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The Afghan media may have grown since Taliban rule ended, but not so press freedoms

KABUL, Afghanistan — Qari Yusuf Ahmadi is the ideal press attache: Intelligent and urbane, he is easily accessible, jokes with reporters, and always has information at the ready.

KABUL, Afghanistan — Qari Yusuf Ahmadi is the ideal press attache: Intelligent and urbane, he is easily accessible, jokes with reporters, and always has information at the ready. He is pretty heavy on “spin,” but is willing to concede that the media has the right to cover all sides of the story.

Too bad he’s working for the Taliban.

Journalists in Afghanistan are now facing a paradoxical situation: For all the gains made by the independent press after the fall of the Taliban regime, it is the supposedly democratic government that is emerging as the greatest impediment to a reporter’s work — as well as the greatest potential threat to his or her safety.

“The Taliban treat us better than the government does,” grumbled Rahimullah Samander, head of the Afghan Independent Journalists’ Association, addressing a media conference in Kabul last month. “The government denies us access to information. Officials are fired for speaking to journalists. You could say that this entire democracy process has been a failure [as far as the media is concerned].”

Ironically, media has been one of the few undeniable success stories of the past eight years in Afghanistan. There are more than a dozen private television channels in Kabul, and many more radio stations, with franchises throughout the country. Hundreds of newspapers have sprung up, although the low literacy rate — estimated at no more than 30 percent — seriously downgrades their impact.

Independent TV stations such as Tolo have wrought startling changes in Afghan society. In addition to professional balanced news reporting, Tolo has brought satire into the public domain, for the first time making it acceptable for Afghans to laugh openly at the government. Popular reality shows such as “Afghan Star” — Kabul’s answer to “American Idol” — have reinvigorated the music industry and given birth to pop icons — male and female — in a country that had been starved for entertainment during the dour years of the Taliban.

But as the quantity and quality of media expands, their room for maneuver seems to be shrinking.

This past year has been the worst so far, according to Wahidullah Tawhidi, who runs Media Watch, an organization that monitors violence and other offenses against journalists.

Media Watch has recorded more than 71 cases since March 2009 (in Afghanistan, the new year begins on March 21). These include three murders, 37 arrests, and dozens of cases of beating and intimidation. Blame can sometimes be traced to the Taliban, or even foreign forces. But special ire is reserved for the government, which has the duty of protecting freedom of speech.

“Freedom of speech in Afghanistan has been facing numerous problems over the last three and a half years,” said Sayed Makhdoom Rahin, addressing a press conference shortly after his confirmation as Minister of Information and Culture in mid-January. “But I pledge to support journalists.”

Rahin will have a tough road ahead. As the situation in the country has deteriorated, so have protections for journalists.

The problems range from denial of access to information all the way to direct interference with journalists’ work, even their lives.

“There is no sense calling the Ministry of the Interior,” complained one young television journalist in Kabul. “They never give any information.”

Also, the Ministry of the Interior spokesman, Zamarai Bashari, “can be explosive at times,” said a contractor who is mentoring the media relations team at the Interior Ministry. “But I think he’s getting better.”

Bashari has been known to berate journalists publicly; he called one reporter who had written a story on civilian casualties “no better than the Taliban” and refused to let him ask questions at a press conference.

But the abuse sometimes goes beyond the verbal.

In October, a reporter from Tamadon TV, a Kabul station was badly beaten by police while on his way to a press conference.

“The police attacked me and took my camera,” said Mahmood Fayez. “I complained to the police chief, and he also began to beat me.”

Bashari accepted that the police over-reacted in the case of Fayez, but does not admit that his men systematically abuse reporters.

“We went to the Tamadon reporter and apologized,” Bashari said. “We even gave him a sheep, in accordance with Afghan culture.”

The situation is approaching a crisis point, said Fayez.

“The police do not want journalists to expose their crimes,” he said. “But if this continues, journalists will have to stop reporting altogether.”

Another journalist, Ahmadullah Mohammadyar, was also beaten last summer by Afghan security forces in Kandahar while covering a rally for Ashraf Ghani Ahamadzai, who was then running for president.

The head of the Provincial Council in Kandahar is Ahmed Wali Karzai, younger brother of the Afghan president, who reportedly keeps a firm hand on all aspects of political life in the province.

“A dictatorship is ruling Kandahar,” said Mohammadyar bitterly.

The local government rejects the allegation, while acknowledging the fact of the attack on Mohammadyar.

“There is no dictatorship in Kandahar,” said Abdul Majid Babai, the head of Kandahar’s information and culture department.  said. “But our police are not very well trained.”

Kandahar has had more than its share of problems. In March 2009, journalist Jawed Ahmed Yazamy, known popularly as “Jojo” was murdered in broad daylight in the middle of Kandahar City. Jojo had just been released from nearly a year in an American military prison under vague suspicion of being “an enemy combatant.” He was never charged.

A group of journalists from Kandahar wrote an open letter to President Hamid Karzai after Jojo’s death, saying that they feared the government more than the insurgents. They named many government figures they said had threatened journalists, including Ahmad Wali Karzai.

“We ask you, Mr. President, who do you think could have killed Jawid Jojo in Kandahar city? You may say it was the Taliban but Kandahar journalists do not call the Taliban our enemy,” read the letter.  “We will call you responsible for Jawed Jojo’s murder until you find the murderers and put them on trial.”

Not that the insurgents are a journalist’s best friend, either.

Mohammad Ilyas Dayee, a reporter in Helmand, was threatened by a local Taliban commander, Mullah Sangaryar, for failing to report what he deemed Taliban successes.

“He sent me warnings through the phone,” said Dayee. “I would get a text message saying ‘Ilyas: you have 10 days to stop reporting. If you do not, then it is your own fault if you get killed.'”

Dayee ignored the threats for a while, but eventually sought help. Roman Habib, who represents an international organization charged with protecting journalists stepped in.

“I called Qari Yusuf,” said Habib. “He was quite friendly and cooperative. He assured me that the problem would be taken care of.”

And it was, after a fashion: Sangaryar has been arrested by the Taliban and has not been seen or heard from since.

The international community is trying to help smooth relations between the government and reporters. The NATO Training Mission for Afghanistan works with Afghan officials to try and open up channels of communication. As part of the Combined Security Transition Command, Afghanistan (CSTC-A) they sponsor training in media relations for many whose first instinct is to run from the press.

“We want to remove obstacles and give the journalists the access they need,” said Capt. Heather Coyne, the NATO liaison officer who is spearheading the effort to open up relations between the media and the government.

It’s not going to be easy. At one of the recent workshops for government officials, the head of a police training center was asked how he would react if a reporter wrote a negative, but accurate, story about the police.

“We would try and stop him,” he said simply. But after an instructor raised an eyebrow, he adjusted his response.

“We want journalists to expose wrongdoing,” he said. “Otherwise it will not get fixed.”

One of the international sponsors shrugged philosophically after the session.

“I suspect his first response was the real one,” he said. “We still have a long way to go.”

Habiburahman Ibrahimi contributed to this report.