Dear Mr. President,
Reporters Without Borders urges you, on the eve of tomorrow’s conference in Paris on Afghanistan’s development and reconstruction, to give a clear undertaking that your government will protect press freedom, which is currently under so much threat in your country.
Press freedom has, it is true, been one of the achievements of reconstruction in the almost seven years since the fall of the Taliban regime. Afghanistan has around 300 newspapers, 14 of them dailies, more than 10 privately-owned TV and radio stations and seven news agencies. Afghanistan has never had so many news media and journalists. But violence against the press is growing steadily. In the past 12 months, Reporters Without Borders has registered no fewer that 18 physical attacks on journalists, 23 death threats, 14 arrests and four abductions. Dozens of other journalists have been forced to resign because of outside pressure.
We expect you to give an undertaking to the international community in Paris tomorrow that you will deal with the most important press freedom violations. If this is not done, your government risks to lose the trust of Afghan journalists and the support of international public opinion and this would necessarily complicate matters for the countries, including those of the European Union, that are supporting your administration financially, militarily and politically.
You must of course be aware, Mr. President, of the case of the young journalist Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, which has shocked the entire world. The death sentence passed on him by a court in Mazar-i-Sharif triggered a wave of legitimate outrage. More than a million people have already signed a petition launched by the British newspaper The Independent calling for his release. The recent revelation that he was tortured by members of the security services casts doubt on your government’s ability to respect the relevant international standards.
How, Mr. President, can you ask for greater support from western countries when, at the same time, judges, prosecutors, political leaders and some clerics are targeting Afghan journalists with such virulence in your country?
Kambakhsh’s release and the quashing of his death sentence would be a positive signal in an otherwise sombre panorama.
The enduring impunity in many cases of violence against Afghan journalists is unacceptable. The inability of the police and judicial authorities to arrest the murderers of Peace Radio director Zakia Zaki undermines your international commitments on the rule of law. This impunity has paved the way for a new wave of violence against women journalists. Since Zaki’s murder a year ago, dozens of Afghan women journalists have been attacked, threatened or reduced to silence. Only a clear determination on your part to solve these cases could put an end to these attacks. In the absence of action, the soothing words of your ministers lose all credibility.
At least 10 women journalists have been attacked in Herat province alone in recent months. "The lack of action on the part of the authorities is a major factor in the increase in these attacks," says Rahimullah Samandar, the head of the Afghan Independent Journalists Association (AIJA).
Anonymous callers threatened to kill three women journalists at the start of this year in Mazar-i-Sharif. One caller said: "Why do you work with the Americans? Take care, you are going to be killed." Another said: "If you continue to show yourself on television, your sister, your mother and other members of your family could be kidnapped." Despite their repeated requests, these journalists were not given police protection.
Reporters Without Borders has received damning accounts about the inability of the authorities to protect journalists in cities such as Herat, in western Afghanistan. Khadijeh Ahadi, the presenter of a very popular programme on radio Faryad was forced to leave the city after receiving death threats. In her programme, she had allowed members of the public to talk on the air about their everyday life.
Harassment forced Hasam Shams to resign as head of the state TV television’s branch in Herat. "The renaissance of the media was carried out with the participation of young journalists, but the enemies of press freedom, especially men armed by the former warlords, do not tolerate the emergence of these media and have the power to prevent us from working," Shams said.
Explaining the difference in press freedom between Kabul and the provinces, TKG press group director Najiba Ayubi says: "The presence of the international community and foreign journalists in the capital forces the government to tolerate press freedom, even if it does not really like it," she says. "But officials do what they want in the provinces. As long as men who are hostile to free expression have guns and government support, they will be no hope for journalists."
When questioned by Reporters Without Borders, many Afghan journalists are extremely critical of your government’s defence of their freedom. "The government has lost its honour by proving itself incapable of protecting free expression," says Saad Mohseni, the head of privately-owned Tolo TV, who is often harassed by the judicial and religious authorities.
As you must be aware, Mr. President, the attacks concentrate above all on independent news media that are often critical of the national and local authorities.
Your government is obviously not responsible for the most serious violations. This week’s murder of Abdul Samad Rohani, a reporter for the BBC and the news agency Pajhwok in the southern province of Helmand, by a Taliban commander’s men, again highlighted the barbarity of the rebels. Sayed Agha and Adjmal Nasqhbandi, the driver and guide of Italian reporter Daniele Mastrogiacomo, were killed by Taliban in the same province last year.
Finally, we hope that Afghan diplomats will intercede on behalf of Ali Mohaqiq Nasab, the editor of the monthly Haqoq-e-Zan (Women’s Rights), whose situation in Iran continues to be fraught. Although released on bail on 29 May after 86 days in an intelligence ministry prison in the city of Qom, 150 km southwest of Tehran, he is still harassed in Iran and Afghanistan.
Never in the history of Afghanistan has the population had so much access to news and information produced by Afghans for Afghans. The most popular news media used to be foreign ones such as the BBC and VOA. Today, the country’s independent media have proved to be a tremendous success with Afghans, especially the younger ones. But it is these media that are the targets of attacks, pressure and legal and religious harassment, which too often comes from the ranks of your supporters.
Mr. President, we are confident that you will be receptive to our request and that you will do your best to put an end to this situation.