|Two of Afghanistan's prominent media outlets struggle for their survival amidst claims of "immorality" [GETTY]
On June 1, Afghanistan's Council of Religious Scholars known as the Ulema Shura met with President Karzai and unequivocally demanded the shutting down of two of the country's most prominent media outlets.
Their crime? "Publishing material that is against religion, against national unity, and against the high interest of the nation,'' declared the Council. Karzai's office not only announced that the president listened to these demands carefully and praised the role of the Ulema, but also sent out their declaration to the media through its own channels.
Over the past two weeks, the two outlets - Tolo TV and Hasht-e-Subh Daily - have been locked in a battle for survival. While this is not the first time the closure of these outlets - and many others - has been demanded, the clear-cut nature of the demand by a social organisation extending its mandate speaks to the vulnerabilities of the press in Afghanistan.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, in a statement, voiced its concern on the issue: "Afghanistan media are important voices for their country. We call on President Hamid Karzai to ensure the expectations of the country's religious leadership do not stifle free speech," said Bob Dietz, CPJ's Asia program coordinator.
"The fear is that a culture is being created where anyone who wants to shut down a paper or a channel easily can," says Sediqullah Tawhidi, manager of "Nai Supporting Open Media in Afghanistan", a media watchdog. "Closing down media outlets or judging a punishment for them is the authority of courts, and not social organisations such as the Ulema Shura."
For years, journalists in the country have paid a heavy price for reporting stories. Scores have been threatened, beaten up, even killed. Emerging from six years of Taliban rule, where a solitary government radio - The Voice of Sharia - was the only media outlet, an infant culture of free press has been built on hard work and blood. Yet, it takes only a declaration to derail the struggle.
"There are circles of power that do not have the courage to struggle over issues in a public debate," says Sanjar Sohail, the publisher of Hasht-e-Subh. ''Every time they or their beliefs are questioned, they attempt to silence voices rather than debate."
The Ulema Shura, despite having no legal binding on the government because of its status as a social organisation, has always been influential. The conservative nature of Afghan society and President Karzai's political dependence on the council have given them an easy route into the palace and a large say in the matters of the country. More recently, as the talks with the Taliban have come to the top of the government's agenda, the Ulema has found itself more influential than ever.
Several members of the Ulema are also key players in the efforts to talk to the Taliban. By propping them up, the Karzai government wants to gain legitimacy for a religiously conservative identity that appeals to the Taliban.
There are constitutional mechanisms for investigating media violations. But the Shura's direct demand for a categorical ban - rather than going through the appropriate channels to raise their concerns - speaks of the far-reaching power that they feel is within their grasp.
New initiatives in journalism
In a largely illiterate society that lacks a culture of readership, Hasht-e-Subh has kept going for five years mostly because of its innovative approach to journalism. It is the largest private newspaper in the country, with a daily circulation of 15,000. The paper simultaneously prints in four provinces and distributes in seven others.
Besides meeting their costs through the regular routes of sales and advertisement, a large portion of their budget comes from donations and partnerships. The Open Society Institute, for example, is one of the donors, and the Independent Human Rights Commission partners with the paper with a regular section on Human Rights.
More recently, Hasht-e-Subh has begun producing investigative stories, a rarity in Afghan print media due to the risks involved, as well as a lack of resources. Two weeks ago, for example, the paper ran a story on how preventable action could have been taken to save the troubled Kabul Bank but the authorities failed to.
The Central Bank, in return, sent a lengthy letter to Hasht-e-Subh, questioning many aspects of the story. What speaks to the paper's belief in balanced journalism is the fact that it published the bank's letter, in full, the next day.
It was a human rights related article that got Hasht-e-Subh in trouble with the Ulema Shura. On May 31, the paper published a report raising concerns on how certain new madrasas were "radicalising young women" in northern Afghanistan.
The piece was based on the findings of a delegation of human rights activists that had travelled to Kunduz to investigate the issue. The activists were quoted extensively in the story. The Ulema Shura, rather than refuting the activists' findings - the source of the information - went after Hasht-e-Subh. "We request the responsible authorities to close down this anti-religion, anti-country outlet," they declared in the statement that was read to the president and distributed through his office.
"The claim that the Ulema make is unfortunately not grounded in evidence of what Hasht-e-Subh actually published," says Tawhidi. He, and many others, question the logic of the Ulema and how dangerous a precedent such logic can set. "The report is almost entirely based on quotes and conclusions of the Human Rights activists. The paper was only echoing those findings."
Last week, Hasht-e-Subh was able to raise the issue at the Media Complaints Commission, the legal body that deals with such claims. The commission ruled that the claims made against it were weak and that Hasht-e-Subh had done nothing wrong.
"This time around, the commission let us off because the claim was completely baseless, but the danger remains,'' says Sohail, the publisher. "If we write on sexual assault and expose problems, the government's hands should not on our throats, but rather on the perpetrators."
Tolo TV, however, did not fare so well. Reports suggest that the commission ordered one of their soap operas - dubbed from Turkish - to be taken off air. Officials at Tolo could not be reached for comment.
Costs of a free press
|In 2010, 58 attacks were recorded on journalists in Afghanistan [Nai]
The development of a relatively free media has been applauded as one of President Karzai's major achievements in the past ten years. Over a short period of time, the radio and television channels, as well as newspapers, have grown tremendously both in quantity as well as quality. But while the government has been a source of growth, it has been a major source of abuse as well.
In 2010, "Nai: Supporting Open Media in Afghanistan" recorded 58 instances of abuse and attacks on journalists. The attacks ranged from threats, kidnapping, illegal detention, physical assault, to murder. As many as 22 of these attacks were carried out by the police and other government related groups - and only seven perpetrated by the Taliban.
"Sadly, the majority of attacks have come from the government,'' Tawhidi says.
Al Jazeera, through several sources, has acquired detailed reports of physical as well as verbal attacks on reporters from police officials as well as other powerful bodies. In some cases, reporters have received death threats for publishing certain information.
"Reporters have often been threatened not only by the Taliban, but by the government and ISAF as well," says Farooq Mangal, coordinator for Khost Media House in eastern Afghanistan. ''If we were to consider all the pressures put on us from these different sides, we would not be able to produce any news to the public," says Mangal.
While some of the abuses at the local level can be attributed to a lack of discipline and professionalism in the police force that is just being rebuilt, the central government's lack of a strong stance against the extra-judicial demands of the Ulema highlights the dangerous environment in which the media finds itself: attacked by many, protected by few.
Follow Mujib Mashal on Twitter: @mujibmashal