Saturday, March 06, 2010

Afghanistan backs away from attempted ban on media coverage of the war

It began last October with a ban by the U.S. military on embedded press photographing or filming soldiers killed in action. The story is here at the National Press Photographers Association website in an article by Donald R. Winslow dated October 14, 2009 for the News Photographer magazine.

...the U.S. military command in Bagram on Wednesday confirmed that is has [sic] banned journalists who are embedded with their forces in eastern Afghanistan from videotaping or photographing soldiers who are killed in action.

U.S. Army Master Sgt. Thomas Clementson, a spokesman for Regional Command East, told News Photographer magazine tonight that commanders in Afghanistan are "trying to strike a balance" with the new policy.

The change in the embed rules about photographing KIAs comes only a few weeks after a Pentagon uproar – raised chiefly by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates – after the Associated Press distributed a picture of U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard when he was mortally wounded by a rocket-propelled grenade that was fired against him by insurgents during a battle in Afghanistan's Helmand province. (snip)

"The comments relating to imagery of wounded service members and service members killed in action are a change to provide clarification of previous rules," the Master Sgt. told News Photographer. "Media have multiple ways to cover the war in Afghanistan and embedding is only one of the choices available. The press retains the option to report independently or as a media embed with military forces. When a reporter chooses to embed they are given unique and intimate access to our service members in a combat zone, which requires certain limits and rules be established to facilitate coverage and protect our forces. There are cases however, when protecting the privacy of our service members and propriety take precedence over media access," Clementson said.

"It is important to remember that embedding is a reporter's choice and that embedded access does come with some limitations," Clementson said. He stressed for those who might object to the new embed agreement's ban on photographing KIAs, "Embedding is only one of the ways a reporter can cover this war. Many come in and do so independently. Some even informally embed with our enemy."
But then on March 2, the Afghan government, quite possibly somebody acting separately in security, issued a ban on live war coverage, on the basis that militants were using it to their tactical advantage on the battlefield. The link above is to a New York Times article, which includes a nice link itself to the Afghan Constitution in English, noting that it contains a clause guaranteeing freedom of speech, and that Afghan citizens have the right to access government information. The Times article, and many critics of the ban speculate that the ban is more about protecting the image of the Afghan government than about militants mis-using the reporting of battlefield reporting. The U.S. and Afghan media alike are protesting and are pressing the government to rethink the ban.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty carries a story that even the Taliban has decried this ban as infringing civil liberties:
In a statement issued on March 3, the Taliban said it considers the Afghan government's March 2 decision to ban live war coverage, on the basis that militants were using it to their tactical advantage on the battlefield, "a flagrant violation of the recognized principle of freedom of speech."

"The monopolization of activities of independent mass media outlets by the Kabul Puppet Administration is a clear-cut violation of norms and regulation of neutrality, independence, and liberty of speech and has no justification in the light of national and international laws," the statement continued.

In releasing the statement, the group renowned for its oppressive rule over Afghanistan, added its own unique take to the upbraiding and expressions of concern Kabul has received from media watchdogs and foreign officials.

It also put itself in direct competition with Kabul's efforts to regulate the media, lauding "the courageous efforts of the fact-finding and investigative journalists, reporters, and photographers who continue their duty to reflect the ground realities of the Afghan issue despite threats and obstacles that they are facing in their way."

Farida Nekzad, editor of the Kabul-based Wakht News Agency, was among the representatives of Afghan media outlets summoned this week to the headquarters of the Afghan intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security (NDS).

In what she described as a "friendly" atmosphere, Nekzad was informed by a senior intelligence official that she and her fellow journalists in the country would be working under severe restrictions when it comes to reporting on the ongoing insurgency. "He said that the electronic media should be very careful while covering suicide attacks, or the type of attack we recently witnessed," she says.

Nekzad adds that she was told that the media should not provide live coverage of insurgent attacks "because it raises concerns among people, [and that] insurgents or terrorists can benefit from such coverage."

In officially announcing the decision during a press conference later that day, presidential spokesman Wahid Omar addressed rapidly increasing criticism of the move at home and abroad by saying the new guidelines had not yet been drawn up, and promising they would not amount to "censorship."
I was alerted to the story when I heard the NPR program, On the Media which reported a ban on coverage of terrorist attacks while they are ongoing or within 24 hours, as well. Again, U.S. and Afghan media are pressing back on the government policy. In this online story, there seemed to be some hope that the Afghan government was blaming the policy on security department heads and was rethinking the ban. The decoration for this blog post is from the NPR post.

No comments: