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V. Attacks on Media
Security forces in many provinces in Afghanistan, including Kabul, continue to harass, threaten, arrest, and beat up local journalists and editors in Afghanistan to punish them for what they have published or broadcast, or to intimidate them not to publish in the future.240 This section highlights press attacks documented by Human Rights Watch during the first half of 2003, and shows how these attacks have led to self-censorship as many journalists have decided not to publish critical or objective articles.
Press and Media Activity in Afghanistan
Press and media in Afghanistan enjoyed a rebirth after the fall of the Taliban, but still have struggled greatly. Scores of newspapers opened in Kabul city in 2002 and early 2003, but other cities have far fewer new publications. There are several independent newspapers in the country, but many publications, both within and outside of Kabul, are run by political parties and do not contain objective news articles, only editorials and opinion pieces. Some newspapers are government-owned: the Ministry of Information and Culture runs a newspaper in Kabul, and local governors own their own papers—for instance, Kandahar’s Gul Agha Sherzai and Herat’s Ismail Khan, who control Tolu-e Afghan (“Afghan Dawn”) and Ittifaq-e Islam (“Islamic Union”), respectively. There are few genuinely independent newspapers in Afghanistan, and most editors of these are under severe pressure.
The majority of the Afghan population cannot read, which makes radio an extremely important medium for news. (Few people can afford televisions, and most lack the electricity to power them.) Local radio stations broadcast in many cities, including Kabul, Jalalabad, Gardez, Mazar, Herat, and Kandahar, but they are almost all under the control of the central or local governments. Two exceptions are the privately-operated Radio Shohl, a radio station in the Shomali Plain north of Kabul, and Radio Germany, a station supported by Germany, started in Kabul in May 2003. Radio Germany mostly plays international news.
International radio services also broadcast in Afghanistan in Dari or Pashto, with Afghan correspondents (“stringers”). These include the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and Deutsche Welle. Iranian radio can also be heard in central and western portions of the country. The U.S. military broadcasts in Kandahar and Kabul—mostly Afghan music and coalition announcements.
Local Afghan television stations, where they do exist, are almost entirely in the control of local political groups. For example, Governor Ismail Khan firmly controls Herat’s television station. In Jalalabad, Kandahar, and Mazar-e Sharif, local military leaders have either pressured or entirely co-opted local television operators. Shura-e Nazar firmly controls Kabul television: on most nights, programming consists of lengthy pieces about Defense Minister Fahim’s activities and travels.
Problems with media “politicization” extend into organized media groups as well. In the first half of 2003, journalists and international organizations attempted to organize a Journalist’s Union for Afghanistan to serve as a forum for discussing media issues and presenting positions and opinions on those issues to the government. Most of these efforts have failed because of recriminations between journalists about their political leaningsor affiliations. In early May 2003, a meeting to convene a Journalist’s Union fell apart after Pashtun and Hazara journalists walked out, complaining that Shura-e Nazar members were dominating the meeting.241
Threats, Arrests, and Harassment
Human Rights Watch documented numerous cases of attacks on media freedom in late 2002 and the first half of 2003, occurring both within and outside of Kabul. These include threats, arrests, and general harassment that have made it difficult or impossible for journalists to criticize certain leaders in the central government or local commanders. Army, police, or intelligence forces usually delivered the most common form of harassment—death threats—either in person or on the telephone, after journalists criticized military or political leaders. Generally, the most common recipients of threats and harassment are newspapers which criticize dominant military leaders or fundamentalist groups.
The Case of Aftab Newspaper
The newspaper Aftab (“the Sun”) is an independent Kabul paper. In March 2003, Aftab began publishing editorials and opinion pieces increasingly critical of former mujahidin commanders and religious leaders in Kabul, especially those involved in fighting in Kabul in the early 1990s. The articles criticized a range of people, including the Minister of Defense Mohammad Qasim Fahim, Minister of Education Younis Qanooni, Minister of Planning Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, Vice-President Mohammad Karim Khalili, former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, and Abdul Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf. For example, in its March 18, 2003 issue, Aftab published an article about connections between religion and military power in Afghanistan, claiming that religious leaders “legitimized warlordism.”242 In its March 27 issue, Aftab published an article strongly critical of former president Rabbani, with a pencil drawing of Rabbani destroying houses in Kabul in the early 1990s, and an article critical of Sheikh Mohammad Asef Mohseni, a Shi’a mujahidin leader and original head of the political organization Harakat-e Islami. In the first week of April, Aftab published an article entitled “Secularism as a third approach,” and in the next issue, on April 12, an article critical of the conservatism and past military activities of Sayyaf and his party, Ittihad-e Islami.244
During this time, Aftab’s editor, Sayeed Mir Hussein Mahdavi, began to receive anonymous death threats over his mobile telephone.245 According to Mahdavi, another journalist told him that Education Minister Qanooni had complained about Aftab during a public meeting of the Shura-e Nazar (a political subgroup of the Jamiat-e Islami) and that the Agricultural Minister Sayeed Hossein Anwari was furious with him.246 At the end of March, the electricity to Aftab’s office was cut, he told us. When Mahdavi asked utility personnel in Kabul for an explanation, he said, they told him that Anwari ordered them to cut off Aftab’s electricity. Mahdavi then visited Anwari, who, he said, angrily told him that he “could no longer tolerate seeing someone from the commonwealth of Muslim people talk against Islam.”
Mahdavi told us that he received threatening calls on April 9 about the article Aftab had published about Sayyaf:
Another call the same day focused on Mahdavi’s ethnicity, he told us: “Be afraid of the day when once again the fight will erupt. Observe then how we will massacre you Hazara people this time, that you will never dare to raise your voice against the respected Sayyaf.”
A few days later,a Shura-e Nazar official visited Mahdavi, he said:
On the morning of April 9, 2003, Mahdavi said, he received a call from a commander in the Amniat-e Melli office for District Three of Kabul City, who told him to wait at the Aftab office for him.
Later that day, an official from the Ahmad Shah Massoud Foundation—a organization started by former Jamiat-e Islami organizers—came to the Aftab office and threatened Mahdavi again with a confusing allegation, he told us:
On April 14, there were more warnings, he said. After a meeting of journalists, writers, and poets, an editor of Piyam Mujahid, a political publication co-owned by Rabbani and director of the Cultural Department of Shura-e Nazar, stopped Mahdavi outside the meeting:
The threats on the telephone became more explicit on April 16th, and, Mahdavi said, he went to the Ministry of Information and Culture to complain:
After a week, a sympathetic police commander showed up in Mahdavi’s office and offered to help, he said. The commander said he would try to get approval to deploy “three or four policemen to keep guard at the front door of my office.”247 Mahdavi was thankful but, he explained, he was soon disappointed:
Mahdavi was terrified, he told us, and contacted other journalists and international organizations for help. Mahdavi told us that he spoke with officials at the U.N. mission and other international agencies, who contacted officials in President Karzai’s cabinet. His case began to receive international media attention,248 and the threats tapered off. But then, on June 17, Kabul police arrested Mahdavi and another Aftab editor, Ali Payam Sistany, after Aftab printed a set of articles calling for political pluralism, discussing manifestations of Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan, and criticizing Fazel Hadi Shinwari, the Chief Justice of Afghanistan, and clerical leaders in Afghanistan generally.249 According to other officials familiar with the case, the chief justice of Afghanistan, Fazel Hadi Shinwari (a cleric with close ties to Sayyaf), asked police officials in Kabul to arrest Mahdavi and Sistany for charges of “blasphemy” after he had received complaints from several clerical leaders in Kabul.250 Shirwari then convinced the Attorney General’s Office to file charges of blasphemy against Mahdavi and Sistany.251 Kabul police held the two editors for a week. President Karzai ordered them released on June 25, but said that they would still have to stand trial for blasphemy.
The Case of Erada Newspaper
Zahoor Afghan, the editor of another independent Kabul newspaper, Erada (“Decision”),received numerous telephone death threats after he published an article in late April 2003 lampooning Education Minister Qanooni for not spending any time at work.252 On April 30, 2003, Kabul police arrested him and held him for several hours before releasing him, saying they would arrest him again later.253 He told Human Rights Watch that he was angry to be in such a vulnerable position:
According to Zahoor, an attorney in the Kabul Attorney General’s Office told him he had “not violated any law,” but the attorney said his “boss” ordered him “for the fifth time” to “prove that I had violated the law.”255
Zahoor told Human Rights Watch that he would be more careful about what he was writing in the future.
The Case of Farda Newspaper
Another case concerned the independent Kabul paper,Farda (“Tomorrow”). In December 2002,Farda’s editor, Abdul Ghafoor Iteqad, published a cartoon in the newspaper of President Karzai and Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani playing musical instruments and singing “Reconstruction, Reconstruction,” with the U.N. representative Lakhdar Brahimi beside them. Police came to Iteqad’s house on December 19, 2002, and arrested him, telling him and his family they were acting on Defense Minister Fahim’s orders. Two days later, President Karzai heard about Iteqad’s arrest and ordered him released.257 What happened to Iteqad is widely known in Kabul, and many journalists cite this story in describing why they are now more careful about what the write.
Human Rights Watch also spoke with other journalists threatened by police, army, and intelligence forces who asked that their names not be used. One editor described his experiences in March 2003:
The editor told us that he was also threatened in March after he published some articles about former president Burhanuddin Rabbani:
The editor also said that Ismail Khan, the governor of Herat, personally called him on the telephone after the editor published a critical article about him. “[Ismail Khan] said, ‘If I decide to take a step against you, I can do it and in Kabul as well.’”260 The editor noted that problems with threats and intimidation were even worse outside of Kabul.
The western province of Herat is notable for its problems with press freedom. Governor Ismail Khan’s crackdowns on free expression, previously documented in a 2002 Human Rights Watch report, have continued.262 On March 19, 2003, Ahmad Behzad, a radio stringer for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was detained and beaten by the chief of intelligence in Herat after he asked Ismail Khan questions about women’s rights during a ceremony inaugurating the Herat office of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission.263 Two days later, Ismail Khan gave a speech in Herat during which he said that journalists working for international radio broadcasters were “slaves” and warned, “I would like to tell [the radio journalists] that just like those who served the Russians and benefited from them, they too will meet the same end.”264
In Gardez, a radio journalist complained to Human Rights Watch that local military commanders harassed and threatened him after he filed a story about a rival commander’s traveling schedule.265 The journalist said he was unable to write freely about the situation in his province:
A report in May 2003 by the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, an international non-profit news organization operating media assistance programs in Kabul, noted that local authorities had prohibited newspapers in Paktia (Wranga) and Baghlan (Telaia) from publishing “controversial material.”267
In Jalalabad, Human Rights Watch found troubling signs of repression as well. Several journalists told Human Rights Watch that they were afraid of publishing articles about security problems in Jalalabad, or articles critical of leaders there.268 A resident familiar with media issues described a pervasive climate of fear in Jalalabad:
On April 30, 2003, a provincial police commander of Jalalabad threatened a local radio stringer for filing a report about the Jalalabad bazaar being closed for Mujahidin Day (April 28, the day mujahidin forces overthrew the formerly Soviet-back government in Kabul), which the commander found offensive, possibly because it suggested that there were security problems in Jalalabad.270 A witness heard the commander say to the stringer: “If you give another report like the one you gave the night before, we will deal strictly and harshly with you. Be careful what you report. It is dangerous and you will harm yourself.”271
On May 7, 2003, a police commander from neighboring Laghman province, Mohammed Zaman, gave a public speech in Jalalabad, during which he criticized journalists and residents of Jalalabad for speaking with foreign media about their security problems and difficulties in speaking openly: “I admit that security is not good here, and you cannot dare to speak openly. In spite of that, it is shame to raise our complaints to the international media. It is a great indignity for us.”272 Witnesses said they believed this statement had been directed at the local journalists.273
Even officials with the local Nangarhar television and radio, who were appointed with approval and support of the local military commander and governor, have faced problems—from other commanders. According to a Kabul journalist, during the second week of April 2003, police troops from the local criminal branch of the police station beat the productionmanager of Nangarhar television and radio, and the manager of the Nangarhar news service.274 The head of the criminal branch was angry that the station had not broadcast a news story on a meeting the he had convened that day: “[They] were beaten by the police provincial commander because the television had not broadcast the meeting,” a local government official who spoke with the men said.275 According to the official:
Journalists told us that commanders and their armed men had also pressured local print journalists in Jalalabad to write specific stories or to write stories just as commanders dictated them.277 “Of course I am afraid of gunmen,” said one.278 Human Rights Watch asked the journalist what would happen if he were to file stories about poor security conditions in Jalalabad or stories critical of local security forces. The response: “There is no doubt that I would be killed immediately.”279
One former journalist, now a rickshaw driver, explained why had stopped trying to work in media:
240 For a review of attacks on press freedom in Afghanistan in 2002, see Reporters San Frontieres, 2003 Report, Afghanistan Chapter, available at http://www.rsf.fr/article.php3?id_article=6370 (retrieved July 10, 2003). See also Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 2002, Afghanistan Chapter,available at http://www.cpj.org/attacks02/asia02/afghan.html (retrieved July 10, 2003).
241 Human Rights Watch interviews with G.R.Q. and D.S.U., Afghan journalists, Kabul, May 15, 2003; Human Rights Watch interview with A.U.Z., Afghan journalist, Kabul, May 15, 2003.
242 Aftab, March 18, 2003.
243 Aftab, March 27, 2003
244 Aftab, April 9, 2003; Aftab, April 12, 2003.
245 The following account, including all quotations, is from a Human Rights Watch interview with Sayeed Mir Hussein Mahdavi in Kabul on April 17, 2003.
246 Human Rights Watch interview with Sayeed Mir Hussein Mahdavi, Kabul, April 17, 2003.
248 Todd Pitman, “Afghan journalists test boundaries of press freedom in post-Taliban era,” Associated Press, May 7, 2003. BBC Persian Service also broadcast stories about Aftab and press freedom on May 2, 2003.
249 Human Rights Watch interview with Z.T.Y.U., Aftab staff, Kabul June 17, 2003; Aftab, “Sacred Fascism,” and “Religious Government Equals Despotism,” June 15, 2003 (translation on file with Human Rights Watch).
250 Human Rights Watch interview with U.N. officials and Afghan government officials, Kabul, June 22 and 23, 2003.
251 Human Rights Watch also documented that Amniat-e Melli and Kabul police agents broke up a meeting on June 19, 2003, that had been earlier scheduled by the Aftab paper to commemorate the death of the Iranian writer Ali Shariati. Kabul police and Amniat-e Melli agents entered the meeting, armed, and harassed the participants, telling them they had no permission to meet. Human Rights Watch interviews with participants of a rally in Wazar Akbar Khan park, June 19, 2003.
252 According to Zahoor, the common theme of the threats was: “We have killed hundreds of people and we can kill you too.” Human Rights Watch interview with Zafoor Afghan, chief editor of Erada, May 1, 2003. See also Todd Pitman, “Afghan journalists test boundaries of press freedom in post-Taliban era,” Associated Press, May 7, 2003.
253 Human Rights Watch interview with Zafoor Afghan, chief editor of Erada, Kabul, May 1, 2003.
257 Human Rights Watch interview with Abdul Ghafoor Iteqad, editor of Farda, Kabul, May 23, 2003. See also, “Afghan publisher detained for unflattering cartoon of Karzai,” Agence France-Presse, December 20, 2002; Carlotta Gall, “Afghan editors test freedom’s boundaries with cartoons,” The New York Times, January 11, 2003.
258 Human Rights Watch interview with E.G.R., editor, Kabul, March 29, 2003.
261 Ibid. The editor singled out Herat as one of the worse areas: “In Herat and in rural areas there are no protections for journalists of any kind.”
262 Human Rights Watch, “All Our Hopes Are Crushed.”
263 Human Rights Watch interview with Ahmed Behzood, Kabul, March 29, 2003.
264 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “Afghan governor throws RFE/RL reporter out of Herat,” March 25, 2003. Two days after Ismail Khan’s speech, Abdul Hamid Mubariz, the Minister of Information and Culture, condemned the attack on Behzood in an interview with the Kabul Times, criticizing Ismail Khan’s actions, but he was unable to do more than urge Ismail Khan to “revise his attitude.” See Kabul Times (English), interview with Abdul Hamid Mubariz, March 26, 2003.
 Human Rights Watch interview with R.G.D., journalist, Gardez, March 9, 2003.
267 Institute of War and Peace Reporting, “Reporters face death threats,” Afghan Recovery Report,May 9, 2003, available at http://www.iwpr.net/index.pl?archive/arr/arr_200305_59_1_eng.txt (retrieved July 10, 2003).
268 Human Rights Watch interview with M.E.R., journalist, Kabul, March 22, 2003; Human Rights Watch interview with A.O.W., journalist, Kabul, April 20, 2003; Human Rights Watch interview with L.W.S., journalist, Jalalabad, May 6, 2003; Human Rights Watch interview with A.R.K., journalist, Jalalabad May 7, 2003; Human Rights Watch interview with I.K.W., journalist, Jalalabad, May 7, 2003.
269 Human Rights Watch interview with Z.R.D., Jalalabad, May 6, 2003.
270 Human Rights Watch interview with A.R.K., journalist, Jalalabad May 7, 2003.
272 Speech by Mohammed Zaman at the inauguration of the Eastern Region Constitutional Office, Jalalabad, May 7, 2003 (notes on file with Human Rights Watch).
273 Human Rights Watch interview with A.R.K., journalist, Jalalabad May 7, 2003; Human Rights Watch interview with I.K.W., journalist, Jalalabad, May 7, 2003.
274 Human Rights Watch interview with A.O.W., journalist, Kabul, April 20, 2003.
275 Human Rights Watch interview with Z.R.D., Jalalabad, May 6, 2003. “The television had not broadcast it because there were many other programs that had to be broadcast too,” he said.
276 Human Rights Watch interview with Z.R.D., Jalalabad, May 6, 2003.
277 Human Rights Watch interview with A.O.W., journalist, Kabul, April 20, 2003; Human Rights Watch interview with A.R.K., journalist, Jalalabad May 7, 2003.
278 Human Rights Watch interview with A.O.W., Kabul, April 20, 2003.
280 Human Rights Watch interview with A.M.R.D., Jalalabad, May 5, 2003.