Freedom of speech in Afghanistan—A decade after the fall of the Taliban regime

Afghanistan has never before had more news outlets, with 200 print media, 44 television stations, 141 radio stations and at least eight news agencies. On the other hand, in the past decade it has witnessed growing violence against news organizations and journalists. Unions and organizations that support open media have recorded hundreds of cases of such violence between 2001 and 2011. Bashir A. Khan writes for the Dissident Blog about the challenges that face Afghanistan when it comes to freedom of speech. 

July 2 2012 Text: Bashir A. Khan

Afghanistan’s media has grown rapidly since the fall of the Taliban regime by the hands of US-led coalition forces in 2001. During the Taliban government (1996-2001), there was only one radio station called Voice of Sharia. It was used to broadcast religious programs, Jihadi speeches and official propaganda. However, their end of government provided Afghans the opportunity to practice their freedom of speech by establishing numerous media outlets with strong financial and moral support from international community. As a result, currently Afghanistan has 44 television channels, more than 100 radio stations and around 500 daily newspapers, weekly publications and monthly magazines.

In addition to broadcast and print media, Afghans enjoy a heavy presence on social media website such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Many citizens have their personal weblogs and there are several websites that provide news and commentaries in Afghan official languages (Dari and Pashto) along with English. Many of these outlets are funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and other major donor organization. The success of media has played a major role in giving voice to the voiceless and fighting for freedom of speech that is under ominous threat from warlords, conservative clerics and insurgent groups.

Looking at the pre-2001 Afghanistan and lack of basic human rights, the Afghan media has come a long way. Despite the fact that Afghans, through out their hundred years of history, have always relied on state run media and traditional ways of communication, one has to applaud the progress it had made in post-Taliban Afghanistan.

The existence of hundreds of media outlets mean everyone tries to reach a broader range of audience and influence them to watch, listen or read their work. This has lead to a healthy competition especially among radio and television stations. Almost every channel has exclusive programs for women, current affairs shows and reporting on corruption. Despite being carefully watched by conservative clerics and a parliament full of former warlords, many media outlets continue to discuss taboo topics such as women rights of equality, selfish male dominance in society and homosexuality. These programs have provoked debates and have given voices to those women who have faced domestic violence for years. Human rights organizations and international community have helped many such women after their cases were discussed on television channels.

With all the accomplishments Afghan media has had in past ten years, it faces some daunting challenges. Plentiful obstacles still deter the continuous flow of communication to the public and therefore making freedom of speech vulnerable. Since there is still a vicious war going on in Afghanistan, the extreme challenge Afghan journalists face is how to survive in a society full of thrones and traps. Taliban consider journalists enemy and often label them as Western spies. On the other hand, warlords in the government and conservative religious clerics along with religious councils are also playing as active pressure groups who critically watch everything from newscasts to soap operas. For them, it is easy to name a journalist infidel and call his journalistic work anti Islam. These allegations can put one in jail for unidentified period of time.

Many of the 34 Afghan provinces’ governors are warlords who are the powerful dictators of their areas and local reporters hardly report on issues without their approval. A newly published US State Department Human Rights Afghanistan report indicates that despite the Afghan constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech and of the press however the government restricted these rights. “Authorities use pressure, regulations, and threats to silence critics. Freedom of speech is even more constrained at the provincial level, where warlords owned many of the broadcasting stations and print media,” it states.

For that reason, many Afghan journalists go through a process of self-censorship and avoid reporting on sensitive topics such as corruption, drug smuggling, poor governance and atrocities committed by armed groups. Journalists prefer (understandably) to protect themselves and their families rather than covering precarious topics. 

Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) names Afghanistan one of those countries where journalists are murdered and the killers remained untouched. According to CPJ, at least there have been no convictions in five journalist murders over the last decade. “Among the unsolved cases is the 2006 murder of Zakia Zaki, founder of an independent radio station in Parwan province. The station was known for its coverage of local politics, women's issues, and human rights,” CPJ reported. It adds that Afghanistan is one of the most dangerous countries for practicing freedom of speech. State Department, on the other hand, reports that incidents of violence against journalists increased overall last year (38 percent rise in 2011 compared with 2010).

Another challenge Afghan media continues to face is the strict regulations from the Ministry of Information and Culture. Not only MOIC has the authority to regulate the press and media, the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs and the country’s Council of Religious Scholars also indirectly restricts the media. To add to that, Afghan officials are extremely greedy in sharing information with journalists that makes it harder for newsmen to balance their stories.

Although media outlets have increased in last decade, most of them were unable to meet international standards. Their production is weak and lack necessary professional skills. This problem is more evident in some of those television channels that received lucrative funds from international donor agencies after the fall of the Taliban. The premature distribution of funds have led to strengthen some of media outlets that are more committed to their business benefits than working in the interest of Afghan people.

However, in last couple of years foreign aids have dried up and because of financial difficulties some media outlets have been forced to link up with regional countries such as Iran, Pakistan and Tajikistan. State Department report points out that “private Iranian, Pakistani, and Gulf state citizens actively influenced the media, shaping it through both ownership and threats. There were allegations that Iran intimidated reporters in the western provinces to increase antigovernment reporting and decrease anti-Iranian articles.” Keeping this in mind Afghan authorities are alert and just last month, a Kabul-based reporter of Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency was arrested on charges of spying for Iran.

With NATO gearing up for an early exit in 2013, international funds will decrease and as a result it seems Afghan media outlets will face extreme financial constraint. Although at Bonn conference in December 2011, western countries pledged financial support for Afghanistan beyond 2014, many journalists still worry that the lack of funds will threaten one of the very few success stories of the past and as a result several may lose their jobs.

One of the very imperatives of media management is to find your own transparent and legal ways of income. Most of the Afghan media outlets that started with foreign fund do not seem to have done that. There is less advertisement and news market that could help a media outlet stands on its feet.  With no much support from Western countries and no income opportunities at home, some of the existing media outlets will either disappear or have to turn to neighboring countries for help. It will give way to fraudulent funding from Iran and Pakistan who are keen to invest for buying influence.

The exit of coalition forces will leave Afghanistan rely heavily on its inexperienced and, to a certain level, poorly equipped Afghan security forces.  That means there is a greater risk of more violence and catastrophe. Local and foreign journalists will continue to face a risk of kidnapping, humiliation and even death.  Afghanistan will remain one of the most dangerous countries to work in as a journalist.

One of the other less discussed issues is the less number of female correspondents in Afghanistan. Not only they are less in number, female reporters have faced more difficulties voicing their opinion and raising women rights for freedom of speech. There are some women who are heading radio station or publishing magazines but they remain easy target. Despite their vulnerability, some have impressed with their courageous work. One example is of Maryam Durrani, a young member of Kandahar’s Provincial Council, director of the non-profit Khadija Kubra Women’s Association for Culture, and owner and manager of the only local, female-focused radio station-Merman. She was awarded 2012 International Women of Courage Award and Time magazine named her one the 100 influential people in the world.

However State Department Human Rights Afghanistan report states that a number of factors reduce the motivation of women to be part of the media industry, “including poor security, low capacity, lack of access to the training that was a prerequisite of the modern media industry, and a lack of safe working conditions.” Working environment may worsen with less presence of international community after 2014.

Over all it is safe to say that media development in Afghanistan is far from complete. Its problems will continue to escalate post 2014. If Afghan media does not become self-sufficient, it will not be able to continue their work for freedom of speech and may even struggle to survive.