Writer: Mohammad Qasim Wafayezada
One: Freedom of expression and its role in ensuring human freedom
Freedom of expression and thought and freedom of access to information and data are among the basic human rights without which the formation of a healthy system of thought, culture, and human organization, the way of society and politics is inconceivable. Freedom of expression is a bridge between the individual and social claims of justice, freedom, and other human values that raise the voice of a silent and oppressed collective space and recognize the multiplicity and diversity of human understanding and thought. Freedom of the press is important not only because professionals have the right to work, but also because the right to freedom of expression, thought, attitude, and the right to access information of all citizens are tied to it. Freedom is impossible without a free press and free broadcasting of information. Most political developments in human societies have taken place through the press to overcome dictatorship and oppression; Because the initial sparks of any revolution and reform movement are conditioned by the two principles of consciousness, understanding the current situation, factors, and elements of its continuation, ideas, thoughts and plans to change it. The press helps to mobilize this awareness and to popularize ideas, thoughts, coordination, and public mobilization. That is why all the dictators of history have had the greatest fear of freedom of expression and the right to express different thoughts and ideas. On the other hand, to achieve freedom of expression and thought, all nations have gone through the difficult stages of opinion and censorship before and after publication and extensive restrictions on freedom of expression and the activities of the media and press, and many pens have been broken in this way as well as many heads have been cut off. The way to freedom and justice is full of obstacles.
Today, freedom of the press and media is tied to freedom of expression, the right to expression, and thought, and the right to access information, and is recognized as a fundamental human right. The free, independent, and pluralistic press, as the fourth pillar of democracy, plays a central role in political and social reform. Since the introduction of the Internet and the emergence of cyberspace, freedom of expression has become more than ever an individual right of every human being as a political unit. Although the professional principles of the press work and the distinction between the original, forgery, accuracy, and falsehood have made it difficult and professional ethics in a breath_taking crisis until a new order is reached, public access to social platforms for expression is shared and information has revolutionized the world of media and information. From the role of the “CNN” in setting the political agenda to the role of Twitter in the sweeping political developments known as the “Arab Spring”, media-citizen interaction has opened up new difficult transition cycles. This rapid transformation and expansion of press activity and the breaking of traditional boundaries in media activities have also necessitated a rethinking of how we move from the world of traditional and print media to the digital and virtual worlds.
In any case, freedom of speech and thought has become so universal that the thought of stopping and closing it seems impossible or at least difficult. News and thought output options have become more diverse than ever, making it easier, more accessible, and equally difficult and breathtaking for rulers to control. Freedom of expression and acceptance of the principle of a free, independent, and pluralistic press is the ultimate destiny in the evolution of human societies, and the struggle against it is nothing but a futile attempt to hide the incompetence of the rulers and their helplessness.
Two: The press in Afghanistan
Governments due to patrimonialism and carrying out authoritarian nature, have always feared freedom of expression, thought, and the independent press in Afghanistan and has had no interest in promoting or supporting it. The first print media ” Shams al_Nahar” was established in Amir Sherali Khan’s period that was impressed by reformist and modernist Sayyid Jamaluddin Afghani. Siraj al-Akhbar was more like a court newsletter published for the political aristocracy, and the general public and elites outside the court did not have much access to it, and if they did, what they were reading was court propaganda. Despite all! This aristocratic booty of the government was hasty and did not last. In the time of Amir Abdul Rahman Khan, when the iron fist policy was implemented, not only the press and freedom of expression did not have a place; It also opposed any means of communication that could connect people to each other or to the world. Amir Abdul Rahman was even opposed to the telephone and the railway and saw them as a means of misleading the people and a stream of foreign thought. After his death, although tyranny and dominance did not die, the period of Amir Habibaullah Khan witnessed the limited beginning of press activities at the official level and in the circle of the political aristocracy.
Press activity began with its modern definition of “Siraj al-Akhbar”. Especially during the reign of Shah Amanullah and under the leadership of Mahmoud Tarzi, who is known as the father of Afghan journalism. Journalism became a center for reform and the development of reformist and progressive ideas. Although in this and later stages, except the decade of press democracy in Afghanistan, it was more like a propaganda apparatus that reflected the views of the ruling political system, it somehow helped to popularize information and ideas that had a great impact to create and direct next social and political developments and movements in Afghanistan and somehow opened the gates of information to the Afghan elite, however to a limited extent.
The introduction of a free and pluralistic press system dates back to the so-called Decade of Democracy in Afghanistan, in which the free press was formed outside the state press. Publications such as “Angar”, “Wolos”, “People’s Voice”, “Watan” and in addition other non-governmental publications such as Nilab, Ayeneh, Atom, Sada-e Mellat, Pamir, Payam-e-Afghan, and the Alephba played an important role in changing the role and mission of the press in Afghanistan. During this period, reforms were made in the way government publications functioned and reported, which highlighted their role and place in Afghanistan’s press system.
The immigration press was a new phenomenon during the jihad and resistance period, in which hundreds of print publications were established abroad that published and disseminated various political and social ideas. For the first time, these publications provided a broad platform for all factions and political currents in Afghanistan to express their political and ideological ideas and the basic lines of their struggle. In particular, immigrant publications in Iran and Pakistan, which were the main focus of the presence and activities of the country’s political and jihadi parties, played an important role in enriching and presenting a new definition of the Afghan press in various literary, political, and cultural fields.
Three: The Press in the Second Republic period (2001_2021)
The development of the Afghan press in the form of a free and pluralistic press system and, in a way, the explosion of information in line with global developments in this field occurred after 2001 while private media had a chance to get activated. This new expansion and opening-up could somewhat reduce the distance between Afghanistan and the world in terms of media activity.
The Republic era, especially the presidency of Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, was not an ideal period for the media and there were many problems, especially in accessing information, but the existence of legal bases and legal guarantees and open political space for the media helped them to grow and develop as well as play an important role in shaping public opinion in Afghanistan and reflecting the diversity of views and pluralistic atmosphere in the field of Afghan politics and society.
The Law on Mass Media, by stipulating the right to freedom of expression and the activity of free, independent, and pluralistic media following international standards and Islamic values, introduced a combination of the libertarian system and social responsibility system that provides at least frameworks to protect media and journalists’ rights. Certain legal procedures for dealing with media violations, the prohibition of censorship before and after publication, and the right to establish professional associations are among the important issues set out in this law.
At this time; Along with the state-run media, which continued to operate in a stereotyped and less innovative manner, the private media expanded unprecedentedly. According to the Ministry of Information and Culture’s database, before the fall of the Second Republic in August 2021, there were 3,577 registered media outlets, including 248 television, 438 radio stations, 1,669 print media outlets, and 119 news agencies. Although many of these media outlets were short-lived and unable to operate due to financial difficulties, those that remained were able to fundamentally transform Afghanistan’s media environment and play an important role in shaping public opinion and creating pressure on accountability and government transparency.
Along with other journalistic genres, investigative journalism also gained a special place during these years. By covering specific cases of the functioning of government institutions, the media were able to expose corruption and problems that affected the public and collective interests and questioned the effectiveness of the functioning of these institutions in the public interest.
The media, as the fourth pillar of democracy, has played a key role in political culture and political development over the past two decades. Given the poverty, and political agenda among political parties and organizations, the media was able to raise public opinion for discussion on major national issues, priorities, and necessities of political work, which in turn contributed to enriching and directing the political discourse in Afghanistan which is undeniable.
Four: The Taliban and the effort to return to a controlled society
The decline of democracy in Afghanistan with the fall of the Second Republic greatly affected the continuation of the media and its political and social role-playing. Despite the continuity of the activity of the main media of the country during the last eight months, the approach, the way of work, and the level of their freedom to cover the daily events and issues of the country have undergone a serious transformation. In the absence of a defined legal system, the suspension of the constitution and the law on mass media, and security guarantees, freedom of expression has been effectively curtailed. The Taliban, by appointing a media monitoring committee, began censorship before and after publication, and in many cases produced or censored text or clips produced before and after publication, or post-publication restrictions were imposed on them and public access is limited to that. As a result, nearly 200 media outlets have been shut down so far, and the rest of the media have resorted to severe self-censorship as a result. Their access to information has been restricted and the Taliban spokesman has become their only source of information.
The Taliban government’s current efforts to duplicate the media are devastating. They try to present a different face to the world by maintaining the activities of the media, but by restricting and intimidating media workers, they practically lead them to passivity to eventually become the propaganda apparatus of the Taliban. The right to criticize has completely disappeared and every critic has been silenced by threats and intimidation.
Banning news coverage of events and imposing complete restrictions on the free flow of information is crippling measures that have been taken so far. Today, Afghanistan has once again become one of the most dangerous countries for media activity.
It is feared that the persistence of this situation will turn the Afghan media system and the free press into a copy of the Taliban’s original Mozrab al-Momen publication, eliminating any grounds for expressing opinions and impartial dissemination of information and news. However, it can be said that the media, as the fourth pillar of democracy, do not have the possibility of free activity in the absence of democracy. The existence of a democratic political system is the first pillar for free media activities.
Five: The final point
Finally, the media in Afghanistan is the driving force of society and the collective spirit of the nation, which plays a key role in awakening the minds, thoughts, and reflections of the citizens. The media has evolved with countless sacrifices over the past two decades, but today direct and indirect censorship, intimidation, the thread of journalists, and overall restrictions imposed by the Taliban have pushed back to zero, reducing and shutting down independence, pluralism, and freedom. Therefore it has no result other than driving us towards a closed and uninformed society. Support for the media and freedom of media activity is a precondition for a return to democracy.
Translated by: Ali Rezaei