IWPR, November 9, 2007
The Limits of Afghan Press Freedom
Team of journalists from Helmand harassed by local police following visit to Taliban-held town.
By Jean MacKenzie in Lashkar Gah
It was the coup of a lifetime for a team of young journalists from Helmand. After protracted negotiations with the Taliban, they were invited to film the insurgents' stronghold in the northern town of Musa Qala. They would be the first reporters allowed into Musa Qala since the Taliban hoisted their white flag above the district centre last February.
The four were IWPR reporter Aziz Ahmad Tassal, Ariana TV cameraman Abdul Wadood Hejran, BBC stringer Aziz Ahmad Shafe, along with Abdul Samat Samin, their colleague from Al Jazeera. As the quartet set off from Lashkar Gah on November 5, they had no idea what they were getting into. It is always a risky thing, putting oneself in Taliban hands, and the Helmand insurgents can be particularly unpredictable, given the high concentration of foreign fighters in the province.
The trip, however, was a great success, with the highlight a Taliban military parade put on especially for the visiting reporters. The Taliban were hospitable, and more than happy for the journalists to explore the area, said the journalists.
April 8, 2007: Afghan journalist Ajmal Naqshbandi was beheaded by Taliban.
"I was afraid that I would not come back alive," laughed Tassal, "but when I saw what was going on in Musa Qala, I did not want to come back at all."
The Taliban's media charm offensive stood in stark contrast to the government's heavy-handed response to the venture.
The journalists, who not only survived but enjoyed their trip to Taliban country, got into real difficulties only when they came back to the government-controlled areas.
In Greshk district, Tassal was detained by police, who searched him, took his camera and recorder, and listened to his interviews. They asked detailed questions about the trip, and finally let him go, saying they had received orders from above to "leave him alone".
Samim, the Al Jazeera reporter, was brought in a few minutes later, also questioned, and then released.
According to Shafe, when he and Hejran were going through a checkpoint, they were fired on by the police.
All four made it through, however, and once they hit home, they thought they were safe.
But that evening, the Helmand police went on a mission to round up the "Musa Qala Four".
First, they went to Hejran, whose friend, Matiullah Minapal, was visiting at the time, wanting to hear all about the Musa Qala trip.
June 1, 2007: Shokiba Sanga Amaaj, a newscaster for private Shamdhad TV was killed in Kabul.
"I left Hejran's room, and was walking away when I saw the police," said Matiullah. "I thought maybe they were there for Hejran, so I went back."
His concern for his friend cost Matiullah a night in jail. According to Matiullah, they searched him, and upon finding his IWPR-issued press identification card, said, "You are a journalist? Then you're coming with us."
Hejran and Matiullah were bundled into a police vehicle, and in a convoy of three cars, dozens of officers set off to find Tassal.
Hejran and Matiullah could not pinpoint the exact address, and by chance, the police ended up at Shafe's. He and Tassal share the same first names - Aziz Ahmad - but the police were not, at that point, looking for Shafe.
"Shafe's father came out and told them that there was no one named Tassal here," said Matiullah. "Hejran and I were laughing in the police car that they had come to the right place, but by mistake."
The police spent over an hour looking for Tassal's house, until a shopkeeper finally directed them to the right place.
"The police knocked on the door, we could see them from the car," said Matiullah. "But Tassal's brother said he was not home, so we left."
At the station, the scene rapidly descended into farce. The police brought them tea, played around a bit with Hejran's television camera, filming each other and their "guests", before bringing Matiullah and Hejran into a room, where they gave them clean sheets for the beds, some books to read, and then shut them in.
"Once I heard the sound of the lock, I began to panic," said Matiullah.
In the morning, the pair were freed from their confinement, and brought back to the main office.
Matiullah was told he could go home, but before he left, he saw the police draw up and order, "One camera, one computer, two mobile phones and one person, named Abdul Wadood Hejran, to be handed over to the counter-terrorism unit."
June 6, 2007: Zaki Zaki, manager of Peace Radio in Afghanistan, was gunned down in her house in northern Parwan province.
"I have not seen Hejran since," said Matiullah.
At the time of writing this report, Hejran had been in detention for 24 hours. From all indications, he is being held by the counterterrorism unit.
While no one from the police department would comment, according to Tassal, chief of police Hussein Andiwal told him that he would be well advised to hand over the Al Jazeera reporter if he were around.
The government's policy is likely to backfire. Equating journalists with terrorists is hardly designed to win the loyalty of the fourth estate, nor will it contribute to the free flow of information in the province.
"This is certainly not a well-thought through policy by the government," said one foreign official, speaking privately. "It is quite an unhealthy development."
Helmand's journalists face a mountain of difficulties. In spite of the Taliban's new media-friendly policy, many reporters involved in IWPR's training programme in Helmand have been threatened by persons identifying themselves as Taliban, and "advised" to stop working with a foreign organisation.
Ajmal Naqshbandi, a journalist and translator who was working with Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo, was beheaded in Helmand in April - a tragedy that sent shockwaves through the media community in the south.
Now the government seems to be targeting journalists as well.
"What am I, a terrorist, that I should be hunted like this?" asked Tassal. "I am a journalist. What have I done wrong?"
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