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The United Nations has asked the Afghan government to lift its ban on media reports about violent attacks during presidential and provincial council elections on August 20. The central government would be well-advised to do so.

The ban was issued by the Afghan Interior Ministry and the Afghan Foreign Ministry on August 18 in an attempt to prevent voters from being scared away from polling stations. It has been heavily criticized by both Afghan and foreign journalists.

Interestingly, an English-language version of the decree says the government is "requesting" international and local journalists to "refrain from reporting" about election-day violence while polls are open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. But the Dari-language version of the decree says such reports are "prohibited."

Neither version of the decree specified what the punishment would be for journalists and media outlets that violate the ban. But Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmad Zahir Faqiri on August 19 offered further clarification -- saying "local agencies will be closed and international journalists will be kicked out" of the country if they violate the order.

Rahimullah Samander, head of the Independent Journalists Association of Afghanistan, says Afghan voters have a right to be informed about the dangers they may face at polling stations.

Samander also says many Afghan journalists view the ban as a violation of the Afghan Constitution and plan to carry out their job of reporting the news despite the decree.

There already are disturbing signs that the ban has encouraged violence against journalists by Afghan security forces.

On August 19, journalists who rushed to the scene of a Taliban attack on a Kabul bank were beaten back by police. The Associated Press reports that photographers trying to cover that story were beaten with pistols and threatened by police who pointed loaded rifles in their faces. At least one photographer's camera was broken in the scramble.

By issuing the ban, is the Afghan government signaling that it values a high voter turnout more than the safety of voters?

If voter turnout is low, expect authorities in Kabul to blame the media for its own security failures.

But by the same token, if the media ban remains in place, will the government admit responsibility for the death or injury of any voter who might have avoided violence if they had been allowed to receive information about dangers facing them on their way to the polls?

-- Ron Synovitz

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