthy, professional, and independent media will require the Afghan public and its officials to draw lessons from the past and critically evaluate the country's nascent media law.

Afghanistan's first experiment with an independent media sector began in the late 1940s and was restricted solely to newspapers. Prime Minister Shah Mahmud allowed relatively open elections and the establishment of what has come to be known as the "Liberal Parliament."

The new legislature soon passed a press law that led to the launching of several newspapers -- most of which were in opposition to the monarchy, the prime minister, or both. Conservative religious figures and their supporters in the government were the most frequent targets of attack. The experiment ended abruptly in 1953 when Mohammad Daud became prime minister and ordered the closure of independent newspapers.

The Post-1964 'Decade Of Democracy'

The country's second major experiment with independent media began with the promulgation of the 1964 Afghan Constitution by King Mohammad Zaher. That document ushered in what is commonly referred to as Afghanistan's "decade of democracy." The constitution decreed that "every Afghan has the right to express his thoughts in speech, in writing, in pictures, and by other means, in accordance with the provisions of the law." The 1964 constitution further states that every Afghan has the right to print and publish ideas in accordance with the law, without prior screening by state authorities.

The government soon promulgated the 1965 press law to regulate the media sector. That reiterated the constitutional guarantees, but it also forbade obscenity and any "matter implying defamation of the principles of Islam or defamatory to the King." While broadcast media remained the prerogative of the state, the number of independent newspapers mushroomed under the new legal framework.

The next media shake-up came in 1973, after Mohammad Daud led a coup d'etat that ended the country's monarchical system. The result was nearly three decades of intense strictures on a free media, culminating in the hard-line Taliban regime's crackdown until it was ousted by international military intervention in late 2001.

Since The Taliban Fell

The establishment of an internationally backed interim government in December 2001 ushered in dramatic changes for Afghanistan's media landscape. The Bonn Agreement that guided Afghan political life under the transitional period largely deferred to the 1964 constitution on issues of the press.

A new constitution followed in January 2004 which described freedom of expression as "inviolable" and guaranteed to every Afghan in the form of "speech, writing, illustration, or other means." It explicit prohibited the state from requiring a priori approval of "printed or published" materials.

The constitution also seeks to avoid arbitrary limitations on the media. It states that directives related to the dissemination of information -- whether in print or broadcast -- will be "regulated by law."

Two other clauses in the constitution indirectly influence media freedoms in Afghanistan. First, in Article 7, the state is obliged to abide by international conventions it has signed -- including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. More controversially, Article 3 stipulates that "no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam."

More recently, President Hamid Karzai issued a decree setting out a new law on mass media in December 2005 -- just days before the inauguration of the country's first directly elected legislature. But despite the odd timing and the resulting ambiguity, the document could enable Afghanistan to become a democratic state with a fully functioning -- and free -- mass media. However, that depends on the strength of the yet untested press-freedom commitment of those interpreting and enforcing the new law. (Amin Tarzi)

Four years after the fall of the fundamentalist regime that banished women and girls from public life in Afghanistan, their numbers are increasing in the world of journalism. Despite the legacy of the Taliban-era ban on education or employment, women are taking jobs as journalists, television presenters, broadcasters, and reporters. They still face serious strictures -- including on their movement outside the home -- and family pressures and threats.

Jamila Mujahed couldn't work under the Taliban. She had to stay home, like the majority of Afghan women.

But soon after the U.S.-led military intervention there in 2001, Mujahed became the first female presenter to appear on television. In fact, she announced the fall of the Taliban regime.

She is no longer alone. Activists estimate that there are about 1,000 women working throughout Afghanistan as journalists for radio, television, or print publications.

Mujahed has moved on, too. She's founded a women's magazine focused called "Malalai." And she was integral to the relaunch of "The Voice of the Afghan Woman," the first radio station dedicated solely to women's issues and interests.

Mujahed tells RFE/RL that despite the changes, there is still opposition in Afghanistan's deeply conservative society to women holding jobs outside the home.

Can't Leave Home

"Most families don't agree with their young girl or young woman taking a microphone in her hand and interviewing [someone] -- especially a man," Mujahed said. "They don't accept it. Because of the security problems, we cannot send our reporter even 1 kilometer away from the office for an interview. First of all, we wouldn't do such thing, and secondly, her family would never give her permission to go."

The situation is particularly difficult in southern Afghanistan, where most women are not allowed to leave their houses unaccompanied.

The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission complained in a report in March that Afghan women face discrimination and mistreatment that includes rape, murder, and forced marriages.

In May 2005, the female presenter of a popular music show on the privately owned Tolo TV station was shot dead in her home in the nation's capital. It is unclear whether Shaima Rezai's murder was connected with her work -- and two of her brothers were eventually arrested in the case. But she had been heavily criticized by conservatives for her Western broadcast style.

Shafiqa Habibi is one another Afghan pioneer. She is among Afghanistan's most prominent television anchors and is the founding director of the Women Journalists' Center. She tells RFE/RL that the lack of security and lawlessness limit the work of female reporters.

Lack Of Security Constrains Journalists

"Women journalists are not used here like elsewhere in the world," Habibi said. "In Afghanistan, it is impossible for them to go wherever they want and prepare reports because of the security issue and fear for their safety. They can't go and report from remote places; they can't go and cover events alone."

Habibi adds that institutional and systemic obstacles lead to a lack of experience, expertise, and proper training for women.

While the fear of harassment can hamper the work of all journalists, publisher Mujahed says women are particularly vulnerable. As a result, they often avoid sensitive issues in their coverage.

"Last week, in our office we wanted to report on the issue of the increasing number of men who get rich through the drug trade and through the use of force and arms and marry several wives," Mujahed said. "We wanted to ask the views of clerics: Islam says a man can marry four wives if he has a religious excuse. Many of my friends asked me not to touch these issues because they said it is very dangerous."

Mujahed says she has repeatedly been threatened in connection with her work and her high-profile views. She blames elements who believe that "women should not raise their voice beyond their standing."

Taboo Topics

Aside from a history of threats from warlords and armed groups over critical content, there are reports of intimidation against journalists who explore topics like women's rights and Islam.

But the Women Journalists' Center's Habibi says the ranks of Afghan women in the media are growing -- despite the obvious risks.

"It's a very pleasant job," she said. "Also, there are some places where men cannot get in, and it's much easier for women to penetrate [those places], and get there and report -- for example, on women's prisons. Or it's easier for women to go to villages and report on the lives of women there. There is also great demand for female presenters, newsreaders, and reporters at independent television stations, which are quite numerous."

Nonetheless, women remain a minority in the country's media sector. (Golnaz Esfandiari)

Intense overnight fighting in southern Afghanistan on April 24-25 killed eight suspected Taliban fighters and an Afghan police officer in the Helmand and Kandahar provinces. The violence follows a visit to Helmand Province earlier in the day by British Defense Secretary John Reid. It also comes amid threats by the Taliban to target British and Canadian soldiers, who are currently being deployed in the south.

Defense Secretary Reid's visit to Helmand Province came amid a flurry of Taliban attacks on foreign troops in southern Afghanistan.

Violence has surged since the spring thaw began in southern Afghanistan in March. British troops are thought to be most at risk from roadside bombings and attacks by suicide car bombers. On April 22, a bomb killed four Canadian soldiers in Kandahar Province. Dozens of Afghan troops have been killed along with 13 U.S. soldiers so far this year.

Varying Tactics

But there have also been attacks of another kind by militants in the south. On several occasions already this year, the Taliban have concentrated groups of about 50 fighters together for bold frontal attacks on Afghan security checkpoints and NATO forward operations bases.

That scenario was repeated overnight on April 24-25 when several dozen Taliban fighters attacked an Afghan police checkpoint in the mountainous Miana Shin region of Kandahar Province -- about 80 kilometers north of Kandahar city. The battle continued into this morning, leaving five Taliban and one policeman dead. Two policemen also were wounded before the militants retreated into the mountains.

Ian Kemp, an independent London-based defense analyst, said such guerrilla tactics are to be expected in Afghanistan's southern mountains.

"Given the difficult nature of the terrain, it is very easy for Taliban forces to concentrate in the mountains in strength and then overwhelm the security forces in a particular location," Kemp said. "And then when [Afghan or U.S.-led coalition] forces move in for the counterattack -- relying upon helicopter gunships and upon fighters to drop bombs -- then the opposition forces can fade away back into the mountains."

U.S. military officials in Afghanistan say coalition warplanes also attacked a suspected Taliban camp in Helmand Province during the night, killing three Taliban fighters.

British Deployment

Britain now has about 1,000 soldiers in Helmand Province and is preparing to deploy a full task force of 3,300 soldiers there by the end of June.

British Defense Secretary Reid visited Helmand's governor, Mohammad Daud, on April 24 to discuss the deployment. Daud spoke to RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan about his meeting with the British defense secretary.

"The purpose of the visit was to review the British forces already in the area -- and also to see the problems in Helmand Province," Daud said. "They've promised us they will help us with both the reconstruction and security efforts in Helmand Province."

Poverty Worsens Problem

Daud said he thinks economic woes in Helmand make it easier for the Taliban to recruit fighters.

"We hope that the international community will cooperate with us in our country and in our province, especially in the training of police, Afghan troop, and other security organizations to increase our working capacity," Daud said. "But also, especially, we want help with reconstruction so that there are more jobs created for people. The problems in our country -- especially in Helmand Province -- are the result of high unemployment."

Daud says he received a pledge from Reid for help upgrading a factory in Helmand that produces cooking oil and cotton.

In addition to being one of Afghanistan's most violence provinces, Helmand is a main region for illegal opium farming. U.S. military officials have said that the Taliban is working together with organized drug gangs in Helmand -- complicating international efforts to bring security there and combat the narcotics trade.

Brigadier General Ed Butler, the commander of British troops in Afghanistan, says he expects some setbacks in the weeks ahead. But he also says he thinks there is an opportunity to improve the lives of ordinary Afghans.

(By Ron Synovitz. RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Salim Mohammad Saleh contributed to this report from Helmand Province.)

An informal gathering of NATO foreign ministers kept the alliance's Afghanistan plans on track and did not douse Ukrainian hopes for fast-track enlargement. But one topic that was much on ministers' minds is off the alliance's official agenda -- Iran.

The two-day NATO conference held in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, in late April was not a formal summit. This was not a meeting at which any binding decisions or definitive statements was ever going to be made.

But the gathering did provide an opportunity for the foreign ministers of NATO's 26 members to voice unity on one of the key challenges that the alliance currently faces: Afghanistan. Violence is on the rise in the country, adding a sense of urgency to NATO's plans to reinforce its troops there. NATO leaders threw their backing behind the plan, with NATO spokesman James Appathurai saying the foreign ministers had down shown "a shared determination to push forward with the expansion of the mission" in Afghanistan.

That suggests plans are on track to raise the number of troops in the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan from the current 9,000 to some 17,000 from July. That would also help the United States wind down its presence in the south of the country, the most unsettled and dangerous area of Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the conference affirmed that NATO has no plans to cut troop levels in Kosovo before the end of talks on the future status of Serbian province, which is populated largely by ethnic Albanians and administered by the UN.

A 17,000-strong NATO-led force, KFOR, has been keeping the peace in Kosovo since 1999.

And, on the sidelines of the conference, the United States signed an agreement with Sofia to establish three military bases on Bulgarian soil.

Enlargement, A Purely Performance-Based Process?

U.S. Secretary of State Rice at the Sofia conference (ITAR-TASS)While this meeting may not mark any new departures for NATO, Secretary-General Jaap De Hoop Scheffer stressed its importance, saying that it paves the way to a key summit in the Latvian capital Riga this autumn.

Enlargement will loom large in Riga. Five countries -- Georgia and Ukraine as well as Albania, Croatia, Macedonia, and -- aspire to join the alliance, as some made very evident in Sofia.

"Ukraine's strategic course towards joining NATO is irreversible," declared Ukrainian Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk, adding that Ukraine hopes to join NATO by 2008.

Ukraine can expect no invitation at Riga. De Hoop Scheffer made clear no formal invitations will be issued in Riga, but he did indicate a signal about enlargement can be expected at the November summit.

"But it's clear that the kind of signal the allies are going to give in Riga, and I think we're going to give a signal, depends first and foremost on their performance," he stated. "That is the mantra. [Enlargement] is a performance-based process."

The Balkan countries are further ahead in that process, but Ukraine's hopes will have been boosted by a report in the London-based "Financial Times" this week, in which unidentified NATO officials said the United States and Britain are keen on consolidating recent democratic gains in Ukraine by hastening Kyiv's entry into the alliance.

One official told the newspaper that Washington wants Ukraine to join a NATO membership action plan by September, which would give Kyiv the prospect of joining before U.S. President George W. Bush leaves office in January 2009. The article portrayed Bush as very keen on Kyiv joining NATO.

However, in Sofia, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice dodged a question about the timing of any membership plan and echoed De Hoop Scheffer's stress on performance criteria.

"The Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian people will have to decide whether or not this is something that they wish to pursue," Rice stated. "And they will also have to work very hard, I think, to meet the criteria."

Expansion to include Ukraine would upset Russia. De Hoop Scheffer, though, seemed keen to indicate that Russia too can enjoy a good relationship: "We should look increasingly to this [NATO-Russia] Council, not just as an umbrella for practical cooperation, but as a forum for frank and open exchanges of views."

Speaking at an informal meeting of the NATO-Russia Council during the summit in Sofia, he praised the "significant strides" made by NATO and Russia in increasing the interoperability among their military forces and civil emergency response teams, and he hailed "groundbreaking new programs of practical cooperation, in airspace management and, more recently, in addressing the multiple threats posed by the illegal narcotics trade in Afghanistan and Central Asia."

But he also said that the two sides "can and should do better" in their future cooperation. "We should look increasingly to this [NATO-Russia] Council, not just as an umbrella for practical cooperation, but as a forum for frank and open exchanges of views and perspectives, on issues where we agree and on those where the search for common ground continues."

A Ghost At The Conference

Looming over the conference was the diplomatic crisis triggered by Iran's pursuit of nuclear energy and possibly, as the United States and other leading powers fear, also nuclear weapons. The meeting is due to close on April 28 just as the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), reports on whether Tehran has met key UN Security Council demands.

IAEA chief Mohammad el-Baradei is expected to say that Iran has not, and that it continues to enrich uranium and has failed to fully answer IAEA queries about its nuclear program.

His report could open the way to Security Council sanctions against Iran.

The United States wants tough action to be taken if the report finds that Tehran continues to ignore the international community's demands.

At this stage, any tough action is expected to be peaceful, not military. Moreover, NATO is not officially involved in the Iran talks, as De Hoop Scheffer stressed.

"Let's not have a misunderstanding that NATO is suddenly involved in the discussion of Iran. NATO is not," he told reporters.

That does not mean, though, that it was not an issue discussed in Sofia. As De Hoop Scheffer said, "this is a subject which is, of course by definition, a relevant political subject when you have NATO foreign ministers and EU foreign ministers sitting together." (Jeffrey Donovan)