Afghan donors must address media repression

July 9, 2012
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, left, is welcomed by Japan’s Emperor Akihito in Tokyo in 2010. Japan is one of Afghanistan’s biggest donors. (AP/Koji Sasahara)

One thing that had better be high on the agenda this weekend at the meeting of 70 or so international aid donors for Afghanistan in Tokyo is the recently released official draft versionof the Mass Media Law (a copy of the draft can be found here). I mentioned the new draft in a June blog, “Afghan media is under political and economic pressure.” The real thing is even worse than expected.

Whatever aid money is agreed on this weekend is supposed to be contingent on the Afghan government commitment to attacking the country’s endemic corruption and upholding and improving human rights standards–something the draft media law does not seem terribly concerned with.

The proposed new law will go in front of the legislature with little or no advice from the vibrant Afghan media community that has grown up since 2001, said Danish Karokhel, the head of Pajhwok Afghan News, who was the lead-off topic in that June 11 blog. He told me overnight that the best tactic the Afghan media community can come up with is, “Stop it from getting to Parliament.” One positive of the 2009 law now in effect was that local media were involved in its construction. Karokhel said he believes that if the new draft ever does become law, anti-media MPs (of which there are many) would seek to make the restrictions even worse, either before it is passed or later, with amendments.

Here are some of the concerns I’ve been hearing from Afghan journalists:

  • The number of journalists on the non-governmental Mass Media Commission would be significantly reduced.
  • The information and culture minister would sit at the head of an unnecessarily complicated group of bodies regulating the media, ruling as the director of a High Media Council. He would be vested with vast regulatory powers that could be enacted by decree.
  • A powerful new Media Violation Assessments Commission, with a predominance of government representatives, would be established, along with special media prosecutors and courts for civil cases regarding media issues.
  • The government would have much wider power to limit foreign broadcast programming–just as foreign influence would wane with the 2014 NATO troop drawdown and the government could swing to a more conservative political approach. Bollywood movies and Turkish soap operas are widely popular, but even their modest standards may be too racy for the post-2014 Afghanistan.

And, as Human Rights Watch mentioned this week in their analysis of the draft, “Afghanistan: Draft Law Threatens Media Freedom

Even the word choice of media outlets would be controlled by the government. Print media and websites would be required to observe a “guideline of phraseology and orthography which has been determined by an authorized committee according to an approved procedure by combined board of High Media Council, High Council of Ministry of Higher Education, Academic Council of Ministry of Education, and High Council of Academy of Sciences of Afghanistan.”

Also, the draft includes no mention of establishing guidelines for safety training or professionalization of the press corps–two pressing issues that must therefore be addressed at the upcoming Tokyo donors’ meeting.

Which brings us to another issue: International aid donors and the sustainability of Afghan media. The Center for International Media Assistance published a report, “An Explosion of News: The State of Media in Afghanistan,” in February. It points out that only a small number of news organizations will be able to survive in a commercial, free market. The majority still depend on support from international aid donors or powerful business, political, and militant groups within Afghanistan. (Some of these are called “Warlord TV,” though there are plenty of print outlets that could come under that title too.)

Agence France-Presse reports that donors in Tokyo will pledge $15 billion, which is supposed to carry through 2015. If that sounds like a lot of money, Reuters captures the reality in a story today, “As foreign aid dries up, Afghan NGOs fight to survive.” And when you think “media” in Afghanistan, for the most part you still have to think of NGO or foreign government support.

On Monday, William Byrd, who has spent much of the last 10 years organizing conferences like that coming up in Tokyo, wrote on Foreign Policy‘s AFPAK Channel “When too much is not enough,” about the “plethora of high-profile international meetings, occurring with increasing frequency in recent years” introducing the concept not just of donor fatigue but “meeting fatigue.” The first on Byrd’s list of recommendations is “keeping to realistic expectations about what meetings can accomplish.”

Maybe one realistic expectation for Tokyo is that the international community can pressure the Afghan government into reassessing its proposed regressive changes to media law, and at least insist that Afghan journalists and media owners be given a large voice in determining just what new laws will look like.

Afghan media is under political and economic pressure

Danish Karokhel (AP/Stuart Ramson)

Danish Karokhel, who won a CPJ International Press Freedom Award in 2008, messaged this morning concerned that the news agency he runs, Pajhwok Afghan News, and some other media outlets have been referred to the Attorney General’s Office by the Ministry of Information and Culture for reporting on an alleged bribery scandal involving a member of Parliament. The action was taken by the ministry’s Media Monitoring Commission, and could lead to criminal charges.

The May 24 story that angered the ministry revolved around unnamed government officials claiming that Iran paid large bribes to Wolesi Jirga member Hazrat Ali, encouraging him to organize parliamentary opposition to approval of the strategic cooperation agreement between Afghanistan and the United States. The Wolesi Jirga (Assembly of the People) is the lower house of Afghanistan’s Parliament. On May 25, the Afghan-U.S. pact was approved, and on May 26, Pajhwok ran Ali’s robust denial of accepting the Iranian money, which Pajhwok and other media said ran to $25 million. Pajhwok had already run the Iranian Embassy’s denial of the accusation in its earlier item.

This is just the sort of story that makes media so important in emerging democracies like Afghanistan. Corruption and allegations of corruption in the country are commonplace, and the political motivations of the accusers and accused make for murky circumstances. Making the attempt to report fairly on them should not mean that journalists run the risk of possible civil or even criminal charges, should it come to that. But there are few rules to play by.

In early May, the government published its most recent draft media law. The first was introduced in 2003, followed by versions in 2007 and 2011. And in January 2008, we wrote to President Hamid Karzai after he declined to endorse the proposed 2007 media law that had been debated by a joint commission of the upper and lower houses of parliament, after getting input from journalists and media commentators. We said the new law represented a promising  step toward reaffirming media freedom. It was a step that was never taken, and subsequent drafts have tended to grow more restrictive.

There is cause for unease for the future of Afghan’s media, as for much else in Afghanistan as NATO forces prepare for withdrawal. In the country’s review in the 2011 edition of our annualAttacks on the Press, we pointed out that, while international aid organizations continued to pump resources into developing local media, many Afghan outlets faced severe challenges in sustaining their work.

In its own analysis of Afghan media, Pajhwok wrote:

The prospects for Afghan media are fraught with uncertainty as the country prepares for the withdrawal of international forces in 2014. Consumer markets are still too weak to support the level of advertising necessary for sustainability, and the prospect of post-withdrawal recession will only deepen the threat to outlets’ viability. At the same time, the cost of labor, operations, and basic reporting have all skyrocketed. Print, radio, and television outlets have been forced to shrink their news coverage, and vital information never reaches Afghan citizens because media outlets can’t afford to report it.

In the past few weeks, I’ve spoken with several other media organizations in Afghanistan, and some of the international organizations that support them. Few were willing to speak as frankly on the record as Pajhwok, but most alluded to similar difficulties.

And it’s not just the economics that are worrisome. Some of the news organizations that look most likely to survive are those set up by political or religious leaders and sometimes called “warlord media” (maybe an unnecessarily politically loaded term–one person’s warlord is often another’s political faction leader). What is really under threat is the effort to create a non-partisan national media for Afghanistan where news organizations make the attempt to operate neutrally, trying to meet the ideals of a free and independent press.

Despite the terrific efforts of some local journalists and international organizations to build Afghan media since the Taliban’s removal from power in 2001, without continued economic support, more professional training, and a more concentrated effort from Afghan journalists to organize themselves into resilient national professional organizations, all those efforts could disappear, with or without a national media law.

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