& Opinion

Two-hundred and fifty years ago on this day, the world's first Freedom of the Press Act was adopted by the Swedish Parliament.

This meant that censorship of printed publications was abolished and the right of the public to have access to public documents and take part in political debates was secured. The Swedish Freedom of the Press Act was unique for its time and has been instrumental to the development of the modern Swedish welfare state.

Freedom of speech is not only a prerequisite for democracy; it is also the guarantor of society's development and the backbone of all human rights. The free flow of ideas and opinions, as well as debate and critical examination, creates a wealth of ideas and drives innovation.

The principle of public access to official documents gives citizens the right of scrutiny and access to information held by the public authorities. In this way, private individuals and journalists can observe and monitor power structures and popularly elected politicians.

When fully applied, this principle contributes to bringing down levels of corruption and to increasing the level of confidence in democratic institutions. This is why Afghanistan's Access to Information Law, adopted in 2014, is so important, and why enhanced efforts to ensure its full implementation going forward are critical.

While today we celebrate freedom of expression, we are unfortunately seeing how fundamental rights and freedoms are coming increasingly under threat around the world. In many places we are seeing democratic space shrinking.

People are being silenced and civic information is being restricted. Threats and harassment are becoming increasingly common, and worrying statistics from UNESCO show that 800 journalists have been killed in the last ten years. Unfortunately, only a handful of the perpetrators are brought to justice.

Afghanistan has made tremendous progress over the past 15 years in terms of strengthening democracy and freedom of expression. Today, a vibrant media sector contributes to the transparency, diversity and pluralism of Afghan society.

New generations of Afghans have been given a voice and new alternative means of expressing and sharing opinions. Even though much remains to be done, advancements made on freedom of expression and of the press amount to some of the most significant development achievements Afghanistan has seen in recent years.

Simultaneously, however, the security situation for journalists in Afghanistan has worsened. According to the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee at least 11 journalists have been killed in the country so far this year and 2016 goes on record as the bloodiest year yet for journalists and media workers in Afghanistan. With few exceptions, cases of violence against journalists remain unresolved.

The security of journalists is a prerequisite for free debate. Because what happens to a society that does not have access to free and independent media, where investigative journalism is not allowed to flourish? What happens to knowledge when information is subject to certain conditions? What are the consequences of an under-informed public?

The best way to commemorate the journalists that have been silenced is to enable others to continue to carry on the crucial work they would have done. In order to do so, we must work together to strengthen journalists' security and freedom of expression.

Impunity must end and efforts to prosecute and punish those that threaten, injure and kill journalists and media workers must be intensified.

The 250th anniversary of the world's first Freedom of the Press Act reminds us of the long and bumpy road we have travelled to promote freedom of expression. Free speech is a core right that must never be taken for granted.

It must always and everywhere be defended, in Sweden, in Afghanistan and around the world. We hope that 2 December can be the starting point of renewed engagement. We hope that more people will stand up for free debate and continue to engage, discuss and scrutinise.

Anders Sjöberg is the ambassador of Sweden to Afghanistan. 

Blogs & Opinion - Opinion

On October 5 the international community at the Brussels conference made a welcome long-term commitment to support the Afghan government until 2020. What was lacking, however, was a serious attempt to tackle corruption.

The only anti-corruption commitment among the 24 agreed by the government and donors is the development of an anti-corruption strategy by the first half of 2017. Given the deep-rooted corrupt practices across the country, this is simply not sufficient.

Unless corruption is curbed, too much of the $15.2 billion USD on the table will go to waste or to line the pockets of the few. The long-suffering Afghan people will miss out. For the donor community not to insist on serious anti-corruption measures, and to simply delay action by calling for a plan in six months, is disingenuous. The key components of an effective anti-corruption strategy are already well-known.

Transparency International, working with civil society experts, produced a comprehensive review of all the Afghan institutions in 2015 and a series of recommendations that should be implemented. A further review of the 50 commitments made by the National Unity Government to fight corruption was released ahead of the Brussels Conference in early October. It found that only two out of the top 22 anti-corruption commitments had been implemented.

Any new funding should have been based on benchmarks that are measurable, meaningful and transparent. The most important institution to tackle is the judiciary, which is perceived as the most corrupt institution in the country.

Last year 63 percent of people polled said they had paid a bribe when dealing with the judicial system. Unfortunately, this is the same as polling figures from three years ago.

President Ghani's much touted new Anti-Corruption Justice Centre only started on 23 August but for the previous two years the courts dealt with fewer than 20 cases of corruption - although hundreds of corrupt acts take place across the country every day. The need for clear targets is obvious.

One key indicator in previous talks between donors and the government was the appointment of an attorney general. That took almost two years. But a simple appointment won't solve the problems facing Afghanistan's judiciary; it's the structure that needs to change.

The attorney general's office has enough financial resources but it lacks qualified and professional prosecutors. The problem becomes severe at the provincial and district levels. There is no anti-corruption arm with expertise on corruption cases and the office is subject to political interference.

This perpetuates the sense of impunity that runs through the entire judicial system.

Judges are appointed by the Supreme Court, whose members are appointed by the President on approval of parliament. This raises the question of the separation of powers and produces a dysfunctional justice system in which corruption goes largely unpunished.

The solution would be merit-based appointment of judges by an independent judicial services commission. In May, President Ashraf Ghani chose to create the High Council for Governance, Rule of Law and Anti-corruption, a new governance entity, chaired by himself. It is a symbol of political will to fight corruption, but not enough to see results.

If President Ghani is serious about fighting corruption he needs to give his people the effective anti-corruption agency they deserve. Almost everybody in the Afghanistan anti-corruption community, including donors, knows that the High Office of Oversight and Anti-corruption, created in 2008, lacks independency, supporting laws, and leadership capacity. It scored 0 out of 100 in our recent study for its internal integrity.

Afghans will continue to suffer unless the country has the competency and capacity to effectively investigate and prosecute corruption cases. But when it comes to crunch time at major international meetings, the international community goes soft in evaluating previous deliveries against agreed targets. We've just witnessed that in Brussels.

A better framework for concrete changes must be developed with meaningful benchmarks immediately. Afghanistan needs an independent anti-corruption agency and an independent judicial services commission to appoint judges. The new Anti-Corruption Justice Centre should be set challenging and measurable targets for investigating and prosecuting corruption, and adequately resourced.

Civil society and the Afghan people must be allowed to cross check the government's reporting to donors. For now the review is done behind closed doors. It is time for the international community to send strong and consistent message to the Afghan government that a strong justice system where there is no impunity is the critical foundation of the effort to fight corruption in the country.

Fighting corruption is challenging but not insurmountable. The government must move from promises to action in order to curb corruption in all sectors and ensure the new $15.2 billion USD is only spent to support Afghans to live better lives.

Dr. Srirak Plipat is director for Asia Pacific at Transparency International.

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Today, October 3, 2016, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is remembering one of the darkest moments in its history.


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