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Afghanistan: Press Group Criticizes Censorship, Intimidation By Afghan Regional Officials

A review of press rights in Afghanistan, published today by the Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders, says that despite unprecedented freedoms in Kabul a year after the fall of the Taliban regime, things are still difficult for journalists who work in the provinces. RFE/RL reports on the complaints being raised by the nongovernmental organization against provincial governors and the commanders of armed regional factions.

Prague, 13 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Paris-based nongovernmental organization Reporters Without Borders says that a year after the collapse of the Taliban regime, many Afghan journalists still face the threat of physical attack, even death, if they report on sensitive issues.

The remarks were published today in a study that highlights a series of incidents where provincial governors or regional militia commanders have clamped down on Afghan journalists and the Afghan nationals who help foreign journalists report critically about the commanders.

Reporters Without Borders says there are many positive signs about press freedom within Kabul itself. For example, today's report notes that there are now some 150 news publications circulating in Kabul.

But a spokesman for Reporters Without Borders, Vincent Brossels, told RFE/RL that many Afghan journalists are prone to self-censorship out of fear of reprisal from allies of government ministers or commanders of the regional armed factions across Afghanistan. "One year after the fall of the Taliban, especially in Kabul, I think the situation is quite positive. But there are still some dangerous aspects for journalists, especially outside of Kabul, because the situation in the capital and other Afghan towns is very different," Brossels said.

Brossels said the efforts of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to encourage a free and independent press differ sharply from the actions of some provincial leaders. Brossels points to Herat Province Governor Ismail Khan and ethnic Uzbek militia commander Abdul Rashid Dostum in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif as local leaders who Reporters Without Borders believes are actively suppressing journalists. "We know that the government of President Hamid Karzai has made many efforts toward [establishing] press freedom, especially to permit the private press to develop in the capital. But other [governing officials in the provinces], like Ismail Khan and Abdul Rashid Dostum, or others, have been trying to prevent the development of a free press in the country," Brossels said.

As an example, Brossels noted cases of Afghan journalists being beaten by members of regional militias after they have filed reports that are critical of regional commanders. "Currently, there is a huge problem in Mazar-i-Sharif. When you are trying to investigate about sensitive issues like the mass graves of Taliban soldiers, or when you are trying to investigate the wrongdoings of local warlords or even government ministers, you can be in trouble," Brossels said.

Delegates from Reporters Without Borders met recently with officials in the Afghan Information Ministry to discuss legal changes needed to bring Afghanistan's press laws in line with international standards. Brossels said those talks have been encouraging. "We've gotten some good feedback from [the Afghan Information Ministry], especially about the [Afghan] press law. And we hope that soon they will make real reforms of the press law, and also of the Criminal Code, to prevent the jailing of journalists because of their writings. Because still, this threat is [hanging over the] heads of the journalists in Afghanistan," Brossels said.

Reporters Without Borders points out that it is still forbidden for many subjects to be written about by Afghan journalists.

It says such restrictions often lead Afghan journalists to approach with caution any story focusing on Islam, ethnic tensions, the alleged crimes of regional militia commanders or other threats to Afghan national unity.

It notes that at least one Afghan newspaper has been closed since the fall of the Taliban due to allegations that it had "insulted Islam." The group also notes the kidnapping and beating of an Afghan cameraman named Najib who had helped a British reporter make a documentary film about the deaths of hundreds of Taliban soldiers near Mazar-i-Sharif. The documentary blamed the deaths on General Dostum.

Brossels said there is an enormous difference emerging in the kind of reporting done by Afghanistan's state broadcast media compared to the private Afghan newspapers and international radio stations that work in Afghanistan. "There is a very specific style in the news of the government [broadcast] media. And the government is still controlling this media. There is not much voice for criticism of the authorities. But the opportunity is there now for Afghans to get a few international radio stations with programs in Pashto and Dari. It's really a big opportunity," Brossels said.

Reporters Without Borders is also accusing the U.S. military of keeping international media, including the Associated Press Television Network, out of some zones where U.S. troops have been operating. It says U.S. troops or their Afghan allies have suppressed at least six journalists and detained one Pakistani newsman.

The group also says the U.S. military tried to prevent journalists from investigating the killings of some 50 Afghan civilians attending a wedding party in July when U.S. aircraft targeted villages in the central province of Uruzgan.