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Afghan journalists steadfast as international withdrawal approaches

An analysis by Bob Dietz, featured in Attacks on the Press: Journalism on the front lines in 2013, a worldwide survey by CPJ.

Local journalists in Afghanistan face mounting threats in 2014 as the country braces for a withdrawal of foreign troops, rapidly diminishing international aid, and a contentious presidential election. Yet many local reporters are upbeat, their optimism reflecting a sense of determination to build on the progress that has been achieved.

Reporting news in Afghanistan requires navigating not only officials in government, the military, and the security apparatus, but also traditional regional and ethnic power brokers who seek a return to power; illegal, armed groups, including local militias; and vigilantes and criminal gangs supporting themselves through extortion, kidnapping, and trafficking in weapons and drugs. Just about all players on the country's political stage are responsible for attacks and harassment of journalists--from the villages and regional centers to Kabul, the capital.

Most of the factions and armies carry out daily attacks against one another across the country, with civilians targeted in terrorist attacks or caught in crossfire or drone strikes. There is relative stability in the major cities, but many of the roads linking them are shooting galleries for insurgents and bountiful hunting grounds for kidnappers and hijackers.

There is no single insurgency in Afghanistan. In the background, regional political leaders--Afghans readily refer to them as "warlords"--are maneuvering for power, stockpiling weapons and building up war chests. Ethnically aligned groups in the north and west are re-arming with help from neighboring countries. To the south and east, some factions of the Taliban seem prepared to talk peace, but others continue to battle. For years the Taliban have been divided into Afghan and Pakistani groups, often at odds, and, within each, factions with varying loyalties.

"When I speak with diplomats, they agree that it is impossible to predict what will come next in Afghanistan," said Ahmed Rashid, one of the region's best known and widely read correspondents and a member of the board of directors of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

How dire a situation journalists face may hinge mostly on the scheduled presidential election on April 5, 2014, to replace Hamid Karzai, who is serving his second and last term as president. Many of the candidates are the warlords Afghans speak so openly about. If all goes as planned, the voting will bring Afghanistan's first transition from one elected leader to another.

While the NATO countries focus on what roles the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will play after 2014, Afghanistan's chances for survival as a democracy of any sort will be determined more by the electoral process than by troop numbers. Success will depend on whether the election is perceived as legitimate and whether the next president will have the skills to rule with the conciliatory political savvy necessary to stave off open conflict.

The predictions range from tentative stability after the voting to a quick return to the all-out civil war that followed the collapse of the communist Najibullah-regime in 1992.

"Almost everyone who has gained something in the last 10 years is worried about losing it," Lotfullah Najafizada, head of current affairs at Tolo TV, the country's largest independent broadcaster, told CPJ in Kabul.

As an Afghan who refused to flee his homeland, Najafizada has a vested interest in peace. "This society has grown enough not to see all these gains vanish overnight," Najafizada said. "Some gains are irreversible. Post-2014, violence could get worse, but even if we saw the return of the Taliban it would not be a repeat of the dark regime. Media and press freedom would not go back to point zero."

Point zero was pre-9/11 Afghanistan, under Taliban rule, a country with one government radio station, Voice of Sharia, used mainly to broadcast official edicts and religious pronouncements. There was no television, no independent media. For years, Afghans relied on shortwave radio broadcasts or bootlegged satellite feeds to tune in to a wide range of foreign broadcasters including the BBC and Voice of America for information.

A decade later, the Center for International Media Assistance at the National Endowment for Democracy could report on "an explosion of news" taking place in Afghanistan.

It counted 175 FM radio stations, 75 TV channels, four news agencies, and hundreds of publications, including seven daily newspapers, Internet cafes in major cities and mobile phones in the hands of about half the population of 29 million people.

"Afghanistan's main cities are close to media saturation--Kabul has 30 TV channels and 42 radio stations, and the smaller cities have 10 to 25 TV channels and approximately 20 radio stations each," the report said.

Now, local journalists are gauging an anticipated drawdown by their own employers. Some Afghan publications and broadcasters almost certainly face cuts in aid programs, while international news organizations are expected to reduce staffing and expenditures just as they did when U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq.

Read the full story on CPJ's website.

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