Odds stacked against Afghan media

Ali Mohaqiq Nasab, a magazine editor, understands the heavy price to be paid in Afghanistan for pushing the blurred boundaries of press freedom.

    Ali Mohaqiq Nasab was jailed for blasphemy

    It has been barely three months since he was released from prison after being jailed for blasphemy.

    Nasab had been indicted for republishing "anti-Islamic" articles written by an Iranian scholar, condemning corporal punishment of Muslims who convert to other religions and commit offences such as adultery.

    Owner-editor of Haqoq-e-Zan, a leading monthly women's rights magazine, Nasab's two-year sentence, imposed last October, was eventually commuted on appeal by the court despite calls from some Afghan clerics for his execution.

    "We have freedom of speech compared with the Arab countries and Iran, we have lots of freedom, but compared to the West, no. The problem [here] is that most Afghans have dark minds," he says.

    Media boom

    As in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, post-Taliban Afghanistan has witnessed a manifold growth in the number of media enterprises.

    According to the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture, the country currently has five national TV stations, three national news agencies and more than 10 national radio stations and has nurtured at least 150 publications since 2001.

    "We don't really have freedom of speech. It's written in the constitution but no one is brave enough to write these things"

    Ali Mohaqiq Nasab, 
    Owner-editor of Haqoq-e-Zan magazine

    Around 30% of Afghanistan's 30 million people now have access to television, and more new media ventures, including a sixth national TV station are being planned.

    But Nasab’s imprisonment - as well as the arrest of two reporters in 2003 over charges of defaming Islam - illustrates the increasingly turbulent journey the media in the country is being forced to navigate.

    Many Afghan journalists believe the nation's fledgling media industry is in grave danger of being eclipsed by high levels of illiteracy and increasing lawlessness.

    Official figures indicate 90% of the population are illiterate while security is deteriorating in many of the country's 34 provinces still ruled by regional commanders, making it dangerous for journalists, both Afghan and foreign, to travel and work outside Kabul.

    Decades of armed conflict has also led to dilapidated transport and electricity infrastructure, making newspaper distribution and TV and radio programme transmissions fraught with difficulty.

    Sharia laws

    Against this backdrop, the Afghan government is trying to guarantee freedom of expression while respecting the Sharia-based legal system, a precarious balancing act highlighted when international pressure forced authorities to release Abdul Rahman, an Afghan imprisoned for converting from Islam to Christianity.

    The Afghan constitution, hammered out after the election of Hamid Karzai as president in 2004, enshrines freedom of expression as "inviolable" in accordance "with provisions of the law" - a constitution which stipulates that Afghanistan is an Islamic Republic and that Islam is a "sacred" religion.

    It is a loophole Nasab fell into when he drew the wrath of the Afghan authorities. He believes the government cannot uphold freedom of speech when regional commanders rule outside the capital Kabul.

    Poor security is another
    challenge for Afghan journalists

    "It is true that we don't have free speech because if anyone writes a bad thing about a warlord, they will be killed. We don't really have freedom of speech. It's written in the constitution but no one is brave enough to write these things," Nasab says.

    Alien concept

    Waheed Warasta, a poet and member of the Afghan branch of Poets, Essays and Novelists (PEN) International, a group which supports peace and understanding through literature, agrees that freedom of expression is a concept many Afghans are unaccustomed to and thus wary of.

    "There are very few people who understand that we should respect the right of freedom of expression even if that person is criticising you. Not only do we have poverty in terms of economy and security, we also have poverty of mind," he says.

    His views are echoed by Josh Shahriar, a reporter and editor at Afghanistan's largest English-language newspaper Kabul Weekly, which was forced to close down in 1996 after Burhanuddin Rabbani, the then president, objected to the paper's political coverage.

    The paper relaunched in early 2002 with the help of AINA, a non-governmental organisation established by renowned Iranian photojournalist Reza Deghati.

    "There's real uncertainty about the future of journalism in Afghanistan. To be honest, I'm not optimistic. I have not seen a big change. Outside Kabul, everywhere, the warlords, the Taliban, the mullahs, businessmen and bureaucrats try to control you. This is normal. We've had 25 years of war. It's been a long time and it will take a long time to change," Shahriar says.

    High hopes

    Despite these obstacles, journalists and writers believe the Afghan media has the potential to encourage stability in a nation ravaged by almost three decades of conflict.

    "We have to wait and be patient. You can't solve the problems of years, decades and centuries in one night. We have to find a way to change it, it will be very hard"

    Faheem Dashty,
    Kabul Weekly editor

    The Afghan government and United Nations Development Fund for Women (Unifem) have set up the Afghan Women's Journalists' Forum.

    Afghanistan now has three journalists' unions as well as increasing numbers of universities and colleges offering print and broadcast journalism courses, achievements that could well herald a more prosperous media in the future.

    Faheem Dashty, Kabul Weekly editor, believes Afghan society will eventually mature so that conflicting opinions can be debated openly but warns that using the press to fuel the struggle for free speech at this stage in the nation's turbulent development could do more harm than good.

    He says: "The issue [Mr] Nasab was dealing with I believe should be discussed but, in my view, we have to find the right time and right place.

    "I'm confident, but this is not the time. If you want to change it now, it's a mistake. It will affect things negatively now and we'll lose the chance to talk about it later.

    "We have to wait and be patient. You can't solve the problems of years, decades and centuries in one night. We have to find a way to change it, it will be very hard."

    SOURCE: Aljazeera



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