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Inside Afghanistan's Struggle for a Free Press

Canadians are part of a pricey push to build open media there. Will it pay off?

Jared Ferrie 14 Jul

Jared Ferrie is a writer based in Vancouver.

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In some countries a desk means a lot, and Faheem Dashty has the biggest desk I’ve ever seen. He’s sitting behind it when I enter, but comes around to shake my hand and plants himself on one of the chairs next to me, lighting the first of several cigarettes. As we talk, we ignore the sound of claws scurrying across the roof of his office in downtown Kabul.

I’ve come to ask Dashty, who is the chief editor of a leading newspaper, about the state of Afghan media. With all the challenges his country faces after emerging from more than two decades of war and five years of the Taliban, why is developing independent media so important? Moreover, after working on a media development project for the past five months with the Vancouver-based Institute for Media Policy and Civil Society (IMPACS), I have begun to wonder whether independent media is even possible in a country so dangerously fractured.

Dashty has that disarming and very Afghan mixture of pride and humility. A soft-spoken man with big ideas, he wants to use Kabul Weekly to help rebuild his shattered country. He sees independent media as a cornerstone of Afghanistan’s nascent democracy, and believes that a free press can help prevent some of the abuses of past governments.

“So far it’s a dream,” says Dashty. “This is our dream, but it’s not easy to reach it, to make it real.”

Dashty’s dream is shared by a growing number of international organizations. Partly as a response to the media’s role in fomenting hatred and inciting violence in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, the international community poured close to a billion dollars US between 1992 and 2002 into media development in what are termed “emerging democracies”. The hope is that a free and independent media system will strengthen democratic institutions while helping to resolve the tensions that plague countries with violent pasts.

But many media development workers will tell you that as the big picture collapses into a microcosm of ethnic, religious and political entanglements, those ideals tend to become fleeting and diluted.

In Afghanistan, where 23 years of constant warfare have created an environment of partisanship and suspicion, “independent media” is a loaded term. Afghans now find themselves caught up in a web of alliances and those divisions are reflected in the media landscape. “Every newspaper has a connection to somebody,” says Gawhar, a local journalist who has worked for Kabul Weekly.

Dashty vigorously defends his paper’s independence, but acknowledges the deep seeded suspicion that most Afghans have toward the media. “When you introduce yourself as a journalist of Kabul Weekly the first thing that will come to the mind of the one you want to interview is: ‘To whom this paper is linked?’” he says.

Such suspicions are well grounded according to Ahmed Jan Tanai, a 16-year veteran of Afghan journalism who sees an overt bias in Kabul Weekly’s reporting. “Politically, it goes toward the Northern Alliance,” he says, referring to the loose coalition of former rebels who helped the Americans oust the Taliban. Many Northern Alliance leaders retain political power – some hold government positions, others maintain their own private militias, or both.

Tanai accuses Kabul Weekly, along with other publications, of supporting Northern Alliance members’ political aims by being overly critical of president Hamid Karzai while ignoring crucial issues. “Most of the Kabul press is writing against Karzai,” he says, “but these papers are not writing about the warlords, about human rights. They are not writing about what stands in the way of democracy.”

The myth of Massoud

Dashty’s well-known history with the Northern Alliance does not help his case. Nor does the large painted portrait hanging directly above his desk. The man in the painting is Ahmed Shah Massoud, the lionized Northern Alliance commander who was assassinated two days before the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre. Massoud’s legacy carries great political weight in Afghanistan and has been inherited by his still living allies in the Northern Alliance.

Massoud’s image is ubiquitous in Kabul. A two-story likeness of the rebel military commander – rendered somewhat awkward by the English phrase, “The Great Massoud Your Way Go Forward” – is fixed to the outside wall of the airport. New arrivals to the country drive away on The Great Massoud Road, passing a monument built in his honour. He is the subject of murals, Che Guevera style, and his face is even woven into rugs hawked to foreign soldiers and development workers on Chicken Street. That face, framed by his characteristic pakul hat, passes by in traffic, taped to the front windshield of trucks that are often bristling with machine guns and loaded with somber-looking men.

Despite Massoud’s powerful admirers, he is not a hero to all. Atrocities were committed on all sides of the civil war and many Kabulis recall the role Massoud’s soldiers played in the destruction of the capital. But they mostly keep their opinions to themselves. Tanai believes it would be dangerous for a journalist to write negatively about Massoud because of the intense loyalty of his still-armed and powerful compatriots.

War criminals in government

A Human Rights Watch report released earlier this month details abuses including rape and executions that were carried out by troops under the command of Massoud, who was at the time defence minister in the increasingly enfeebled mujahaddin government. The report warns that many commanders who allegedly perpetrated abuses continue to commit the similar acts today, undermining any chances of stability in the country. Some of those implicated in war crimes plan to run in September’s parliamentary elections.

The report also implicates members of the current government. Among the most high profile of these alleged war criminals are Vice President Khalili, who previously commanded a formidable militia, and Dr. Abdullah, one of Massoud’s most trusted confidants, now Afghanistan’s foreign minister.

Dashty was in the same room as Massoud the day two suspected Al-Qaeda agents posing as journalists detonated a bomb hidden in a TV camera that blew a hole in his commander’s chest. He still carries the memory as well as the physical scars. “I feel myself committed to the ideas of commander Massoud,” says Dashty. “Of course, it’s very hard to convince people that I am independent, that this paper is independent.”

In its first incarnation, Kabul Weekly was the state run newspaper during the mujaheddin government’s turbulent rule between the fall of the Russian-backed government in 1992 and the Taliban’s 1996 takeover. Dashty is aware that many Afghans believe Kabul Weekly is still connected to mujaheddin groups. “I know that many people think that I am one of the members of the former Northern Alliance,” he says. “I am not. I don’t have any relation – I mean any official relation – with the former Northern Alliance leaders like (former defence minister) Marshall Fahim, or Qanuni.”

Yunis Qanuni, the former vice president, was passed over by Karzai and instead ran against him in last year’s landmark presidential election, along with several other Northern Alliance members. One of these presidential hopefuls was Karzai’s one-time defence minister, Rashid Dostum, a northern strongman who human rights groups accuse of war crimes. Dostum’s ferocious reputation presented a challenge to journalists wanting to cover his campaign.

Safe reporting or no reporting?

One month before the election, I am in Balkh, northern Afghanistan. It is the birthplace of the prophet Zoroaster and the final resting place of the famous female poet Rabia. Before Genghis Khan’s soldiers broke through sections of the giant mud walls that stand to this day, Balkh was known as the “Mother of All Cities”. Today, with little trace of its ancient glory remaining, Balkh is a bucolic farming village close to Dostum’s headquarters in Sheberghan.

I ask Mohamad Nabi Hamdard, manager of a community radio station, which is supported by the American organization Internews, if his reporters have done stories critical of the warlord. “If you want to talk about Karzai, I am ready to answer your questions, but not about Dostum,” he replies. Due to fears of violence and intimidation, the station, which was started by the American media development organization Internews, avoids certain topics. “There are so many people with guns,” Hamdard observes.

On the potholed highway back to Mazar-e-Sharif the pungent aroma of marijuana fills the car as we pass fields that will soon be harvested and processed into hashish – part of the drug trade that lines the pockets of warlords and local strongmen. Along another section of the road, Afghanistan’s brutal history is on display. Rusted and dismembered carcasses of tanks and other armoured vehicles sit scattered in former battlefields, serving as grim reminders of the threat of bloodshed that still haunts the country.

Shakiba, a reporter at the IMPACS-supported women’s community radio station in Mazar-e-Sharif, says the staff there also walk a fine line when choosing stories to cover. “We take care about what to say and what not to say,” she says, pointing out that the station is housed in a building owned by Dostum If the station is too critical, she says, “Maybe all these things are possible – kidnapping, being killed, the radio station being closed down.”

Conditions improving

Back in Kabul, Dashty says his reporters have never had any serious threats leveled against them by warlords or politicians.

But that doesn’t mean reporting in Afghanistan is a walk in the park. Earlier this month the Committee to Protect Journalists wrote a letter to Karzai demanding the release of two journalists detained by Afghan intelligence officers. The two were freed after spending more than a week in jail.

Tanai believes that, despite ongoing dangers, conditions are improving for journalists, and that much of the fear stems from Afghanistan’s violent past. “Years ago, the killing of men was as easy as killing a chicken,” says Tanai. “If a war criminal decided to kill a journalist, it was easy for them. Now the situation is getting better.”

As democracy develops, Dashty hopes that Afghans will settle their disputes with words rather than bullets. He believes media can help facilitate political debate, but first, he says, Afghan news media need to regain the trust of the people.

This means dramatically improving journalistic standards. Since the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan has seen a proliferation of publications, many of them supported by political parties or foreign donors. But quantity does not equal quality, says Dashty. “We cannot see journalism in Afghanistan’s media. It’s not journalism. There’s no professionalism.”

The lack of professionalism leaves the door wide open for opinions, often in the form of attacks against rival political or ethnic groups, which Dashty says dominate other Afghan publications. But he believes the situation will improve by raising journalistic standards: “If we will work professionally, if we will do journalism, then its clear that we cannot attack anyone.”

Development experts appear to agree with Dashty’s assessment. Kabul is awash with international organizations running programs aimed at building an independent media system by funding news outlets and training journalists. The foreigners come bearing aid money and confidence in the positive effects of a free and open media system. But western ideals about journalistic objectivity can be difficult to reconcile with a society where decades of war have driven people into often-murky, but seemingly ever-present, ethnic and political allegiances.

Lane Hartill, an American who at the time of the interview was paid to train journalists by the organization that hosts Kabul Weekly, admits that Dashty’s politics sometimes seep into his stories. “In the West, there are some editors who have hard core political beliefs but are able to keep them out of their papers,” he says. “In the developing world, when one has been ingrained with ethnic beliefs and grown up in a war environment – and in Faheem’s case, covered the war on the front lines for years as a young man – those beliefs, I think, aren't ever completely abandoned.”

But Hartill maintains that, in the incendiary context of Afghanistan, Kabul Weekly is doing a pretty good job. “Even people that don't like Faheem, respect the paper,” he says. “It is one of the few newspapers that isn't loaded with opinion pieces pretending to be news stories.”

Dashty also admits the paper has faults. But like Afghan democracy, he considers Kabul Weekly a work in progress. “At Kabul Weekly we are trying to work professionally, but we cannot claim that it is a professional paper,” he says. “When? God knows. But at least we are trying.”

Jared Ferrie is a freelance journalist who spent six months working in Afghanistan as an editor and journalism trainer for a women’s political newspaper.  [Tyee]

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