Afghans fear end of golden age of press freedom

Afghans fear end of golden age of press freedom

Beneath the gaze of the TV cameras a woman begins speaking, at first softly but with growing passion as she faces the "Butcher of Kabul" across a crowded auditorium and asks if he wants to apologise for alleged war crimes.

Without missing a beat, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the ruthlessformer warlord blamed for rocket attacks which reduced much of the Afghancapital to rubble in the 1990s, declined to do so.

The dramatic moment during a recent televised news debatehighlights how far media freedom has come in Afghanistan, where – for now –traumatised civilians can stand and at least try to hold powerful men toaccount, live on camera.

"Years ago, these kind of questions could get youkilled, but now people can challenge the most dangerous people in mainstreamand social media," Mustafa Rahimi, a university student, said afterwatching the debate.

But today, even as hundreds of media outlets proliferateacross Afghanistan, consumers and journalists alike worry a potential peacedeal between the Taliban and the US could sound the death knell for a goldenage of press freedom.

"We are concerned about a total or a partial ban onmedia," Sediqullah Khaliq, the director of Hewad TV and radio in Kandahar– the birthplace of Taliban – told AFP.

"There is fear that we may go back to a media blackoutor having a state-controlled press." While in power, the Taliban ragedagainst traditional forms of mass communication and entertainment, banningtelevision, movies and allowing only Islamist programming or propaganda to bebroadcast on the only radio station, Voice of Sharia.

Anyone caught watching TV faced punishment and risked havingtheir television set smashed and then displayed from a lamppost.

Almost all electronic products were outlawed as un-Islamic.For a while, trees in Kabul fluttered with the magnetic ribbon tape fromdestroyed cassettes.

Photographs of living things were illegal, and ownership ofa video player could lead to a public lashing.

Afghanistan is the world's deadliest place for journalists,who face many risks covering the conflict and who have sometimes been targetedfor doing their job.

Nine journalists, including AFP Kabul's chief photographerShah Marai, were killed in an Islamic State attack in April 2018.

Media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RSF)reported that 2018 was the deadliest year on record for journalists inAfghanistan, with at least 15 media workers killed while working.

Despite the risks, hundreds of media organisations haveblossomed since 2001, and today there are more than 100 television channels,284 radio stations and just over 400 newspapers and magazines, according to agovernment report.

With one of the world's lowest literacy rates, televisionand radio play a huge role in Afghan culture, and Afghans have grown accustomedto outlets holding their politicians to account.

Warlords, politicians, Taliban sympathisers and governmentofficials are openly challenged in televised debates, radio programmes and onsocial media.

"We now play live music, women call in and share theirproblems on the radio. But even if the Taliban allow radios, I don't think theywould like our programmes," said Mera Hamdam, a presenter at Zama privateradio in Kandahar.

"There is huge concern that we will lose all ourachievements," he said. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said if theyreturn to power, the insurgents would follow an Islamic interpretation offreedom of expression.

"We won't allow propaganda, insults and humiliation topeople in society and religious values. We will allow those who work for thebetterment of the society," he told AFP.

A sixth round of talks between the US and the Talibanwrapped up last week in Doha, with apparently little progress being made onseveral key issues.

The two foes have for months been trying to hammer out adeal that could see foreign forces leave Afghanistan in return for a ceasefire,talks between Kabul and the Taliban, and a guarantee the country will not beused as a safe haven for terror groups.

But observers worry that in a rush to quit Afghanistan afternearly 18 gruelling years of war, America might not push for safeguards ofprotections many Afghans now take for granted, including media freedoms andimproved rights for women and other marginalised people.

"Freedom of expression as a protective value should beincorporated into any document resulting from peace talks," NAI, a leadingmedia support agency, said in a statement.

Rahimi, the university student, said he worried aboutAfghanistan going back to "the dark era".

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