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Freedom of Expression in Afghanistan

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January 29, 2008

Freedom of Expression in Afghanistan

Restrictive laws, self-censorship keep criticism to a minimum

by Waheed Warasta

A Canadian military photo shows children playing with a new radio. Freedom of expression in Afghanistan, says Warasta, faces many enemies. Photo: Combat Camera, Bruno Turcotte

After the collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, as President Hamid Karzai came to power, one of the promising things he did was to declare freedom of the media.

Soon a Media Law was ratified ensuring more freedom of the media under which individuals could run independent papers, publications, radios and TVs. But still some of the articles in the Media Law were controversial and could still bring all other articles of the media law under question. Under such articles, no one has the right to write or say anything that is considered against "national interests." But there is no clear definition of what national interests are that journalists must not touch. In the media law it is also stated that no one can write or say anything that affronts Islam. Such articles can easily be misused by the enemies of free media.

Under the media law a commission was set up to deal with journalistic violations of the media law, however, because the minister of information and culture himself chaired the commission, the decisions of the commission in most cases were biased in favour of those in power. The commission soon came under severe criticism after which some other
representatives from civil society organizations were included among its membership. This again did not work due to the face that the minister still headed up this commission and the independent members were a minority.

The government itself has proved not to be in favour of freedom of expression. Proof of this can be found in the Press Guidelines paper that was distributed to the free media runners last year in which it was stated that no media could run information about suicide attacks of the Taliban on the news headline, nor could they criticize the US-lead coalition, and no one could air and publish news that would decrease people's morale and spirit.

This letter was distributed by the Afghan intelligence to the media and came under severe criticism after President Karzai, in his speech in Madrid conference, highlighted freedom of the media in Afghanistan as one of the greatest achievement of his administration. Interestingly, the spokesman of the president later claimed that he did not know that the intelligence had issued such a letter. This could mean that there are still fragments of power in Afghanistan and powerful individuals in the government that can unilaterally take individual action against journalists and the free media.

Self-censorship is another big enemy of freedom of expression in Afghanistan, one that prevents writers and journalists from expressing certain things. As an example, recently Afghanistan's last king Zahir Shah passed away. All private TV channels felt forced to make exclusive programmes about him and in the ensuing round table discussions only people who would speak in favour of the king were invited. No one could utter a word about his negative points. The fear among the media was that Zahir Shah has been declared the Father of the Nation in Afghanistan's constitution, and those who dared speak against him could be arrested on the charge of insulting him.

I remember a few years ago, when Dr. Sima Samar, the head of Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, had spoken of secularism in her interview with a Canadian newspaper. Soon after her interview was made public in Afghanistan, papers belonging to the Mujahiddin denounced her heavily and attacked her in several articles, describing her as the "Salman Rushdie of Afghanistan" meaning the enemy and insulter of Islam in Afghanistan. She could do nothing but keep quiet and wait for the media noise to cool down. Finally, all she could say to the media was that her words have been misunderstood and that she hadn't meant to insult Islam. Even after this noise died down, she had to keep bodyguards in her presence at all times, and was forced to severely restrict her movements.

But perhaps the biggest challenge to independent media in Afghanistan is the lack of unity among the so called defenders of freedom of expression in Afghanistan. There are several organizations in Afghanistan working in the field of defending freedom of expression: Afghanistan PEN centre a branch of International PEN, Centre for International Journalism, Committee to defend Afghan Journalists, Afghanistan National Journalists Union and others. It is very important for all of these organizations to be united and to defend each other's rights. Unfortunately, many of them have their own ethnic and linguistic divisions which prevents them from unifying. Only if they are able to unite, despite their differences, and defend each other's rights to freedom of expression, can one be hopeful for the future of freedom of expression in this country. Otherwise, this notion will be just a fragile dream.

The fighters of freedom of expression are in dire need of moral support from the international community. Currently there are some elements within the Afghan parliament and government trying to revise the media law in order to enforce more restrictions upon journalists and free thinkers.

As Canada is one of the main countries involved in Afghanistan's reconstruction, I believe Canadians can play an important role by urging their government officials, particularly those who visit Afghanistan, to keep reminding the Afghan president of his obligations to protect freedom of the media in the country. Such a pressure from the international community, including Canada, can prevent the Afghan government from taking the wrong decisions to repress free media and strangle the throat of freedom of expression.

Waheed Warasta is the Executive Director of the Afghanistan PEN Centre in Kabul. He also served as coordinator of the Open Media Fund for Afghanistan.

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Re: Amnesty Intl. USA Afghanistan point person asking for input!

I am Afghanistan country specialist (that's a bit of an overstatement I confess!) for Amnesty International USA and I am hoping to establish contact with Waheed so I can share with him and others the action my colleague Colleen McGinnis are engaged in re: journalist Mr. Kambakhsh who was recently sentenced to death.
We will post a letter writing action on the AIUSA Afghanistan country website in which we are encouraging members here in the US to write to Pres. Karzai (via his ambassador, his Excellency, Said Jawad, here in Washington). We are requesting the president throw out the death sentence and honor his commitment to freedom of speech.
As I understand it, the sentence will be appealed. I would be grateful if you can send me any relevant information pertaining to this case, as well as any suggestions as to how AIUSA can help out. Would it be helpful if American Muslim organizations get involved because we're considering that strategy. Also, we were thinking to send letters to the Afghan Minister of Justice. Do you feel that would be helpful (we think that pressure from Americans could be helpful but then again, it could backfire???)
I hope to hear from you and thank you for all your efforts on behalf of journalists.
Elsie De Laere
Afghanistan country specialist


Dear Waheed Warasta,
I can feel the problems you are all facing in Afghanistan.
Your article makes lots of things clear about freedom of expression in Afghanistan.
Keep up with the good work!
Yours, John

I feel as if Afganistan is

I feel as if Afganistan is such an awful country. EVERYONE and i mean EVERYONE has the right to LIFE. LIBERTY. and the PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS. no one should go without speaking their minds for their mind is the most useful and important tool one could own.


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