Afghanistan: No “opportunity and justice” without free expression

Afghanistan needs a free press, not only for the sake of their journalists' lives, but it's absolutely fundamental to improving their government, their laws, and their society as whole.

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

In his remarks on the new Afghanistan strategy last year, President Obama spoke very highly of Afghan sacrifices in our war. Afghans, he told us, “seek the promise of a better future” and deserve not only security, but “opportunity and justice.”

These are empty political phrases that Americans take for granted, but what about the Afghan audience? Are they actually getting the better future we promised? Aside from the obvious violence and misery caused by the occupation and insurgency, can Afghans count on even basic civil liberties like freedom of expression?

Nasim Fekrat writes [emphasis mine]:

Six years after the Afghan constitution was passed and nine years after the fall of the Taliban, Afghan journalists struggle with threats from the government, political parties, militants, and occasionally foreign forces. Afghan society has also played a role in self-censorship, perpetuated by the lack of a vibrant independent media. Without an independent media, freedom of expression is meaningless. And in Afghanistan, limitations on the media will only serve to bolster the views of powerful fundamentalists, and empower the belief among Afghans that the international community, which promised to institutionalize the freedom of expression and with it, democracy, has failed them.

Afghanistan needs a free press, not only for the sake of their journalists’ lives, but it’s absolutely fundamental to improving their government, their laws, and their society as whole. A free media allows citizens to become educated about politics and legislation, it allows victims of crime and corruption to tell their story through an impartial watchdog, and it allows a debate forum open enough for ideas like democracy and humans rights to compete, without fear, against the ideas of extremists and militants. No matter how many battles we win or terrorist commanders we kill, Afghanistan will never get a better future without these fundamental rights.

Unfortunately, we can’t offer Afghans “opportunity and justice” as long as our war goes on. Far from protecting human rights, the war makes the situation much worse.

More Nasim Fekrat [emphasis mine]:

The danger appears particularly acute in conflict zones, like Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province. All sides claim victory; none want negative news about them broadcast. Abdul Samad Rohani, a reporter for BBC’s Pashtu service, was shot in early June of 2008 after being kidnapped and tortured, presumably by the Taliban seeking to prevent him from continuing to file stories on conflict between the Taliban and coalition forces, poppy cultivation, and refugees. Three years after his death, the Afghan government’s investigation has gone nowhere.

Afghan journalists also seem to be more at risk than their Western colleagues, as demonstrated by the death of Sultan Munadi, an Afghan reporter and translator who was kidnapped in the fall of 2009 from Kunduz, along with Stephen Farrell of the New York Times. British Special Forces raided the house where Munadi and Farrell were held, and Munadi was killed in the crossfire, a move heavily criticized by journalists in Afghanistan, some of whom alleged Munadi was shot by British forces. Similarly, in 2007, an Italian journalist and his Afghan fixer and driver were kidnapped in Helmand; the Taliban beheaded Ajmal Naqshbandi, the fixer, and Sayed Agha, the driver, allegedly because the Afghan government refused to capitulate fully to the militants’ demands, even though the Italian reporter Daniele Mastrogiacomo was freed after five Taliban prisoners were released.

Certainly the Taliban are primarily responsible for much of these deaths, but they are empowered by the presence of our foreign military. Afghans are caught between a corrupt government, extremist militants, and an invading army. That we have been there nine years and they still have no protection should be a sign that we have, as Fekrat wrote, failed them.

We came to defeat Al-Qa’eda, and that’s pretty much done, the rest are all in Pakistan. We wanted to break the Taliban’s momentum, and that’s done, they’re negotiating and reintegrating into the government. We wanted to create a democracy and a stable government, and as far as the United States is concerned, that’s done, too. Sure, the government is broken and corrupt, but that’s where the rest of that “promise of a better future” comes in, the free press and educated citizens there to check that government.

The US is done in Afghanistan. Ending the war will finally give Afghans enough space to advance for themselves, not only their freedom of expression, but women’s rights, education, and everything else that comes with “opportunity and justice.” Ending the war won’t mean they automatically succeed, it will just give them the freedom to try.

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