Crackdown on Afghan Media as Elections Near

The closure of an Afghan daily -- after its editor was briefly jailed for alleged blasphemy -- is part of an ongoing campaign to subdue the media in the run-up to presidential elections in August, observers say.

Payman Daily announced it was closing down on February 8, following mounting pressure on staff, which appears to have been triggered by the January 11 publication of an article that the Ulema, or Council of Religious Clerics, deemed blasphemous.

In a statement, the newspaper blamed "forces who are against democracy and freedom of speech," among whom, it suggested, was President Hamed Karzai. The president, it said, was "overwhelmed by the critical mood of the paper and the kind of independent information it reflects."

The allegedly blasphemous story -- downloaded from an Afghan website, www.Khawaran.com, carried the predictions of an old Bulgarian woman, Baba Wanga, which cast doubt on all prophesies, including those of Jesus Christ and the Prophet Mohammad.

This, apparently, was what angered the mullahs, who issued a Fatwa against the paper, calling those behind the publication "apostates" and demanding harsh punishment of its staff. In Afghanistan "harsh punishment" is commonly understood to mean death.

Payman, for its part, claimed that the article was printed in error, and apologized repeatedly in subsequent issues of the paper.

This did not appease the Ulema, who also threatened the Afghan government, saying that failure to punish the alleged perpetrators could lead to a nationwide uprising.

On January 15, the government duly interrogated seven members of Payman's staff, releasing six of them after several hours. But the news editor, Nazari Paryani, remained in custody until January 20. His reprieve is only temporary, however. Officials in the judiciary say that the case against Paryani and the paper is still open.

"Our society cannot tolerate anti-Islamic propaganda," said Attorney General Eshaq Aloko. "This will have negative consequences in the future."

Following his release, Paryani spoke with the media, calling his detention "against all laws, as well as national and international principles."

He complained about the arrest and the conditions under which he was held.

"An official of the attorney general's office … entered our office with police and arrested me and six of my colleagues," he told reporters. "They said they came on orders of the president and the attorney general."

Paryani said he was held with common criminals, and interrogated twice during his time in jail.

"It was very humiliating for me, a journalist," he said.

Paryani's ordeal is the latest in a line of cases in which religion has been used as a tool with which to strike at journalists.

Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh has been in prison since October, 2007, on vague charges of "insulting Islam." His alleged crime also involves downloading an article from the internet and distributing it to his classmates at Balkh University. The offending material concerns women's rights under Islam; Kambakhsh denies the charge.

He was initially condemned to death; the appeals court commuted his sentence to 20 years in prison. His case is still pending before the supreme court.

Ghaws Zalmai, a prominent Afghan journalist, has been behind bars since November 2007. He has been sentenced to 20 years in prison, for publishing a vernacular version of the Koran which the Ulema found to be inaccurate. His appeal has been repeatedly delayed, most recently on February 8.

All three cases have been manufactured and prosecuted in violation of the laws of Afghanistan, say media experts.

"Nobody has the right to arrest a journalist directly," said Rahimullah Samander, head of the Afghan Independent Journalists' Association, referring to latest affair. "The [Payman] case should have been referred to the media violations commission. This shows that the law was not considered."

According to the Afghan media law approved in 2006, "the … commission shall investigate the violations of the provisions of this law. If the case requires legal prosecution, it shall be referred to the judiciary organs."

The information ministry issued a statement saying that the commission had examined the case and found it to be beyond their authority. But Payman's editors asserted that they had never been contacted by the commission, and that the attorney general's office has intervened on its own initiative.

"The commission has not assessed the case," said Mehsa Tayee, an editor at Payman and one of the seven originally detained.

"The attorney general's office came to us directly," she said. "They entered our office and arrested us as if we were a group of terrorists. They are still threatening us every day to keep silent."

Afghanistan's penal code has no clear law against blasphemy or insulting Islam and certainly has no provisions for the death penalty in such cases.

Instead, articles relating to "religious crimes" mandate a fine of 12,000 to 60,000 afghani (240 to 1200 U.S. dollars) and a maximum sentence of five years.

Under pressure from the Ulema, say legal experts, Afghanistan's courts are prosecuting these cases under the catch-all article 130 of the constitution.

"If there is no provision in the constitution or other laws about a case, the courts shall, in pursuance of Hanafi jurisprudence, and, within the limits set by this constitution, rule in a way that attains justice in the best manner," it states.

Hanafi refers to the oldest of the four schools of jurisprudence within Sunni Islam.

According to human rights organizations, this article has given judges the right to convert punishment from a legal slap on the wrist to a death sentence.

"This pressure by the Ulema and their call for capital punishment has a direct impact on the courts," said Samander. "This was clear in the cases of Parwez Kambakhsh and Ghaws Zalmai … This is illegal and poses great threat to freedom of speech."

The threat of severe punishment, he went on, can always be used to keep unruly journalists in line, "Media violations are more and more being converted to blasphemy cases. The condition of the media is deteriorating day by day, and the number of journalists arrested is increasing."

Media observers are more and more convinced that such cases are an attempt to use religion to put pressure on journalists in advance of the presidential election campaign.

The poll is scheduled for August 20, and storm clouds are already gathering.

"Officials in Kabul have no backing among the citizens of Afghanistan, and they have recently been isolated by the international community as well," said Fazel Rahman Orya, a political commentator for Shamshad Television in Kabul. "Therefore they are trying to show how religious they are, to attract people's support."

Pressure, he added, was likely to increase, "This has created fear in Afghanistan's media."

At Payman, staff members trace the treatment they have received to the paper's negative assessment of Karzai and his government.

"The newspaper is widely read, and we were criticizing Karzai," said Tayee. "So the president wanted to suppress the newspaper ahead of the presidential elections."

The office of the president declined to comment on this story.

Journalists complain that the authorities are hampering their work and call on them to stop.

"The government has no right to suppress journalists, who are just practicing the ABCs of democracy," said Sayed Alim Mushfeq, editor of the Nawa-e-Kohsar paper in Jowzjan province. "They are using the cleaver of religion, ethnicity, and regionalism to accomplish this."

He added that he himself was now looking over his shoulder.

"Trust me I am very frightened since this recent case," he said. "Now I realize that the smallest mistake can lead to prison or even death."

The journalists who reported this story have requested that their names be withheld for security reasons.

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