Afghan Media Complain of Government Control
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
And now to the media issues in Afghanistan. Since the fall of the Taliban more than four years ago, there's been an explosive growth among the independent press, but news offices recently received an official-looking document with directives on how to cover the news. That sparked concerns that despite assurances to the contrary, expression in Afghanistan might not be so free. The document apparently came from within Afghanistan's intelligence agency, even as the government denies it was behind the orders.
NPR's JJ Sutherland reports from Kabul.
JJ SUTHERLAND reporting:
One of the places that received the document is the nation's most popular TV station, Tolo TV. Saad Mohseni is one of the station's directors.
Mr. SAAD MOHSENI (Director, Tolo TV): The document was delivered by an individual known to our people and, you know, he was a card-carrying member of the intelligence agency. It was delivered not just to us, it was delivered to, I would say, 15 to 20 organizations, so it wasn't just us. Everyone received the same copy. It was not signed.
SUTHERLAND: The document had instruction after instruction for the media, including bans on criticizing the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan and interviews with terrorist leaders. It also said terrorist activities should not be the first story in a newscast. Bari Salaam runs the publicly funded radio show Good Morning Afghanistan.
Mr. BARI SALAAM (Good Morning Afghanistan): It was telling journalists to treat certain subjects in a certain way, but then at the end, it was saying that journalists must respect journalistic values such as accuracy, impartiality and fairness.
SUTHERLAND: The document also bans any reporting on riots that is “provocative.” The orders were delivered to news organizations just days after a riot engulfed the city of Kabul. Looting broke out, and policemen were seen stripping off their uniforms and joining the rioters. Again, Tolo TV's Saad Mohseni.
Mr. MOHSENI: They were very naive in the way that they drafted this document. It was straight out of a communist manual in the way it was drafted, the way that they had addressed certain issues. I think the government has to work very closely with the media, and sometimes you do feel for them, because they are in a very helpless situation.
SUTHERLAND: But the officials in charge of the news media are disavowing knowledge of the orders. Saeed Rahim, the Minister of Information and Culture, said he was out of the country when they were distributed. He says he does not know who ordered the directives, but he does not think they are enforceable.
Mr. SAEED RAHIM (Minister of Information and Culture, Afghanistan): I got contact with security officials and they said they didn't know anything about that, so I announced to all journalists that it's not valid and don't worry about it.
SUTHERLAND: But journalists are worrying about it. In recent months, journalists have been assaulted by police, threatened with assassination and in one surreal moment, a TV reporter filming a dispute in Parliament was beaten by outraged Parliamentarians. The argument was over the word warlord. The media directives say freedom fighter should be used instead. Again, Saad Mohseni of Tolo TV. One of his reporters was the one who was beaten.
Mr. MOHSENI: The issue now here is will they inadvertently kill the messenger? And the messenger, which is the media, is probably the only great thing that's happened in Afghanistan. Freedom of expression and freedom of media is, in the region, in this neighborhood, very unusual.
SUTHERLAND: General Halaal Adi Halaal(ph) is a former solder who is now a Parliament member. He's from the northern Baghlan province. He says the government is cutting off its own arm by trying to control the media, but he understands somewhat the desperate straights Afghanistan's leaders find themselves in.
General HALAAL ADI HALAAL (Afghan Parliament): (Through translator) Their justification, the national interest, can be reasonable. We cannot feel it right now, but to be realistic, the situation is not very good now. Taliban activity is expanding and it's getting wider and wider, and especially in southern villages. Not having people's minds confused at this sensitive moment, it can be good. On the other hand, we have democratic values here.
SUTHERLAND: Last week, Tolo TV responded to the directives with an editorial broadside wrapped inside a sketch comedy show called Ring of Danger. It begins with a funeral procession carrying a coffin.
(Soundbite of television show Ring of Danger)
SUTHERLAND: Then you notice that some of the weeping pallbearers are wearing headsets or carrying microphones. Then the camera turns to the side of the coffin. Written there? The media.
JJ Sutherland, NPR News, Kabul.
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