KABUL – Afghan journalists on Wednesday rejected a Foreign Ministry demand that they suspend the broadcasting of news about attacks or violence on election day, accusing the government of unconstitutional censorship.
The Taliban have ramped up attacks ahead of Thursday's vote, including two suicide bombings against NATO troops, rocket fire on the presidential compound and an armed assault on a bank in recent days. The militant group has also threatened to attack polling stations on Thursday.
Even before the ban went into effect, police beat back reporters arriving at the scene of an attack on a bank in Kabul.
Fearing that violence could dampen turnout, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement Tuesday saying that news organizations should avoid "broadcasting any incidence of violence" between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. on election day "to ensure the wide participation of the Afghan people."
Afghanistan's active local media — the country has a host of newspapers, radio stations and television news outlets — condemned the statement as stifling freedom of the press that was supposed to have returned after the ouster of the Taliban in 2001.
"We will not obey this order. We are going to continue with our normal reporting and broadcasting of news," said Rahimullah Samander, head of the Independent Journalist Association of Afghanistan.
U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Fleur Cowan said the U.S. acknowledged the sovereign rights of the Afghan government but believed that free media reporting "is directly linked to the credibility of the elections."
Samander said a presidential spokesman called him Tuesday night to tell him to inform members of the association not to report violence on election day. He refused.
When there are rumors of violence, "the first thing they do is turn on their radios or TVs, or go on the Internet to read news," he said. "If the people aren't able to find information, it will be very difficult for them to participate in the election. If there is, for example, an attack on a highway going to a polling station, the people should know about it. It may be dangerous for them to use that highway."
Fahim Dashti, the editor of the English-language Kabul Weekly newspaper, called the demand "a violation of media law" and a constitution that protects freedom of speech.
"If some huge attack occurs, of course we are obliged to cover it," he said.
But the appeal may embolden security forces who have already been increasingly hostile to journalists trying to cover attacks in recent days.
On Wednesday, reporters who rushed to the site of an attack on a bank in Kabul were beaten back by police, who hit photographers with pistols and threatened them by pointing loaded rifles in their faces, according to journalists from The Associated Press at the scene. At least one photographer's camera was broken in the melee, during which police also attacked civilians. One officer beat a man with a baton, AP journalists said.
Saad Mohseni, the owner of a media conglomerate that includes the country's most popular television channel and radio station, said Afghan news outlets must consider how their reporting would affect voter turnout, but "to try to enforce it through some sort of presidential decree is bizarre."
Mohseni said he had not seen the document from the Foreign Ministry but had had phone conversations with government officials who had described it as a request rather than an order. And he said there is a danger of the media irresponsibly overplaying small attacks to get viewers.
"Certainly there was one report yesterday when two rockets hit Kabul and they were comparing it to the civil war in the '90s, and that is going too far," he said.