Journalists in Afghanistan

Reporting Between the Lines

Nowadays, Afghan journalists risk life and limb when it comes to reporting objectively on the deplorable state of affairs in their country. Not only the Taliban, but also the pro-Western government tends to see courageous journalists as enemies. Ratbil Shamel and Najibullah Zeyarmal report

photo: AP
Afghan unidentified women clad in burqas are interviewed by a TV crew member

​​Reconstruction in Afghanistan has come to a standstill and security gets worse from day to day. In many parts of the country, a brutal civil war is raging with many military and civilian casualties. Poppy production and corruption have sadly reached all-time highs. Yet, no one wants to take responsibility for this situation.

Journalists risk their lives by reporting on this deplorable state of affairs. They are put under pressure by the government as well as by the Taliban and their allies. Every side demands objective reporting – and that means conforming to their respective points of view.

Kill the messenger

As far as the state authorities in Kabul are concerned, one thing is certain – it is not the situation in the country that is bad, but rather the reporting about it. Press freedom, which was generously enshrined in law just a few years ago after the fall of the Taliban, is being restricted step-by-step.

photo: AP
Mohammad Abdullah, a staff worker of Tolo TV station, was taken to custody in a police raid

​​Mujib Khelwatgar, a print journalist from Kabul, complains about the practices of authorities in the capital.

"Our greatest problem is that the authorities don't provide us with any usable information. When we go and find out information ourselves from other sources and publish it, however, we have to reckon with reprisals."

The journalist associations in Afghanistan accuse the government of a hidden campaign against press freedoms. At the instigation of the government, the press law has been altered by both chambers of parliament.

Under the terms of the new law, which the President will soon sign, it will not be permitted, for example, to report on anything that can be interpreted as being directed against Islam or the country's political system. A more exact definition of possible infringements has not been provided.

The danger now exists, says Kheltwatgar, that the government will arbitrarily condemn any critical reporting as illegal and thereby put a stop to it altogether. The public broadcaster RTA is already forbidden from expressing any criticism of government policy. Proposed plans to ensure RTA's independence from the government have been put on ice. In the version of democracy understood by those in power in Kabul, the words press and freedom do not belong together.

"Our country's politicians don't know that freedom of the press has many good aspects and that it is part of the democratic system," says Kheltwatgar.

It appears that the government is not so concerned about democracy. Things are much worse, however, in the south and the east of Afghanistan. Journalists face the most difficult situation here, where they find themselves between all fronts.

Constant threat

They are closely watched by the Taliban as well as local government representatives. Failure to publish the point of view of one side or the other is an omission that journalists may have to pay for with their lives.

The Taliban and its allies forbid journalists from referring to them as terrorists, instead preferring the terms freedom fighters or government opponents. Moreover, no one is permitted to report on the shady dealings that go on between local authorities and drug bosses and their cartels.

Under these conditions, says the journalist Nurullah Nuri from Kandahar, once the stronghold of the Taliban, it is impossible for journalists to work properly.

"We are constantly being threatened from both sides. Journalists have no security or guarantee that we won't be attacked from some party to the conflict because of our reporting. This is why we leave all the details out of our reports and make do with general information."

Some six years after the fall of the Taliban, things have turned out quite differently than what people had originally hoped for. According to Nuri, over the past few years, democracy, and with it freedom of the press, has failed to gain a foothold in Afghanistan. Instead, the forces that most thought had been vanquished are on the rise.

He asks whether people in the democracies of the West know what is happening in his country. He can see for himself how his country, particularly his region, is plunging ever deeper into chaos. However, living in the conflict area of the south, he doesn't dare write about it.

Ratbil Shamel, Najibullah Zeyarmal

© Deutsche Welle/ 2007

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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