Between a rock and a hard place: media in Afghanistan

Article, 02.05.2013

World Press Freedom Day, 3 May, «Safe to Speak: Securing Freedom of Expression in All Media»

Danish Karokhel, founder and editor-in-chief of the Pahjwok News Agency in Afghanistan (

Danish Karokhel takes a blue ring binder from a shelf in his small, dimly lit office and flips through copies of the emailed threats the Pahjwok News Agency, which he heads, receives from the Taliban.
Karokhel reads and translates one such email: the Taliban complain about a reporter’s coverage of an attack that was initially attributed to the Taliban. The authors give the agency one week to write a «correction» or else they will «take action» and assume that the reporter is «a spokesperson of the puppet government».
Karokhel grins broadly, then closes the folder and puts it aside. The editor and journalist laughs a lot. Even when he talks about the monthly threats the agency receives or the «elements in government» who are opposed to media freedom and regularly harass his reporters. Demonstrating that in Afghanistan’s perilous media landscape maintaining a sense of humour is a survival strategy.

From 0 to 50 in 11 years
Fuelled largely by foreign donor assistance, the Afghan media has experienced an unparalleled boom in the past 11 years: growing from one Taliban-run radio station in 2001 to about 150 independent local radio stations, 50 commercial TV stations, a handful of newspapers as well as the state broadcaster RTA today. Despite the diversity in media outlets and the new legislation, Afghan journalists are caught between the proverbial rock and hard place: they have to navigate between threats and harassment both from the Taliban and from government authorities.
With the expected economic decline in 2014 due to the withdrawal of international troops – as well as the uncertain outcome of next year’s presidential elections – the future of Afghanistan’s media diversity and press freedom hang in the balance. How many of these independent outlets will survive and how freely journalists will be able to report are open questions.

Under pressure from many sides
Pahjwok (meaning «echo» in Dari and Pashto) was launched in March 2004, initially as a project of the UK-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) which trained about 1000 Afghan journalists in eight regions. Karokhel was one of the trainers. Since 2005 Pahjwok is independent of the IWPR but still partly dependent on foreign assistance to run the news agency, which includes an editorial staff of 70 (including 11 women). In 2008 Karokhel and managing editor Farida Nekzad received the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Karokhel talks a lot about quality and balance, which the agency strives to maintain despite the difficult circumstances in which Afghan journalists work. He explains.
On the one side there are the Taliban. During their rule they destroyed televisions, now they actively engage in media work, run a website that features video footage and employ spokesmen. Not only do they send threatening emails, they also put pressure on media if these do not publicise their statements, according to a BBC Media Action report.
On the other side is the government which, Karokhel says, is divided into three or four groups. President Hamid Karzai supports the media’s independence and freedoms. He is a frequent target of criticism in the media and subjects himself to tough interviews. «He wants the media to be free,» Karokhel says. Who will succeed him in office next year is uncertain, but Afghan journalists are worried. «We don’t think we will have the same freedom we have had for the last 10 years.»

«They don’t like us»
Then there are members of the government «who don’t like the media and don’t want us to have the freedom to do investigative journalism; they don’t cooperate with us.» Sometimes Karzai intervenes when these groups or persons threaten or harass a media outlet, Karokhel says.
And then there are the provincial governments. «In Kabul the media is known by the government, we are a strong group here. There are fewer security issues, not like in the provinces where the members of government don’t know the laws and rights protecting journalists and create problems for them,» he says. «If anybody wants to create problems for a journalist in one of the provinces they can, but in Kabul it’s more difficult.»
In some provinces journalists are bought off with favours and bribes. «It’s a kind of pressure on the media and on the media’s independence,» Karokhel says. When the Pahjwok editorial team notices that articles sent by a reporter suddenly are filled with praise for the provincial government and lack any criticism, the team sometimes is forced to replace the reporter in order to maintain the agency’s journalistic objectivity.

Journalists self-censor
In other provinces, journalists worry about their safety if they publish critical reports. Several have been arrested or intimidated. Many journalists then begin to exercise self-censorship. If they continue to report critically about the local government, authorities may claim the reporter «is close to the Taliban» to «make problems for him» or send armed groups to pressurise the journalists, Karokhel says.
According to the Afghan media advocacy group NAI, 26 Afghan journalists were physically attacked, four arrested and 28 other threatened last year. NAI reported that «government officials» were responsible for 65% of the violent incidents perpetrated against journalists.
Parwiz Kawa, poet, writer, founder and editor-in-chief of Asht-e-subh (“8 a.m.”), one of the few daily newspapers in Afghanistan, has also been a target. The respected newspaper has come under the most pressure from government, Kawa says. «Because we write about the achievements and the weaknesses of government, because we criticise.» The paper, which Kawa launched with a group of friends in 2007, is committed to reporting human rights issues. It received the Prix Liberté de la Presse from Reporters without Borders in 2012.
When the newspaper published a special edition on «land grabbing», naming organisations and government members involved in land-grab deals, «a lot of visitors» arrived at the newspaper’s offices, demanding to see Kawa. He called the police who stationed two police officers at the paper for two months. During this period, Kawa received threatening calls almost every day. Since then no signboard marks the newspaper’s office.

Taboo subjects
All journalists know which subjects are taboo, Kawa explains. The Media Law, passed in 2009, lists eight topics that are off limits to reporters, including any articles or reports that are «against Islam». Determining what is anti-Islamic is, however, open for interpretation. A new Media Commission, including members of civil society, was supposed to have been constituted, but the old commission, dating back to 2004, is still in place, despite criticism from journalists’ organisations.
A new Access to Information law will soon be passed, that should make it easier for journalists to get information from the government. Karokhel’s team has been waiting for months for answers to its questions from the Ministry of Mining for an article Pahjwok is working on about fraud in the mining sector.
«I believe the new law will create more awareness among government authorities about the rights of journalists to access information. The Media Law also touches on access to information,» Karokhel says. «We have a lot of nice words, but the reality is, the implementation will be a problem.» The SDC supports the non-governmental Civil Society and Human Rights Network that is lobbying for the passage of the Access to Information Act.

«Vibrant and dynamic» media
Spokesmen for the UN mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs both argue that Afghanistan’s media law is the most progressive and its media landscape the most «dynamic» and «vibrant» in the region. «Afghanistan has experienced something that is nothing less than a revolution in the media, especially independent media,» says the ministry spokesman Janan Mosazai. «The media are mostly critical of government. They say what they want to say and they cover what they want to cover.» The independent media «are one of our proudest and most concrete achievements,» Mosazai says.
While he agrees that the rise of independent media is one of the «key achievements» of the Afghan government and the international community, UNAMA spokesman Nazifullah Salarzai bemoans the poor quality and the lack of investigative journalism. Many journalists «are lazy or don’t understand the essence of journalism», he says.
But the media’s commitment to its freedoms have come «at a high cost», Mosazai says. «Afghan journalists have paid a big price to defend this freedom.» He dismisses Afghanistan’s low ranking on the 2013 World Press Freedom Index, where it holds 128th place among 179 ranked countries. «You have to compare today with what we had in 2001,» he says.

Uncertain future
Afghanistan’s media has without a doubt come a long way since the days of Taliban rule. Afghans have come to trust and rely on the media to uncover injustices and fulfil its watchdog role. But the future of Afghanistan’s independent media after 2014 is threatened. Most media still survive on donor aid. USAID has been the biggest supporter of the independent media, but non-governmental organisations like the Open Society Initiative have also played an important role in fostering media diversity. «The role of donors in media support in Afghanistan is probably greater than in any other country at any other time,» according to the 2012 BBC Media Action report on the media of Afghanistan.
The sustainability of many of these new media outlets is questionable. Asht-e-subh is only 30% self-financed, Pahjwok about 75%. But the advertising pie is small: the annual advertising market is estimated at USD 20 million and is likely to shrink after 2014. It is also feared that the withdrawal of foreign troops will negatively affect the media environment and journalists’ freedoms. «There are real concerns that if donor support declines much of the media will wither or fall prey to factional, religious or extreme forces», BBC Media Action write.
Kawa is concerned that the decrease in support from the international community will affect those outlets most that are truly independent and that report critically. «They support values like human rights, freedom of speech, women’s rights. Once they lose [donor] support, they’ll be gone.»