January 17, 2008
President Hamid Karzai
Islamic Republic of Afghanistan
C/o The Embassy of Afghanistan
2341 Wyoming Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20008
Via facsimile: 202-483-6487
Dear President Karzai,
The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned about your government's failure to push through proposed media reforms at a time when the Afghan press is growing increasingly restricted. As a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization of journalists committed to supporting our colleagues around the world, CPJ is troubled by our findings on Afghanistan, which suggest that media policy is increasingly aimed at hampering journalists.
Long-debated amendments to Afghanistan's media law were delayed when you declined to endorse them on December 26, according to many local journalists. Shaped by a joint commission of the upper and lower houses of parliament, with informed critiques from journalists and media commentators, the amendments represent a promising step toward reaffirming media freedom.
In the interim negotiating period, while the parliamentary houses choose whether to act on or overrule your suggestions, journalists are left vulnerable to prosecution for cultural transgressions as determined by the Ministry of Information and Culture. The ministry does so with the backing of the National Directorate of Security (NDS) and the Nationwide Council of Religious Scholars of Afghanistan.
There have been several incidents that are indications of this trend:
- The Council of Religious Scholars has recommended the death penalty for a young reporter and student charged with blasphemy in Mazar-i-Sharif, according to local press freedom advocate Rahimullah Samander. Local journalists are vocal in their support of Parwez Kambakhsh, who was detained on October 27 for downloading distributing to friends an article about the Prophet Mohammed from the Internet. We share their concerns that Kambakhsh is being targeted in order to put pressure on his brother, journalist Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi, who has repeatedly offended officials with his articles for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. Although the Balkh provincial council appealed for the 23-year-old Kambakhsh's release after meeting with him on January 6, clerics renewed their call for his execution on January 14, Samander's colleague Naqibullah Taib told CPJ.
- On January 4, you met with influential clerics who called popular music shows and Indian soap operas broadcast by Tolo TV un-Islamic, according to Agence France-Presse. Shortly after that meeting a communication from Minister Abdul Khuram to private TV channels banned programs contrary to Afghanistan's culture and laws on threat of referral to the attorney general for prosecution. Saad Mohseni, who runs Tolo and other networks, provided CPJ with a copy of the letter last week. Mohseni told us that NDS representatives reiterated the minister's ban in a meeting with private TV station heads on January 9.
- In 2002, you pledged to turn state-owned Radio Television Afghanistan (RTA) into a public service broadcaster. Yet your latest recommendations on the proposed media law vetoed the draft proposals to establish an independent commission, including legislative and judicial representatives, to govern RTA on the grounds that they were unconstitutional, local news reports say. RTA's director of planning and foreign relations, Abdul Rahman Panjshiri, resigned in September 2007, directly citing Minister Khuram's efforts to curb the station's independence as his reason. "During my 29 years of service with RTA I have not seen such an attempt to suppress freedom," he said in comments published on the Web site of Radio Netherlands.
We do, however, applaud your recommendation for increased clarity in the proposed media bill regarding punishment for violations of new restrictions against insulting Islam, which were overly broad and open to misinterpretation.
As Afghanistan gears up for presidential and parliamentary elections in 2009, it is more important than ever to promote a professional media industry, free from the threat of reprisal and content restrictions on religious or any other grounds.
We ask that you intervene to ensure that the charges against Parwez Kambakhsh are immediately dropped and, on a broader scale, we encourage you to press for revisions to the media law that guarantee increased protection for journalists. We urge you to counteract the threat of prosecution for private TV stations and allow them to determine the cultural relevance of their own programming.
We ask, finally, that you fulfill your promise to develop Radio Television Afghanistan as a public media outlet, and take steps to reduce the Ministry of Information and Culture's editorial and administrative influence over the broadcaster.
These actions will send a clear signal that you will not tolerate moves to restrict the media but rather to allow it to flourish as Afghanistan grows as a democracy.
Thank you for your attention to this important matter.