An Afghan media watchdog has urged the government to take note of a demand for more media freedoms after numerous local media outlets issued a joint statement denouncing the "deterioration" of access to government-related information in the country.
Sayed Ikram Afzali, the head of Integrity Watch Afghanistan, said on February 5 that adequate legislation guaranteeing the media's ability to work and access information exists, but that the government has refused to provide enough funding and support to implement the law.
In a joint statement unveiled at a protest rally in Kabul on February 4, 30 media outlets including privately owned national TV channels, local broadcasters, and newspapers blamed the "carelessness" of the government for endangering media freedom in recent years.
The protest was supported by media-freedom and human rights watchdogs, the UN mission in Afghanistan, and Western embassies in Kabul, which said access to information for citizens will make Afghan democracy stronger.
Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah has responded by calling on "all the government organizations to cooperate and share information with the citizens."
Abdullah said that "freedom of speech and freedom of media is one of the most important national achievements of the people of Afghanistan," adding that "honoring and respecting this achievement is the responsibility of government officials."
In their statement, the media outlets said that all government institutions had "shortcomings" when it comes to providing access to information, but cited the Supreme Court, the Attorney General's Office, the National Directorate of Security, the president's office, the Finance Ministry, the central bank, and the Defense Ministry as being "the worst ones."
The statement comes against the backdrop of relentless violence across the country. Afghan forces, backed by U.S. allies, continue to battle Taliban militants who currently control or hold sway over nearly half of Afghanistan.
The Taliban launches frequent attacks targeting government forces and officials, as well as those seen loyal to the government.
The United States is engaged in on-again-off-again talks with the Taliban, led by U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, to find a negotiated end to Afghanistan's 18-year war that would allow the U.S. to bring home about 13,000 American soldiers.
“Throughout my tenure as the chief information commissioner, I have witnessed the media’s access to information being restricted by key government institutions,” said Afzali. “Unfortunately, the trend continues."
Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar, head of the Nai Supporting Open Media group, said the situation is critical. “If there is no access to information, then the nature of the media as a tool of freedom of expression will vanish," Khalvatgar said.
Afghanistan ranks among the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. In January, the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee reported that five journalists were killed in 2019 in the country.
In a statement, Amnesty International asid the Afghan government "has a responsibility to not just protect journalists but provide access to information in line with Afghan laws and the country’s international obligations on the right to freedom of expression.”
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders criticized the Afghan authorities' "failure" to fully implement the law on access to state-held information.
The European Union office in Afghanistan also called for the law to be "implemented in full," saying the "free flow of information is crucial for any democracy &progressive society."
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said that "open and healthy societies promote access to information for citizens," which it said was "vital" for accountability and fighting corruption, improving government performance and efficiency, encouraging investment, and empowering citizens in public life.