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Afghanistan: The Brief History Of Media Freedom

Two journalists work in the Kabul studio of the first radio station in Afghanistan devoted to women's issues (file photo) (AFP) 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.