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

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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.