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Sharp Rise in Press Attacks in Afghanistan
Security Forces Threatening and Arresting Journalists
(New York, May 2, 2003) - Attacks and threats against Afghan journalists have increased sharply in recent weeks, Human Rights Watch said today, on the eve of World Press Freedom Day, which is May 3. Afghan security personnel have created a pervasive climate of fear in which journalists are afraid to openly publish articles that criticize leaders.

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"Press freedom in Afghanistan is under assault. Army, police and intelligence forces are delivering death threats and arresting Afghan journalists, effectively silencing them."

John Sifton
Researcher in the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch

"Press freedom in Afghanistan is under assault," said John Sifton, a researcher in the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "Army, police and intelligence forces are delivering death threats and arresting Afghan journalists, effectively silencing them."

Many of the threats and arrests have occurred after journalists have criticized certain cabinet members in the Afghan government, including Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim and Minister of Education Younis Qanooni; and leading political figures in Kabul such as the former president of Afghanistan, Burhanuddin Rabbani, and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a powerful former mujahidin leader.

Human Rights Watch said that many of the threats have been delivered by members of the Amniat-e Melli, the intelligence arm of the Afghan government, on behalf of the political organization Shura-e Nazar, a loosely coordinated group of former mujahidin parties.

"Powerful people in Kabul are using their cronies in security forces to try to silence their critics," Sifton said.

Amniat-e Melli agents have staked out journalists' homes, followed them on the street, and visited their offices. Security officials have warned journalists to stop publishing critical articles, delivering warnings such as, "The day is not far off when you will be killed," or "We could kill you easily." Some journalists have been arrested by police forces and detained in Kabul's jails.

Military commanders outside of Kabul have threatened journalists as well. In recent months, Human Rights Watch has documented how commanders in Jalalabad and Gardez - places where the U.S.-led coalition continues to cooperate and work with local military forces - have threatened journalists with death for publishing candid reports about local security problems.

Ismail Khan, the governor of the western province of Herat, has continued to stifle local media. Last month, his security personnel arrested and beat a radio journalist during the opening ceremony for the new office of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, prompting most Herat-based radio journalists to leave the city in protest.

Human Rights Watch criticized the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture, the cabinet ministry responsible for media issues, for not effectively responding to pleas from journalists for help in dealing with the threats. In some cases, officials have reinforced threats by telling journalists they should not be critical of government officials.

Sifton said that journalists were increasingly afraid of seeking assistance or protection from local police forces.

"One journalist went to a police commander in Kabul for protection, but the commander said more senior officials had ordered him not to help," said Sifton. "The commander told the reporter he 'should face the consequences' for criticizing Shura-e Nazar leaders."

Human Rights Watch urged President Hamid Karzai to make a public statement in defense of journalists and freedom of expression and to dismiss officials known to be taking part in threats and arrests. Sifton also said Afghanistan's Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali should take action to improve police protection of those being threatened. Human Rights Watch recommended that President Karzai order a task force to investigate the police, army and intelligence forces' involvement in the threats and arrests and recommend larger changes to protect press freedom.

Human Rights Watch also called on U.S. officials in Afghanistan to stop supporting local commanders implicated in the attacks on journalists and to pressure them to stop the abuses immediately.