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Afghanistan elections - journalists under pressure

Afghan reporters defy government decree and Taliban

by Tony Cross

Article published on the 2009-08-22 Latest update 2009-08-24 08:48 TU

Election official and voter and Wazir Akbar Khan polling station, Kabul(Photo: Tony Cross/RFI)

Election official and voter and Wazir Akbar Khan polling station, Kabul
(Photo: Tony Cross/RFI)

At least 15 journalists were arrested on the day of Afghanistan’s presidential election, according to a reporters’ union. The Afghan Independent Journalists Association (AIJA) says that others were intimidated by police and Taliban.

The most flagrant example of police harassment was during a shootout betweeen police and Taliban rebels in Kabul on polling day morning, says AIJA President, Rahimullah Samander.

On Thursday before the incident the Interior Minister summoned major media outlets, to tell them to comply with a government ban on reporting security questions announced the day before. The order was a response to Taliban threats to disrupt the election.

When three Taliban started firing from a building opposite a police station in Kabul’s Shah Shaheen district police tried to prevent reporters covering the two-hour battle, Samander told RFI.

Rahimullah Samander of the AIJ(Photo: Tony Cross / RFI)

Rahimullah Samander of the AIJ
(Photo: Tony Cross / RFI)

‘‘Many journalists were there, reporting the incident,’’ he says. ‘‘They were pushed, they were beaten by police officials from Kabul police department. Me, myself, was beaten by police when I was defending others.’’

Fifteen reporters were arrested during the incident.

There were five more cases of harassment in Kabul, Samander says, and nine in the provinces. Police beat media workers when they tried to cover rocket attacks and election officials told others not to report logistical problems.

In some areas officials were trying to hush up the fact that in some areas the ink which indicates that someone has voted could be washed off, making multiple voting possible.  

‘‘And still we are getting reports,’’ Samander says. ‘‘There were many other incidents, as well.’’

Some media, especially those close to the government, complied with the government’s security ban but AIJA rejected it.

Sidiqullah Tuwhidi of the IEC(Photo: Tony Cross/RFI)

Sidiqullah Tuwhidi of the IEC
(Photo: Tony Cross/RFI)

The reporting ban was in violation of the constitution and the country’s media law, says Siddiqullah Tuwhidi, who is responsible for media at the Independent Election Commission.

But he adds, ‘‘They had their own reasons for this decree. They claim that reporting such incidents can cause people not to vote and can decrease the participation of people in the election.’’

And they may have been right, according to Tuwhidi.

‘‘If the media had announced any incidents that took place on election day, I’m sure that 40 per cent of the people who voted would not have voted.’’

Tuwhidi praises the media’s role in the campaign, while criticising state-owned outlets for giving in to government pressure and giving disproportionate coverage to the President.

‘‘In general, the media played a critical role in this election and the private media played a better role than the governmental media,’’ he says, noting particularly that they encouraged people to vote.

The Taliban also tried to bully the media, according to AJIA’s Samander.

They told journalists to report the ‘‘night letters’’ which they posted, ordering local people not to vote.

The day before the election, the Taliban called Samander.

‘‘Someone, Dr Taleb from eastern part of Kabul, Soroubi district, was ordering us, ‘Tell all your journalists to report our stories. We will not allow people in Soroubi district … to go to the votes and, if you are not reporting this in your stories, so journalists will be killed, journalists will be arrested and, if you are not reporting this in the provinces, we will do the same’.’’

The situation was particularly bad in the south-eastern Ghazni, the union chief says.

‘‘They blocked whole roads to Ghazni, all districts, 14 districts, to the capital and we interviewed many people in Ghazni city [who said they were] not allowed to go to their districts and Taliban gave them a deadline, ‘This is the time for you and you should go back to your district if you want, otherwise tomorrow the whole way will be closed’.’’

Police tried to prevent reports of the blockades getting out, according to AIJA.

Under pressure from police and Taliban, Afghan reporters risk their freedom and their lives to exercise the right to inform.