Afghanistan: Journalists threatened by both government and Taleban in lead-up to elections

* Journalists from 13 Afghan provinces report government intimidation

Ahead of the Afghan presidential elections (20 August), journalists from 13 provinces in Afghanistan have told Amnesty International that they have recently been threatened by Afghan government officials because of their critical reporting.

At the same time, the Taleban and other anti-government groups have also stepped up attacks against journalists and blocked nearly all reporting from areas under their control.

Amnesty is increasingly concerned that freedom of expression in Afghanistan, which flourished after the fall of the Taleban in 2001, has been eroded as a result of increasing threats and attacks by the government and anti-government forces. Additionally several journalists have been prosecuted for violating religious sensibilities, charges apparently brought following pressure from Afghanistan’s unofficial but highly influential Ulema Council (council of religious scholars). A string of killings of journalists have also taken place in recent years.

Amnesty International Asia-Pacific Director Sam Zarifi said:

“Afghans have made government corruption and failure to implement the rule of law key aspects of the current election campaign, but some government officials want to respond to criticism by silencing the journalists who monitor government conduct and provide vital information to the voting public.

“Afghan journalists have demonstrated that they are willing to face tremendous challenges in order to give a voice to the Afghan people, but instead of being supported by the government, they are facing increasing pressure from officials.

“President Karzai, and all the presidential candidates, should immediately and publicly commit to defending Afghan journalists, both from the Taleban, but more importantly, from the government itself. It’s vital that the Afghan government upholds the rule of law and its commitment to media freedom by urgently investigating these cases.”

In some cases government forces have directly attacked journalists. In one incident last month, five journalists were beaten by police officers in Herat for reporting on a public demonstration and police corruption.

One reporter from Ghazni, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals, told Amnesty:

“People working on the Karzai election campaign are calling me and other journalists and threatening us if we report on corruption or anything bad that Karzai’s government is doing. Taleban and other groups contact me and threaten me, telling me I must stop writing any positive news stories about the elections because they don’t want people to support the elections. I am caught between these two sides.”

Another journalist from southern Afghanistan, who also didn’t want to be named, added: “If government officials are threatening me, then who do I complain to? I have to self-censor because otherwise I will be killed.”

Amnesty is concerned that there has been little official effort by the Afghan authorities to investigate murders and physical attacks on journalists. Meanwhile, government institutions - in particular the National Directorate of Security (NDS) - have attempted to reduce the media's independence.

Amnesty has produced a ten-point action plan calling on the Afghan government to fulfil its international human rights obligations, including upholding the right to freedom of expression and media expression. Specifically, Amnesty calls on the Afghan government to:

* Fully and effectively investigate and prosecute all those responsible for attacks on journalists, human rights defenders and others exercising their right to freedom of expression

* Ensure that no government agencies, and in particular the NDS, violate freedom of expression

* Introduce legislation facilitating public access to information from governmental institutions.

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