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.

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era