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Afghanistan: limits on press freedom

Curbs on reporting could do irreversible damage to the fragile development of the Afghan media.

Days after a suicide attack killed 17 people in Kabul, the Afghan government has banned live media coverage of militant assaults, saying that they could help militants during attacks. This indefinite ban applies to both domestic and international news.

Criticism has -- rightly -- come thick and fast. The US envoy Richard Holbrooke said that the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and other officials "are concerned and will make our support of free access by the press clear to the government".

Rahimullah Samandar, head of Afghanistan's Independent Journalists' Association, said: "We see this as direct censorship. This is prevention of reporting and contravenes the constitution."

The 2004 constitution promotes freedom of expression and freedom of the press, but this latest move is yet another clear indication that while Afghanistan may have the appearance of a nascent democracy, in practice, the weak and corrupt Karzai regime pays lip-service to these democratic principles but does little to uphold them.

In 2008, Reporters Without Borders ranked the media environment in Afghanistan 156th out of 173 countries. Despite the low ranking, the surprising thing, in many ways, is that it was not even lower, given the troubled recent past of the Afghan media and the specific problems that the press in Afghanistan face.

Under the Taliban, the media were unbearably restricted. Television was entirely shut down in 1996, and in 1998 it was ordered that TV sets be destroyed. Anyone found with one could be imprisoned or flogged. There was one radio station only, which broadcast religious programmes and Taliban propaganda. Journalists were banned from working with foreign media.

Spreading the net

Since then, the media have grown exponentially from this almost non-existent base, though they are still limited by low literacy rates and the lack of widespread electricity or good road networks.

A survey published in January 2008 found that 89 per cent of urban households, but only 26 per cent of rural households, had access to a television set, either at home or in a neighbour's home. Only 47 per cent of people had seen any television within the past month.

The same report showed that just 13 per cent of Afghans had read a newspaper or magazine in the past month. This is largely attributable to literacy rates of just 29 per cent for men and 13 per cent for women, as well as the difficulty of delivering papers.

By contrast, 86 per cent of Afghan households have a working radio in the home, and 88 per cent reported listening to a radio in the previous month. Some 60 per cent said they listened to the radio in 2008 more frequently than they had two years before, with 87 per cent listening for news. Radio has emerged as an important means of reaching the populace.

The Afghan media, then, are very much in development amid a set of complex factors. Freedom of expression is a vital cornerstone of that development. If the local media are to reach a wider audience and to keep the people informed, their credibility is paramount.

Furthermore, a free press is an integral part of any functioning democracy. Limiting it in these early stages of its development could do irreversible damage.

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