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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 June 2007, 10:29 GMT 11:29 UK
Afghan media pin hopes on new law
By Aunohita Mojumdar
Kabul

A newspaper stall in Kabul
The media in Afghanistan works under lots of restrictions

In her newsroom in Afghanistan's only independent news agency, Pajhwok, Farida Nekzad sits worrying about information-gathering.

Greater curbs from government and greater threats to her reporters have made her task more difficult.

Last month she compered a function on world press freedom day when Ajmal Naqshbandi's father limped onto the stage on crutches to receive an honour on behalf of his journalist son who was killed by the Taleban.

The same function saw the mother of another journalist, Tawab Niazi, accept an honour on behalf of her son, who is in jail for talking to the Taleban.

We have some concerns, though there are some good things in the new bill
Aqa Hussain Sancharaki,
Afghan National Journalists' Union

"The death of Ajmal Naqshbandi and the media law have brought Afghan journalists together," says Aqa Hussain Sancharaki, a journalist who earlier held the post of deputy minister of information.

He now heads the Afghan National Journalists' Union.

Mr Sancharaki is taking a breather from campaigning for press freedom after the lower house of parliament passed the hotly debated media bill last week.

The bill will now go to the upper house of parliament and subsequently for presidential assent before it becomes law.

In its initial form the bill caused a great deal of concern since it brought the state-owned Radio Television Afghanistan under greater government control and opened private media content to more intense scrutiny and government control.

It also listed a number of broad-ranging restrictions on media content that could be widely interpreted or open to misuse.

Cautious

Intense lobbying of MPs by journalists, open debates and seminars, an informed critique of the provisions of the draft law, an awareness campaign and some political manoeuvring have helped remove some of the more restrictive clauses from the draft law.

Journalists are, however, cautious about celebrating, aware that the bill might still undergo many mutations and that several of the current provisions are still less than desirable.

Journalists protest against Naqshbandi's killing
Journalists have been targeted and killed in Afghanistan

"We have some concerns, though there are some good things in the new bill," says Mr Sancharaki.

His opinion is also shared by the president of the Association of Independent Afghan Journalists, Rahimullah Samander.

Mr Samander states their concerns bluntly when he says that journalists were worried that the warlords who were amongst the more conservative members would push through a law that would impact negatively on the media.

His fears were not unfounded.

The Religious and Cultural Affairs Commission, headed by former commander Haji Mohammed Mohaqeq, had argued along with the government that an unfettered media would run amok, discrediting individuals without any checks or balances.

Information and Culture Minister Abdul Karim Khurram argued that the country could not afford to have a state broadcaster that was not under government control in a situation of war.

In its current form the media bill has freed the state broadcaster Radio Television Afghanistan from under the control of the Ministry of Information and Culture.

Instead, the broadcaster has been brought under an independent commission which comprises professionals and civil society representatives, including journalists.

The move has been welcomed by journalists, but they are still unsure about the extent of control the government will exert.

Restricting clauses

A council for formulating media policy now has representation from journalists, although it is still heavily weighed in favour of the government, and the commission for monitoring private media is now made up of professionals.

There are, however, no clear provisions for resolving disputes or the extent of powers of each of the commissions.

The new draft bill also retains some of the wide-ranging content restriction clauses.

The list of prohibitions includes:

  • content that goes against the principles of Islam
  • materials humiliating and offensive to real or legal entities
  • materials inconsistent with Afghanistan's constitution
  • anything that is considered a crime by the penal code
  • publicising and promotion of religions other than Islam
  • broadcasting pictures of victims of violence and rape in a way to cause damage to their social dignity
  • topics that harm the physical, spiritual and moral well-being of people, especially children and adolescents.

Some of these prohibitions remain open to wide interpretation.

Also worrying is the stipulation that makes it mandatory for the mass media to include programmes on health, the environment, and education, as well as on the dangers of cultivating, producing and consuming illegal drugs.

Manager of Radio Killid, Najiba Ayubi
Ms Ayubi says the new revised bill is better than the previous one

While public education is indeed a necessary component of media, the law does not stipulate a limit on the amount or nature of mandatory material, again leaving this open to interpretation and possible misuse.

The manager of Radio Killid, Najiba Ayubi, is cautious.

"It is not a complete or perfect law, but I can say it is better than before."

Ms Ayubi has been involved with the debate and campaign for a better law during which journalists also brought in Article 19 to explain some of the issues to parliamentarians.

This achievement of Afghan journalists has come at a crucial time.

One of the most successful stories of post-conflict reconstruction, Afghanistan's media are now facing one of their most challenging periods.

Increasing curbs on information have been accompanied by greater violence and increasing intolerance from all sides, even as a sharp cut in donor funding has forced many media organisations to close down, downsize or worry about their survival.

Afghan journalists hope that the new media law, once passed, will give them more rights, rather than making their jobs more difficult.


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