Freedom of the Press in Afghanistan: A Little Bit Pregnant

March 10, 2007

Says Mr. Saad Mohseni, head of a large media holding company in Afghanistan, in a recent opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal:

Despite the many challenges facing Afghanistan , the country can boast some major successes and perhaps none is more amazing than the success of its media. In name, at least, we now have a free press.

It certainly is refreshing to learn about “major successes” in Afghanistan. Except… well, what does it exactly mean to have a free press “in name”? That qualifier is a bit puzzling to us. Just to help put things in perspective, would it also be fair to boast of women’s rights in Afghanistan (see previous post), and then add “at least in name”? Ditto a functioning democracy “at least in name”? How does “at least in name” protect journalists from intimidation or women from violence?

Truth is -and somebody else may have already delivered this truth in these colorful terms- that having freedom of press is a bit like pregnancy. You are either pregnant, or you are not -you cannot be a little pregnant; just like you cannot have freedom of the press only in name. The sad reality about freedom of press in Afghanistan is that there just isn’t any, well, except in name.

Nobody knows this more earnestly than Mr. Mohseni whose Tolo TV, among other outlets, has run afoul of the intolerant conservative temperaments many times over its youth-oriented programming. And this is what makes Mr. Mohseni’s praise for freedom of press in Afghanistan a bit disorienting – because he basically uses the rest of the op-ed to chronicle, in such detail as only someone of his level of involvement in the matter can, the many ways in which the gestapoesque Media Monitoring Commission of the Ministry of Information and Culture (which he describes in the op-ed as “the main center of anti-press activity”) attempts to curb and curtail freedom of press and intimidate journalists. The ministry is also the main driving force behind a disturbing piece of legislation (Mr. Mohseni describes it as “draconian”) which is expected to clear both houses of parliament -much like the notorious “amnesty bill” did recently. The legislation is aimed at curbing press freedom under the banner of such disturbingly undefined and vacuous notions as “Islamic values” and “national interests.”

Elsewhere, the ministry has exerted its power through sweeping purges at the government broadcaster RTA (Radio Television Afghanistan) leading to the resignation of its chief Najib Roshan in protest; attempting to limit women’s appearance on television; and summoning a television station owned by Mr. Mohseni’s group specifically for its insufficient censoring of “skin” in its music entertainment programming. Separately, for a couple of weeks the journalist community in Afghanistan was rattled by the surfacing of a certain stern, official-looking document that basically told them not to print any headlines about insurgent attacks on their front pages, and not to undermine national security. And just today, BBC Persian reported that the ministry has ordered the cancellation of an Iranian music band’s performance because the group allegedly insulted Afghanistan’s national anthem and the poet Rumi (Moulana-i Balkh in Afghanistan.)

In a recent Statement Afghanistan’s National Journalists Union (ANJU) accused the Ministry of Information & Culture of attempting to transform the national media “into a propaganda tool in the hands of the executive branch,” and argued that the ministry is over-stepping its limits and acting in direct violation of the Afghan Mass Media Law of 2006. The statement also points out the ministry’s suspension of the Comission for Media Complaints and Violations, forcing journalists to directly refer to the General Attorney for redress of their concerns. The statement concludes by saying that the union is “deeply worried” about the recent measures taken by the ministry, and about the new challenges facing freedom of speech in Afghanistan.

On a related note, the recent news about American soldiers confiscating cameras and threatening photographers in the aftermath of civilian deaths near Jalalabad further undermines the already dismal state of affairs for freedom of press in Afghanistan.

It used to be that on his American trips, whenever asked, Mr. Karzai would affectionately joke about the toughness of the newspapers in Afghanistan on his administration. It turns out he might have just appointed the right person as his Minister of Information & Culture to whip them into line.

PS. Word to Freedom House: I cannot, in good conscience, cite your figures for freedom of press in Afghanistan when I know too well that your figures for Afghanistan’s ethnic composition are grossly misleading.