| KABUL, July 1
KABUL, July 1 Afghan journalists are locked in a
row with their government over media freedoms, in what appears
to be the latest attempt by authorities to appeal to the more
conservative side of society ahead of the pullout of most
A revised media law looks to significantly tighten the
government's grip over the fledgling but lively Afghan press
corps, and limit foreign programming in a move likely to please
the Taliban, with whom Kabul is seeking peace negotiations.
"The government wants to be prepared for 2014, and are
paving the way for conservative elements to return," said Abdul
Mujeeb Khalvatgar, executive director of media advocacy group
Nai, referring to the deadline for most NATO troops to withdraw.
During the Taliban's five-year reign, which ended in 2001
when they were toppled by U.S.-backed Afghan forces, the
Islamist group permitted only one radio station and a newspaper,
and women were denied basic rights such as voting and most work.
"We are very worried. The press, freedom of speech and women
will be sacrificed first," Hashmat Radfar, editor of daily paper
Nukhost, told Reuters.
President Hamid Karzai trumpets the existing 2009 media law,
which took years to pass, as one of his government's major
achievements, though war and an atmosphere of impunity make
Afghanistan one of the most dangerous places in the world to be
Western backing of the relatively large Afghan media has
failed to prevent the intimidation, abduction and even death
reporters face for uncovering corruption and other government
failings, and some say it is getting worse.
Though not yet passed, the revision of the 2009 law proposes
handing the High Media Council, a 13-member body headed by the
Culture Minister and including a religious scholar and civil
society representatives, enormous sway over the country's media,
from ethics to legal procedures.
A key difference between the existing and draft laws is the
restriction on foreign programming on radio and television, a
nod to the huge popularity of Turkish soap operas and Bollywood
films, which display more liberal views of women and romance
than are typically found in traditional Afghan culture.
While no limit currently exists, the new law proposes
foreign programmes broadcast on certain state media receive the
Council's "acknowledgement", and in some cases, do not exceed
thirty percent of air time.
"One begins to wonder if the openness (of the press) was
just because of Western pressure," said Heather Barr of Human
Rights Watch in Afghanistan.
"There could be very dark days ahead for freedom in
Afghanistan," she added.
Jalal Norani, an advisor to the Culture Minister, dismissed
accusations the government was seeking to satisfy conservative
elements, adding: "We will work with journalists together to
make a better law".
Many media workers and their representatives not only reject
the revised law, but want amendments made to the original law,
including more legal protection, better libel laws and greater
A frequent gripe under the current law is the stipulation
that reporting must "observe the principles of Islam", a vague
rule which some journalists say the government uses to detain
them for a host of reasons.
Nai's Khalvatgar said journalists, lawyers and unions are
planning to present their recommended changes to the Ministry of
Information and Culture on July 15.
Afghanistan ranks seventh on the "Impunity Index" compiled
by New York-based watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists
(CPJ), a list of countries where journalists are killed
regularly and governments fail to solve the crimes.
CPJ said in its annual report in April that while
Afghanistan has experienced a slowdown in targeted killings, it
had made no progress in prosecuting the killers of journalists.
(Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)