No Afghan journalist died in direct connection with his or her professional duties in 2010 while reporting on the Islamic insurgency. On the surface, that is welcome news. But media advocates in Afghanistan say the statistic is also cause for concern.
Overall two reporters, both of them foreign, were killed while covering Afghan combat operations in 2010, according to a recent report prepared by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The decrease in journalist casualties in comparison with recent years was not the result of enhanced security measures for combat reporters, but was a byproduct of heightened cautiousness. “While the war intensified, the number of combat-related media deaths did not rise in proportion, a reflection of cautious coverage tactics,” the CPJ report stated.
In a few, small ways, conditions are improving for Afghan journalists: the number of news outlets in the country is growing, meaning journalists enjoy more employment options; in addition, public appreciation for the value of an independent press is slowly rising. Even so, fear is the constant companion of just about every Afghan journalist. Rather than take risks, many journalists forego reporting. Some succumb to the temptation or rewriting PR releases and passing it off as news.
“Security is the mother of all challenges,” said Farhad Peikar, an Afghan journalist working for an international news agency. “We cannot go everywhere and report.”
In the absence of a safe operating space, journalists increasingly rely on self-censorship. “I think twice before reporting on drug lords or warlords and try to be very cautious, weighing whether my report will put my life in danger,” Peikar said.
Local power brokers and officials often act on their own to stifle unflattering reporting. In the month of March alone, Media Watch, a regular newsletter published by the Afghan media non-governmental organization Nai, documented several instances of harassment and intimidation, including the roughing up of a Kabul-based reporter by traffic police, and illegal “orders” given to a radio station in the Western province of Badghis to stop broadcasting for allegedly insulting President Hamid Karzai. Media Watch also reported on efforts by Karzai administration officials to bring independent media outlets under government control.
In general, Afghan journalists seem to have a prickly relationship with Kabul officials. In particular, many complain about a lack of access. Despite working for an international news agency, Peikar, for example, expressed frustration that Afghan officials prefer talking to Western correspondents than with representatives of local media outlets.
Writing in the February 5 issue of the Killid Weekly magazine, journalists Farukhlaqa Sultani and Gulkohi, who uses only one name, highlighted the issue of Afghan journalists being treated like second-class citizens in their own country. “News and information about Afghanistan often [first] appear in the mainstream Western media and then get translated by the Afghan media,” they wrote. Afghan officials like to be quoted in the international media “because they care more about US and NATO governments and Western public opinion than the Afghan public.”
“The international media are more influential and can change policies. Why should they [government officials] talk to local journalists?” one Afghan journalist remarked cynically. Speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak for his international news organization, the journalist alleged that bias began at the top -- in President Karzai’s office.
“Though I am known very well to them and work for a recognized media organization, the president’s office refuses to even put me on their mailing list, let alone invite me for press conferences,” said the journalist. “They think I am not a friendly journalist because I am critical.”
Meanwhile, representatives of Killid, which also operates a well-established radio network, say they have tried for several years to obtain an interview with Karzai. Their efforts have not been successful, even though the president regularly finds time to sit down with international outlets.
Elsewhere, in connection with World Press Freedom Day on May 3 the democratization watchdog organization Freedom House released its annual Freedom of the Press 2011 survey. There were no surprises concerning countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Georgia was the only Caucasus country in which the media environment was rated as “partially free.” Both Armenia and Azerbaijan were rated as “not free.” All five formerly Soviet Central Asian states also received “not free” media designations. Only North Korea ranked lower than Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in Freedom House’s media survey.
Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul.