Context & Culture

Where Many Streets Have No Name: One for the Freedom of Speech?


Afghan journalists want to rename a street in central Kabul ‘Freedom of Speech Street’ to honour the many colleagues who have sacrificed their lives in this cause over the past ten years. Their initiative has met some resistance – not because of the content but because the street already bears the name of an independence hero. Renaming this particular street would also be a reminder of the last time when political parties and newspapers flourished, in the ‘Decade of Democracy’ between 1963 and 1973, write AAN Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig and AAN Researcher Wazhma Samandary.

It is the fifth day now that a banner (unofficially) renaming a busy Kabul street ‘Freedom of Speech Street’ (Jada-ye Azadi-ye Bayan) hangs on the blast wall in front of the Ministry of Information and Culture. The action was launched by Nai, a non-governmental organisation supporting open media in Afghanistan, and a number of other Afghan journalists. They want to honour and commemorate the ‘services and sacrifices of reporters’ during the past ‘ten years of freedom of speech in Afghanistan’, during which dozens of reporters lost their lives for that cause. (Read about one case extensively reported by AAN here.) Referring to the bookstall-lined street leading from the Deh-e Afghanen square with Kabul’s only pedestrian tunnel (Zer-e Zamini square in Kabul colloquial) to Pul-e Bagh-e Umumi bridge, the journalists argue that:

Some of Kabul’s streets were already named after persons and events, but the name of a freedom of expression road was still missing in the city. The street in front of Ministry of Information and Culture is the best option for this name.

Abdul Mujib Khelwatgar, the executive director of Nai, also pointed to the current situation regarding freedom of speech and press in Afghanistan when talking with AAN: ‘We have a lot of journalists who have lost their lives because of [defending] freedom of speech. And we had 69 cases of violence against journalists in Afghanistan in the last year 2012’ (see the Nai data base, including an interactive map, here).

A short browse through Afghan media reporting shows that this continues. Only yesterday, after the Taleban attack on intelligence headquarters in Kabul, Afghan reporters were threatened by what appeared to be plain-clothes security forces (a report here and a fairly graphic video here). Some earlier headlines read: ‘Violence against journalists on rise in Takhar’ (Ariana News, 26 October 2012); ‘Legal Proceedings Brought Against Afghan TV Channels’ (because of broadcasting ‘inappropriate’ content; RFE/RL 10 September 2012) and ‘Security Fears Linked to Less Women in Media’ (ToloNews, 26 November 2012). During the summer, the NDS repeatedly questioned Outlook Afghanistan editor-in-chief Hossain Yasa, also an advisor to an opposition alliance, for alleged links with Pakistan, which forced him to flee the country. In December, there was the assassination attempt on the Mandegar daily’s editor-in-chief, Nazeri Paryani (8 Sobh daily, 15 December 2012, AAN media monitoring and here).

Apart from threats and violence, Afghan journalists are also facing financial problems associated with funding drying up and a lack of access to necessary information from 2012. ‘These problems will become more acute in 2014’, Nai’s head, Wahidullah Tawhidi, said earlier this month.

Not everybody, including the Ministry and some media colleagues, thinks that the way the journalists’ renamed the street was right. Most of those argue that it should go through a legal procedure, involving the Afghan capital’s municipality that has been busy renaming a lot of other streets already. In addition, they say, the street already has a name because it is part of Ghazi Muhammad Jan Wardak Street, named after an independence hero. To which point exactly this street leads is unclear, however, and the journalists argue that the part in front of the Ministry and further on, down to Kabul river, remains unnamed.(1)

Fortunately, both sides are avoiding a conflict. While the banner had been temporarily removed on the first day, the Ministry, after having been contacted by Nai, agreed to tolerate it for the time being in a show of laudable leniency. (At the point of writing, it was still there.) Jalal Nurani, an advisor for the Ministry, told AAN:

We support this idea, and even before Nai took this step, the Ministry of Information and Culture already had the plan. We planned to name the street starting from Zer-e Zamini to Zarnigar Street [along the park of the same name, very close by] as ‘Freedom of Speech Street’ – not this one.

An interesting point made by the journalists supporting this action is that they want to remind their fellow Afghans of one of the rare (and widely forgotten) episodes of democracy and freedom of press in Afghanistan between 1963 and Sardar Muhammad Daud’s coup d’ètat in 1973. Then, the country enjoyed what is called the ‘Decade of Democracy’ with dozens of political parties and their press organisations mushrooming. This took place after King Muhammad Zaher had started his top-down-democratisation drive that changed Afghanistan from a (not so) absolute monarchy into a constitutional monarchy with a full-fledged parliament, parliamentary elections and (almost) political parties; Zaher Shah had ultimately refrained from signing the political party law (more details in the chapter about this period in this paper by one of the authors).

During this ‘Decade of Democracy’, in the area around the Ministry (which was formerly the office of the official Bakhtar News Agency) called Pul-e Bagh-e Umumi, a so-called Democracy Wall flourished. There the activists representing the new parties-in-waiting gave speeches, debated and distributed their newspapers. In that sense, renaming that street would link the new name to a valuable part of Afghanistan’s history – as Shah Hossain Murtazawi, deputy editor-in-chief of 8 Sobh newspaper, told AAN: ‘As a media activist I support that one of the streets of the city is named “Freedom of Speech Street” so that Afghan people pay attention to this important cause and remember its value when they cross the road and see the street sign’.

(1) Most Kabul streets (and lanes) have no name. The main streets were named during the monarchy, and those names are still familiar with many Kabulis, even though some of them have been renamed recently – like Jada-ye Maiwand or Jada-ye Asmayi, Salang Wat, Muhammad Akbar Khan Wat or Ghiasuddin Wat (now mostly called Kolola Pushta road); others have received practical names everyone understands, like Airport or Jalalabad Road, or Butcher, Chicken or Flower Street (Kucha-ye Qasaba, Murghan and Gul-Forushi. In Herat, the old Blood Bank Street has been renamed three times since 2001 (more details here): first Banayi Street, then Razi Street and finally Mirwais Sadeq Street, after the son of former Herat strongman and governor Ismail Khan; Sadeq – who had been Minister of Civil Aviation at that point – was killed in March 2004 in factional fighting in Herat. There also was a controversy in last August when a street in Mazar-e Sharif was given the name ‘Martyrs of the Consulate of the Islamic Republic of Iran Street’, after Iranian diplomats killed there when the Taleban captured the city in 1998 (read here).

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Thematic Category: Context & Culture, Rights & Freedoms