Monday, September 29, 2008

Silence on Afghan media repression

It is instructive to look at our media's performance when favoured states like Karzai's Afghanistan commit injustices. While the case of Iranian journalist Akbar Ganji was widely and justly denounced in Canadian newspapers, what would happen if the Afghan government were to persecute journalists? The question is relevant since we in Canada have a lot of influence, hence reponsibility, in Afghanistan. Following are a few cases which may help us answer that question.

Ahmed Ghous Zalmai, a former celebrity journalist and an ally of President Karzai, was recently sentenced by a Kabul court to 20 years in prison for publishing a Dari translation of the Koran. Zalmai was allegedly targeted by Attorney General Sabet, said to be a Taliban sympathizer and who once lived in Montreal. Canadian newspaper coverage of Zalmai's case has amounted to exactly one passing mention in the National Post (Jan 24, A14).

Jawed Ahmad, an Afghan stringer for CTV arrested and allegedly tortured by the American military, is finally released after being held for 11 months without charge. While the saga of Ahmad's incarceration involves secret back-channel discussions between CTVglobemedia and American officials as well as calls by human rights organizations for his release, the Canadian media took little notice. The Gobe and Mail had the most coverage, with three articles: first on Feb 28 (p A14; 442 words), after other papers had reported on it a week earlier; second on June 5 (A13; 66 words) when CTV lawyers filed a lawsuit against the US government; finally on Sept 22 (A1; 1245 words) the story was given some prominence, though of course the article has zero advocacy value, coming after the fact.

Journalist Perwez Kambakhsh, languishing in jail and condemned to die by an Afghan court. Insiders say that Kambakhsh was arrested in order to pressure his brother, himself a journalist with a record of exposing official perfidy. Since January, Kambakhsh has been mentioned 33 times by major Canadian daily newspapers, according to a ProQuest search. Although The Globe and Mail did publish an editorial (Feb 5) calling attention to the injustice, that paper has carried only one report on Kambakhsh (Jan 24, A19, 233 words).

The Washington Times has more on media repression in Afghanistan:

Risks increase for Afghan war reporters

KABUL, Sept 27 - Media freedom, one of Afghanistan's key post-Taliban achievements, is under assault as journalists grapple with worsening security and threats from warlords and Islamic hard-liners who wield an increasingly heavy hand against the government, media rights groups and some state officials...

Topics related to national security, religion and official corruption have become "red lines," according to Rahimullah Samandar, head of the Afghan Independent Journalist Association (AIJA). Self-censorship is on the rise, and there is concern that instability and a steady erosion of public support may combine to make the government even more rigid toward reporters.

"Warlords in the Cabinet wield too much power and have no respect for freedom of the press," Samandar said. "In some ways the government is now worse than the Taliban."

According to the Nai Supporting Open Media in Afghanistan, a nongovernmental organization, the government was responsible for at least 23 of the 45 reported incidents of intimidation, violence or arrest of journalists between May 2007 and May 2008.

This amounts to a 130 percent spike compared with the same period the previous year and explains in part why the country dropped 12 places, from 130th to 142nd, in the annual Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.

Even critics admit that Afghan journalists have come a long way and still have greater freedoms than those working in neighboring countries such as Iran and Pakistan...

The primacy of local strongmen over a weak central government, and traditionally conservative values over progressive ones, mean that the "further you get from Kabul, the less respect people have for freedom of expression," said Mujeeb Khalvatgar of the Open Society Institute, a private foundation that promotes democracy and human rights.

Several powerful former mujahedeen, or holy warriors, have bought media outlets to use as propaganda machines, Mr. Khalvatgar explained, while others use fear to impose their agenda.

This month, the owner and chief editor of an independent radio station run by women in northern Faryab province was warned by the provincial governor, Abdul Haq Shafaq, that the station would be shut down unless programming was consistent with his political requirements, according to the AIJA... (link)

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