Press in Afghanistan: freer but not enough

01 May 2015

by Mohammad Qasim Rahmani - Legal Advisor Nai Supporting Open Media in Afghanistan

On World Press Freedom Day, media lawyer, Rahmani speaks about the status of media in Afghanistan

 

In 2001, after the collapse of the Taliban regime, many of the people of Afghanistan experienced democratic and human rights values for the first time. Among these was the freedom of expression and media – a right only previously enjoyed by those living in the decade of King Zahir Shah’s reign (1964-1974). 

A new Mass Media Law was enacted in 2002. For the first time the right to establish electronic media such as radio and television was granted to the people.  Previously only government enjoyed this right. Next, in 2003, the new Constitution guaranteed freedom of expression and allowed for the enactment of the Access to Information law. A media commission composed of government and independent members was also established to provide independent oversight of the sector. This– marked a shift away from the longstanding norm that government held exclusive control over the commission.

Since 2002, the media sector has been subject to four different mass media laws, each one aspiring to improve upon its previous version. Various important, positive and exceptional provisions were incorporated in these laws, such as the right to protect the source, the right for foreign refugees to establish their own print media outlets and creating space of journalists to write critical and investigative reports.

Thanks to these positive changes, the media sector has seen huge growth since 2001. Currently we have more than 75 TV Stations, 160 radio stations, and more than a thousand print media outlets. But it doesn’t mean we don’t face any further challenges.

Firstly, lack of security is the main problem faced by media outlets and especially reporters every day. This insecurity takes place in all parts of Afghanistan. It makes travel for journalists extremely dangerous and difficult, meaning that some stories cannot be verified and reported. Lack of security also increases criminality and creates an environment of impunity for perpetrators of crimes.  Each year, many journalists are intimidated, beaten, kidnapped and even killed. Government’s measures to improve security for media personnel have been insufficient and ineffective.  Moreover, there are many cases of government officials themselves ordering or inflicting violence against journalists, as reported in Human Rights Watch’s January 2015 report “Stop reporting or we’ll kill your family.”

Legal challenges are the second problem that the media sector struggles with. The frequent changes made to media laws have had a negative impact on the consistency and implementation of the media law. Additionally, the current media law has vague provisions, is of poor quality and is out of date. It is not in line with international principles and standards such the penal code and access to information law. Not surprisingly, it has been given 77 out of 140 points by the Center for Law and Democracy.

The lack of proper enforcement of the law breeds misuse. Cases of media outlets inciting tribal/ethnic hostilities under the guise of freedom of expression are common. In a country with a history of civil war along ethnic lines, such misuse can easily spark violence. In other cases, authorities ignore the law, denying the right to information to journalists and refusing their requests for interviews.  

The poor economy is the third challenge weakening media outlets, especially in the provinces. Those media outlets that had initial foreign funding are now struggling to stay afloat. Lack of a stable local economy means that media outlets are deprived of local revenue streams, severely restricting their sustainability prospects. This creates a big risk for maintaining an open and independent media that is not related to any political parties, warlords or other powerful individuals.

There are other interlinking challenges resulting from the combination of one or more issues highlighted above.

After the formation of the unity government in late 2014, there were hopes in the media sector that this new government will tackle the problems and challenges emphasized by the two teams in their election campaigns: to protect the right of freedom of expression and media and to approve the access to information law. But due to political instability the government hasn’t delivered anything different or positive for the media and the situation still remains unchanged.

After a six months leadership gap in the Ministry of Culture and Information, the new minister was approved by the parliament just last month. He has a lot of work to do and there is a lot of uncertainty as to whether he is willing and able to genuinely tackle the problems, or will instead follow the path of his predecessors. The passage of time will answer that. But what he should do is to support Afghan media outlets through amending the existing media law so that is in line with international standards, and protecting the media outlets from all sorts of interferences.

In the last fourteen years support from the international community has improved freedom of expression in Afghanistan. However, Afghanistan’s ranking in freedom of expression assessments is far from satisfactory. It was ranked 128 out of 180 in Reporters without Borders’ 2014 World Press Freedom Index.  Freedom House, an independent watchdog organisation, ranks Afghanistan ‘Not Free’ in their 2014 survey. Our own organisation, Nai, reported a 64% increase in violence against journalists between 2013 and 2014. If we are to avoid a worsening trend in our freedom, we urgently need changes.