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Afghan Media Law Delay Raises Fears Over Fair Poll

Critics fear Karzai wants to retain control over Afghan media
KABUL (Reuters) -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai is delaying a law that would limit his control of state media, raising worries about a "level playing field" ahead of August elections, Afghan journalists said.

Parliament passed the law seven months ago, overturning a veto from Karzai. But instead of ratifying it, the government sent the legislation to the Supreme Court, where it awaits a ruling on one potentially unconstitutional clause.

Critics say the judicial challenge is a ruse designed to allow Karzai to retain a vital propaganda tool ahead of the August 20 presidential elections.

"It was adopted and passed by two-thirds of parliament, so constitutionally it is a law, but when it got to Karzai it was hijacked," said Barry Salaam, chief editor of radio show Good Morning Afghanistan and an outspoken advocate of media rights.

Salaam added that the Afghan media is now unsure if the law has replaced a 2006 one, or will only do so when signed by Karzai.

"If anything happens to journalists we don't know how to get it solved according to the law, because we don't have one."

If it comes into effect, the law will shift control of state broadcaster Radio and Television Afghanistan (RTA) away from the Ministry of Information and Culture, giving it independent status, the United Nations said in a report earlier this year.

That would have helped meet demands for a "level playing field" for the elections, which critics say Karzai does not want.

"The real reason for rejecting the law is that they don't want to lose control of RTA," said Faheem Dashty, chief editor of the “Kabul Weekly” newspaper and a media campaigner.

"If it is not under their control, how can they misuse it for their electoral campaign?" he added.

Opposition leaders worry Karzai will use his access to state media and air transport to gain an unfair advantage in the election, which diplomats see as the key test of progress in Afghanistan as it battles a rising Taliban insurgency.

Foreign Objections

Coming after an international outcry over curbs on women's rights in a law for the Shi'ite minority, the delay in the media law could reinforce some observers’ view that Karzai is less than wholeheartedly committed to values such as human rights.

Such a perception could make it harder for some NATO states to answer U.S. calls to send more troops to Afghanistan.

But Karzai's allies say they are keen to see the law move out of the court and onto the statute book.

Karzai's office said the president was not blocking the law. He saw the country's free press as a major success and does not want to sign an unconstitutional law that would lay it open to legal challenges, said spokesman Hamed Elmi.

"We want the law to be a foundation for this freedom, and we don't want to take risks that could undermine this," Elmi said. "This law should be correct and match the constitution."

He declined to comment on when the law had been sent to the Supreme Court, or why it was taking so long to process the law, but rejected journalists' claims they were in legal limbo, saying the old laws remained in effect until new ones were finalized.

Afghan journalists are upset that their push to protect media independence has garnered less attention abroad than the Shi'ite law, which was condemned by the United States, Britain, and NATO.

"If there is support, it will bring quicker results, as well as positive ones. If not we will go slowly, but we will not be stopped," said Dashty of “Kabul Weekly.”

They consider the law itself an improvement on media rights, in a country where press freedom is already better protected than in most other regional states.

The only provision Afghan journalists are unhappy with is a list of vaguely defined prohibitions, such as one on reporting news that is "against national security," which they fear could be used to muzzle journalists for political reasons.

Because of this, and given the growing instability, journalists say they need a vocal, supportive government to bolster any protection offered by the law.

"We are really very concerned because in the past two years there has been more of a crackdown on freedom of expression; the government is losing confidence and interest in freedom issues," said Good Morning Afghanistan's Salaam.