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Press Freedom Fragile in Afghanistan

(Washington, DC--May 21, 2004) An expert on press freedom told an RFE/RL audience earlier this month that, despite a "blossoming of journalism" in Afghanistan, the independent media are still in a "fragile situation." Abi Wright, Asia Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), stated that "conditions for journalists have greatly improved," but threats to the free press arise every day from the country's "conservative drift," but more importantly, from the "abuse of power by those in power."

Noting that press freedom is crucial for Afghanistan to have successful national elections later this year, Wright summarized the specific dangers to media freedom in Afghanistan, which she believes apply to the country's democracy as a whole -- lack of physical security, gender biases, a weak central government, ethnic factionalism and abuse of power.

Wright said that journalists, specifically women journalists, have only made limited progress since the fall of the Taliban in December 2001. She noted that in 2003, "numerous examples of journalists attacked for criticizing those in power" were reported to the CPJ. Far fewer attacks on the press have been reported in 2004, Wright said, adding that these results "do not necessarily indicate better conditions," because they could be caused by "self-censorship in such an environment." The drop in global media coverage of Afghanistan and resulting decline in the number of Western correspondents there may also explain the lower number of attacks, according to Wright.

Legal challenges to press freedom remain in Afghanistan, Wright said, especially in the form of blasphemy laws codified in the Sharia, or Islamic code of law. Wright noted that, according to Sharia law, "freedom of expression must not violate religious belief" and that "the more conservative Islamic factions in Afghani society have sought to ban broadcasting that is un-Islamic or contains objectionable subject matter." She emphasized that the challenge facing Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai is to "balance the moderate and conservative elements in the country."

Wright acknowledged that press freedom was "moving forward" in a "country where there was no press or media from 1996 through 2001 because of Taliban rule." She cited the "huge growth in substantive training," and "essential international funding" by organizations such as RFE/RL, the Institute for Journalism, USAID, several Canadian-funded projects, the Open Media Fund and others as important factors in the improvement.

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