Afghan Government Says It Is Not Banning Media Coverage of Taliban Attacks

March 2, 2010 - 5:34 AM
Kabul (AP) - The Afghan government denied Tuesday that it had banned live media coverage of insurgent attacks, saying it was developing guidelines, not restrictions, to prevent live footage from aiding fighters at the scene.
 
Waheed Omar, a spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, said that insurgents had used live broadcasts from the scene of attacks in the past to give instructions to their fellow militants. Omar said he would meet on Wednesday with the spokesmen of all the Afghan ministries to discuss the formulation of guidelines.
 
In addition to thwarting the goals of militants, he said the guidelines also would serve to protect journalists at the scene of attacks.
 
"These are the two things we'd like to address with the cooperation of the media," Omar said. "We hope that can happen through a mechanism that doesn't restrict anyone's access to information or restrict the presence of media on the scene."
 
"I would not call it restrictions," Omar said.
 
That characterization, however, conflicts with the message Saeed Ansari, spokesman for the National Directorate of Security, gave the news media on Monday.
 
Ansari told representatives of The Associated Press and other news organizations, in individual meetings at the heavily secured compound, that the government was instituting a ban on live coverage at attack sites. He did not disclose specific details about how the ban would be imposed, but said there would be punitive measures taken against journalists who did not comply. He did not elaborate.
 
During the meeting, the AP argued that the ban would make it difficult to provide the public with up-to-date information about insurgent attacks in Afghanistan.
 
"We believe broad, pre-emptive bans on coverage are inconsistent with a democratic society," John Daniszewski, AP senior managing editor for international news, said in New York. "Experience shows there are many ways to cover important breaking stories without interfering with police or security operations."
 
U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said the United States supported freedom of the press and planned to discuss the issue with the Afghan government. "Continuing to strengthen free and independent media is important to any country's democratic development," Hayden said.
 
The announcement came just days after Taliban militants struck at hotels in the heart of Kabul in an assault that showed the militants remain a potent force. The militants fought with suicide attackers and a car bomb, killing 16 people -- half of them foreigners.
 
Last year, the Afghan government issued a similar directive, instructing journalists not to broadcast "any incidence of violence" during the hours of polling in the Aug. 20 presidential election and directing journalists to stay away from the scene of attacks until investigators could collect evidence.The orders were not strictly enforced.
 
The head of the Afghan Independent Journalists Association, Rahimullah Samandar, said Tuesday that the informal nature of the request by Afghan officials shows that the government knows it cannot legally keep journalists from reporting on attacks or visiting the sites of incidents.
 
"We have not received a written document or letter from the intelligence service," Samandar said. He said that Afghanistan's constitution protects journalists' right to decide what to cover and said he does not expect Afghan reporters to abide by the request.
 
"It is censorship of media coverage," Samandar said. "We will not accept it." He noted that the government's attempt to ban coverage of violence during last year's election was largely ignored without retribution.
 
Ajmal Samadi, a spokesman for Afghanistan Rights Monitor, a civil liberties group, said restricting freedom of expression is unsavory and contradicts international human rights laws and Afghanistan's constitution. "Unfortunately the international community has been silently watching the Karzai regime's undemocratic moves, which are not limited to the state control on media," Samadi said.