30 July 2008

Afghanistan’s Government, the News Media, Criticism and LBJ

Private media have flourished in Afghanistan since the end of Taliban rule in 2001. But the Afghan government does not always tolerate criticism of its performance. Thus we were disturbed to read this week that a journalist at Afghanistan’s Ariana TV was detained and now faces prosecution for allegedly insulting senior government officials.

According to a government statement, journalist Nasir Fayaz, host of a weekly show called “Truth”, made what were termed baseless accusations against two cabinet ministers. The statement said: “The Cabinet decided that such people, and any other persons who are working in the media and are making baseless accusations, should be prosecuted.”

Bob Dietz, Asia program coordinator for The Committee to Protect Journalists, says: “These kinds of heavy-handed tactics show that Afghanistan still has far to go in accepting the role of a critical press in an open society.”

Reporters Without Borders said: “The government is making a mistake when it arrests the host of an outspoken current affairs program.”

Reporters Without Borders acknowledges Fayaz was “very critical” of the government, describing two of the country’s ministers as thieves. The VOA news report on his detention quoted government officials as saying Fayaz tried to ask the ministers for special favors.

While we may not know the full story behind this incident, we do know that criticism of government officials can be routine in countries that enjoy a free press. Some leaders even make light of this fact of political life. When the late Lyndon Johnson was US President, he joked that he was never portrayed favorably in the news media, even when he did something spectacular. As he put it: “If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read: President Can't Swim.”

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