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Afghan officials clamp down on the press

Government agencies are intimidating and arresting journalists. The crackdown marks the decline of a hard-won, post-Taliban-era achievement: press freedom.

By Anand GopalCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 19, 2008

A man buys newspapers at a roadside stall in Kabul. There are currently 770 papers and magazines across Afghanistan, but many are supported by former mujahideen with political agendas.

Shah marai/AFP/getty images

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Kabul, Afghanistan

Naseer Fayaz, one of Afghanistan's most famous television presenters, is used to fans and other well-wishers coming by the office. The host of a popular weekly program, "The Truth," his exposés of government malfeasance have won him awards as well as a devoted following. But after a recent episode of the show that was especially critical of the government, Mr. Fayaz received unexpected visitors: members of the Afghan secret police.

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"They questioned me and the next day arrested me," he says. "I was kept in a cell for two days. They kept telling me I should quit working in the media."

After protests from numerous Afghan media groups and global organizations, such as Amnesty International, Fayaz was released. But media groups say that the incident is the latest in a trend of increasing intimidation of Afghan journalists by the government.

In fact, the Afghan government is responsible for at least 23 of the 45 reported incidents of intimidation, violence, or arrest of journalists between May 2007 and May 2008, according to the Nai Center for Open Media, an Afghan nongovernmental organization.

The figure represents a 130 percent spike from the same period the year before, when just 10 cases were reported. Since May, 22 incidents of press harassment have been reported, nearly a 60 percent jump from the same period last summer.

Only a few weeks ago, authorities arrested Raj – like many Afghans, he goes by only one name – the manager of the independent outlet Nili Radio in Daikundi Province. Mr. Raj told reporters that he was arrested because he did not provide enough coverage of the activities of the local governor.

"Even independent news outlets are under tremendous pressure," says Hafiz Barakzai, assistant director of the National Union of Journalists. "If news directors or editors write something critical of the government, they will be sure to get a call from a government official." Mr. Barakzai adds that dozens of journalists have been fired because they failed to curb their reporting to meet government demands.

For example, Sohaila Wedah Khamoush, a reporter for the independent daily Payman, says she has been repeatedly abused by police and government officials. "I saw police beating protesters in an anti-US demonstration," she says. "When I tried to take pictures I was sent to the attorney general's office and he arrested me. He eventually released me and ordered me not to write the story."

Last month, according to the Nai Center, authorities released Khalil Narmgoy, who had spent 35 days in jail after being accused of writing a satire criticizing President Hamid Karzai.