The government of Afghanistan sent out mixed messages on Tuesday about its plans to restrict media coverage of insurgent attacks, at once denying that it was banning live coverage of attacks while defending the plans as being “to protect journalists.”
Reuters reported on Monday that Afghanistan “announced a ban on news coverage of Taliban strikes … saying such coverage only emboldened the Islamist militants.”
Reporters would still be allowed to cover insurgent attacks, but only after the fact, and only with permission from the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s spy agency.
“No filming will be permitted while attacks are under way, and live broadcasts will be banned even from a distance,” Reuters reported.
Afghanistan’s constitution guarantees freedom of speech and domestic critics said the ban, which came after one of the deadliest days this year for NATO troops, amounted to censorship.
On Tuesday, with journalists expressing concerns about the measure, Afghan officials took a softer stance. The Associated Press reported that government officials denied they are planning to ban live coverage, saying they are “developing guidelines, not restrictions, to prevent live footage from aiding fighters at the scene.”
According to Waheed Omar, a spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the “guidelines” would be designed to protect journalists during attacks. Omar also said insurgents have been using live broadcasts to give instructions to other fighters, though he did not elaborate how.
“I would not call it restrictions,” he said, as quoted at AP.
“Omar’s explanation was oblique,” writes McClatchy correspondent Dion Nissenbaum. “At the end of the news conference, it was still unclear exactly how and when the new restrictions would go into effect.”
Nissenbaum quoted the senior managing editor at the Associated Press, who said: “We believe broad, pre-emptive bans on coverage are inconsistent with a democratic society. … Experience shows there are many ways to cover important breaking stories without interfering with police or security operations.”
Nissenbaum’s report suggests that a series of devastating, high-profile attacks in Kabul in recent weeks may be prompting the Afghan government to try to reduce the bad news in the press.
In January, Afghan stations aired live coverage of a three-hour Taliban attack in Kabul. And, last Friday, reporters were on-the-scene outside a Kabul hotel while Afghan security forces were involved in a prolonged gunfight with the last remaining insurgent holed up inside.
During the fighting, Afghan security officials warned journalists gathered in the street that they would have their cameras confiscated if they filmed the ongoing attack.
US envoy Richard Holbrooke said Washington would raise its concerns with the Afghan government.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other US officials “are concerned and will make our support of free access by the press clear to the government”, Holbrooke, the US pointman on Afghanistan and Pakistan, told reporters.
“We don’t like restrictions on the press. My whole career has been devoted to supporting that,” said Holbrooke.
— With Agence France-Presse