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Media: The Anchor of Afghanistan’s Nascent Democracy

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Under the Taliban, the free media didn’t exist in Afghanistan. During this time, from 1996-2001, there were no Afghan independent journalists, no access to internet and no independent radio stations or publications. Television was illegal. Taking a photograph of any living creature or conducting an unauthorized interview was punishable by flogging or imprisonment.

Against Afghanistan’s harsh historical backdrop of extreme suppression and control, a new media reality has emerged. From the void of 2001, more than 1,400 independent media outlets have grown, including 75 television stations, 200 radio stations and more than 1,200 print media outlets. In 2001, the only independent media workers in the country were foreign correspondents, whose activities were closely monitored by the Taliban regime. Today, more than 12,000 male and female media workers investigate and report Afghanistan’s current events, facilitating a transparent media landscape and public access to information.

More than 2,000 journalism students study in universities across the country, training to be the voice and debate of Afghanistan’s future.

It’s a story often told in numbers, but rarely in terms of its deep impact on Afghan society. Free and open media has played a fundamental role in strengthening Afghanistan’s nascent democracy, promoting human rights and exposing corruption. Information sharing and communication have assisted in bridging the gap between Kabul and the rest of the country—one of Afghanistan’s historical challenges.

This transformation has changed the very fabric of Afghan society, enabling Afghans of all backgrounds to communicate and understand each other. It has established a new precedent for news media independence and offered a new generation of Afghans the opportunity to peacefully mobilize, organize and demand accountability from public officials. The new media landscape has provided a means for self-expression, individual identity and participation in the national democratic process.

Empowering women media professionals to overcome the challenges they encounter in their work was a key focus of a two-day national conference that brought together more than 200 Afghan women journalists in Kabul.

Conference participants, representing 31 out of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, discussed topics such as professional ethics, job security, freedom of expression and the many challenges women face while working in journalism, chiefly among them being social discrimination.

CEO Abdullah Abdullah criticized the ongoing discriminatory approach facing them in the country, and pledged firm support to resolve the issues.

Afghanistan’s National Unity Government, which was established in 2014, has repeatedly emphasized the importance of free media and freedom of expression, providing both legal frameworks and moral support for freedom of the press in the country. Freedom of expression is a constitutionally guaranteed right and a Mass Media Law prohibits censorship and guarantees citizens the right to information. Within the first few weeks of taking office, President Ashraf Ghani endorsed the Access to Information Law, facilitating transparent access to information.

This endorsement marked a major shift in the media landscape, reassuring the media and public that access to information is not only an international ideal, but a value to which the Afghan government is deeply committed. The National Unity Government finalized the Statute on founding and Activity of Private Mass Media, which guarantees the rights of journalists and media workers working for the private media outlets. The government directed all government spokespersons to give public comment or press conferences at least four days per week. The Afghanistan Journalists Safety Committee reported a 43 percent decrease in violence against journalists in the first six months of 2015, as compared to the same time period the previous year—something that can be attributed to the actions taken by the National Unity Government in support of journalists’ safety.

In January 2016, President Ghani issued a decree obligating all government workers to assist journalists with provision of information, ordering security organizations to take concrete and meaningful measures towards journalist safety and incorporating best practices for treatment and provision of information to journalists within security forces curriculum. The decree also directs relevant government agencies to re-open all unaddressed or dismissed cases since 2001 against murdered journalists. Celebrating World Press Freedom Day on May 3, 2016, President Ghani honored more than a dozen journalists with the country’s highest medal and appreciation letters, marking the first time in the country’s history that the medal was awarded to a civilian. President Ghani appointed an Ambassador at Large for Freedom of Expression, to promote and protect the free press.

“Without doubt, freedom of the press is one of the main pillars of our nascent democracy,” President Ghani said. “The journalists who provide accurate and balanced investigative reports can play a vital role in institutionalizing democracy. Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, has also manifested commitment to journalists’ safety and freedom of the press, and has called the free media “The voice of our nation.” Against the backdrop of the withdrawal of international security forces and decreasing financial support from the international community, the National Unity Government’s support of its constituents’ rights to free information and a transparent government has not waivered.

Despite these achievements, freedom of the press and freedom of expression remain fragile in Afghanistan. January 21, 2016 marked Black Wednesday, in which the Taliban attacked a bus of Tolo TV, one of Afghanistan’s leading networks. The attack killed seven media workers and marked the deadliest day against free media in the history of the country. Afghanistan continues to suffer from increasing violence, perpetuated by Taliban and other terrorists, economic dependence and a multitude of other challenges. Yet sustained support from the international community, paired with deep commitment from the Afghan government, these gains will be reinforced and become an integral part of Afghanistan’s democracy.