Afghanistan Press Law Criticised
Afghanistan's new press law, introduced in mid-February, has come under fire at a major conference in Kabul. In a working session on the first day of the three day International Seminar on Promoting Independent and Pluralistic Media (3rd-5th September), speakers questioned various aspects of the new law and the way in which it affected journalists and their rights.
Following a keynote address by Deputy Minister of Information and Culture, Mr. A.H. Mubarez, and an historical overview of press laws in Afghanistan by Mr. H. Rafi, Member of the High Press Council, delegates participated in a lively debate on a range of issues.
Mr. Ronald Koven, European Representative of the World Press Freedom Committee, said he had critiqued the new press law and had found it wanting. He questioned the need for a press law at all and said it was impossible to write such a law without infringing on freedom of the press. Mr. Koven particularly noted that the "insult laws" provision within the legislation was of considerable concern. On the question of whether countries in transition could have an open media environment, Mr. Koven said that "there is no country so underdeveloped it can't have press freedom".
Journalist and lawyer, Professor Michael Fowler of the American University in Cairo, said he had studied a wide range of legal frameworks in Afghanistan and had found 37 crimes listed in the national law that could affect journalists. Many of these laws carried heavy punishments for infringements, including gaol terms. Professor Fowler also indicated his concern about the "insult" provision of the press law and noted that "at the very best, these laws create an air of self-censorship".
Participants from the floor canvassed a range of matters, with one delegate pointing out that the seminar was the first occasion on which media professionals in Afghanistan had been allowed to discuss these kind of issues with the authorities.
Summing up the working session, Deputy Minister Mr. Mubarez acknowledged that aspects of the law might have to be defined and said that the Ministry would take note of all the comments made and would use them in the future. He concluded by noting that "our goal is freedom of speech and the development of independent media".
The seminar, which is co-funded by UNESCO, the BBC, Baltic Media Centre and Internews, will next look at State-funded media organs, such as Radio-Television Afghanistan and the Bakhtar Information Agency. The Ministry of Information and Culture has previously indicated that it is keen to make them editorially and financially independent.
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