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Afghanistan: Journalists Say Climate Of Fear Discourages Critical Reporting

Two editors of Afghanistan's "Aftab" newspaper -- who were arrested, then freed, on charges of insulting Islam -- have gone into hiding after protesters in Kabul demanded the government punish them under Shari'a law. The case has prompted criticism of the Afghan government for failing to protect press freedom. Meanwhile, many Afghan journalists say politicians and warlords in the country are creating a climate of fear. They say there are dozens of unreported cases of correspondents who have been intimidated or assaulted for publishing critical articles.

Prague, 7 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Afghan journalists and human rights groups say threats and attacks against the press in recent weeks indicate some of the country's most prominent figures are becoming increasingly intolerant of freedom of expression.

They say the incidents usually occur after stories are published critical of leading politicians, former mujahedin leaders, or powerful officials either in central or local governments.

Zuhur Afghan, the editor in chief of "Iroda," an independent newspaper, said, "As long as you do not criticize high-ranking officials or their associates, the Afghan press is free."

The closure of the "Aftab" newspaper last month and the arrest of two of its editors on charges of insulting Islam prompted international organizations, such as New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), to condemn the Afghan government for failing to protect journalists and freedom of the press. HRW said the "Aftab" case is the latest in a long line of press attacks in post-Taliban Afghanistan.

Information and Culture Minister Sayyed Makhdum Rahin says there will be a legal procedure against the two journalists.

HRW's John Sifton said, "In Afghanistan today, dominant government officials or powerful clerics can order journalists' arrests, and [Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid] Karzai won't stop them."

According to Afghan journalists, the "Aftab" case is just the tip of the iceberg. They say dozens of similar incidents go unreported. "Iroda" editor Afghan told RFE/RL: "I criticized [Yunos] Qanuni, the education minister, saying that he comes to the ministry only for two hours a week, that he is not aware of what is going on at the ministry, that no one listens to people's complaints, that headmasters and teachers spend days trying to meet the minister. When we published the article, I was detained and arrested for five hours at the ministry. Then the court prosecuted me for a month until it was stopped by Karzai's interference. Even after that, I received a formal warning through the Ministry of Information that I should leave the Education Ministry alone."

Faiz-ul-Rahmon Uryo is the editor in chief of a newspaper called "Mash'al-e Democracy" (The Flame of Democracy). He told RFE/RL he was attacked last month by a group of armed men after publishing an article critical of the former communists and mujahedin, as well as of the current government.

"Shortly after publishing the 12th edition of our newspaper, I was on my way from Logar Province. A group of people in a vehicle followed my car and forced me to stop and get out of the car. I refused, but they got me out of the car by force. They threatened me with a Kalashnikov and beat me up. They said I should have been careful while publishing the 12th edition of the newspaper. Fortunately, a lot of local people gathered there, and the armed men left," he said.

Uryo is not sure who was behind the attack. He said he reported the incident to the Information Ministry and the ministry offered protection and promised to investigate the case through the Interior Ministry.

Shortly after that incident, according to Uryo, two other journalists from "Mash'al-e Democracy" were intimidated after criticizing high-ranking officials from the Ministry of Transportation and the Women's Affairs Ministry.

"Iroda's" Afghan said journalists in Afghanistan know there are topics they should avoid if they don't want to get themselves into trouble. "For instance, Shura-yi Nezar [a loosely coordinated group of former mujahedin parties] has confiscated lands and sites throughout Kabul that were allocated for schools, nurseries, hospitals, and mosques. They got this land for themselves and their friends. The Defense Ministry had sites, orchards, a number of buildings, and other properties. The defense minister simply confiscated all of the properties and distributed them among his [people]. Every minister behaves as if the ministry is his own property. Besides, they give all positions to their own relatives, including to people who are illiterate and have no idea about their official duties. If a journalist tries to criticize them, he would be threatened, beaten up, arrested, or stalked."

Turan Shah-Faqeer, an assistant to Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim, denies the accusations. Afghan Deputy Education Minister Zabehullah Esmati dismissed Zuhur Afghan's allegations as a misunderstanding.

Abdul Hamid Muborez, a deputy Afghan information minister, acknowledge the problems faced by the press in his country and told RFE/RL the ministry offers protection to journalists who feel threatened.

"We do admit that some warlords and commanders -- who belong to the most hard-line part of our society -- create barriers to press freedom," Muborez said. "But we are committed to freedom of the press. We don't deny that problems exist. After so many years of war and conflict, a society cannot be free of problems. We are committed to the protection of journalists. When they worry about [specific] security threats, we immediately inform the Interior Ministry to protect the journalist."

Abdul Ahror Romizpour, the head of the independent Afghan Human Rights Commission, confirms the government has been trying to protect journalists from intimidation. Romizpour said in most cases threats to freedom of the press come from government officials, influential politicians, warlords, or independent factional commanders.

According to local journalists, the other sensitive issue is Islam. They say journalists can easily be misunderstood, both by Islamic scholars and the country's conservative society, if the articles they write discuss the impact of Islam and Shari'a law on everyday life.

Human Rights Watch says the two journalists from "Aftab" published two articles critical of Afghan religious leaders that also raised questions about Islam's place in politics and methods of interpreting religious texts.

Since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, more than 200 newspapers and magazines have been started in Afghanistan. However, with most of the population living in poverty, publishers find it hard to sell their publications on the street. Some publishers distribute their newspapers free of charge. In addition, Afghanistan has one of the highest illiteracy rates in the world.

Few ordinary Afghans buy newspapers. There are only a few news agents or newspaper kiosks in the capital, Kabul. Most of the newspapers printed in Kabul do not reach the provinces.

Afghan journalists say none of the 200 publications is financially self-sufficient. Much of the printed media in the country is funded by government ministries, governmental and nongovernmental organizations, and Afghan political parties.

Ahmad Ziya Siyamak is the editor in chief of "Anis," a state-funded newspaper. He told RFE/RL that the government does not have any say in the editorial content of "Anis," despite the nature of its financing.

"In our articles, we criticize ministers, cabinet members, jihad leaders and other officials. We have criticized concrete people for concrete wrongdoings. Sometimes they rebuke us for this, but generally, we do not get angry reactions from the officials," Siyamak said.

Fahim Dashti is the editor in chief of the "Kabul" weekly, which is widely believed to be funded by Shura-yi Nezar. Dashti discounted reports of a climate of fear for Afghan journalists. "As long as we obey journalistic ethics, as long as we have enough facts and information to prove our allegations -- yes, we can and we have criticized [the government], and so far we have had no barriers in our work," he said.

Some Kabul residents say they want the country's newspapers to discuss the everyday problems of the people, such as the lack of security, unpaid wages, and corrupt officials.

Hamidullah, a shopkeeper in Kabul, said newspapers should write about the issues that are important, about issues people need and want to know about. "They talk about democracy and freedom, but we haven't reached that level of [democracy] where people can freely express themselves," he said.

Hamidullah's fellow shopkeeper, Nangyolai, questioned whether critical articles in Afghan newspapers have any real impact on the government. "I do read newspapers. They write interesting articles. They tell the truth. But I wonder if they have any impact," he said.

Editor in Chief Afghan of "Iroda" said articles in Afghan newspapers do spark change. "That's why our officials and powerful figures are afraid of journalists and have been trying to silence them," he said.

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.