Friday, June 17, 2011

Afghanistan: Freedom of Press? Only on certain (and so many!) conditions.

A religious grand council in Afghanistan, the Ulema Shura, which often is involved as an advisory unit for Karzai regarding religious and cultural affairs, has advised the president to shut down the two most famous media outlets in the country: Tolo TV and Hasht-e-Subh Daily. A fight for survival between the two outlets has been ongoing over the past two weeks as Afghan media is becoming more and more vulnerable to social and religious organisations demanding a halt to investigative stories and “anti-Islamic” programming; the latter exemplified by popular entertainment shows imported from India and “Afghan Star” – the Afghan version of “Britain’s Got Talent”. Anti-Islamic activity carries the potential of death penalty in Afghanistan.

Sadly, it was a human rights article that got Hasht-e-Subh Daily in trouble with the religious council in May. Because of the newspaper’s echoing of a report produced by the Independent Human Rights Commissioning, addressing the issue of women being radicalized in madrassahs in northern Afghanistan, it was accused of “publishing material that is against religion, against national unity, and against the high interest of the nation”. The Afghan Media Law considers it illegal to use media in attempts to convert persons to other religions than Islam – a law difficult to interpret (and thus easily subject to abuse and misinterpretation), and highly inconvenient for journalists wanting to report on foreign cultures, or just generally provide the Afghan people with information and news beyond Afghanistan’s border and religion.

As talks with the Taliban have moved upwards on the government’s agenda, so has the influence of the Ulema. If limited press freedom is a hint of what is to come with a potential reconciliation process with Taliban, this is worrying. Moreover, the important part of the Media Law establishing the independence of the public owned Radio and Television Afghanistan (RTA) has not been implemented by the Ministry of Information and Culture because of the opposition of the executive. Furthermore, the media law currently offers more protection to the state than the media, due to vaguely defined prohibitions, such as one on reporting news that is “against national security”, which journalists claim to be severely limiting on their work. The story of Tolo TV and Hasht-e-Subh clearly confirms the difficulties faced by Afghan media and the inhibitive environment in which it operates.

Not only are big media outlets subject to religious scrutiny, but also individuals. The Ulema stated in 2007 that "safeguarding our national honors and Islamic values is the obligation of every citizen." This declaration mirrors Article 1 of the constitution, enforced in high-profile cases such as the case of Parvez Kambakhsh, imprisoned for 20-years for distributing material from the internet questioning the condition of women in Islam. In 2005, the editor of a magazine on women’s rights was arrested for daring to publish materials questioning some of the restrictions that Islam places on women. These cases not only highlight the severity of many journalists' situation, but also how important the (free) media is for Afghanistan to address crucial issues like women`s rights and religious radicalization of students.

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