(Washington, DC--March 25, 2003) In what looks like a growing crackdown on press freedom, the Governor of Herat Province in Afghanistan, Ismail Khan, demanded yesterday through his security chief, Nasim Alawi, that RFE/RL correspondent Ahmad Behzad leave Herat and not return. Behzad, a native of Herat, was already planning to leave Herat with several of his colleagues to protest the recent beating of Behzad by Alawi and other members of Ismail Khan's security forces, as well as threatening comments made by Khan against journalists working for international media outlets in Herat.
A group of Herat-based journalists, including correspondents for RFE/RL, Voice of America, the BBC and Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting's Dari Service, decided yesterday to cease any media coverage and leave the province for at least one week, according to information obtained by Radio Free Afghanistan, the Afghan service of RFE/RL. In addition, local publications such as the weekly "Takasus" and the monthly "Shugufa," as well as a number of local newspapers in Herat, announced that they would join the protest, citing Khan's treatment of "[Radio Free Afghanistan's] reporters" and specifically the treatment of Behzad.
On arrival in Kabul, Behzad said in an interview with Radio Free Afghanistan that he had in his possession an open letter signed by journalists working for most of the media outlets in Herat, demanding freedom of the press in the city and asking that Afghan President Hamid Karzai meet with the journalists to discuss Khan's efforts to stifle the press.
Behzad was verbally assaulted by Khan and physically beaten by Alawi on March 19, at the ceremonial opening of the Herat office of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. That event was attended by Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali, U.N. Special representative for Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi and chief U.N. spokesman in Afghanistan Manoel de Almeida e Silva.
Two days later, on March 21, Ismail Khan condemned the coverage of human rights violations in Herat by Afghan "slaves of the media" at a ceremony marking the Afghan New Year, or Nowruz. According to Khan, “Those Afghans from our city, through BBC and Radio Azadi, harm the dignity of our people… I would like to tell them [the radio journalists] that just like those who served the Russians and benefited from them, they too will meet the same end."
President Karzai's spokesman Sayed Fazl Akbar, in response to a question concerning Khan's accusations, said on March 23 that he did not feel that BBC and Radio Free Afghanistan reporting on the issue was biased and that he could see no reason for such accusations.