Thirty news agencies in Afghanistan, including TOLOnews, signed a strongly-worded statement issued on Tuesday accusing the Afghan government of a “double standard” in its dealings with the nation’s media. On the one hand, the government touts its commitment to supporting a free press, while on the other hand it “severely restricts” media access to information about its security forces, financial activity, and legal system, the statement claims.
The statement notes that despite being “one of the deadliest places to be a journalist,” Afghanistan media is still the “freest in the region,” but says that the “carelessness of the government,” will endanger this “hard-won achievement.”
Following the Tuesday press conference, the United Nations in Afghanistan, the European Union embassy in Kabul, Reporters Without Borders and the UK, French, German and Canadian embassies, among others, publicly voiced their support for the Afghan media and increased access to government information.
The Afghan media’s call for the government and the international community to “act in the strongest possible ways” to “safeguard the free flow of information” is a response to a perceived lack of transparency across nearly a dozen government bodies.
The “worst” offenders named by the statement were the Supreme Court, the Attorney General’s Office, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Office of the President and its procurement unit, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Finance, the Central Bank, the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Public Health.
A recent case of the government’s withholding of information came after the “extra-judicial” killing of former mujahideen Amer Sattar and four others by the National Directorate of Security (NDS) in Kabul in early January. The NDS claimed responsibility for the killings but offered no details. The Presidential Palace—to which the NDS reports—also failed to provide an explanation. Families of the victims claimed that President Ghani told them he was “unaware” of the raid. Ghani eventually ordered an investigation, but the killings were not immediately addressed by government officials or spokespeople.
The Supreme Court has also been under scrutiny recently for signing-off on a transfer of Afs15 billion ($194 million) from the Central Bank to the Ministry of Finance, an act that government monitors, lawyers and MPs called irregular and possibly illegal. The Ministry of Finance denied any wrongdoing and the Supreme Court claimed to not be aware of the document. The Central Bank did not comment.
Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah said that “freedom of speech and freedom of media is one of the most important national achievements of the people of Afghanistan, and honoring and respecting this achievement is the responsibility of government officials—as citizens.” Acknowledging that the law requires it, Abdullah said: “Understanding the challenges in front of the media and journalists, we call on all the government organizations to cooperate and share information with the citizens.”
On Tuesday evening, President Ghani’s adviser Waheed Omer and Palace spokesman Sediq Sediqqi defended the government’s record in providing information to media and supporting a free press.
Omer, who is head the Office of Public and Strategic Affairs at the Presidential Palace, provided numbers about instances in which the government has provided information to the media about certain cases.
The US embassy in Kabul in a tweet said that "information is a vital resource of any free and open society. Media use it to inform and ensure public institutions serve the people. Authorities must work with the press to make Afghan democracy stronger."
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) responded to the Afghan media’s statement, saying “RSF backs Afghan media call for access to state-held information,” and called on the Afghan government to “apply the law on access to state-held information, which was drafted with RSF’s help.”
“Given the country’s current situation, in particular, the disputed results of the last presidential election in 2019 and the Taliban-imposed war, the Afghan government’s failure to apply the law on access to state-held information is unacceptable,” said Reza Moini, the head of RSF’s Afghanistan desk. “It is the state’s job to ensure that journalists have unrestricted access to information.”
The UK embassy in Kabul said access to government information is a right of the Afghan people. It added in a tweet: “Afghanistan has one of the best laws in the world on A2I (access to information) but more needs to be done to ensure implementation. The UK supports the brave and committed journalists fighting to uphold this right.”
The United Nations mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, in a tweet announced its support of access to information for citizens and said it is vital for accountability and fighting corruption, improving government performance and efficiency, encouraging investment and empowering citizens in public life.
The European Union office in Afghanistan said the call of the Afghan media “must be implemented in full.”
“Free flow of information is crucial for any democracy and progressive society. EU supports transparency and accountability in Afghanistan. All must partake to ensure continued media freedom to report in Afghanistan,” said the EU in Afghanistan on social media.
The German Ambassador in Kabul, Peter Prügel, also announced his full support to the call of the 30 Afghan news agencies.
“Government must assure free and indiscriminate access to information. Free media press freedom and access to information are key to accountability and good governance and an open, transparent and democratic society in Afghanistan,” he added.
Dave Metcalfe, Canada’s ambassador in Kabul, tweeted: Afghan journalists raised their voices at a press conference in Kabul, expressing their concerns on access to information. We hope the Afghan government, as the newest member of the Media Freedom Coalition, will listen and work with journalists.”
The French Embassy in Kabul tweeted: “France stands by Afghan journalists, who demonstrate on a daily basis courage, professionalism and commitment to the information of Afghan people and the world, often in difficult circumstances. A strong democracy needs free access to information and independence of the media.”