Biggest step for Afghanistan: informed voters

As Afghans prepare for their country's first direct presidential election Oct. 9, another quiet battle for freedom is taking place inside Afghanistan. Its outcome will determine the progress of democracy.

After the fall of the Taliban government, which banned free speech and entertainment, among other things, hundreds of media outlets began operating again. Millions of Afghans in Kabul, for example, are tuning in to radio stations that play international pop music and even broach sensitive cultural topics, such as male-female relationships outside marriage. In a conservative Islamic society like Afghanistan's, airing such programming is a significant step.

Still, in the wake of two decades of war and continuing social and political tensions, self-censorship is not uncommon in the Afghan press. Journalists are under tremendous pressure and regularly face threats, harassment, and violence from a variety of sources, including warlords, politicians, and government officials.

Mounting evidence shows that in developing countries around the world, independent media are under increasing threat, especially when national elections approach. In the case of Afghanistan, vague legal provisions governing free expression not only fail to protect journalists; they sometimes place them in greater jeopardy.

This summer, I worked at Internews, a media development NGO, which has built a network of stations across Afghanistan and is now supporting a new national radio program. The three-hour program, called Salam Watandar, or "Hello Citizen," reaches more than 40 percent of Afghanistan's rural population with regular news and features about women, rural living, and human rights. In a country where barely 30 percent of the population is literate, radio is both a popular and powerful form of communication.

I joined Internews to help develop a free press so that Afghans can rely less on government-controlled news sources and international coverage. Afghanistan has a special draw for me because I was born there, shortly before the Soviet invasion in 1979. Like many families, mine fled the country soon after.

While in Kabul, I met dedicated journalists such as Nurullah Stanikzai, who fought alongside American Special Forces against the Taliban before trading in his weapon for a microphone. Mr. Stanikzai and other Salam Watandar journalists are conscious - and defensive - of their independent status.

The Salam Watandar staff have experienced intimidation firsthand. A uniformed officer and four plainclothes security officials stormed into our offices in August, demanding to know a reporter's source for a story about a bomb plot at an Afghan ministry - a story that had not even aired. Twelve armed police surrounded the building while they attempted to interrogate us. Salam Watandar's management refused to reveal the reporter's source. The next day, police came to Internews and asked for a staff list, claiming this was a security requirement. It's unclear if Afghanistan's inexperienced courts would affirm Salam Watandar's decision to protect the source. So far, the courts have failed to come down on the side of the press.

Last year, two journalists accused of blasphemy were sentenced to death by the conservative Supreme Court. Both fled the country. The ruling was based on a problematic set of provisions in the law governing freedom of expression, which prohibit criticism of Islam and subjects that could lead to "dishonoring and defamation of individuals." Opponents argue that these provisions are too broad and easily subject journalists to political abuse.

Female journalists face extra problems, mainly harassment and the struggle to be taken seriously in a culture with heavy restrictions on women's mobility, especially after dark. According to a recent report by Kabul Weekly, an independent newspaper, women also complain that a lack of security threatens their journalistic charge to "tell it like it is." Radio Sahar, a women's community radio station in Herat, was taken over for several days in June by armed guards of warlord Ismail Khan, the former governor of that province. In other cases, station managers have been threatened by local commanders wanting more coverage of their activities.

In this environment, journalists have been working hard to give voters balanced and in-depth coverage of the presidential campaigns and the election process. At a time when Afghan politicians have made national unity a campaign platform, Salam Watandar is attempting to bridge Afghanistan's ethno-linguistic differences by broadcasting equally in Dari and Pashto, the country's two main languages.

The risks to journalists increase daily as the elections approach, but so do the responsibilities. With few resources dedicated to increasing voter education and with a limited number of election observers expected to be on hand, it will be up to the media to explain and dispel postelection confusion, from possible accusations of irregularities to the process of a potential runoff election.

An informed electorate would be Afghanistan's biggest success story yet.

Roya Aziz is a dual master's candidate in journalism and Middle East area studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

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