KABUL – The Afghan government kept its promise not to tolerate the efforts of the press to report on violent incidents during its national election Thursday. Reporters in Kabul faced arrest, beatings and close calls with angry mobs.
In a press release Wednesday, the Afghan government announced that it was placing a ban on all reports of election day violence. Government officials say that they were worried such reports would scare Afghans away from voting. Instead, many journalists caught a fright.
Ruben Terlo, a Dutch documentary photographer, was detained by Afghan police because he was taking pictures in the aftermath of a Taliban and police gun battle.
“A police officer chased me down the street, beat me up, and confiscated my cameras,” says Mr. Terlo. “I was lying in the dirt and they were hitting me with the butts of their rifles and kicking me with their boots. I was seriously scared for my life. When he had that rifle in his hands and he was pointing it at me, I though that was it.”
During this time, Rohulla Samadi, a translator for Killid Media, Afghanistan’s largest independent media organization, was also detained. Thirty minutes later, Mr. Samadi and Terlo were released and Terlo was given back his camera.
That incident began when a group of journalists visited Kabul’s District Eight after an hour-long firefight between the Taliban and police. Within minutes, police moved through the crowd, ripping video and still cameras off the shoulders of photographers and television reporters. Samadi and Terlo were separated from the larger group.
A group of five journalists, (this reporter included), made a break for a waiting car while pursued by Afghan police brandishing AK-47s. “My only thought was saving those images,” says Rafal Gerszak, a Canadian freelance photographer. “But I was also worried about the beating we’d get.”
Mr. Gerszak removed the memory card from his camera, secreting the digital storage unit in his crotch.
Carmine Marinelli, a freelance photographer, was momentarily left behind. He was terrified as he watched the car pull away. “I thought I was going to get beat up by the police,” says Mr. Marinelli. “I was very worried about how I was going to get out of there.”
Luckily for Marinelli, the car stopped and he leapt into the front seat.
By this time, an Afghan policeman had approached the car, pointing his AK-47 at the hood and yelling at the driver to stop. A crowd of at least 50 civilians surrounded the car. The crowd parted momentarily and Bronstein stomped her foot on the gas as the driver continued to argue with the officer from his seat, and the jorunalists made their escape.
“When we were in that car and he was pointing that gun at us,” says Gerszak, “I thought ‘We’re done. We’re not getting out of here alive.’”
The Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs release that sought to restrict reporting reads “all domestic and international media agencies are requested to refrain from broadcasting any incidence of violence during the election process," and foreign journalists were threatened with deportation if they violated the ban, in effect between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. on Aug. 20.
In the case of the District Eight attack, local radio reporters were on the scene giving on-air reports from the opening salvos of the fight. By the time the shooting stopped, any Afghan with a radio knew that the Election Day peace had been shattered.
The attack began around 10 a.m. Kabul time, when insurgents holed up in an abandoned building across the street from District Eight police headquarters launched rocket-propelled grenades and rifle fire at the headquarters. The police say there were three attackers but neighborhood residents say the number was closer to ten.
The Afghan police responded to the assault by pouring fire into the two-story, brick building, creating a cacophony of violence that echoed throughout the neighborhood. Bullets kicked up dust as they caromed off the gutter-bracketed street and hit nearby mud houses.
After an hour of fighting, two of the insurgents were killed and a third fled to an adjacent neighborhood. One of the dead insurgents was found wearing a suicide vest that had not detonated. The hunt for the third insurgent is still underway.
Just after the fight ended, at least fifty foreign and local reporters arrived on the scene to record the remains of the battle. A mob of photographers jockeyed for position as the dead insurgents were brought out of the house and loaded into a police pickup truck, wrapped in body bags.
It was minutes later, as print, radio, and TV reporters milled about, talking with each other and doing final interviews from the scene, that police turned on the journalists and began snatching cameras.