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Afghanistan: Journalist Association Head Says Harassment Of Journalists Likely To Increase

Newspaper vendor in Kabul (AFP) The recent jailing of an Afghan magazine editor is raising concerns about the issue of press freedom in Afghanistan. Ali Mohaqiq Nasab, editor of the "Women’s Rights" monthly, was found guilty of publishing articles that were deemed un-Islamic. On 22 October, he was sentenced to two years in prison. The United Nations, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, and several international media rights groups including the International Federation of Journalists have protested. Journalists inside Afghanistan say they fear the case could pave the way for more attacks on the country’s independent media. Rahimullah Samandar, the head of Afghanistan’s Independent Journalist Association and the Committee To Defend Afghan Journalists, spoke to RFE/RL about the increasing harassment journalists are facing in Afghanistan for contributing to free speech.

RFE/RL: What have been the reactions among journalists to the court verdict that was issued against Ali Mohaqiq Nasab the editor of "Women’s Rights"?

Samandar: Afghan journalists are very worried about the decision of the court and they all reject it. Most journalists believe that the court procedures were against the law from the beginning; from the time Ali Mohaqiq Nasab was arrested till the hearing and the issuing of the verdict. Journalists are concerned that if the situation continues, maybe [more] journalists will face similar consequences. It is very painful and very difficult, it will lead to a setback for freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and it could pave the way for courts to issue more [such verdicts].

RFE/RL: Do you think that this concern and fear of persecution that exists among journalists in Afghanistan could lead to more self-censorship?

Samandar: Yes, definitely. There is fear among most journalists after they heard about the two years jail term for Mohaqiq Nasab, some colleagues say that such issues [Islamic issues] should not be touched upon. Also some people put the press and journalists under pressure for writing about such issues, [they say] it is not the right time to write about these issues and discuss it. All of these factors lead to self-censorship and it forces journalists not to cover Islamic and religious issues.

RFE/RL: Threats and intimidation are reportedly increasing against journalists in Afghanistan. Who or what groups are involved in attacks and intimidation against media workers in Afghanistan?

Samandar: Only in the last week we had three of four cases where journalists faced problems [in relation to their work]. For example I can name three cases that happened in Herat. In two cases Herat police created problems for the journalists, they were taken to police centers and interrogated. The journalists were asked why they had written articles that were critical of police activities. In addition, one of Tolo TV’s reporters in Herat was threatened by the police. Also, Ayna TV in Kabul was threatened by a number of armed men, who caused some damage. In general in many cases the threats and violence have come from the police or from some government officials. In the provinces, in most cases governors, the local police and commanders in charge of security cause problems for journalists .

RFE/RL: Were journalists also threatened in relation to their coverage of the 18 September parliamentary and local council elections? Did they face any problems?

Samandar: Yes we received reports that some colleagues were threatened or they were banned from publishing some reports. There were reports about candidates asking journalists to write in their favor. In addition, journalists who had reported about a lack of transparency in the procedures of the election centers faced problems from some officials and also in some cases from the election commission. Independent media, the independent press face such problems, they face pressure and they also practice self-censorship, they are harassed because of their reports. This is an ongoing problem that from now on can get even worse.

RFE/RL: Why do you think there are going to be more threats and attacks on independent media?

Samandar: Because efforts that have been made to somehow lessen [harassment of journalists] have had no impact. For example the Culture Ministry has written in this regard to the Interior Ministry and the Defense Ministry but instead we have seen that these cases have increased. Also now a number of people who belonged to different jihadi or extremist groups, they have gained a seat in the parliament. If they enter the parliament then it is possible that such cases will increase. For example there could be discussions in the parliament that Islamic issues, or issues considered sacred by the jihadis, or issues related to prominent people [should not be discussed]. Jihadi figures and leaders could attempt to increase pressure [on journalists]. They could try to achieve their goals in the parliament. Right now there are talks inside the country that maybe the new parliament will review all the country’s existing laws. If some laws were reviewed like the press and media law maybe it would lead to more restrictions, it would make the work of journalists very difficult.

RFE/RL: My last question is about your organization, Afghanistan’s Independent Journalist Association, could you briefly tell us about some of your main activities?

Samandar: From the time the association started its work in June 2005, it has investigated and defended the cases of more than 20 journalists who have faced violence. In addition we have been in touch with a number of international media organizations. We also have a sixth month and a one year plan aimed at increasing professionalism among Afghan journalists. A problem that exists in Afghanistan is the lack of an ethical code of conduct that exists in other countries. Journalists have not been taught about ethical issues. We are planning to hold workshops [about issues dealing with journalistic ethics]. The association is also trying to create a network among all journalists in Afghanistan.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.