The Case of Perwiz Kambakhsh and Afghanistan’s Ongoing Culture Wars

January 30, 2008

There has been another very disturbing development in the case of Parwiz Kambakhsh, the young Afghan student of journalism who has been sentenced to death by a primary court in Northern Afghanistan for the crime of propagating “blasphemous” literature: the upper house of Afghanistan’s parliament has just delcared its decision to uphold the death sentence. The case will continue on its way through the labyrinth of more courts and legislative bodies, until one of these days it finally finds itself on the president’s desk. Most likely, every court along the way will try their best not to be seen as the one that finally overturned the decision, and hence somehow supported Kambakhsh’s anti-Islamic stance.

By now the justice system here has become myopically focused on the vitriolic content of the distributed literature that was written years ago by an Iranian dissident writer and was put on the internet -it was not even written by Kambakhsh, who is himself a student and an aspiring journalist. Apparently other considerations, such as the very constitutionality of the decision to even try somebody for their opinion is out the window. Afghanistan’s constitution, which was really a craft of compromise when it was agreed upon, makes half-hearted nods both to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and at the same time to a vague and amorphouse category of Islamic principles and values. Now, one of these would have Perwiz Kambakhsh killed, and the other would respect his right to free thought and expression. And this is not even the first of it -soon after the constitution was ratified two journalists were dragged to the courts on similarly drummed up charges of blaspheming and insulting Islam -and it is bound to be not the last of them; unless of course journalists learn their lessons and define their own boundaries of what is allowed and what not, i.e. self-censorship. (Then it will be the turn for bloggers who have been rash enough to abandon anonymity in an environment like this. Maybe some people are already talking about learning them computer heads a good lesson as well -there is already the internet link in Kambakhsh’s case.)

But really, the equivocality of the constitution and the daily barrage on the media and the journalists is symptomatic of a more fundamental fact of the Afghan society: there is an ongoing culture war in Afghanistan. This is the same non-ending culture war that first reached tipping point in 1912 and became a warm war (the spark then was the lovely Queen Suraya’s bare arms in a western dress, and pictures of young Afghan girls in skirts and hats studying abroad in Turkey.) The same ongoing culture war has influenced the course of Afghan political history over the last century. Kambakhsh and other journalists are all victims of this war. In reality, everyone, including those who vye for his blood, know deep down that his transgressions are not grave enough to warrant the death penalty. But what these people also know is that there is more at stake than merely the neck of one or two young journalist (especially that they do not enjoy the same immunities that many other journalists in Afghanistan do, i.e. back-up of their embassies, etc.) So in effect these people are telling the likes of Perwiz Kambakhsh:
“Sorry pal, we know it is a bit extreme to put the hangman’s noose around your neck (figure of speech, in actuality we would prefer for you to be stoned to death) for this – distributing stuff that you did not write and may not even fully endorse, or even understand. You did not even publish it, and it is not proven that you held secret group meetings to proselytize and discuss it. And we are not particularly opposed to Will Durant -whose book is a key incriminating evidence in your case- either. But times are tough and we are in a war. Your death is a small price to be paid for what this will teach others. Next thing and we might even allow the elected MP Malalay Joya back into the parliament, and allow Tolo TV to air Shakira concerts. Now that would be a slippery slope we cannot allow this nation to go down, wouldn’t it? So we hope you will try to understand. And if you don’t, well, too bad.”

For some of these people, it is even a win-win situation whether Kambakhsh dies or lives. If he dies, well, lesson learnt, victory achieved, Islam saved, and journalists harnessed for good. If he lives, it will likely be the president who pardons him- the sentence will likely be upheld in a landslide vote in the lower house, and the supreme court’s only concern would be whether the sentence is harsh enough. Unless and until his legal advisors find a loophole (and one that is acceptible to the clergy too) on the grounds of which they can send the case back down, the president is facing a serious headache. He is damned if he signs off on the death sentence of a young journalist, and he is damned if he does not. In Afghanistan we call that being sandwiched between the two stones of a mill – or a rock and a hard place.

Watch it, BBC!

April 26, 2007

If you have set your homepage to BBC Persian’s Afghanistan page and hit refresh with a frequency that makes you wonder if you suffer from OCD, then you know what I am talking about.

Early yesterday morning, the page carried this headline:

“Parliament Votes to Grant Independence to Radio Television Afghanistan”

Within an hour of my first visit, the same story was titled differently:

“Radio Television Afghanistan Will Continue to Function As a Government Agency”

Substantively, the article had not changed all that much.
Both versions said, in essence, that as a result of a vote in the Wolesi Jirga (lower house of Afghan parliament) the state-run RTA will be granted functional autonomy and freed from the shackles of the Ministry of Culture (MoC) while at the same time continuing to be funded and run as a government agency.

All the same the change of title and tone is telling. One wonders whether the gestapoesque writ of the MoC and of Attorney General Sabit extend over the British Broadcasting Corporation as well. More than likely it does not, which is why BBC of all outlets should salvage some dignity and spine.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

On a related note, the parliament’s symbolic granting of functional autonomy to RTA and its separation from MoC, while at the same time debating how best to cut back on freedom of the press, amounts to “one step forward, two steps back.” As a continuing state-run agency, one cannot be too hopeful for a radical overhaul in RTA’s management or content. Privately-owned television stations like Tolo TV and Aina TV present the best hope for the future of media in Afghanistan. With the expected passing of the new media law by the parliament, however, even these independent outlets will be subjected to newer and certainly more draconian restrictions.

Related on Safrang:

Freedom of the Press in Afghanistan: A Little Bit Pregnant

The Fate of the Fourth Estate in Afghanistan

Incident at Tolo TV Offices Marks Setback for Press Freedom

In the Balance: The Fate of the Fourth Estate in Afghanistan

April 25, 2007

After addressing just about every other issue of urgent national priority, Afghanistan’s fledging parliament has now turned its attention to the nation’s media. We are surprised the body has not picked on this topic sooner. In a country where the political culture is still void of such concepts as accountability and transparency, and where political intrigue and back-room deals are the preferred modus operandi for the most consequential of decisions and policies, the media has played a most important role to date.

From shedding light on official corruption, to turning the camera on the snoring parliamentarians, Afghanistan’s budding print and media outlets have proven surprisingly daring and resilient. Such daring has not come at no cost: under the Shinwari Supreme Court two newspaper editors were sacked, sentenced, and subsequently forced to flee or exiled. The tragic death of Ajmal Naqshbandi was the latest in a long string of abductions and executions of journalists by the Taliban. And more recently, others have taken it in their own hands to rectify the media’s behavior, even if through unconstitutional and extra-legal measures.

Now, the fate of the Fourth Estate in Afghanistan hangs in the balance. The parliament is close to passing a bill that will further erode what little freedom the media enjoys. News of this impending doom has worried all those who have worked to advance the cause of an open society in Afghanistan, as it should worry all those who desire to see an open society take root in Afghanistan.

Report: Media at risk under new Afghan law

“A Tale of Two Journalists”

April 20, 2007

Gregory Warner writes for Slate explaining how the release of Daniele Mastrogiacomo and the subsequent death of Ajmal Naqshbandi played into the Taliban’s hands.
Earlier I had made a similar point here on Safrang with Fallout from Ajmal Naqshbandi’s Death, but Greg’s piece is far less speculative and more based on interviews (including with Afghan MPs and a Taliban spokesperson) -which is probably why it is published on Slate and not on some little known personal blog.

Here is an excerpt:

Inside Afghanistan, Naqshbandi’s death is seen as more than the unfortunate result of a poorly managed hostage crisis. It’s viewed as emblematic of an imbalanced system that freed one journalist but left his two Afghan staff—without the weight of a European government behind them—to die in the desert. “Why was the Afghan journalist forgotten?” asked Sayed Sancharaky, head of the Afghan National Journalists Union, which had organized protests for Naqshbandi’s release. “Are we firewood? Are only the foreign journalists human beings?”

The cry had resonance in a country increasingly frustrated by the international presence. “It’s crystal clear for everyone that the government has a two-faced policy,” said parliamentarian Habiba Danish. “Five Taliban are exchanged for one Italian journalist, and nothing is done to help an Afghan boy.”

Even Naqshbandi’s murderers joined the chorus. After Mastrogiacomo’s release, kidnapper Mullah Dadullah taunted Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Italian television, saying the fact that he still had Naqshbandi showed that the Afghan government was only interested in saving foreigners. “We want to prove that Karzai’s regime doesn’t care about Afghans,” added Mullah Ibrahim Hanifi, a Taliban commander and spokesman, explaining why they were holding onto Naqshbandi. He spoke to me just before Naqshbandi’s murder was announced, while his fate was still undecided. “Whatever happens to Ajmal, the government and the foreigners will take the blame, because they’re the ones in power now.”

Click to continue reading Gregory Warner’s piece on Slate

Incident at Tolo TV Offices Marks Setback for Press Freedom

April 18, 2007

Yesterday’s incident at Tolo TV offices in Kabul (details below) marks another major setback for freedom of press in Afghanistan.

I hope to write a longer opinion piece about this later here on Safrang. For now here is a link to my earlier piece on freedom of press (or more appropriately lack thereof) in Afghanistan:

“Press Freedom in Afghanistan: A Little Bit Pregnant”

It is a critique of overly optimistic assessments of freedom of press in Afghanistan that others had offered earlier. I was hoping otherwise, but looks like I have been proven right.

I had the chance to speak with a representative of Moby Media Group (Tolo TV’s parent company) in today’s forum on Capitol Hill (which I will write about in more detail tomorrow) and he expressed his organization’s frustration with this and many other incidents of intimidation faced by press in Afghanistan.
It bears noting that this is not the first of Tolo’s run-ins with the law in Afghanistan. Willing to always push the envelope, the television was first criticized by the Supreme Court in 2003 for airing videos of women artists, and later a female VJ/host of its popular music program “Hop” was first dropped and later dead under mysterious circumstances.

This is the text of a press release by Moby Media group regarding yesterday’s incident. It is clear that the measures taken were extra-legal and in contravention of all applicable media laws and of Afghanistan’s constitution.

Tonight at about 7pm Kabul time, more than 50 armed men from the 10th District Police, under direct orders from the Attorney General, Abdul Jabar Sabet, surrounded the offices of Tolo TV in Wazir Akbar Khan in Kabul Afghanistan. The Police physically entered Tolo TV premises and violently attacked staff of Tolo TV, taking three staff members of Tolo TV with them. The Tolo TV staff members, were taken directly to the Attorney General’s Office and detained.

Earlier at about 6.20pm tonight, the Attorney General, Abdul Jabar Sabet, had complained of a news clip on the 6pm Tolo TV news, which he claimed was inaccurate or misrepresented the Attorney General’s comments at an earlier press conference today. After investigating the complaint, Tolo TV management found the complaint to be invalid. The Tolo TV news clip broadcast was accurate and representative of what the Attorney General had said at the press conference.

At the time that the District 10 Police came to Tolo TV offices, they sought the detention of Hamed Haidary, who was the journalist covering the news clip mentioned above, and the “person responsible” for Tolo TV. The Police did not have any legal documentation. When asked to produce such documentation, the Deputy Commander of District 10 Police, wrote on a piece of paper the following:

To the administration of Tolo TV
In accordance with the order of the Attorney General, the responsible person for Tolo TV, and Hamed Haidary, the reporter, are required to appear at the 10th District Police Office.

Signed on behalf of the Commander of the 10th Police District, Mohammad Qasim Aminzoi

The above document was handed to Tolo TV staff, but was not accepted by legal advisors to Tolo TV as it is not valid in Law. Under the Constitution of Afghanistan, Article 38 states as follows:

Residences shall be immune from trespassing.

No one, including the state, shall have the right to enter a residence or search it without the owners permission or by order of an authoritative court, except in situations
and methods delineated by law.

In case of an evident crime, the responsible official shall enter or search a residence without prior court order. The aforementioned official, shall, after entrance or completion of search, obtain a court order within the time limit set by law.

No arrest warrants, Court orders, or other legal or written documents were produced by the 10th District Police (other than as noted above). They advised that the Attorney General had verbally ordered them to detain Tolo TV staff. When Tolo TV staff, including Tolo TV legal advisor, Mohammad Abdullah, Tolo TV Administration Manager, Siddiq Ahmadzada and Tolo TV Security Manager, Lal Mohammad, tried to reason with the Police they were physically assaulted and then dragged into Police vehicles. These three Tolo TV staff members were taken to the Attorney General’s office (not the 10th District Police Office), where they were held until public pressure forced the Attorney General to release the Tolo TV staff after about 1 hour. A number of other journalists, including 4 staff members of Associated Press who were covering the incident, were also detained without charge and allegedly assaulted and their footage allegedly confiscated.

It should also be noted that under the Media Laws of Afghanistan, all complaints about the media should, at first instance, be directed towards the Media Investigation Commission which is tasked with investigating such complaints. This Commission is then able to refer the matter to the Attorney General’s office if warranted. This procedure was not followed in this instance.

We hereby state as follows:

– the actions of the District 10 Police and the Attorney General’s office, including the Attorney General, Abdul Jabar Sabet, were a complete violation of the Constitution of Afghanistan
– the manner in which Tolo TV were physically abused and detained was completely unacceptable and against the law
– the physical transgression into Tolo TV offices is against the Constitution and the laws of Afghanistan
– the taking of Tolo TV staff to the Attorney General’s office was against the law
– the direct ordering of District Police by the Attorney General’s office is against the law
– these actions of the Attorney General’s office and the District 10 Police are not only against the rights of media enshrined in the Constitution, but also against the principles of democracy and against the national interest of Afghanistan

Further, we demand as follows:

– the immediate suspension from duty of all persons involved in this incident including the Attorney General, the Commander of the 10th District of Police and the Deputy Commander of the 10th District Police
– the creation of a commission who will be tasked with investigating this incident, to be comprised of members acceptable to the media
– the dismissal of all those found to have had any involvement in this incident which is against the laws of Afghanistan
– the prosecution to the full extent of the law of all of those found to have committed any crime

Further, Tolo TV Management would like to thank all of those people who have indicated their support for Tolo TV, including all other media organisations of Afghanistan and international organisations who have covered this event, human rights organisations, members of Parliament, unions representing journalists, the staff of Tolo TV, Lemar TV and Arman FM, all other organisations who have expressed their public support, and most of all the public of Afghanistan who have been unswerving in their support.

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.