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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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation