ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
There were only a few dozen phone lines in Afghanistan when the Taliban regime 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 the Afghan government recently decided its uncomfortable with unfettered communication, especially live TV coverage of Taliban attacks.
NPRs Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has the story from Kabul.
(Soundbite of gunfire)
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: This scene of Afghan police officers running across broken glass from destroyed buildings with a gun battle echoing nearby is what greeted viewers here when they turned on their TV sets late last month. Many tuned in to find out what was happening after being frightened out of their beds by the sound of a massive explosion.
Tolo TV, a popular broadcaster, didnt disappoint. Its cameramen got as close as they could to where a Taliban car bomber had collapsed one guesthouse for foreign workers. They were also near a second guesthouse where another Taliban bomber and gunman were holed up. Tolo TV director Saad Mohseni says hes proud of the coverage.
Mr. SAAD MOHSENI (Director, Tolo TV): You hear the explosions. Kabul is not a massive city. So, gunfire shots, bombs going off, you know somethings going on. And people have a need to know whats going on. Its their right.
NELSON: Hours of live domestic coverage of Taliban attacks is a new trend in Afghan journalism. But the coverage embarrasses officials. So does the blistering commentary, like that by on-air announcers on Tolo and rival station Ariana during a January 18 Taliban attack near the presidential palace. They complained about the delay and ineptitude of Afghan security forces sent to fight the Taliban militants.
Samandar is the head of the Afghan Independent Journalists Association. He says he supports live coverage of attacks but feels the on-air criticism is overdone.
Mr. RAHIMULLAH SAMANDAR (President, Afghan Independent Journalists Association): If government, Afghan government needs something from us that we should be a little bit patient, we should be a little bit careful, we should be a little bit more ethical reporting, more professional reporting.
NELSON: In other words, less emotional and more...
Mr. SAMANDAR: Less emotional, yeah.
NELSON: Thats how senior afghan officials felt. They accused the media of giving aid and comfort to the enemy, then announced last week that they were banning any future live coverage of attacks in Kabul. Most news outlets received a letter from the Kabul police chief spelling out the new rules. The Afghan Intelligence Agency also called in journalists, both Western and domestic, to pressure them to stop. Some journalists said they felt threatened by officials who told them they couldnt guarantee their safety if they showed up at the scene of an attack.
Presidential spokesman Waheed Omar dismissed such claims.
Mr. WAHEED OMAR (Chief Presidential Spokesman, Afghanistan): What we want is, number one, 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. Thats issue number one. And issue number two is protection of the journalists.
NELSON: No journalist here is buying that. And U.S. and European envoys urged President Karzais government 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. Again, Tolo TVs Saad Mohseni.
Mr. MOHSENI: If theres something, you know, we share, its Afghanistans national interest. So, if they can convince us that there are certain ways we can cover a story that would benefit Afghanistan, of course were 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.
NELSON: Journalists attending a meeting this afternoon said they and government officials finally reached an agreement, like not broadcasting any footage that reveals police and military tactics, 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.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.