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Press freedom in Afghanistan

Waslat Hasrat-Nazimi / rcMay 2, 2013

Since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, there has been a boom in the country's media sector. Some critics believe the withdrawal of international troops poses a huge threat to freedom of speech.

(Photo: Hussain Sirat / DW)
Image: DW/H. Sirat

There are more than 200 print publications, 44 television broadcasters, some 140 radio stations and 8 news agencies in Afghanistan. It's something quite unprecedented in the country's history.

While the Taliban was in power, between 1996 and 2001, there were no forms of media at all, apart from Radio Shariah. Since 2001 the sector has flourished, and yet, some critics claim this may not last for long.

Concerns about the future was made apparent just a few days ago in the western city of Herat, when dozens of journalists and activists demonstrated against restrictions on press freedom in front of a regional government building.

Symbolically, they stuck black tape across their mouths. While there has been a sharp rise in the amount of violence against journalists, the activists said, the government looks on from the sidelines, failing to act.

Violence against journalists

The protest was precipitated by the shooting of a journalist in Herat. Ali Asghar Yaghobi had been travelling in his car at the time when he was followed by two masked men on motorbikes - and shot at.

Yaghobi, who works for a local radio station in the city, was taken to hospital to be treated for chest injuries. Although he survived, many of his fellow journalists claim that the police have not really tried to catch the attackers.

Afghan journalists protest against censorship boycotted the coverage of the National Council in Kabul, Afghanistan (Photo: Hussain Sirat -DW)
Violence against journalists is on the rise in AfghanistanImage: DW

One of Yaghobi's colleagues, the journalist Shapoor Saber, fears that the situation is only going to get worse unless the government takes action to stop the violence.

Among the concerns is the worry that journalists might begin to practice self censorship.

“The main fear that has recently emerged when it comes to journalists not being able to do their jobs is that security incidents against journalists are not even investigated, let alone punished,” Saber told DW.

“They are not being protected and that has major repercussions when it comes to the working practices of the media.” Saber believes that unless something changes, journalists will no longer be able to report freely.

While there are some organizations that campaign for the rights of journalists, they are not well supported. Among those groups is the Center for the Protection of Afghan Journalists.

“In the first month of the Afghan calendar year alone, the center had already registered eight attacks on journalists, with four of those being in Herat province,” Khalil Amiri, who is head of the center, told DW. “Unknown assailants beat up three journalists and then there was the shooting of Ali Asghar Yacubi. In addition, said Amiri, there had been a number of the types of threats against journalists and news organizations that have now become regular occurrences.

Not only the Taliban

The international organization Reporters without Borders (RWB) began to notice this trend in Afghanistan some time ago.

“The attacks can often be attributed to the Taliban, but also to the Afghan authorities, to local authorities, the police or even government officials,” said Benjamin Ismail, the organization's director for Asia. “These attacks have not been cleared up and have gone totally unpunished. As long as the authorities do not act - launch proper investigations and punish the perpetrators, the number of attacks will rise.”

Above all, Ismail complains that Islamic clerics have a strong influence on the government. A short time ago, President Hamid Karzai, under pressure from the national religious council the Ulema, issued a decree that banned the broadcasting of “unislamic and obscene” television programs. It is not the first time that media freedoms have been restricted on religious grounds, believes Ismail. Such instances have become ever more frequent in recent years, he claims, and threaten to undermine Afghan democracy.

Withdrawal may be turning point

In RWB's press freedom index, Afghanistan was in 128th place out of 179, compared with 150th the previous year. The placing compares favorably with some neighboring countries. Iran is in 174th and Pakistan is 159th. However, Ismail believes that - given the planned withdrawal of International Security Assistance Force next year - it is best not to be too optimistic.

NATO troops in Afghanistan (Photo: Maurizio Gambarini / dpa)
NATO troops will leave Afghanistan in 2014Image: picture-alliance/dpa

When the withdrawal takes place, he foresees the threat of financial support for the media drying up. The Afghan press and broadcasters would be among the first to be hit by the consequences, with the possibility of a return for the Taliban after the ISAF pullout.

Concerns about the withdrawal have already made themselves apparent, both politically and economically. Since the beginning of the year, says Ismail, two media companies have closed for financial reasons and some 30 violent attacks on journalists have been recorded.

For the former success story that was Afghanistan's post-Taliban era media, there appear to be many dangers ahead.