Media at risk under new Afghan law

Government says war is forcing it to increase its control of the media.

    The media is feeling the heat in Afghanistan's
    conflct zone [AP]

    Proposed changes include an oversight committee that will scrutinise the functioning of the media including its content.


    An earlier proposal to institute an independent commission to carry out this monitoring function has been scrapped in favour of a single body that will have officials from government ministries and departments but not media representatives.


    Complaints relating to media content will be referred directly to the supreme court which, in Afghanistan, remains a conservative bastion.


    Control of content will be guided through clauses which include prohibitions that prevent publicity of any other religion than Islam, prohibit the media from producing any content that is unislamic or jeopardises the stability of the nation or any false information which might disrupt public opinion. 


    While some of these clauses are seemingly innocuous, they are so wide-ranging as to allow them to be misused against media organisations not toeing the line.


    Fact and falsehood


    Interpretations of facts and falsehood, for example, are always contentious in a conflict zone.


    The government's determination of what are facts will result in one-sided reportage. Already there have been several attempts to impose guidelines for reporting on the media with a wide-ranging list of subjects which should not be reported.


    The recently passed amnesty bill, immunising all jihadis from prosecution also sought to introduce a clause which would force the media to honour the jihadis in any reportage. Both moves were dropped under pressure but may be reintroduced through this bill.


    The growing tensions between the media and the government are evident in recent events. The government's decision to trade Taliban prisoners for an Italian reporter leaving an Afghan reporter Ajmal Naqshbandi to be murdered has angered and shocked Afghan journalists.


    Tolo television 


    More recently the country's most popular channel Tolo TV has been locked in a standoff with the attorney general of Afghanistan after police raided the channel following allegations of "misquoting" by Tolo.


    Tolo TV, owned by three Afghan-Australian brothers, hit back accusing the attorney general of having carried out an illegal action and calling for his removal from office.


    "The potential crimes [of the attorney general] are of the utmost seriousness and directly affect [the] issue of rule of law and sustainability of democracy in Afghanistan, especially given that they may be perpetrated by a person holding the highest operational legal position in Afghanistan," Tolo said.


    The information ministry's commission to look into the matter has asked Tolo to apologise saying the channel had "presented the attorney general's statements in a way that can lead to various interpretations and cause unnecessary public anguish. The way this news was broadcast, could be seen as ill-intentioned."


    However, Zaid Mohseni, a director of Tolo, states that the commission's finding does not show how and where Tolo had reported inaccurately.


    "We are not convinced there is a reason to apologise and we are looking into the matter," Mohseni told Al Jazeera.


    The order is indeed ambiguous in that it refers to possible interpretations and mala fides, rather than any substantive breach of facts.


    The row illustrates an increasing pattern of confrontation between Afghanistan's independent media and those in power.


    As the fledgling post-conflict state comes into being, with old roles being challenged and the balance of power changing, there are few areas where the contradictions have emerged as sharply as in the area of media.


    Tolo itself is no stranger to controversy, having pushed the boundaries of media content in Afghanistan with programming content that is often considered to be too forward by Afghan standards.


    However, Tolo also acts as a shock absorber for most of the media outlets that also fall far short of the restrictions that conservative sections would like to impose on them.


    The new media law will also reverse moves to make the state broadcaster a public service broadcaster, by bringing it under government control.


    Abdul Karim Khurram, the information minister, said the government cannot afford not to have control over the state broadcaster since the county was at war.


    Khurram also said he would like to ensure a ceiling on the use of foreign content in Afghan media. Channels such as Tolo are highly dependent on foreign content.


    Afghanistan currently does not have the capacity to produce adequate programming to meet an increasing demand that has seen the establishment of seven different private channels in the past three years. Khurram's ministry recently banned Tolo TV from rebroadcasting Al Jazeera content.


    Mohaqeq, chairman of the religious affairs commission, told this reporter that they would not want the government to use the RTA for propaganda but that the media needed to be brought under specific rules to prevent them from misusing their power to humiliate people.


    The argument, which is also one forwarded by the government, has emerged as a uniting platform for those seeking to impose more curbs on media.


    Resurgent conservatism as well as consolidation of power by former local commanders, an increasingly authoritative government and other power-brokers has seen increasing attacks on an independent Afghan media that had emerged as one of the strongest components of Afghanistan's attempts to form a democratic pluralistic state.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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