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Report: Afghan journalists self-censor to survive

At the scene of a bombing in front of a Kabul cultural center on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014, Afghan journalists huddled around eyewitnesses. A Human Rights Watch report released Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015, said journalists increasingly face threats from Taliban insurgents and corrupt government officials.

STARS AND STRIPES

By JOSH SMITH | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 20, 2015

KABUL, Afghanistan — As international attention shifts elsewhere, press freedom is in a “downward spiral” in Afghanistan, leading some journalists to engage in self-censorship to protect themselves, a human rights group warned on Tuesday.

A 50-page report released by Human Rights Watch said Afghan journalists — who have grown in number since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 — say they face increasing threats not only from insurgents but also from corrupt government officials.

“The phenomenal growth of the media in Afghanistan has been one of the most significant achievements of the post-2001 reconstruction effort,” Human Rights Watch researcher Patricia Gossman wrote in the report. “But with most foreign military forces having withdrawn from Afghanistan, and a substantial decline in foreign donor assistance to the country, the freedom that spurred the media’s growth is in peril.”

Attacks on journalists by Taliban insurgents often go unpunished, the report found, indicating “wider impunity and failure to establish the rule of law” in the country.

During the 2014 presidential election, the Taliban issued threats to a range of print and broadcast media that covered the contest. One reporter was told his house would be attacked if he continued quoting the election commission.

At the same time, as foreign troops withdraw and international aid decreases, journalists are coming under increasing pressure from Afghan officials.

Government or pro-government forces were responsible in 63 percent of the cases of threats and violence against journalists tracked by the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee since 2012. Last year saw the highest number of such incidents, with 68 reported cases.

In one case documented by Human Rights Watch, a Kabul-based news organization had to seek police protection after armed men arrived at the office following an investigation into the allegedly unlawful seizure of land by powerful government officials. In other instances, officials force journalists to apologize for stories critical of government or other powerful interests.

Self-censorship has become a “survival mechanism” for some reporters, Gossman wrote, especially those based outside the major cities. “Many steer clear of reporting on sensitive issues — including corruption, land grabbing, violence against women, and human rights abuses — as a means to minimize safety risks.”

Nazifullah Salarzai, a spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, said the Afghan government takes threats to journalists seriously, and he encouraged media to report any harassment to government officials.

“The president has ordered his legal adviser to examine all those cases where journalists in Afghanistan faced violence in the past,” Salarzai said when asked about the report. He added that any government officials caught threatening journalists would be brought to justice.

Two national commissions established by a 2009 law designed to protect journalists have yet to become functional, while a commission investigating alleged “violations” by media is up and running and routinely investigates complaints against  members of the press.

Human Rights Watch found that powerful individuals bypass the media violations commission, going to the attorney general’s office to seek legal action against journalists whose stories they don’t like. The Information and Culture Ministry, meanwhile, “has served largely as a cudgel to intimidate the press.”

Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, an array of new media outlets has appeared in Afghanistan, from small operations owned by political and religious figures, to broadcasting behemoth TOLO TV, owned by Afghan-Australian entrepreneur Saad Mohseni. TOLO controls as much as 45 percent of the national market.

Some analysts fear that the ethnic, political and religious differences among media owners could inflame conflicts with the departure of international donors.

Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.

smith.josh@stripes.com
Twitter: @joshjonsmith

Afghan journalists surround then-presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah as he displays his ink-stained finger before voting on April 5, 2014. A Human Rights Watch report released Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015, found that some journalists engage in self-censorship to protect themselves as they face a growing number of threats.
JOSH SMITH/STARS AND STRIPES