Afghan Officials Balk At Live TV Coverage Of Attacks

An Afghan security officer tries to stop photographers from taking pictures in Kabul. i i

hide captionAn Afghan security officer tries to stop photographers from taking pictures outside The Park Residence guesthouse at the site of a gun battle in the Shar-e Naw district in Kabul on Feb. 26.

Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images
An Afghan security officer tries to stop photographers from taking pictures in Kabul.

An Afghan security officer tries to stop photographers from taking pictures outside The Park Residence guesthouse at the site of a gun battle in the Shar-e Naw district in Kabul on Feb. 26.

Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images

After a massive explosion rocked Kabul last month, many Afghans frightened out of their beds turned on their television sets to find out what was going on.

Tolo TV, a popular broadcaster, didn't disappoint: Its cameramen got as close as possible to the location of a Taliban car bombing. The explosion collapsed a guesthouse for foreign workers, and another Taliban bomber and gunman were holed up in a second guesthouse nearby.

Hours of live domestic coverage of Taliban attacks is a new trend in Afghan journalism. But the coverage can embarrass government officials. Last week, the government announced that it would ban any future live coverage of attacks in Kabul, raising concerns among journalists and Western governments that the government was undermining press freedoms.

Government officials and some journalists have since reached an agreement to modify the proposed ban. Under the amended guidelines, broadcasters are not to air footage that reveals police and military tactics, for example, or that shows graphic scenes of victims of Taliban attacks.

But what will happen to journalists who refuse to follow the new guidelines is unclear.

Unfettered Communication

Few things in Afghanistan have developed as quickly over the past nine years as the means to communicate. There were only a few dozen phone lines when the Taliban was ousted in 2001. Now there are millions of cell phones that Afghans use to call around the world.

More and more Afghans are also buying televisions to get their news from the growing number of private stations across the country. But now, the government has decided that unfettered communication may be a mistake — especially the live TV coverage of Taliban attacks.

Tolo TV director Saad Mohseni says he's proud of the coverage.

"You hear the explosions — Kabul is not a massive city — so gunfire shots, bombs going off, you know something's going on, and people have a need to know what's going on," he says. "It's their right."

Going Overboard?

The coverage can also come with blistering commentary — like that by on-air announcers on Tolo and rival station Ariana during a Jan. 18 Taliban attack near the presidential palace. They complained about the delay and ineptitude of Afghan security forces sent to fight the Taliban militants.

The head of the Afghan Independent Journalists Association says he supports live coverage of attacks, but feels the on-air criticism is overdone.

"If the Afghan government needs something from us, we should be a little bit patient; we should be a little bit careful," says Samandar, who goes by only one name. "We should be a little bit more ethical reporting, more professional reporting."

In other words, he says, "less emotional."

But senior Afghan officials accused the media of giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

Then, most news outlets received a letter from the Kabul police chief spelling out new rules banning live coverage of attacks. The Afghan intelligence agency also called in journalists — both Western and domestic — to pressure them to stop.

A New Agreement

Some journalists said they felt threatened by officials who told them they couldn't guarantee their safety if they showed up at the scene of an attack.

Presidential spokesman Waheed Omar dismissed such claims.

"What we want is: No. 1, to avoid giving the enemy a possibility of using live broadcast to instruct or to get in contact or to find the positions of our security forces or of the journalists or of any targets. That's issue No. 1," he said. "And issue No. 2 is protection of the journalist."

U.S. and European envoys urged the government of President Hamid Karzai not to reverse democratic gains by curbing press freedoms.

So the Karzai government called a truce. Officials called on Afghan media executives to meet with them over the weekend to see if they could reach some sort of compromise, and journalists attending a meeting Monday afternoon said they had.

"If there's something, you know, we share, it's Afghanistan's national interest," said Tolo TV's Mohseni. "If they can convince us that there are certain ways we can cover a story that would benefit Afghanistan, of course we are going to listen to them. But you know, they have to be logical and they have to convince us, but they cannot just simply threaten us."

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