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Afghan Reporters Maneuver Media Minefields


In Afghanistan, a media boom followed the ouster of the Taliban in 2001, but there have been problems. Watchdog groups report hundreds of cases of violence and intimidation against journalists, including murder. Afghan reporters have learned which topics are off-limits, and they take great care to avoid offending the country's powerful. NPR's Ahmad Shafi reports from Kabul.

AHMAD SHAFI, BYLINE: Last year, Abdullah Khinjani, a 23-year-old law school graduate, landed a job as a presenter for an investigative program at one of the popular private TV stations in Kabul. His exposes of government corruption earned him a devoted following, and also alarmed many Afghan government officials. But after an episode of the show that exposed links between the private security companies and senior members of President Hamid Karzai's administration, Khinjani began receiving threatening phone calls. Then things got worse.

ABDULLAH KHINJANI: One night, I was driving home. It was about 11 o'clock. Suddenly, a big SUV car with dark windows pulled over in front of me. Four men walk out of it and came straight to me. They pointed their guns at me and told me that I should stop reporting on private security companies, and if I want to stay alive, I must quit my job.

SHAFI: A couple of days later, Khinjani says more armed men showed up at his home and told him there would be no more warnings.

KHINJANI: They were armed. They had big guns, they were wearing parliamentary uniforms and they come with big cars that had no license plate. Only very high government officials' cars are with no license plates. I was very scared.

SHAFI: Khinjani says he quit his job, fearing for his life. He's not the only journalist who has faced threats and violence in Afghanistan. According to the Nye(ph) Center for Open Media, since 2001, more than 250 journalists have been threatened, kidnapped, beaten, arrested and/or killed. Siddiqullah Tawhidi, the director of Afghan Media Watch says Afghan government officials were blamed for 55 percent of the incidents, 16 percent were blamed on Taliban militants, and 26 percent were attributed to unknown armed groups.

Tawhidi says 2009 was the worst year for attacks on journalists, but he doesn't think the situation is improving.

SIDDIQULLAH TAWHIDI: (Through translator) It is because more Afghan journalists are resorting to self-censorship when it comes to issues and figures in the government and the armed opposition, and controversial issues such as corruption.

SHAFI: Tawhidi says Karzai's administration has begun to view the Afghan media as a nuisance. He says there was more media freedom in the early years of Karzai's administration, but when journalists started criticizing him and his aides for failing to tackle corruption, the government became more hostile towards freedom of his speech. He says the government has done little about attacks on journalists. Lotfullah Najafizada, a senior current affairs producer was Tolo TV in Kabul says reporters have become aware of the red lines around dangerous topics.

They include religious issues, ethnic issues, corruption, war crimes, or anything to do with warlords or high-ranking governmental officials.

LOTFULLAH NAJAFIZADA: If you really, you know, cross a red line probably, you know, you're going to be knocked out, you know, without any prior notice. There is no, basically, insurance, no guarantee.

SHAFI: Despite the violence and intimidation Najafizada says Afghan journalists still consider the media scene a success story.

NAJAFIZADA: During the Taliban, nothing was here. There was nothing, you know, any kind of newspapers or radio stations, you know, criticizing government. The Taliban had banned, you know, the state channel as well, but now you've got, you know, a growing number of channels, more than 35 now operating, most of them based in Kabul, and most of them private.

SHAFI: Although Karzai's administration maintains it supports free press in Afghanistan, many Afghan journalists fear that gains for the media industry are in jeopardy with worsening security and threats from warlords and conservatives who wield an increasingly heavy hand within the government. They also fear that without the support of the international community and the establishment of viable democratic institutions, media freedom, a key post-Taliban achievement, will be lost when NATO troops leave by the end of 2014. Ahmad Shafi, NPR News, Kabul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ahmad Shafi
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