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Afghanistan: Media freedom in 'downward spiral'

As Afghanistan returns to normalcy, journalists say they face curbs, intimidation for reporting on issues of governance

Shadi Khan Saif  | 12.09.2020 - Update : 12.09.2020
Afghanistan: Media freedom in 'downward spiral'

KABUL, Afghanistan

As Afghanistan strives to return to normalcy, the nascent media in the war-torn country is increasingly facing hardships with frequent censorship and intimidation.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, several prominent Afghan journalists said that as media has started reporting on issues of governance by doing investigative stories, impediments and threats have become the order of the day.

Recently, the head of the country’s central bank, Ajmal Ahmadi blocked several journalists from his Twitter account. Media outlets had reported about him receiving perks as high as $500 a day -- an extravagantly high payment in Afghanistan's standards. Ahmadi, who is also a former minister has since been dodging questions.

Within days of publication of the investigative report, he blocked Zaki Daryabi, the managing director of the Etilat-e-Roz newspaper, which published the report, as well as Sami Mehdi and Haroon Najafizadeh.

Commenting on the shrinking media space, Danish Karokhel, director and editor-in-chief of Afghanistan’s leading private news agency, Pajhwok Afghan News, said after the 2019 presidential polls, the new government led by President Ashraf Ghani has purposefully restricted access to information to hide corruption.

Pajhwok has been active in Afghanistan since 2004 and has 16 years of experience under its belt, along with a reputation of credibility. "That is why sensible Afghans within the government are providing us information and safeguarding the country from looting," he said.

Following many investigative news reports, the Afghan government last month was forced to refer Ferozuddin Feroz, former health minister, and his close aides to the Attorney General’s Office for probe, in connection with alleged misappropriation of funds worth millions of dollars. Feroz has been charged with embezzlement of funds, corruption, and violations of laws.

Deep-rooted culture to hide information

When contacted, Director of Media and Information Center, Latif Mahmood, declined to comment on the curbs imposed on the media.

In an audio message to several similar complaints by journalists, Mahmood said: "The government is committed to press freedom, all complaints in this regard should be addressed with specifics against individuals and institutions hindering access to information."

However, a senior member of the Access to Information Commission (AIC) -- a government body established in 2018 -- acknowledged systematic problems in ensuring access to information, transparency, and accountability.

Hamdullah Arbab, the AIC commissioner, said the deep-rooted culture among government officials of not sharing information with the press has led Afghanistan to be placed among the most corrupt countries in the world.

"They [officials] make excuses for certain information being official secrets, while in reality that is seldom the case. This culture has been prevailing for quite a long time now. The state institutions consider themselves owners of all the information and are not willing to obey the Access to Information Law," he said.

The latest Corruption Perception Index by Transparency International has placed Afghanistan right at the bottom among the top five public sector corrupt countries.

Braving threats

A mid-career Kabul-based investigative journalist, Iqbal Barzgar said journalists in Afghanistan have been braving all sorts of threats in the quest for information.

"The threats from the armed insurgency on one side, the lack of cooperation and restrictions on the part of the government are equally detrimental to us, professionally and personally," he added.

According to the Reporters Without Borders, a press freedom watchdog, Afghan media personnel have paid a heavy price since 2001.

At least 70 media workers, including 16 foreign journalists, have been killed, while more than 40 media outlets have been attacked and destroyed since 2001. Hundreds of journalists have reported threats to their lives and their media outlets.

As per official figures, some 1,700 private TV, radio, print, and online media outlets are operating in Afghanistan. Two decades ago only a handful of media organizations were operating in the country.

A few years ago, the Human Rights Watch -- an international non-governmental organization -- documented that freedom of the press was in a downward spiral in Afghanistan, with increasing intimidation and violence from both state and non-state actors, lack of government protection, and waning international support.

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