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Authorities enforce media blackout during elections; journalist critical of Taliban killed

The Afghan government asked the media to suppress news of violent incidents on 20 August, election day, in an effort to boost voter turnout
The Afghan government asked the media to suppress news of violent incidents on 20 August, election day, in an effort to boost voter turnout

Khaled Nahiz/IRIN

Security forces obstructed, assaulted and detained journalists in Afghanistan last week, enforcing an official order to avoid broadcasting any violent incidents during the presidential election, report the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE). Meanwhile, in Pakistan's tribal areas, an Afghan journalist critical of the Taliban was killed, say the Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) and other IFEX members.

Police briefly detained at least three foreign journalists and several local journalists on 20 August, say CPJ and CJFE. Other journalists were beaten, threatened with guns and had their equipment confiscated, but no serious injuries were reported. Almost all the reported incidents occurred at the scene of attacks by militant groups.

Two days before the elections, the government issued a statement asking the media to suppress news of violent incidents and to stay away from the scenes of any attacks during polling hours on election day, "to ensure the wide participation of the Afghan people," report CPJ, the International Press Institute (IPI) and other IFEX members.

The English version of the statement said media were "requested" to follow the guidelines. But the version in the Afghan language Dari said broadcasting news or video from a "terrorist attack" was "forbidden," reports CPJ.

The Taliban had ramped up attacks in the days running up to the vote, warning citizens not to vote and threatening to attack polling stations.

"This request is an affront to free and independent reporting, which should be a fundamental element of any election process," said IPI, which called the move an attempt at "blatant censorship."

According to news reports, even before the ban went into effect, police beat back journalists arriving at the scene of a suicide bombing on a Kabul bank on 19 August. At least one photographer's camera was broken.

"Security forces must stop detaining and assaulting reporters and allow free coverage of the elections and related violence," said CPJ. "It's editors, not governments, who decide what news to cover."

Early results indicate that incumbent Hamid Karzai has a slim lead over his nearest rival Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. But widespread accusations of fraud and vote rigging and concerns about low voter turnout have cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election. According to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, there were more than 400 insurgent attacks on election day, which would make it one of the most violent days in Afghanistan since 2001.

Elsewhere, in neighbouring Pakistan, an Afghan journalist critical of the Taliban was killed on 24 August, report Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) and other IFEX members.

Janullah Hashimzada, the bureau chief based in Peshawar for Afghanistan's Shamshad Television, was shot to death while travelling back from Afghanistan on a minibus near Jamrud in the northwestern Khyber district.

Operating in plain view, three masked men opened fire with pistols on the minibus, killing Hashimzada instantly and wounding his colleague, Ali Khan, says CPJ.

"This was purely a targeted killing," Shamim Shahid, president of the Peshawar Press Club, told IPI.

Hashimzada "was very critical of the Taliban, and some of his reporting was unacceptable both to the Pakistani and Afghan governments and intelligence agencies. He had too much information regarding the militants, the Taliban and the intelligence agencies," Shahid added.

Hashimzada worked for several Afghan and Pakistani news media, including the Afghan independent news agency Pajhwok and the Pashtun newspapers "Vahdat" and "Sahar".

Friends said he covered sensitive issues and had been subjected to threats and pressure during the past three weeks to abandon his journalistic work and leave Peshawar.

Pakistan's restive northwest has grown as a militant stronghold since 2001 following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. Taliban militants and security forces, warring for control of the seven tribal agencies in the semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas, pose a threat to reporters, say CPJ and PPF.

"Journalists in the conflict zones of Pakistan and Afghanistan will remain desperately insecure unless our governments develop concrete plans for their safety and bring to justice those who murder, kidnap and injure journalists with impunity," said Owais Aslam Ali of PPF.

According to CPJ, unidentified gunmen in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province shot and killed TV journalist Siddique Bacha Khan on 14 August. In two separate incidents in July, two journalists said militants ransacked and destroyed their homes in retaliation for their reporting.

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