Rights & Freedoms

A ‘Jihad on the Media’? Afghan journalists face the storm in insecure legal waters


Since the beginning of this year, pressure on the Afghan media has been increasing. It is coming from two fronts: politicians and officials who claim that any critical reporting of them (or people of their ‘class’) is “defamation” and a “disruption of the social order”, and from Islamic scholars and MPs who are repeatedly using heated rhetoric in describing what kind of content is fit for the Afghan public to consume. Media activists claim that freedom of expression is under attack and that the government is trying to limit critical coverage, citing examples of journalists who have been beaten up or arrested and certain TV programmes which have been stopped. Is Afghanistan’s relatively free media, one of the few stories of progress over the past 13 years, facing a pushback? AAN’s Wazhma Samandary reports (with input by Thomas Ruttig).

Various professional organisations of Afghan journalists are ringing the alarm bells again. In late November, the Afghanistan Journalists Center (AFJC) demanded that the country’s authorities pursue cases of murder and violence against colleagues more rigorously. It called the handling of such cases “negligent” and spoke of a “culture of crime” and “immunity”. Seddiqullah Tawhid, the chairman of the Nai, a media training and advocacy organisation, called for better protection of journalists as the violence bred “self-censorship” in the media community. Earlier on, the organisations had reported a number of new cases of violence against journalists in which high-ranking officials who felt criticised by reporters were involved and where the perpetrators had not been arrested (see here and here). The organisation unanimously demanded the government uphold and protect journalists’ rights as stipulated by the Constitution which says, in Article 34, that “freedom of expression is inviolable. Every Afghan has the right to express thoughts through speech, writing, or illustration or other means of observing the provisions of this constitution. Every Afghan has the right to print or publish topics without prior submission to the state authorities in accordance with the law.”

Two particularly symbolic cases happened in mid-2013. On 28 July 2013, two reporters from Tanwir TV, a local channel based in Baghlan province, were beaten by armed men allegedly loyal to Sayed Maqsud Sadat, the former mayor of the provincial capital, Pul-e Khumri. The two reporters had come to the ceremony during which Sadat’s successor was introduced (see here and here). There are different interpretations of what happened and why. “The attackers justified their actions with Tanwir TV having insulting governmental officials”, said Fahim Dashti, executive director of the Afghanistan’s National Journalists’ Union. “One of the perpetrators was arrested for a few hours, but then released because, apparently, the attackers had high levels of influence in the justice sector of Baghlan” (see more here). Other media activists told AAN that the former mayor’s men apparently had “a personal problem” with a new mayor taking over (or their boss’s loss of position) and tried to prevent reporting on the ceremony to install the new mayor in office. The spokesperson for Baghlan provincial police chief told AAN that “the perpetrators were arrested and kept in jail for three, four hours until both sides were willing to solve the issue among themselves”. The Tanwir reporters, though, stated that they received only an unofficial apology from two of the governor’s men and that they never got their cameras back which the perpetrators broke and took away.

In the second case, Nasratullah Iqbal, a journalist for Bokhdi news agency, was severely beaten in a Kabul restaurant just two days before the incident in Pul-e Khumri by Abdul Basir Salangi, the governor of Parwan province, and his men (see here and here). Video footage and photos of Mr Iqbal’s bloodied face circulated on social media. According to media reports, the attack was prompted by Mr Iqbal’s criticism of a history book written by Mr Salangi. On his Facebook page, he indicated that he found Mr Salangi’s praise of Afghan leaders, particularly of some jihadi leaders as heroes, one-sided and recommended he refrain from publishing it, so that he did not “add another blot to his record”. But Iqbal had also reported on corruption in Parwan recently.

Nasratullah Iqbal told AAN that “I was arrested instead of the attackers and beaten harshly; I was in jail for four hours wrongly accused by Mr Salangi of insulting jihadi leaders and not being a journalist. He also accused me of being drunk and insulting him.” The incident caused a strong reaction among media activists who widely reported on it and confirmed that the attackers, the governor and his men, had indeed not been arrested. Iqbal was released after fellow journalists proved that he was a journalist, and tests showed he was not intoxicated. Still, Mr Iqbal claims that he cannot go to Parwan, his home province, anymore because he fears his life is in danger. He also left his job at Bokhdi, claiming his life was threatened.

These highly visible examples just give a hint of the overall problem, media activists claim. For 2013, three Afghan journalists’ associations have reported upticks in violence against journalists across the country. Nai recorded 56 cases during the first eight months of 2013; during the same time last year, ‘only’ 41 cases were registered (see the link here). In an 11-page report of the Afghanistan Journalists Center published in September via the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), the organisation lists 62 cases (the two lists of reported cases partially overlap) involving government personnel. The list includes journalists threatened and beaten by NDS or policemen while investigating suicide attacks or beaten by governors’ personnel for reporting anti-government demonstrations. According to AFJC head Ahmad Quraishi (his organisation’s report here), of the 62 cases it reported so far this year, half involved government officials. “Offenders are not punished very often”, Quraishi commented, citing a “culture of impunity in Afghanistan” – an accusation that is also raised in other contexts, for example regarding violence against women and the dealing with past war crimes and human rights violations as a result of the ‘amnesty law’.

Arrested for “disturbing the social order”

Journalists also face persecution through the judiciary. A prominent example occurred on 5 July when the Attorney General’s Office arrested Abdurahman Sakhizada, a reporter with Mandegar and an anti-corruption activist, for writing about accusations of corruption within the High Office of Oversight and Anti-Corruption (HOOAC) in the daily’s 29 May issue (see report here). Mr Sakhizada was held in jail for two weeks and only released after media activists, along with lawyers, repeatedly addressed the attorney general. His father claims Mr Sakhizada was “tortured” while detained (see here). On 15 June, Mandegar’s managing director, Nazari Paryani, was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for “disturbing the social order” because of a report published last year on fraud during the previous presidential election. Ahmad Quraishi of AFJC stated that after Azizullah Ludin (the former head of Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission) complained, Nazari Paryani was wrongfully arrested due to Ludin’s influence. His case is currently pending appeal.

Zia Bumia, head of the Afghan chapter of the South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA), claims that there are “dozens of cases pending against media outlets in the Attorney General’s Office” for either broadcasting ‘un-Islamic’ programs or programs critical of government officials and “national figures”. 1 TV, a private channel, currently faces eight cases, all prompted by criticism of its programming. For example, its Pechkari (“Injection”) satirical program critical of government officials was accused of insulting national figures. Mr Abdullah Khenjani, the channel’s program director, told AAN that he thinks Pechkari was wrongly accused. This case, too, is pending at the Attorney General’s office, he says.

Tolo TV’s executive director, Sediq Ahmadzada, confirmed that the influential private channel had “six cases pending”. The newspaper Hasht-e Sobh’s (“8am”) editor in chief told AAN that staff had been called to the Attorney General’s Office more than ten times for critical reports last year and in the current year. Currently, the newspaper has a case pending regarding an investigative report on corruption in the contracts of the Ministry of Mines, published on 31 March 2013 (see report here). The report says that 8am had accessed some documents which showed that a number of contracts have been illegally signed with some foreign and internal companies under Mr Wahidullah Shahrani, the minister until recently when he stepped down to join one of the presidential tickets for 2014 as vice-presidential candidate (http://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/last-minute-frenzy-candidate-registration-for-afghanistans-2014-presidential-election). The newspaper claims the documents also showed that dozens of foreign and Afghan consultants had been hired for exaggerated salaries by Shahrani. AAN several times tried to talk to officials in the Attorney General’s Office but despite promises to get back, they did not provide any information in the end.

An “illegal” commission?

Most of the cases seem to have been introduced to the Attorney General’s Office by the Media Violation Investigation Commission (MVIC) of the Ministry of Information and Culture (MoIC) without prior investigation. This governmental body is responsible for checking allegations of violations by the media before they are processed by the judiciary. Abdullah Khenjani, 1 TV’s program director, says that “no Afghan law clearly defines what a violation of the media’s conduct would look like” and that “the respected personalities in the commission display an attitude towards media freedom that is ten years old.” And the commission’s very existence in its current form is also disputed.

The MVIC has been in place since 2005 – but should have been replaced by the so-called Mass Media Commission (MMC) in 2009 as stipulated by the Mass Media Law that had been reviewed that year. Among other duties, the new MMC should supervise the mass media’s conduct, check on complaints against media but also complaints lodged by media, and to involve the Attorney General’s Office if needed. It is to be composed of seven people with journalistic qualifications.(1) Instead, the current minister of information and culture kept the old commission, with nine members, most of whom are not media professionals: Ali Ahmad Fakkur, an astronomer and a former member of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC; from which he was dismissed in 2006); Aziz-ul-Rahman Mamnun from the Supreme Court; Abdul Shokur Dadras, a retired attorney general and member of the Afghan Lawyer’s Union; Wahid Gharwal, head of the journalism department at Kabul University; Sayed Omar Ezami, a representative of the Academy of Science; Ms Fahima Wahidi, a representative of the Ministry of Justice; Ms Suraya Parlika, a women’s right activist; Jahan Sher Haidari, head of the Afghan Film Maker’s Association and also working with government-owned Afghan Radio-TV; Shah Mahmud Ziarmal, a MoIC employee (he is the secretary of the commission) and Mr Sayed Makhdum Rahin, the minister himself, as its chairman.

Journalists who talked to AAN on the condition of anonymity complain that among the commissioners, there is not a single journalist, none represent the young generation to which most journalists belong and the majority is “close to the government”. (University teachers and researchers at the Academy of Science are paid by the government; members of the AIHRC receive their mandate from President Karzai.) Therefore, they say, the surviving “old” MVIC is biased against the media and does not guarantee fair conduct.

The fact that the minister is head of this commission has evoked significant protests by media outlets over the years as they find it compromises the commission’s independence. Nevertheless, Mr Rahin just recently tried to ‘legalise himself’ in this position as well as legalise the commission in its old composition, via new amendments to the Mass Media Law he submitted to parliament. The Afghan lower house approved of these changes on 28 September but after an outcry among journalists (here and also here) the upper house rejected the minister as head of the commission on 5 November. However, it left the final decision to a joint commission of the lower and upper houses (for more details see here and here) that first met on 2 December. At that meeting, it approved one article of the Mass Media law: that the minister should not be the head of the commission, but rather should be selected from among the journalists or civil society representatives. Further details about the composition and tasks of the commission are to be resolved by the next session.

Wahid Gharwal, a member of the still-functioning commission, rejected the Afghan journalists’ allegations that it undermined the freedom of speech when speaking with AAN: “The media is often making baseless claims, accusing and defaming government officials under the label of freedom of speech. When we ask them to show us documents proving their point, they cannot provide these. They use the space provided for the freedom of speech to call anyone corrupt.” While Gharwal has a point when it comes to the quality of some Afghan media reporting – standards in general being rather low and sourcing not always thorough – he sounds as if the commission adopted the stance to ‘protect’ the government from the media. This impression is strengthened when he claims that the commission had the green light from the president for continuing its activity and was not acting illegally. There are no publicly accessible documents, however, that prove that claim.

The fight about what is Islamic and what is not

Another battle Afghan media currently has to fight about what exactly are ‘Islamic’ and ‘un-Islamic’ programmes. One example of this problem of definitions comes from June 2013: Representatives of Tolo TV were summoned by MoIC officials and given a deadline to stop a Turkish series, “Ifat” (“Chastity”). All in all, “Ifat” is a hair-raisingly absurd story, with a young woman entertaining multiple, rather unlikely romances. The series was criticized for its “un-Islamic” and “immoral” content. Similarly, two years earlier, in June 2011, another Turkish series aired by Tolo, “Eshq-e Mamnu” (“Forbidden Love”), has been stopped after an intervention of the MoIC. It told the story of a girl who marries an old wealthy man, but then falls in love with her husband’s nephew; a secret love affair begins. It was cancelled for having been “in contradiction to Afghan values”, as MVIC member Fakkur told AAN. Given conservative groups’ view on marriage and relationships between the sexes, content like this is a red flag for them – but in the wider population, “Forbidden Love” was wildly popular.

Compounding the various attacks on media content in the name of protecting Islam, Abdul Sattar Khawasi, an outspoken and influential conservative MP from Parwan province, declared jihad (see here and here) against some TV channels broadcasting foreign series and talent shows. (Khawasie is a former deputy speaker of the Wolesi Jirga and now a member of the parliament’s committees for religious and cultural affairs and for education and higher education.) This was particularly aimed at Tolo TV’s most popular program, the “The Afghan Voice”, in which young female Afghans perform songs publicly. Mr Khawasi was especially infuriated by the conduct of one of the singing coaches, Aryana Sayed, an Afghan living in Britain, because she does not wear a veil and dresses in tight clothing.

He and other critics of ‘un-Islamic’ media are backed by a powerful ally, the Ulama Council, a nominally non-governmental body comprised of the country’s leading Islamic scholars that nevertheless is largely funded by the government (see AAN reporting here). The council uses increasingly heated rhetoric in describing the kind of content fit for the Afghan public to be consumed. For example, Mawlawi Habibullah Hessam, a member of the council and imam at the Bagh-e Bala mosque in Kabul, told AAN on 6 June that “the media promotes immorality among the young generation by broadcasting foreign series and presenting youths out of parents’ control and having sex before or outside of marriage”.

In general, scrutinizing a country’s media output and discussing potential consequences on the society is a valid undertaking; similar discussions take place all over the world, with programming being labelled as unfit for certain age groups or pushed into late-night programming. The problem in Afghanistan is, though, that conservative groups seem to use religion as a ‘drop-dead-argument’, not allowing for compromises, while no absolute definition of what is ‘Islamic’ or ‘un-Islamic’ exists in the mass media law. The Constitution states in Article 3 that “no law shall contravene the tenets and provisions of the holy religion of Islam in Afghanistan”. The Mass Media Law says in Article 20 that “private radio and televisions are obligated to observe the principles and provisions of the holy religion of Islam, and national, spiritual and moral values and the psychological security of the Afghan nation in their programming” (see here). Neither elaborate further; nor do other legal provisions clarify these articles. This opens ‘Islamic’ issues to interpretation – mostly the interpretation of those who protest loudest or have the largest influence – and to the influence of politics.

This influence has been shown in two earlier cases against journalists who had been accused of ‘un-Islamic’ publications. In 2005, Ali Mohaqqeq Nasab, originally from Iran and a Shia, had been put on trial for blasphemy for publishing content about women’s rights that was in opposition to orthodox (Sunni) Islamic positions. He did this in his eponymous monthly magazine Huquq-e Zan. (According to contemporary Afghan media reports, as a consequence, some ulama demanded his execution.) Two years later, in 2007, a young journalist from Mazar-e Sharif, Parwez Kambakhsh, received a death sentence in a similar case that was commuted to 20 years in prison after an international outcry. (He was later spirited out of the country.) (More background here). Also, some leading ulama seem to conspicuously focus on condemning programmes of private – often foreign, donor funded – TV stations like Tolo and 1 TV.

The vagueness of the definition of what is ‘Islamic’ and what is not is also reflected in the reactions to the legal steps taken by the Media Violation Investigation Commission to shut down TV programs like “Forbidden Love”. Media lawyers say the bans violate key principles of the Mass Media Law, in its still-valid version of 6 July 2009. Specifically, Article 4.2 states that the government of Afghanistan must ensure and protect the freedom of the press and that no one, including government actors, may rightfully interfere with the media through censorship or prohibition. On the other hand, conservatives argue that because according to the Constitution no law can be against Islam, the media cannot protect ‘un-Islamic’ programming by referring to the Mass Media Law.

“Negative ideas about the freedom of speech”

The instances of physical and legal persecution and censorship mentioned above are indicators that the progress made in establishing independent and free media in Afghanistan over the past 12 years is being pushed back. At the same time, the critics of the media seem to be uniting. In 2013, political actors are increasingly linking allegations of ‘un-Islamic’ coverage with critical reporting on political and governance issues in the country, claiming that both degrade the fabric of Afghan society.

In parliament, voices like this are heard: Sediqizada Neli, an MP from Daikundi province, told AAN that media outlets acted against ‘Islamic values’, “using” the open, democratic space to spread “propaganda about the current situation in the country, for example peace talks and what will happen after 2014, creating fear, confusion and tension among the public”. Minister Rahin argued before parliament on 15 June that “Afghanistan is an Islamic country and the broadcasting of TV serials dealing with taboo topics [e.g., extramarital sex, divorce, rebellious children] or programs showing unveiled women dancing and singing as well as media coverage falsely critical of national political figures under the label of freedom of speech may lead to social disorder and ethnic conflict.” He added that this would subsequently “plant negative ideas” about the freedom of speech in the minds of the Afghan populace. “In the last ten years, we have made much progress in establishing an independent media sector and had very good programming and coverage as well, but now, our media outlets put the freedom of speech in danger by broadcasting un-Islamic programs and defaming our national figures”, he said in explaining his position.

Media activist Fahim Dashti told AAN that Mr Rahin’s reaction showed that from the beginning the minister did not believe in the freedom of the media. Abroad, however, Rahin had been perceived as rather liberal when he started out. Seddiqullah Tauhidi of Nai also considers it possible that with these statements the minister aims to satisfy influential officials close to the Afghan president who have “been known as being against the freedom of media” and are “continuing to pressure media from the palace”. This pressure – combined with that of influential members of the Ulama Council, who are demanding more control over media activities and, in particular, scrutinizing the minister – might have resulted in his manoeuvring, which some critics perceive as a change of stance.

The bellwether of this shift and political alignment of the government with the Ulama Council on media coverage came on 24 April this year when it asked President Karzai to crack down on some TV providers to block programming deemed contrary to Islam and Afghan cultural values. Enayatullah Balegh (member of the Ulama Council, imam-khateb of Pul-e Kheshti, Kabul’s largest mosque and advisor of the president on religious affairs) told AAN that this was an “urgent demand” as the media had become “that much worse and vulgar” lately, particularly “those series that show the worship of Hinduism and other religions” – an argument in which he does not seem to distinguish between simply portraying those having non-Muslim religious beliefs and encouraging viewers to practice them. He also complained about programs that showcased “unveiled women dancing and pictures of women subjected to violence”. Women should be “covered to protect their dignity”, he said.

The president responded not only by welcoming this initiative but ordered the minister of information and culture to ban programmes that are “vulgar, obscene, un-Islamic and are counter to social morality” (see here and here). While the move was seen by many as an attempt to mollify the Taleban and lure them to the negotiating table, it also enabled the coordination of government efforts to control the media.

On 28 May, the Media Violation Investigation Commission released a statement in which it asked different television channels to stop broadcasting series “not in line with Islamic law”. Following this, on 2 June, the commission met with representatives of eight TV channels (Tolo, 1 TV, Watan, Afghan, Khorshid, Shaher, Setara and Saba) and discussed programs, particularly series and music shows, deemed inappropriate by the commission. Two weeks later, on 15 June, parliament summoned minister Rahin to respond to three concerns: media outlets (1) provoking ethnic and religious conflict; (2) defaming national figures; and (3) broadcasting programs and series in contradiction to Islamic values. One outcome of this session was a promise by the minister that he would disclose the names of those media outlets that are working against national interests by insulting dignitaries. This would be a major setback for media, although so far the disclosure has not happened. Ministry officials state, though, that they have not dropped the issue yet. The president himself repeated the accusations against the media just recently in a speech in Kabul.

Media groups reject the claims that their programmes have a negative impact on Afghan society. Mujib Khelwatgar, Nai’s executive director, told AAN that Afghanistan “must learn about other cultures, ways of life and beliefs. We must have the ability to adjust to and tolerate other cultures.” He pointed out that while Islamic scholars in Afghanistan “are upset about immoral behaviour depicted on television”, things were happening in the Afghan society that are contrary to sharia law but against which the ulama have “failed to raise their voices”. He gave as examples women being tortured by their husbands or lashed by mullahs or, until recently, suicide attacks in the name of God.

The journalists associations are not the only outspoken critics of this crackdown and on state involvement in media affairs. Naqibullah Fayeq, an MP from Faryab province, told AAN that while he believed television programs should be in accordance with Islam and Afghan “traditional norms”, calls for jihad against media were irresponsible, indirectly accusing the ulama of a selective view on what was a crime and even stirring up conflict. “These calls for jihad cause tension in society.… In this country, many people commit illegal acts, from high ranking officials confiscating land to being involved in drug trafficking, human trafficking and many other serious crimes and no one calls for jihad against them.” He also takes issue with conflating media coverage of political and governance issues with promoting ethnic tension in the country, saying, “Our journalists have faced threats, some have been killed, but they fight bravely to bring facts to the ears of the people.”

It is difficult to establish how many MPs are in favour of free media and how many are critical of it. Its opponents seem to have the louder voice. Criticism continues. In late October and early November, two MPs – Masuma Khawari from Samangan and Munawar Shah Bahaduri from Herat – again criticized Afghan TV providers for broadcasting un-Islamic programs. In early December, the spokesman of Herat’s provincial ulama council claimed that suicide bombs were less harmful than the output of some media outlets: “The suicide attackers take people’s lives, but the programmes of some media outlets destroy the faith of the Afghan people”.

The increase in violence against media workers is an alarming sign, but not the only challenge that needs tackling. Clearer legal definitions of what kind of programs are against Islam – of what is ‘Islamic’ – are needed in order to counter confusion and prevent varying interpretations. On the media side, more awareness about content that is likely to perturb the more conservative elements of society and accuracy in reporting are needed. Media freedom also means media responsibility. However, the Afghan government must be held accountable for any further cases of harassment, injury, death or wrongful arrest of media workers. It must actively protect journalists’ rights and value the freedom of speech in its actual sense – which includes the right to criticise those in power. If in a country its people cannot express thoughts and criticism, then democracy does not mean anything.

 

(1) The law says:

a Mass Media Commission shall be established comprising of (7) members selected from amongst professional people, with higher education and experienced in the field of journalism taking into account the ethnic and gender balance.”

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Thematic Category: Rights & Freedoms