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Afghan Reporters Caught In The Crossfire

A wounded man is helped from the site of a blast near Kabul's biggest shopping center on February 26.
A wounded man is helped from the site of a blast near Kabul's biggest shopping center on February 26.
The mushrooming young Afghan media face tough challenges as they try to keep their independence amid growing violence and pressure from both the government and armed insurgents. The government, with its executive power, expects the media to do business its way, while the Taliban pressure and intimidate the media to put out their version of the story.

This week, Afghan intelligence officials "requested" the media to ban live coverage of suicide attacks and firefights, like the one on February 26 in which coordinated insurgent attacks killed 16 people, including 11 foreigners. Afghan authorities have now threatened to arrest reporters and confiscate their equipment if they attempt to cover such events without official sanction.

Though the Taliban condemned the government ban, they remain keen on scaring journalists into buying into their perspective. Since the first days of the Marjah operation in mid-February, Taliban commanders in Helmand Province have called local reporters to offer interviews to show the world their view of the situation. They asked the media to visit areas under their control to see what they called the “truth.” In case of noncompliance, these Taliban threatened reporters with dire consequences.

The Afghan government has somewhat unsuccessfully attempted to clamp down on media coverage of its failings. Its ban on reporting election-day violence last fall did little to deter reporters. And a 2006 attempt to persuade journalists to buy its version of insurgency-related issues failed. Nevertheless, unnerved Afghan officials continue both to cajole and to intimidate journalists to emphasize Afghanistan's "half-full" glass.

In the past, the Taliban invited reporters to regions under its control to report from their side. But no reporter dares to do so now, as they know the fates of many who have taken this risk. Two French reporters who wanted to see the situation from the Taliban angle in northern Kapisa Province were kidnapped last December and are still being held. And a “New York Times” correspondent who wanted to interview a Taliban commander in southeastern Logar Province last year was kidnapped and spent months in custody in neighboring Pakistan before managing to escape.

Afghan media managers and journalists feel that, in the current environment, they cannot choose between the rival sides. Professional integrity and credibility offer the best protection and long-term sustainability. But they need help and sympathy.

This week's ban on live coverage of insurgent attacks sparked an angry reaction from the international community, Afghan media organizations, and even the Taliban. The insurgents called on Kabul to abide by "accepted and sound principles of freedom of expression" -- something the Taliban themselves notoriously failed to do during their five-year-long rule.

The reactions prompted Kabul to soften its stance, and the government is now promising to find an "acceptable mechanism.” But observers question why it fomented such a controversy without doing the required legal and political homework. They speculate whether the episode is simply indicative of the endemic anarchy in the decision-making system in Kabul, or whether it is a calculated trial balloon before attempting more sweeping control over the media.

Most Afghan journalists agree that the media should take into account national interests and not reveal facts prematurely if doing so could endanger lives or public order. But this should not lead the media toward bias or turn them into propaganda tools, as was the case during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. The media in most neighboring countries still cover Afghanistan though the lenses of their own "national interests." And that, too, needs to be changed by greater press freedom in Afghanistan, by developing links between Afghan media and the outside world, and by assisting the Afghan media to become financially viable and self-sustaining.

An Afghan journalist might sit on a story for a while if doing so is in the national interest. But if the deafening sounds of explosions and gunfire are heard on the streets, it will not be possible for a reporter to tell people that “all is normal.” This presents a great dilemma for the infant Afghan media, and the way out is not more government regulation but the voluntary adoption and mainstreaming of journalistic standards and a code of conduct on covering violence.

A planned media and government conference in Kabul later this month will provide Afghan journalists, media mangers, and officials the chance to work toward such an outcome.

Mohmmad Amin Mudaqiq is the Kabul bureau chief of RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan. The views expressed in this commentary, which first appeared in the daily “Outlook Afghanistan,” are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL