Wednesday, March 14, 2007

journalists urged to sign: banning criticism of Nato mission

Media dragged into Afghan conflict
14.03.2007 Alastair Leithead, BBC

Propaganda has always played an important part in war, but in Afghanistan the battles between Nato forces and the Taleban are being fought not just in the deserts and valleys but in the media.

When the war is about hearts and minds, winning public opinion is the be-all and end-all, and there's quite a temptation to interfere in a country with a now thriving media.

A local journalist from Tolo TV was arrested and held by Afghan authorities for about 36 hours without charge, for talking to a Taleban spokesman who would ring in every day with his version of events - something which happens in most organisations, including the BBC.

Last summer, a document was circulated to journalists by intelligence officers, and they were urged to sign up to an order banning criticism of the Nato mission, or of representing the Afghan armed forces as "weak", leading news bulletins with "terrorist activities" or filming or interviewing "terrorist commanders".

The proposed rules and regulations came to nothing, but there was fear among the Afghan media that this was a glimpse of what was to come.

"One of the greatest achievements of this post-Taleban era has been a free press and I fear that is now in danger," said Saad Mahseni from the Afghan Moby Media Group.

A new media law is being discussed in parliament which he fears may contain loopholes that could restrict broadcasters and newspapers.

This week the Taleban's former spokesman, known as Dr Mohammad Hanif, spoke on television after his arrest by Afghan intelligence officials.

Professing not to be under duress, he explained how he was told to inflate Taleban figures on deaths and injuries to Nato, coalition and Afghan forces, but that is something well known by journalists.

For the Taleban to use these tactics is perhaps expected from an insurgency using information, intimidation and guerrilla warfare, often from civilian areas, to take on the world's most sophisticated armies.

'Investigative integrity'

But this week the focus has been on action taken by US forces.

Last Sunday, a suicide bomber struck an American convoy close to the eastern city of Jalalabad. The American soldiers opened fire in the aftermath killing at least eight Afghans and injuring 34.

Questions have been raised over the Americans' insistence that they were ambushed after the bomb blast and were merely returning fire.

Two freelance journalists from the Associated Press news agency were on the scene within half an hour and they filmed and photographed a civilian car, 100m from the bomb attack, where three Afghans were killed.

They were ordered by an American soldier to delete the footage from their cameras, which they did.

The US military has said this was justified, claiming it could have compromised a military investigation and led to the public jumping to the wrong conclusion about what happened.

"Investigative integrity is one circumstance when civil and military authorities will reluctantly exercise the right to control what a journalist is permitted to document," said Colonel Victor Petrenko, chief of staff to the top US commander in eastern Afghanistan, in a letter to AP.

He added that images taken by "untrained people" might "capture visual details that are not as they originally were".


In disputing this, AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll in New York said: "That is not a reasonable justification for erasing images from our cameras.

"AP's journalists in Afghanistan are trained, accredited professionals... in democratic societies, legitimate journalists are allowed to work without having their equipment seized and their images deleted."

A photographer in Kabul for the New York agency World Picture News, Jean Chung, also said her photograph of a gate at the US Bagram Airbase which was targeted by a suicide bomber while Dick Cheney was in Afghanistan, had been forcibly removed from her camera.

"They grabbed my lens and threatened to destroy my camera," she said.

"If they say they support democracy and freedom they should not be so strict about it in Afghanistan - it goes against the American constitution. I feel they are trying to cover up a lot of things."

Civilian casualties are a problem for the international forces as the incidents and the way they are reported will make a difference to the way they are perceived by the Afghan population.

For journalists, it is becoming increasingly difficult to establish exactly what happened in some of the more violent parts of the country - where being on the ground is almost impossible.

An Italian journalist is still being held along with his two Afghan translators and there have been threats levelled at locals from the Taleban, and as the violence increases, as expected, this is only going to get worse.

The opinions expressed in the articles are those of the authors and are not necessarily shared by Asia-Plus.