Reporters Without Borders is puzzled that the Media Offences Commission has decided to refer complaints against the Pajhwok Afghan News agency and two newspapers, Sarnewesht and Bavar, to the attorney-general’s office and calls for the complaints, about a report that Iran bribed parliamentarians, to be withdrawn.
“This decision does not help media independence and development in Afghanistan,” Reporters Without Borders said. “It is true that, under the existing media law, this commission has the power to refer a case to the attorney-general, but it also has the power to avoid involving the courts if this is unnecessary.
“In the article that prompted the complaints, Pajhwok Afghan News offered to give the right of reply to those concerned by its allegations. It is also incomprehensible that the two newspapers, Sarnewesht and Bavar, are receiving the same treatment, as they just reprinted the allegations that had already ready been published elsewhere.”
The case was prompted by a Pajhwok Afghan News report on 26 May quoting a source close to the government as saying Iran had distributed 25 million dollars to parliamentarians to get them to vote against an Afghan-US Strategic Partnership Agreement that is due to take effect in 2014.
Following protests from some parliamentarians, the case was referred to the Media Offences Commission, which decided, after meeting with Pajhwok Afghan News editor Danish Karokhel, to refer it to the Kabul attorney-general.
Karokhel told Reporters Without Borders: “We got this story from a reliable source and we did our own research to verify the information before publishing it. We contacted parliamentarians and we asked them for their comments. We even waited until 7 p.m. in order to get a reaction from the Iranian embassy. As far as I am concerned, we did our job as journalists and we stand by it. And as the law so requires, we can present our sources before a competent court.”
Assadolah Wahidi, the editor of the daily Sarnewesht, said he regretted that the authorities were persecuting his newspaper. “A dozen news outlets carried this information so why are only Sarnewesht and Bavar going to be published,” he said in a letter to Reporters Without Borders, criticising the decision as an “attack on freedom of expression.”
Information and culture minister Seid Makhodm Rahine, who heads the commission, told Reporters Without Borders: “The commission is not a state body, it is independent. Aside from me, its eight other members are from civil society. Our job is to verify whether or not a news media committed an offence. We also try to settle the dispute between plaintiffs and media but in this case, the two sides are sticking to their positions. In a case with such serious allegations, the only solution if for the courts to arbitrate.”
Afghanistan’s independent media find themselves squeezed between, on the one hand, media that are funded and controlled by warlords and foreign governments such as Pakistan and Iran, who are thus able to meddle in the country’s internal affairs, and, on the other, by the Taliban and by corrupt government officials who pressure them to say nothing.