Kabul: The Afghan government came under severe criticism Wednesday for attempting to ban media coverage of escalating Taliban violence in case it deters people from voting in Thursday’s elections.
Fresh attacks hit Kabul Wednesday as Taliban gunmen stormed a bank building and fought pitched battles with police, making good on promises to instil fear among Afghans ahead of the vote.
Afghan and international journalists, who have flooded into Afghanistan to cover the vote, have reported being harassed and even beaten by security forces while trying to cover violent incidents.
Calling the ban unconstitutional, Rahimullah Samander, president of the Afghanistan Independent Journalists’ Association said, “Journalists will ignore the ban.”
“It is a democratic day, a very important day for our independence, this type of ban does not sit well with democratic principles,” he said.
The UN special representative in Afghanistan was looking into the ban to determine whether it was legal, and if not to get it rescinded, a UN official said on condition of anonymity.
“We are trying to establish what, if any, legal basis there is for this, but it doesn’t look like it is enforceable,” he said.
Kabul’s foreign ministry issued a statement on Tuesday in both English and local language Dari about coverage of violence on Thursday, when 17 million Afghans are due to vote in presidential and provincial council elections.
The wording in Dari was much stronger than the English version, which simply “requested” media refrain from reporting violence from an hour before polls open until four hours after they close.
The request was made “in view of the need to ensure the wide participation of the Afghan people... and prevent any election-related terroristic violence,” it said.
In Dari, however, the statement released on behalf of the Afghan national security council, said “reporting on any possible terrorist attacks is strongly prohibited”.
The statement referred to both domestic and international media outlets, though Afghan authorities have no power to influence foreign news outlets.
Neither, said Samander, do they have power over Afghan media, as “we have nothing in our constitution, media law or election law about banning such coverage coming directly from the Afghan government”.
“We are working according to our constitution. Every ctizien has the right to information, and we will fight this order,” said Samander, whose organisation has 2,500 members.
The move also drew the ire of US-based Human Rights Watch, which accused the government of attempting censorship.
Governments “have a right to place reasonable restrictions on the media on election day,” said HRW’s Afghanistan researcher Rachel Reid.
However, “an attempt to censor the reporting of violence is an unreasonable violation of press freedoms,” she said in a statement.
Security forces fanned out on high alert Wednesday in a bid to protect the capital, despite the bank building attack, as the Taliban said the siege was part of its pre-election attack gameplan.
The media blackout order also escalated a propaganda war between the Taliban and the Afghan government and its international supporters, who have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to ensure the election goes smoothly.
The government has a rolling series of press conferences scheduled Thursday, which journalists said appears aimed at directing positive coverage.
The Taliban, meanwhile, have begun issuing email statements listing all attacks perpetrated each day.
The attempt to limit turnout is significant as it is seen as a key gauge of the success of the election, only the country’s second presidential poll, and