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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Labour tensions boil over at fractious MPs' meeting

Corbyn supporters and critics clash over fiscal charter U-turn and new group Momentum. 

"A total fucking shambles". That was the verdict of the usually emollient Ben Bradshaw as he left tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. His words were echoed by MPs from all wings of the party. "I've never seen anything like it," one shadow minister told me. In commitee room 14 of the House of Commons, tensions within the party - over the U-turn on George Osborne's fiscal charter and new Corbynite group Momentum - erupted. 

After a short speech by Jeremy Corbyn, shadow chancellor John McDonnell sought to explain his decision to oppose Osborne's fiscal charter (having supported it just two weeks ago). He cited the change in global economic conditions and the refusal to allow Labour to table an amendment. McDonnell also vowed to assist colleagues in Scotland in challenging the SNP anti-austerity claims. But MPs were left unimpressed. "I don't think I've ever heard a weaker round of applause at the PLP than the one John McDonnell just got," one told me. MPs believe that McDonnell's U-turn was due to his failure to realise that the fiscal charter mandated an absolute budget surplus (leaving no room to borrow to invest), rather than merely a current budget surplus. "A huge joke" was how a furious John Mann described it. He and others were outraged by the lack of consultation over the move. "At 1:45pm he [McDonnell] said he was considering our position and would consult with the PLP and the shadow cabinet," one MP told me. "Then he announces it before 6pm PLP and tomorow's shadow cabinet." 

When former shadow cabinet minister Mary Creagh asked Corbyn about the new group Momentum, which some fear could be used as a vehicle to deselect critical MPs (receiving what was described as a weak response), Richard Burgon, one of the body's directors, offered a lengthy defence and was, one MP said, "just humiliated". He added: "It looked at one point like they weren't even going to let him finish. As the fractious exchanges were overheard by journalists outside, Emily Thornberry appealed to colleagues to stop texting hacks and keep their voices down (within earshot of all). 

After a calmer conference than most expected, tonight's meeting was evidence of how great the tensions within Labour remain. Veteran MPs described it as the worst PLP gathering for 30 years. The fear for all MPs is that they have the potential to get even worse. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.