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UN Asks Afghanistan To Lift Election Media Ban

Journalists are barred from reporting violence on polling day
KABUL (Reuters) -- The United Nations has asked Afghanistan to lift a last-minute ban on media reporting of violence during the August 20 presidential election, saying the Afghan Constitution guaranteed a free press.

Afghan authorities imposed the ban on August 18 with two decrees, the first barring journalists from reporting any violence in the country between 6:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. (0130-1530 GMT) on polling day.

The second ordered journalists to stay away from the scenes of any attacks.

The government says the measures are intended to prevent reports of violence from scaring Afghans away from voting. Taliban fighters have vowed to disrupt the election.

The United Nations said Afghans had a right to information, and restricting the media could undermine confidence in the poll.

"People need access to information, not only on polling day but after polling day. The credibility of these elections is directly linked to the information that they have access to," said Aleem Siddique, spokesman for the UN mission in Kabul.

"It's unclear to us what if any legal basis there would be for such a directive when Afghanistan's constitution guarantees freedom of expression and freedom of the press. We are making this point to the Afghan authorities," he said on August 19.

Afghan police have taken a more aggressive attitude towards reporters in recent days. Several journalists were beaten by police at the scene of a suicide car bombing on August 18 and a siege with gunmen on August 19.

A cameraman and reporter for private Afghan television station Tolo were detained briefly on August 19.

A spokesman for President Hamid Karzai defended the decrees. Karzai is seeking reelection and is hoping to avoid a second round run-off, but his chances could be hurt if violence dampens turnout in southern areas where he draws support.

"We have taken this decision in the national interest of Afghanistan in order to encourage people and raise their morale to come out and vote," Siamak Herawi said.

"If something happens, this will prevent them from exaggerating it, so that people will not be frightened to come out and vote," Herawi said.

The head of the Afghan Independent Journalists' Association said the decrees would not stop Afghan and foreign journalists from reporting during the election.

"It shows the weakness of the government and we condemn such moves to deprive people from accessing news," the AIJA's Rahimullah Samander told Reuters.

Rachel Reid, Afghanistan researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said it was up to Afghans to make their own decisions about security, and that they had a right to know about violent incidents in the country.