Afghanistan—lots of press, little freedom

BY carter| IN Media Practice | 04/11/2003

Afghanistan—lots of press, little freedom


Though media is flowering in post-Taliban Afghanistan, it lacks skilled personnel and resources, and is threatened and intimidated by both the government and the warlords.


Stephen Carter

 Walk along the crowded streets of central Kabul these days, and among the shops selling raisins from Kandahar and posters of Bollywood film stars there is an encouraging sight: stalls with dozens of different newspapers and magazines laid out for sale, or being busily hawked by dirty-faced street children.

 Since the end of the war the freedom of the press has returned to Afghanistan with a vengeance. There are now hundreds of titles published in the country: everything from sharply satirical cartoon magazine Zambul-e-Gham to respectable English-language newspaper The Kabul Weekly. There can be few places in the world in which a free and vigorous media is more needed.

  "This is freedom - there are 200 newspapers in Kabul," says Sayed Hamed Noori, the leader of one of several journalists’ groups in Afghanistan. But while the proliferation is a sign of an unprecedented lack of restriction, the situation for Afghan media is still exciting rather than easy. 

 The new publications exist in an environment that despite the changes is still not hospitable to a free and inquiring media. In theory, there is no censorship, but there is also little serious investigation of those in power. What is more, quantity is not necessarily quality: and with widespread poverty and an illiteracy rate estimated at about 80%, many doubt that the new publications will survive.

 Abdulhamid Haami is a young journalist who edits the Rasana weekly, and who until a few weeks ago headed another professional body, the Afghanistan Independent Journalists’ Union (AIJU). As such, one might expect him to rejoice at the burgeoning press sector. But in the current situation, he believes, there are simply too many publications, and too few good journalists. "In Afghanistan there are so many problems," he says. "The first is the profession - I think there is one professional for [every] 2 publications."

 Interestingly, Haami blames the aid agencies that have flocked to Afghanistan in their hundreds for helping make things worse. "The other problem is NGOs," Haami says. "They are supporting everyone to have a publication; in Kabul we have more than 150 publications per week. This is too many, and the quality is too low. There are too many NGOs and too many publications."

 It is not a problem that applies on the airwaves, where the government TV and radio dominate (radio is particularly important in a country where TV is unaffordable and so few read). The state also publishes around 35 newspapers, and runs the Bakhtar news agency, none of them thought to have much editorial independence. The editor of Arman-e-Mili, an important 5,000 circulation daily shut down in October for ‘budgetary reasons’, claims his criticism of the government was the real reason behind the closure. 

 Even there though, journalists have to struggle with a lack of equipment and funds: staff at even relatively successful publications frequently write reports by hand, with little budget for transport - or salaries.

 The economics are stark. A newspaper like the Kabul Weekly costs about 69 cents per copy to produce, and sells for 5 Afghani (about 10 cents). Other publications may have cheaper printing costs, but with a few exceptions they do not have the advantage of an English-language section to pull in advertising from foreign agencies and companies in the country. There is some local advertising, but it is hard to see how most publications can have much financial - and by implication editorial - independence.

 Unions like the AIJU and JUA(Journalists Union of Afghanistan) are still just beginning to develop in the still relatively chaotic world of post-war Afghanistan. The group Sayed Hamed Noori leads is the successor to the official communist-era body. In his flat in southern Kabul, over Russian vodka and Heineken, he tells stories of his narrow escapes from rocket attacks during the fighting. Noori began his career in the period of the communist governments of the 1980s, a time when journalism was controlled but journalists were relatively well provided for.

 Now the JUA has 350 members around the country. "What are we doing? At the moment nothing much of any use," Noori says. Money is the obstacle. "I think there are very many problems," he says, "but I think nothing can be done without financing."

 The money problem is not likely to be solved soon. Charging for membership is difficult, and Noori insists that outside help must come without strings attached. And donors might be reluctant to dig deep: according to him, his predecessor Anwar Shoaib was given $50,000 by various embassies and other organisations - and embezzled the lot. 

 If he can find the means though, Noori has ambitious plans: "First of all, I want to create an independent television channel, non-governmental. With this, you can do anything. There is only one [government-owned] station - I would like to make another station for all of Afghanistan."

 He has already written a $500,000 proposal to set it up. But might it not be dangerous to mix the roles of union and broadcaster? "Now everything is private," Noori says. "It may be dangerous, but we need to start, we need to explain."

 Noori’s JUA is not the only union to emerge since the fall of the Taliban: at last count there were three others in Kabul alone. Abdulhamid Haami’s AIJU is one.  He sees many of the same problems as Noori, but Haami is also wary of what he sees as the JUA’s lack of independence. "They are governmental - they want to be," he claims. "The union was established by the Communist Party of Afghanistan 20 years ago, and he wants to continue it."

 The AIJU had 430 members after its first 5 months of existence, with a membership fee of between 10 and 50 Afghanis a month (about 20 cents to $1). "The union is trying to change the quality of the journalism in all the country, not only in Kabul, and support freedom of the speech in all the country, not only in Kabul," Haami says.   

 But unity is also pressing. "For [us] the big issue is to establish only one journalists’ union in Kabul," says Haami. With so many problems, it is clearly important that journalists speak with one voice. But there is a definite risk of infighting.  

 Many Afghan journalists emphasise the degree of freedom that now exists - understandably, given the previous situation. But there are plenty of traditional incidents of intimidation.

 The militias of regional strongmen like Ismail Khan in the western city of Herat have intimidated and beaten local journalists who do not toe the line. In Mazar-e-Sharif last year an Afghan cameraman who helped make a UK documentary on the massacre of Taliban soldiers at the hands of local warlord Rashid Dostum was kidnapped, beaten, and left for dead; he has since had to leave for the UK. 

 The situation is particularly bad in the provinces. "The provincial radio and television stations have been completely taken over by the governors," Allan Geere of the press training organisation IWPR is quoted as telling media freedom group Reporters Without Borders. "The content is very poor, just propaganda or local information. It’s really Radio Governor."  There are reports of attacks and intimidation against the independent press, and threats from local mujaheddin commanders.

 There has been a law since February 2002 decreeing freedom of the press, and article 34 of the recently submitted draft constitution states that "every Afghan has the right to print or publish without prior submission to the state."

 But one clause of the 2002 decree bans coverage of "subjects that could offend Islam." In April of 2003 two journalists were arrested and later released on charges of blasphemy after they published a story about Islam: although they have yet to be tried, the conservative-dominated supreme court has already issued a fatwa calling for them to be given the death penalty.

 The situation is particularly bad for the few Afghan women journalists. Reporters at the independent Radio Sohl in the Panjshir valley north of Kabul have been threatened by local commanders and forbidden to speak to other women in the street.

 There is no government censorship, in theory.  But there are powerful men with armed followers used to war, and the culture of independent media accountability and criticism is not deeply ingrained. In May 2003 the Kabul Weekly ran a story on the federalist ideas of the warlord Rashid Dostom, a subject considered sensitive enough to bring a warning and threats of closure from the deputy information minister.

 There are certain taboo subjects it is difficult to breach. In April, Kabir Omarzai, a journalist at the government TV station lost his job after he asked president Hamid Karzai an awkward question about a possible border dispute with Pakistan, although he was reinstated after protests. The Afghan information minister reportedly told him freedom of the press did not extend to him, and that journalists "must not ask this kind of question."

"They have to censor themselves," says Abdulhamid Haami. "For example," says Sayeed Noori, "if a journalist writes in a newspaper about some big man, afterwards so often it happens that they beat him, they put them in jail." Haami says he does not believe ministers are involved, and both have nice things to say about General Fahim, the most powerful warlord of them all and currently the government’s defence minister. He was reportedly involved in the arrest and 4-day detention of Abdul Ghafur Aiteqad, editor of the Farhad weekly, after he published a satirical cartoon on the reconstruction programme.

 There is no doubt that press freedom is incomparably better in Afghanistan than under the Taliban. With 256 publications in the country, and glimmers of  independent radio if not TV, Afghans are certainly taking advantage of it. Yet there are still serious problems. Perhaps this is inevitable: the biggest single problem is that the country has been at war for 25 years, and is still ravaged. The culture and idea of the free press has a long way to develop in the country. But for now the media has at least thrown itself into the breach with gusto: although its situation is in some ways as precarious as that of Afghanistan itself, it is surely as hopeful.

 Stephen Carter is a freelance journalist based in London. He has worked in print and broadcast in Russia, the UK and Afghanistan, with a particular interest in politics and development. Contact:


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