Afghans fear end of golden age of press freedom

In this photo taken on April 4, 2019 Afghan reporters work in the newsroom at the Khurshid TV station in Kabul. Afghan journalists fear a peace deal between Taliban and the US could erode their freedoms, as the future of the media hangs in doubt in one of the most dangerous environments for the press. (AFP)
Updated 21 May 2019
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Afghans fear end of golden age of press freedom

  • A recent televised news debate highlights how far media freedom has come in Afghanistan
  • Journalists alike worry a potential peace deal between the Taliban and the US could sound the death knell for a golden age of press freedom

KABUL: 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 ruthless former warlord blamed for rocket attacks which reduced much of the Afghan capital to rubble in the 1990s, declined to do so.
The dramatic moment during a recent televised news debate highlights how far media freedom has come in Afghanistan, where -- for now -- traumatised civilians can stand and at least try to hold powerful men to account, live on camera.
"Years ago, these kind of questions could get you killed, but now people can challenge the most dangerous people in mainstream and social media," Mustafa Rahimi, a university student, said after watching the debate.
But today, even as hundreds of media outlets proliferate across Afghanistan, consumers and journalists alike worry a potential peace deal between the Taliban and the US could sound the death knell for a golden age of press freedom.
"We are concerned about a total or a partial ban on media," 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 blackout or having a state-controlled press."
While in power, the Taliban raged against traditional forms of mass communication and entertainment, banning television, movies and allowing only Islamist programming or propaganda to be broadcast on the only radio station, Voice of Sharia.
Anyone caught watching TV faced punishment and risked having their 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 from destroyed cassettes.
Photographs of living things were illegal, and ownership of a 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 targeted for doing their job.
Nine journalists, including AFP Kabul's chief photographer Shah 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 in Afghanistan, with at least 15 media workers killed while working.
Despite the risks, hundreds of media organisations have blossomed since 2001, and today there are more than 100 television channels, 284 radio stations and just over 400 newspapers and magazines, according to a government report.
With one of the world's lowest literacy rates, television and radio play a huge role in Afghan culture, and Afghans have grown accustomed to outlets holding their politicians to account.
Warlords, politicians, Taliban sympathisers and government officials are openly challenged in televised debates, radio programmes and on social media.
"We now play live music, women call in and share their problems on the radio. But even if the Taliban allow radios, I don't think they would like our programmes," said Mera Hamdam, a presenter at Zama private radio in Kandahar.
"There is huge concern that we will lose all our achievements," he said.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said if they return to power, the insurgents would follow an Islamic interpretation of freedom of expression.
"We won't allow propaganda, insults and humiliation to people in society and religious values. We will allow those who work for the betterment of the society," he told AFP.
A sixth round of talks between the US and the Taliban wrapped up last week in Doha, with apparently little progress being made on several key issues.
The two foes have for months been trying to hammer out a deal 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 be used as a safe haven for terror groups.
But observers worry that in a rush to quit Afghanistan after nearly 18 gruelling years of war, America might not push for safeguards of protections many Afghans now take for granted, including media freedoms and improved rights for women and other marginalised people.
"Freedom of expression as a protective value should be incorporated into any document resulting from peace talks," NAI, a leading media support agency, said in a statement.
Rahimi, the university student, said he worried about Afghanistan going back to "the dark era".


In Sudan, Internet users find ways to beat blackout

Updated 20 June 2019
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In Sudan, Internet users find ways to beat blackout

  • Even routine activities like checking social media or booking a taxi through an online app has now become nearly impossible
  • Generally across Sudan, the Internet is now accessible only through land telephone lines or fiber optic cables, and the connection is erratic

KHARTOUM: In a lush garden cafe in Sudan’s capital, a group of youngsters sit eyes glued to mobile phone screens, seeking ways to bypass an Internet blackout imposed by army rulers.
“It’s as if we have gone back in time — we are cut off from everything, even from the outside world,” said Mohamed Omar, 25, sitting around a wooden table with his friends at the cafe in an upscale Khartoum district.
“Internet is what allows us to know what’s happening inside the country and outside.”
Internet on mobile phones and fixed land connections has been widely cut across Sudan since the violent dispersal of a protest camp outside army headquarters on June 3 that left dozens dead and hundreds wounded.
The ruling military council imposed the blackout to prevent further mobilization of protesters, according to users.
“They cut the Internet so that people can not communicate, to prevent (them from) gathering,” said Omar, who has regularly attended the protests that rocked Khartoum for months.
Initial protests were sparked by a tripling of bread prices in December, and led to the downfall of long-time president Omar Al-Bashir on April 11.
But the protesters did not stop there, quickly demanding that the military council that seized power hand over to civilian rule.
Even routine activities like checking social media or booking a taxi through an online app has now become nearly impossible.
“My parents live abroad, the Internet was our only means of communication,” said Omar, sporting a neat goatee and an elegant knee-length truffle grey tunic.
“Before, we could see each other by video, now I have to (make an international) call,” he added.
At the cafe, some sat around wooden tables, while others typed on their phones and some browsed on their laptops.
Here, an hour of Internet costs 50 Sudanese pounds, which is approximately one dollar.
Generally across Sudan, the Internet is now accessible only through land telephone lines or fiber optic cables, and the connection is erratic.
In one Khartoum mall, customers swarm several mobile shops and cybercafes that offer rare access.
At the shops’ entrances, men and women — sitting, standing or leaning against the walls — have their eyes fixed to their mobile phones.
“Cutting the Internet is one of the means by the military council to widen the gap between (the protest movement) and the people,” prominent protest leader Mohamed Naji Al-Assam told reporters this week.
The impact of the blackout was felt Tuesday night when few came out onto the streets, even as protest leaders called for new night-time demonstrations.
Human Rights Watch slammed the blackout as a “gross violation.”
“Governments that seek to repress peaceful political opposition have in many instances cut off Internet access during times of political sensitivity and crisis,” the rights group said in a report on June 12.
For the generals the Internet and social media are a threat.
“Regarding social media, we see during this period that it represents a threat for the security of the country and we will not allow that,” military council spokesman General Shamseddine Kabbashi told reporters last week.
And on Wednesday, the authorities prevented a consumer protection association from holding a press conference on the Internet blackout.
Businesses, hit by the blackout, are struggling to keep their services going.
Kamal, an employee of an international travel agency, said his company — which regularly books tickets for embassies and UN agencies — has been forced to make bookings through phone calls and text messages, because they can’t access the Internet.
“We get calls from our clients, then we call our back office in Nairobi. It is they who book the ticket and text us the ticket number,” he said.
“We forward the ticket number to the client, who then goes to the airport to take the boarding pass from the airport counter itself.”
“If a ticket needs to be modified, we used to do it from our system itself... but now we (have to) send people to the airline office.”
Other Sudanese travel agencies were shut for several days this month after protest leaders launched a civil disobedience movement, in the wake of the crackdown on protesters.
“Earlier, four, five, six or seven tickets could be booked in one day, but now it takes four days to book just one ticket,” said travel agent Hoiam, whose agency was shut during the disobedience campaign.
The main factor was the “very poor” Internet connection at her office, she said.
The Internet blackout has been imposed by the generals “to put an end to the revolution,” she said.
“But still, with or without Internet, people manage to communicate.”