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Afghanistan: Rights Groups Criticize Kabul For Attacks, Threats On Journalists

International human rights and press freedom groups have reported a growing number of attacks and death threats against journalists in Afghanistan by security officials from the Defense Ministry, Interior Ministry, and intelligence service. The trend is noted in a series of reports ahead of World Press Freedom Day on 3 May, RFE/RL reports.

Prague, 2 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S.-based Human Rights Watch researcher John Sifton says attacks and death threats against Afghan journalists by security officials in Kabul have increased sharply in recent weeks.

In a report issued by Human Rights Watch today -- the eve of World Press Freedom Day -- Sifton said "powerful people in Kabul" are "using their cronies in the security forces" to try to silence critical news stories about them.

As a result, Sifton said Afghan Defense Ministry troops, Interior Ministry police, and Amniat-i-Milli intelligence officers are fettering freedom of the press by delivering death threats and arresting Afghan journalists.

"There are a few selective individuals in the [Transitional Authority] cabinet who may be involved in these problems. These attacks have often happened after [journalists] have criticized certain people in the government," Sifton said.

Two Afghan cabinet members named in Sifton's report are Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim and Education Minister Younis Qanooni. Both are members of the Shura-i-Nazar -- a loose Afghan political grouping comprised of former mujahedeen parties.

Qanooni was the Afghan interim interior minister until June of last year. Most of the current rank-and-file members of the Interior Ministry formerly were mujahedin fighters under Qanooni's command, and openly displayed their continued support for Qanooni -- now education minister -- during street protests in the past year.

Sifton stressed that he does not have any evidence proving that Fahim or Qanooni ordered their former mujahedin fighters to attack or threaten journalists. But he insists that both ministers have a responsibility to put an end to the practice.

"After journalists have issued critical reports about the Ministry of Education, and in particular the Minister of Education Younis Qanooni, they have been visited by security officials. That doesn't look good for Mr. Qanooni. The same goes for Minister Fahim, the defense minister. It doesn't look good for him when, after he is criticized in the press, security officials visit journalists and intimidate them. Most people would assume the intimidation was ordered by those officials. [I can't say that myself.] Perhaps they are just very zealous supporters. But it doesn't look very good, and the fact that it goes on week after week is something that these officials themselves need to address," Sifton said.

Meanwhile, Sifton said there are clear indications that threats and attacks against Afghan journalists are linked to other well-known political leaders from Shura-i-Nazar that are outside the Transitional Authority -- such as former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani and former mujahedin leader Abdul Rasul Sayyaf.

"There are [powerful] people in Kabul -- former President Rabbani [and] Abdul Rasul Sayyaf -- who are clearly involved in these intimidations. They are just two examples. There seem to be other smaller commanders -- whose names are not as famous or infamous -- who are also involved [and] who are very closely aligned with those leaders. It draws us to the inevitable conclusion that there are people in Kabul who are using security forces to intimidate anybody who criticizes the loose organization of former mujahedin parties that is known as the Shura-i-Nazar. It's not so much an individual getting angry, but they as a group are obviously using the security forces. It's very clear. And when I say 'powerful people,' I really mean in most cases, members of the Shura-i-Nazar," Sifton said.

Human Rights Watch is urging Afghan President Hamid Karzai to make a public statement in defense of journalists and press freedoms. Sifton said Karzai should dismiss any officials known to be taking part in threats and arrests. He also said Afghanistan's current interior minister, Ali Ahmad Jalali, should take steps to improve police protection for those being threatened.

Human Rights Watch is also recommending that Karzai form a task force to investigate the involvement of police, military, and intelligence officials in threats against journalists.

The findings in today's Human Rights Watch report are supported and supplemented by reports from the U.S.-based Freedom House and by international press freedom groups.

In its global survey of media independence issued this week, Freedom House classified the press in Afghanistan as "Not Free."

Freedom House noted that conditions have improved markedly for journalists since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001 -- including the registration of more than 100 independent publications.

But it noted reports about the rising incidences of threats and harassment by authorities against journalists. Freedom House concluded that many Afghan journalists avoid writing about sensitive, but critically important issues -- such as "Islam, national unity, or crimes committed by the warlords" -- because of the self-censorship prompted by the "chilling effect" of death threats and harassment of journalists.

The Freedom House report also notes that "both Afghan and foreign reporters have been subjected to intimidation and physical attacks from regional warlords."

In a study released today by the Committee to Protect Journalists, Afghanistan was listed as the fourth worst place for a journalist to be. Iraq topped that list, followed by Cuba and Vietnam. The report lists Afghanistan as a worse place to be a journalist than Chechnya, the West Bank, and Gaza.

On Afghanistan, the Committee to Protect Journalists said "the unchecked power of local warlords and weak rule of law" make the country an inhospitable environment for the press. It said that despite the new freedoms of the post-Taliban era, it is impossible for journalists to write and speak freely because of threats, physical intimidation, and assault.

The Committee to Protect Journalists agreed with Human Rights Watch, saying abuses often are committed by politicians and military commanders who use government security forces to harass independent journalists.

The beating of Radio Liberty correspondent Ahmed Behzad in March by the chief security officer of Herat Province Governor Ismail Khan has also featured prominently in today's reports by Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

That incident occurred at a compound in Herat just minutes after it had been opened as an office for the UN-backed Afghan Human Rights Commission in a ceremony attended by senior Afghan government officials.

Behzad described the circumstances: "After the end of the ceremony, I asked for an interview for Radio Liberty with Interior Minister General Ali Ahmad Jalali. When I asked him my fourth question -- which was in regard to allegations from international human rights groups about human rights violations by local authorities in Herat -- Ismail Khan called me shameless and, in an undignified manner, he ordered me to leave the room. On my way out, Herat's security chief Alavi shouted the order to one of his security officers -- 'Arrest and expel Behzad from Herat.'"

Behzad was struck in the face by Alavi with a heavy object when he asked if he was going to be arrested on charges of asking the interior minister a question. Behzad said he was then arrested, detained for several hours, and then expelled from the province of Herat on Ismail Khan's orders.

Sifton noted that Human Rights Watch also has documented cases of harassment against journalists by regional military commanders in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad and near the southeastern town of Gardez.