Misri Khan Hemat and Mohammad Esmael Youn
Afghanistan went to the polls in 2009 and 2010 to elect the president as well as members of parliament, provincial councils and district councils in a democratic manner. According to the current official international rhetoric, elections must be trustworthy, inclusive and safe to qualify as democratic.
What role do the Afghan media play in elections? How does the conflict situation influence reporting on elections? Are the press, radio and television able to increase transparency and thereby detect fraud? Do the media impartially inform voters about their democratic right to vote and about the candidates seeking their votes?
The role of the media in Afghanistan during elections has to be viewed and understood in the context of the country’s development and structures. Many of the challenges for and shortcomings of the media during elections are only symptoms of broader structural weaknesses. A short-term focus on the role of media – and freedom of expression, in particular – will not suffice to gain a realistic understanding. In a country where the rule of the gun has reigned for three decades and which has witnessed unending violent conflicts through much of that time, the “rule of the word” and the open, tolerant exchange of ideas are vital but difficult to achieve.
The end of the radical Taliban regime paved the way for freedom of speech and the development of more open media in Afghanistan. When the pressures exerted by the ideological regime abated, many Afghan citizens looked to the media for information and entertainment. A number of new media were established, which brought with them a new immoderation in place of the previous prodigality. With some Afghans turning to media to benefit themselves, a very diverse media scene began to develop. Television and radio in particular play an important role in the country, which has a high illiteracy rate (68%).
The Afghan public had hoped that the Taliban would not be replaced by warlords, their gunmen and militaristic parties. Unfortunately, their hopes were largely belied. Taking advantage of the new opportunity, such elements began to establish media centres and put out so-called free media to benefit themselves and to promote their political goals. The neo-Taliban movement also managed to use media and communication as tools to spread propaganda and regain support.
Today the media in Afghanistan can be categorised into the several groups:
- Governmental media, which chiefly cover the government’s activities and policies and comprise one broadcaster (Radio and Television Afghanistan) and five newspapers.
- Media affiliated to political parties, which generally reflect the concerned party’s policies, ideas and activities; although such newspapers are supposed to be financially supported by their own parties, they also receive funds from external actors.
- Independent media, made up of a number of independent newspapers, radio stations, and TV channels that are gradually gaining people’s trust and get most of their financial support from influential and wealthy people and, to some extent, from advertisements.
- Non-independent media, which are registered as independent but are actually driven by political, ethnic, linguistic, religious and/or racial ideas and policies.
- International media, which are seen as trustworthy and dependable by many people, even in rural areas, and play a useful and effective role in the public sphere. The BBC’s Persian service is possibly the most popular of these.
A big challenge for the media in Afghanistan is weak regulation. A new Media Law, which overturned a presidential veto and was passed by the National Assembly, with a two-thirds majority, in 2008, had still not been signed into law and officially published by the Ministry of Justice (at the time of writing in 2009). The fate of this legislation demonstrates the uphill task of ensuring that the media operate within a regulatory framework and have access to due process of law. In the absence of legal provisions a general culture of impunity prevails and journalists under threat have limited means to ensure that their rights are upheld and that they are guaranteed safety and security while discharging their professional duties.
In view of the situation, the fact that there was widespread reporting by all existing media outlets during the presidential election campaign in Afghanistan in 2009 was a major accomplishment for the Afghan media. The 2009 campaign was the first to include televised debates between candidates standing for elections in the country. They received wide public attention and stimulated public debate. The media therefore offered the public a chance to get to know the candidates for the post of president as well as membership of parliament and provincial councils so that people could make informed decisions while voting.
However, there are many areas of concern regarding the role of the media during elections in Afghanistan, which are summarised below:
1. Pressure from the government
It appears that the government is more afraid of the media than of parliament. Fear of media and the prospect of being subjected to inspection by the media have made the government, parliament and the judicial system careful about what they say and do – to some extent. At the same time there was a feeling that the government may attempt to curb freedom of expression in the run-up to elections and thereby reduce the role of the media as a watchdog. However, no large-scale or systematic intimidation of the media by the government has been reported. The government’s restraint was probably motivated by a desire to avoid international criticism about limiting freedom of expression.
2. Pressure from partisan media
The prevalence of partisan reporting puts pressure on journalists to conform to the political interests of the media outlets where they are employed. Propaganda by biased media establishments counters efforts to provide impartial coverage of elections. Many candidates who do not have access to media machinery for such propaganda buy influence through other media. Biased media houses often violate election laws and threaten individuals and institutions seeking to do independent, investigative stories.
3. Absence of security and culture of impunity
The election process faces major challenges in areas where the government’s control is weak and control by various insurgent groups is strong, especially in the south, south-west and south-east parts of the country. The lack of security in such places makes it difficult for people to participate actively in the election process. The possibility of electoral fraud is also greater in such places, to which the access of the media and international observers is limited. The culture of impunity and the chances of retaliation by the government or insurgents dissuade many journalists from reporting openly about electoral malpractices.
4. Low level of public awareness
Another problem is the relative absence of public awareness about elections – especially in remote areas. While large sections of the population have access to information and mediaoutlets, there is a considerable proportion of the population that remains relatively ignorant about democracy and elections. While public awareness programmes to encourage people to register themselves as voters and to take part in elections are essential, the media also have to play a critical role in the process of public education.
5. Lack of access to information
Another problem faced by the media is lack of access to information about campaign funds, about the functioning of mechanisms meant to control the campaign expenses of candidates and about sources of campaign funding – internal or external. Often journalists who do manage to get some information are forced to withhold it.
To sum up, while the media scene is flourishing in Afghanistan, there are many important concerns about the conduct of elections as well as media coverage of elections. If structural issues – which are often beyond the influence of media – are not addressed, it will be a long and hard struggle for the media to promote a culture of free, fair, balanced and accurate coverage of elections.