‘In Afghanistan, little things could spell death for journalists’

September 16th, 2008 - 12:32 pm ICT by IANS  

TalibanLillehammer (Norway), Sep 16 (IANS) Men and women journalists in Afghanistan are increasingly being intimidated for exercising their right to freedom of speech, with at least 58 cases of violence against scribes being reported from the country last year.At the just concluded Global Investigative Journalism Conference here, fears were raised that such factors could lead to self-censorship, forcing journalists in Afghanistan not to cover Islamic and religious issues.

“We have many challenges and chief amongst them are the mullahs (Islamic clergy) and the government. In Afghanistan, little things can actually bring you to the precipice of a death sentence,” says Haroon Najafizada who works for the BBC’s Persian service.

He cited the case of a young journalism student, Sayed Parwez Kaambakhsh, who was sentenced to death for blasphemy after allegedly distributing an article on why Muslim women can’t have more than one husband.

Judges in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif accused 23-year-old Kaambakhsh of humiliating Islam by giving copies of the article to his fellow students.

“Whether Kaambakhsh distributed anything has not been proved but his execution has been postponed because of pressure from the West. We need that. Please keep applying pressure on the government,” Najafizada pleaded with the audience.

After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the country saw a proliferation of all types of media - radio, television, print and internet sites - but ironically along with this media explosion threats against journalists have increased in recent years.

Najafazida says there are at least 14 private television stations in Afghanistan of which half are owned by war lords.

Massoud Qiam of Tolo TV said: “The Taliban is a great challenge for us. They pressurise the media to cover their meetings and write up articles on their press releases even if it’s not newsworthy.

“In addition, there is a problem in the Afghan media that many journalists are unprofessional and unbalanced,” Qiam adds, referring to the fact that some journalists may accept bribes to avoid writing about “risky topics”.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) calls Afghanistan one of the most dangerous places to work as a journalist and has chronicled 58 cases of violence against journalists last year, including nine deaths.

Aside from a history of threats from warlords and armed groups over critical content, there are reports of intimidation against journalists who explore topics like women’s rights and Islam.

“So basically, what we’re seeing as a whole is that while media freedom has greatly increased obviously since the fall of the Taliban, you’re seeing a bit of that freedom being rolled back at this point, and the signs of that are arrests of journalists, threats against journalists, general intimidation of journalists who are doing controversial stories,” said Najafazida.

Even women reporters have repeatedly been threatened in connection with their work. They blame elements who believe that women should not raise their voice beyond their traditional standing.

Afghanistan is a difficult place for scribes even though Iraq remains acknowledged as the most dangerous place for media people to work, with 215 journalists and media assistants being killed there since the start of fighting in March 2003 up to April this year.

Journalists in Afghanistan believe President Hamid Karzai’s government, instead of understanding the difficulties they face in the line of duty, has tried to impose more controls on the news media.

“Parliament is now considering amendments that can undo many of the gains made since the fall of the Taliban.”

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