Afghan reporters: Between a rock and a hard place

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The Independent Online

Afghan journalists live and breathe their country's dream of a better future. But they also live under the shadow of its violent past.

In a country where the rule of law is fragile at best and where violence speaks volumes, the reporting of uncomfortable truths is often met with painful and unchecked consequences.

In June last year, Zakia Zaki, a female broadcaster, died after being shot seven times in the face and chest as she lay sleeping with her eight-month-old son. Her mentor, Jamila Mujahed, still receives threatening letters and phone calls.

Ms Mujahed, who champions women's rights through the Malalai Women's Magazine and the Voice of Afghan Women radio service, said: "They were naming my children. I am a journalist, but I am also a mother.

"The voices are always different, always men. But the accents are from all over. I believe it's people who are afraid of independent media and women's rights."

The government was outraged by Ms Zaki's murder and promised a huge investigation to bring her killers to justice. But six journalists were murdered in Afghanistan last year and all of the killers are at large.

Ms Zaki owned a radio station called Peace Radio. She had openly criticised the warlords who hold sway in Afghanistan. The family of Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, the student journalist sentenced to death for downloading an article about women's rights, believe he was targeted because his brother, who is also a journalist, had offended the local governor.

Afghanistan's warlords are so powerful, and the government's mandate is so weak, that the administration is often forced to make them ministers, senators, generals or governors to secure their loyalty, or at least stall their plotting. Even then, their allegiance is only as deep as the income their status allows them to generate from bribes and illegal deals.

Yet warlords and commanders are just one of the groups that pose a constant threat to the free press. Afghan journalists must also report on a government which, at every level, is not used to criticism, but still happy to use its Soviet- trained secret police, the NDS, to mete out beatings and implement arrests.

The government and the warlords have both been known to play the Islamic card to invoke support from religious conservatives.

One agency reporter said he was held outside the Presidential Palace by a secret policemen who, moments earlier, had given him permission to interview a hunger striker. Haji Habib Rahman Ibrahimi, who writes for Afghanistan's main news wire, has also been threatened by a prominent MP and the Interior Ministry. He said: "I wrote a story about an MP's brother. He was a police commander, but he was arrested for armed robbery, kidnap and murder. The police didn't think I would write it. Even my boss didn't think I would. But I am a journalist."

The story was splashed across Afghanistan's newspapers, and the journalist insists the intimidation was inevitable. He said: "The Ministry of Interior called me. They wanted to know who I was spying for. They accused me of destroying Afghanistan and insulting the mujahedin."

More recently, a delegation of television executives was held overnight at the NDS headquarters after a meeting turned sour. They were only released when an Afghan TV chief cut a deal with President Karzai not to air an interview claiming two notorious government officials were corrupt.

But the government says the free press is flourishing. Naji Manalai, an aide to the Culture minister, admitted there were problems, but said: "Everyone is learning. Six years ago we did not have a single free newspaper. Today we have 16 TV stations, 50 radio stations and more than 500 written publications."

But Zia Bumia, president of the Committee to Protect Afghan Journalists, said that attacks on the media had increased by 15 per cent this year.

And Zaid Mohseni, who owns a television company, said: "What we have is systematic intimidation resulting in self-censorship. We have to be very careful how we report the news."