MONİR AHMAD / Journalist & Programmes Development Assistant at Media Diversity Institute – UK
The phenomenal growth of the media and freedom of expression has been one of the most significant achievements of the post-Taliban era for the people of Afghanistan. In this article there will be a variety of topics which will be discussed. Firstly, I would like to highlight the historical perspective on the media and a brief overview of the legal framework for freedom of expression. Then I will move on to the triangle of fear, violence, self-censorship and pressure
against journalists and media in Afghanistan.
During the black Taliban regime between 1996 and 2001 in Afghanistan, ethnic and religious minorities including women did not have a voice at all. In fact, there was no media operation, freedom to speak or write. The only media at the time was the Taliban radio known as Radio Voice of Shariat. The only trusted news sources in that time was the BBC Persian radio where contents were produced in Pakistan and London.
Looking at back in history of media in 1873 in Afghanistan was the year the first print media called Shamsunahar was published in Kabul. After which the second periodical publication called Seraj-ul-Akhbar was printed in1906. Seraj-ul-Akhbar, as an oppositional publication, was critical of the friendship between Afghanistan and the UK was against the idea of colonialism. The first radio channel started operation in 1920 while the first TV broadcasted in 1978. Some believed that the operation of independent media outlets dated back to the late 1940s.
THE LEGAL FRAMEWORK
Freedom of expression, information and press are guaranteed under article 34 of constitution and in article 4 of the mass media law of Afghanistan. While article 50 protects access to information. The legal framework governing freedom of expression, information and media includes the Constitution of Afghanistan, Mass Media Law, Freedom of Information Law, Regulation on Establishment and Activity of Private Mass Media as well as Penal Code. Article 34 firmly guarantees both freedoms of expression and the press. It strongly prohibits censorship in any form. This article also considers a historical development in freedom of expression in Afghanistan as decades ago, constitutionally, the government had the right to observe and control the content of publications prior to publish and specific government bodies were missioned to revising content of the press.
In addition to protecting freedom of opinion, freedom to publish/print, the word “inviolable” (translation of Mas’oon in Persian) protects the right holders from any physical and psychological attacks and prevents anyone, including government, from any interferences to citizens’ right to free speech. In the context of mass media law, free speech is protected similarly to the wording in article 19 of ICCPR but not absolute. Both positive and negative aspects of free speech is protected under this law.
After decades of conflict in Afghanistan, when the new constitution was ratified in 2003, Article 34 enshrined freedom of expression as a pillar of democracy and a vehicle for enlightening public opinion. It brought hope to citizens where if the freedom tree grew under the constitution, it would establish an awakening society and pave the ground for growth and prosperity of the country. Historically, since the new constitution was enacted after decades of conflict and civil war, all attention was focused on stability, security and peacebuilding; therefore, Article 59 mainly focuses on restrictions in the context of independence, territorial integrity, sovereignty and national unity.
The language of this article is vague, broad and misleading; considering the long history of suppressive regimes in Afghanistan, and it is fairly difficult for the traditional society to have a 180-degree U-turn and accept the democratic definition of freedom against secrecy. Therefore, it is hard to define the distinction between freedom and security or national unity in practice. Without a doubt, other terms such as “national unity” and “sovereignty” used in this article are also extremely vague and interpretable. It results in suppressing free speech in practice.
For instance, in 2010, government banned journalists from covering the suicide attack scenes on the grounds of damaging psychological security prescribed in media law. This ban was denounced by the journalists’ community and was considered an unlawful restriction, which contradicts article 4 of the same law. As a result, the journalists’ community prevailed this decision of the government. Not only courts but also prosecuting and security authorities unlawfully attack journalists. Among others, An unpublished article costs Zaman Ahmadi 20 years in jail.
The start of the interimg Farsi, Pashto and Uzbeki, some international radio channels such as BBC, VOA, Radio Free Europe are also operating. The leading national radio and television channels are of Moby Group including Arman radio, Tolo TV and TOLOnews, the Killid Group, 1TV, Ariana TV, Ariana Radio, etc. Television remains in second place in terms of viewership while print media readership is lower. Hasht-eSubh (8AM) is the leading newspaper, followed by Etilaatroz, Arman Mili, etc.
Unfortunately, due to poor governance and lack of the rule of law, Taliban and Insurgent groups also got the chance to occasionally publish extremist contents through FM radio channels in some parts of the country which later on it was destroyed by the government.
THE TRIANGLE OF FEAR: VIOLENCE, PRESSURE AND SELF-CENSORSHIP
Challenges against media/journalists can be better explained in the form of triangle of fear. On the top right corner sets political pressure and censorship. On the top left corner sets self-censorship and cultural barriers and the bottom corner is violence and security threats.
To be a journalist in Afghanistan it is not only dangerous but also one the most challenging occupations. Violence against journalists in Afghanistan is a severe human rights violation that hasn’t been reflected very much on the international level. Journalists/media workers routinely face physical violence, threat, intimidation during their work. Attacks on journalists and media by government or warlords, or the Taliban insurgents often go unpunished. Who can punish the Taliban, though? Civil society organizations such as Afghanistan’s Journalists Safety Committee, Nai – Supporting Open Media in Afghanistan, Afghanistan’s National Journalists Union put efforts to advocate for safety and security of journalists, fighting against violence and influence policies to safeguard freedom of media. They also regularly record violence cases against journalists, but still, many violence incidents remain unreported/unregistered. The nature of these violent incidents includes physical attacks, target killing, kidnapping, beating, injury, arrest, intimidation and
insult, misbehavior and wrongful termination.
The causes and perpetrators of violence against journalists and media workers are not only government or the Taliban. According to data from 2013 to 2020, in terms of quantity from most to least, 8 categories of perpetrators/ causes have been involved as following: Government (320 cases), Taliban(152 cases), unknown gunmen/groups(92 cases), ISIS(82 cases), local warlords(53 cases), media officials/owners(18 cases), protesters(13 cases) and natural disaster(4 cases).
Afghanistan has been one of the deadliest countries for journalists. Since 2001, over 130 journalists and media workers have been killed. Over 1550 violence cases (mostly unsolved) against media, media workers and journalists have been recorded, and since 2020, assassination cases are on the rise. The top right corner of the fear triangle is political pressures and content censorship. In order to censor media an silence journalists, pressure has been not only imposed by the president’s office in various forms, but also by other corrupt officials, local warlords, commanders, security forces and insurgent groups. Among others, female journalists have been violently targeted amid a wave of killings that is spreading fear among journalists and media workers by the Taliban.
Since 2001, security and political pressure have been two major concerns for media/journalists. President Karzai’s administration (2001-2014) has been less suppressive and authoritarian towards media and journalists. Although he didn’t approve the freedom of information act during his office in 2014. His term is known as the decade of freedom of expression and media. Experts believe that despite government failure in succeeding to institutionalize good governance in the country, it did, however, advance and maintain freedom for the media.
Ghani’s administration (2014-present), though, has been considered the worst for journalists and freedom of media. According to reports, the situation of media and free speech has been worsened under Ghani’s administration. Meaning, journalists and media experienced the worst security and censorship challenges ever. President Ghani increasingly attempts to censor media in various ways including but not limited to individual attacks on media and journalists during his speeches, arresting critical journalists through National Security Council, imposing tax on print media against the law, organizing
monthly meetings with editors and media directors on issues of national security and national interest concerns, controlling media with state-funded ads, closed-door meetings with media outlets, and assigning journalists/ media editors in key government positions.
The newest censorship measures taken by the government include threatening media outlets via social media users. Print media owners have been threatened through social media by government-assigned individuals. Victims believe such social media users are financed and technologically backed by the government.
Finally, the top left corner of the triangle is self-censorship and cultural barriers. In simple words, journalists self-censor to survive. According to a report, the Taliban warned a reporter that his house would be attacked if he continued quoting the election commission. In other instances, government officials had forced journalists to apologise for stories critical of government officials. Investigative reporters and editors find themselves in a self-censoring state, while reporting on sensitive issues such as corruption.
- Journalist & Programmes Development Assistant at Media
Diversity Institute – UK