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The Wall Street Journal, September 25, 2010

Afghan Media Freedoms Erode

The TV and Internet ventures are often funded and managed by wealthy Afghan emigres in the West or the Persian Gulf

By YAROSLAV TROFIMOV

KABUL—President Hamid Karzai's government is taking a series of steps to chip away at the country's media freedoms, one of Afghanistan's few success stories since the Taliban regime's downfall nine years ago.

Women using Internet in Afghanistan
Afghan women use the Internet at a U.S.-supported library in Herat in western Afghanistan last year. (Photo: Reuters)

In the past week, the government ordered the shutdown of Benawa.com, a popular Pashtu-language news website, following requests by the first vice president, Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim. It is also moving to outlaw another widely followed muckraking journalism site, Tolafghan.com.

The steps come weeks after Afghanistan's government closed down one of Kabul's most popular TV stations, Emroz TV, following a request by the Iranian Embassy, and enacted wide-ranging Internet censorship that filters out thousands of sites deemed immoral or extremist.

"Before, the press freedom was one of our achievements, and Karzai has been mentioning it in every speech," says Najibullah Kabuli, the owner of Emroz and a member of parliament. "Now, he's sacrificing it for political aims."

The crackdown on free expression is intensifying as Mr. Karzai's administration faces mounting criticism from Afghans and Western governments for its failure to curb rampant corruption. A series of scandals, including a run on Kabul Bank, a private bank in which brothers of Mr. Karzai and of Marshal Fahim have stakes, have shaken Afghans' confidence in their government—a resentment exploited by the Taliban insurgency.

Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the American Embassy in Kabul, said the U.S. government is "watching closely" the media changes and has discussed the issue with the Afghan government. "We hope they can be resolved to the satisfaction of all the parties—protecting the security of the Afghan people while bolstering freedom of information and expression enshrined in the Afghan constitution," she said.

Mr. Karzai's government denies it is limiting press freedoms. A recent statement from the presidential palace said Mr. Karzai "remains committed to support the freedom of expression and media."

Television and the Internet were banned as un-Islamic under the Taliban regime that governed the country until late 2001. Since then, dozens of private TV channels have sprung up around Afghanistan, and a proliferation of Internet connections and mobile phone lines created a market for online news agencies in the country's Pashtu and Dari languages. There are more than a million Internet users in Afghanistan, according to government statistics. The TV and Internet ventures are often funded and managed by wealthy Afghan emigres in the West or the Persian Gulf.

Afghanistan's boisterous media aren't always scrupulous, and are prone to mistakes. Benawa.com erroneously reported earlier this month that Mr. Fahim—a powerful ethnic Tajik former warlord who was in Germany for medical treatment at the time—had died of cancer complications. The website corrected its dispatch half an hour later, and its executives say the portal follows journalistic ethics.

Upon his return to Kabul, Mr. Fahim—very much alive—asked Afghanistan's media oversight commission, a regulatory body headed by the minister of information and culture, to punish the website, say commission members and ministry officials.

In a separate submission, commission members said, Mr. Fahim's office requested the regulator to act against Tolafghan.com, which had published investigative reports about the involvement of Mr. Fahim's brother in Kabul Bank and has frequently criticized the vice president and his allies. Mr. Fahim couldn't be reached to comment. The commission asked Afghanistan's attorney general's office to move against the two news portals, the first time such a step has been made since the regulator was established several years ago.

"Both of the websites disrespected national figures, and this is against Afghan law. If some media outlets make intentional mistakes, they must be punished," said one of the commission's members, Abdul Shokor Dadras. Representatives of the two websites say they weren't given a chance to argue their case.

In the past couple of days, Afghan Internet service providers started blocking access to Benawa.com. The minister of communications and information technology, Amirzai Sangin, said he ordered the shutdown following instructions from the attorney general. "Everything we do is within the legal framework," he said.

A final decision hasn't been made about Tolafghan.com, and, as of Friday evening, the site remained accessible in Kabul.

A Tolafghan.com executive said he thinks the government is focusing on his site because the portal had translated international media articles about massive losses at Kabul Bank, precipitating the run on it.

Created in 2004 and employing 131 journalists, many in Afghanistan, Benawa.com is run out of Kabul and Albany, N.Y., according to its U.S.-based owner and manager, Khalid Hadi. He said the news site is asking the U.S. government and international journalistic associations for help.

"Every day, little by little, civil rights are being taken away by the government or other political parties, government militias, Taliban and warlords, until we are left without any rights at all," Mr. Hadi said in an email.

Emroz, the now-shut Dari-language TV station, was known for its fierce criticism of the Iranian government. It broadcast reports about the execution of Afghan prisoners in Iran, the lack of religious freedom for Sunni Muslims in predominantly Shiite Iran, and the allegedly unfair division of water between Iran and Afghanistan. Iran's government, led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, exercises a heavy influence over Mr. Karzai's administration, in part through Afghan Shiite politicians, and the two presidents frequently meet.In late July, following a complaint to the Afghan attorney general's office by the Iranian Embassy in Kabul, Emroz TV was shut down by the Afghan council of ministers for "fomenting religious rifts" and endangering national unity.

Mr. Kabuli, who says he invested some $900,000 in the station, says he doesn't know when or if the ban may be lifted. Meantime, he says he is continuing to pay the salaries of the station's 65 staffers.

Around the same time, Afghan Internet service providers say they received orders to block thousands of websites containing pornography or belonging to the Taliban or other radical Islamist groups.

"It was a government decision," says Waheed Omar, Mr. Karzai's spokesman, to act against sites "that are immoral, or that belong to terrorist organizations, or preach extremism."

—Habib Khan Totakhil contributed to this article.

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