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Even The Taliban Questions Afghan Media Ban

The Afghan government is attempting to regulate the media
An unlikely voice has joined the chorus of criticism directed against the Afghan government's commitment to civil liberties -- the Taliban.

In a statement issued on March 3, the Taliban said it considers the Afghan government's March 2 decision to ban live war coverage, on the basis that militants were using it to their tactical advantage on the battlefield, "a flagrant violation of the recognized principle of freedom of speech."

"The monopolization of activities of independent mass media outlets by the Kabul Puppet Administration is a clear-cut violation of norms and regulation of neutrality, independence, and liberty of speech and has no justification in the light of national and international laws," the statement continued.

In releasing the statement, the group renowned for its oppressive rule over Afghanistan, added its own unique take to the upbraiding and expressions of concern Kabul has received from media watchdogs and foreign officials.

It also put itself in direct competition with Kabul's efforts to regulate the media, lauding "the courageous efforts of the fact-finding and investigative journalists, reporters, and photographers who continue their duty to reflect the ground realities of the Afghan issue despite threats and obstacles that they are facing in their way."

Farida Nekzad, editor of the Kabul-based Wakht News Agency, was among the representatives of Afghan media outlets summoned this week to the headquarters of the Afghan intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security (NDS).

In what she described as a "friendly" atmosphere, Nekzad was informed by a senior intelligence official that she and her fellow journalists in the country would be working under severe restrictions when it comes to reporting on the ongoing insurgency. "He said that the electronic media should be very careful while covering suicide attacks, or the type of attack we recently witnessed," she says.

Nekzad adds that she was told that the media should not provide live coverage of insurgent attacks "because it raises concerns among people, [and that] insurgents or terrorists can benefit from such coverage."

In officially announcing the decision during a press conference later that day, presidential spokesman Wahid Omar addressed rapidly increasing criticism of the move at home and abroad by saying the new guidelines had not yet been drawn up, and promising they would not amount to "censorship."

But many among the Afghan media remain unconvinced, and suggestions abound that ulterior motives are at play.

Some suggest it is obvious that the Afghan government wants to have an upper hand in the propaganda war against insurgents, and is increasingly unnerved by the coverage and criticism of Afghanistan's mushrooming media outlets.


Some argue that the ban, which comes just weeks after President Hamid Karzai took control of an Afghan electoral watchdog, shows that he now seeks to tame a media whose rapid expansion has meant it has outgrown the government's control.

The argument goes that Karzai, still struggling to gain parliamentary approval for his cabinet, might be particularly concerned about the protecting his government's image with parliamentary elections slated for this fall.

Editor Nekzad, who is also vice president of the South Asia Media Commission -- a regional body that promotes press freedom -- says that the situation in Afghanistan is fragile. "These kinds of signals raise concerns," she tells RFE/RL.

"I think these are the restrictions that begin with requests and suggestions but eventually might have very serious consequences for the journalists. I don't see a good year ahead for the journalists."

During his March 2 press conference, presidential spokesman Omar said the ban was necessitated by the discovery that militants have been using televised coverage of battles to their tactical advantage, "and this has caused serious threat to everybody."

Coordinated suicide attacks in Kabul that targeted guests houses frequented by foreigners is cited as the leading example of insurgents using live coverage of the attacks to alter their tactics on the ground. Sixteen people, including nine Indians, an Italian diplomat, and a French filmmaker were killed in the course of the attacks and ensuing gun-battles.

Saeed Ansari, a spokesman for the NDS, claims that live footage from the nearly two-hour long carnage provided insurgents a window into the countermeasures being taken by Afghan security forces. "Live coverage does not benefit the government, but benefits the enemies of Afghanistan," he says.

Ansari says that from now on journalists would only be allowed to film the aftermath of attacks after securing permission from the NDS. Afghan authorities have conveyed to journalists that it might invoke a national security law to detain journalists or seize the equipment of journalists who violate the ban.

This has led to worries within the Afghan media that the ban will deprive people from up-to-date information about security while the attacks are under way, particularly in large sprawling cities like Kabul where a lack of timely information will only add to the chaos.

International media watchdogs agree. "It is for news organizations to determine whether it is safe for their staff to report," Robert Mahoney, deputy director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement on March 2. "The Afghan authorities should allow reporters to work freely and clarify whether it is considering restrictions on broadcast coverage."

Washington has indicated that it will raise the issue with Kabul. Talking to journalists yesterday, U.S. President Barak Obama's special Richard Holbrooke said that they "don’t like restrictions" on the press. "I and the [U.S.] Secretary of State [Hilary Clinton] are concerned and we will make our support of free access by the press clear to the [Afghan] government," he said.

Kabul already is sending signs that it might soften the ban, leading some observers to see an avenue for the government and the media to work out an arrangement similar to that in neighboring Pakistan. Last November eight major television news networks in that country agreed to adhere to a voluntary code of conduct on how to cover terrorism.
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.