By Abdul Waheed Wafa and Carlotta Gall
Afghanistan's government, competing with the Taliban for public support and trying to fend off accusations that it is corrupt and ineffective, is moving to curb one of its own most impressive achievements: the country's flourishing independent news media.
Under President Hamid Karzai, a 1960s media law was updated and has been considered the most liberal in the region. Six independent television channels have begun broadcasting, and dozens of radio stations and newspapers are now operating. All news media outlets were under government control under the Taliban government, which was ousted in late 2001.
First he was confronted and slapped by an MP who had once been a senior Taliban official. A day later came the death threat. "Slaughtering a sheep is difficult for me, but killing you would be easy," the MP told him.
Yet for the past year, as the government has sought to counter growing public dissatisfaction, it has tried to impose more controls over the news media, journalists and human rights officials said. Parliament is now considering amendments that the critics warn could undo many of the gains made since the fall of the Taliban.
Said Aqa Fazil Sancharaki, the director of the Afghanistan National Journalists' Union, who has been lobbying against many of the amendments with limited success, said: "We are concerned about more restrictions. We are not optimistic."
One of his main concerns is a plan to abolish the media commission, a largely independent group made up of journalists and representatives of the community, which monitors the application of the law and judges complaints, and to replace it with a commission under much stronger government control.
A spokesman for Karzai said the president remained a firm supporter of freedom of the press and would wait to see what amendments were passed in Parliament. "The president can sign the law or he can send it back to Parliament with his amendments," said the spokesman, Khaleeq Ahmad.
Yet Karzai has said there is a need to curb journalists. Ahmad said the president meant that journalists should be more responsible, and not print rumors or falsehoods.
The revisions before Parliament were initiated by Karzai's government, though the legislation has changed as it has moved through Parliament. Journalists and members of Parliament said that some of the proposed restrictions certainly emanated from the cabinet, if not from the president.
"The government does not want to see and hear about its corruption and weaknesses on the media," said Shukria Barakzai, a member of Parliament and a former journalist.
The proposal before Parliament would prohibit coverage seen as violating the provisions of Islam or insulting other religions, as well as coverage that insults individuals or corporations, without allowing truth as a defense. It would also prohibit coverage seen as endangering national stability, security or sovereignty.
Sancharaki said he had lobbied unsuccessfully to have the clause changed to the "principles" of Islam rather than "provisions," which he said was so broad that it would allow all manner of interference.
The minister of information and culture, Abdul Karim Khuram, has also scrapped the plans of his predecessor to make the government-run Afghan National Radio and Television into a public service governed by an independent board, along the lines of the BBC.
Karzai pledged in 2002 to turn the national television and radio station, and the government news agency, Bakhtar, into public service broadcasting companies and to establish independent bodies to govern them and to license broadcasting. But those promises have not been kept, said Shirazuddin Siddiqui, director of the BBC World Service Trust in Afghanistan, which conducts training for Afghan journalists.
"The problem is, our government and our Parliament are very young," he said. "Every government wants to have some control of the media."
Khuram said that in view of Afghanistan's fragile security situation, Afghan National Radio and Television should remain government controlled. "The current situation regarding security, and social, political and cultural needs is such that the government should have its own radio, television and newspapers," he said.
The measure, now pending before parliament, would give officials the right to crack down on anything deemed harmful to the national interest, the primacy of Islam or the "physical, spiritual and moral well-being" of the Afghan people.
Few predict that such guidelines would usher in a return to the suffocating days of the Taliban era, a dark age for the media when television was banned, newspapers were essentially religious tracts and radio stations were forbidden to play music.
He said he also supported restrictions prohibiting news media coverage found to be against traditional values, the Islamic faith and ethics. He said he had received many complaints from people about nakedness shown on some channels. He also wanted to outlaw any coverage that could encourage sexual abuse of children, he said.
The intelligence service put out a document last year calling for restrictions on journalists, including outlawing interviews with the Taliban, whose fighters continue to carry out attacks in large areas of the country. That document did not have the government's support, Ahmad said.
"My concern is if the media is against the system and have more freedom, then elements like the Taliban will use the situation and gain more supporters," said Moeen Marastial, a former member of the religious and cultural parliamentary commission, which has worked on the news media law as it moved through Parliament.
The slaying by the Taliban of the Afghan translator and reporter, Ajmal Naqshbandi, last month has badly shaken the press corps, and while pressure from local power brokers has always been a fact of life, the possibility of new strictures from the central government have alarmed supporters of an independent news media.
In the most blatant attack on news gatherers, the attorney general, Abdul Jabar Sabit, angered by coverage of his comments in Parliament, recently ordered the arrest of three journalists from the popular television channel Tolo TV. The police raided the television's headquarters, roughed up members of the staff and detained the three journalists for a short while.
Khuram, the information minister, refused to condemn Sabit's action, saying that the attorney general had the right to make arrests. Instead, Khuram asked Tolo TV to apologize to Sabit for its coverage. Tolo TV refused, and filed a complaint with the Supreme Court.
In another matter that has caused widespread interest in Afghanistan, the upper house of Parliament passed an amnesty bill on Sunday, granting factions and political groups involved in past hostilities freedom from state prosecution.
Supporters of the bill said it was necessary for peace and reconciliation in the country. But the United Nations, human rights organizations and liberal members of Parliament have criticized it for granting immunity to suspected war criminals.
Karzai rejected an earlier version and introduced an amendment that recognizes the individual's right to seek justice for individual war crimes. It is not clear whether he will sign the new version.