In a remote Afghan province in the central highlands, the UN seeks resolution to a conflict between the media and a female governor.
Is Free Press In Daikundi Under Threat?
A private radio manager contends that his station, which the governor has sharply criticized, is slated to be bulldozed in favor of a proposed public road project, and that he is receiving constant threats from anonymous Facebook users.
Another station manager insists that unknown assailants, alleged enemies of the free press, kidnapped and beat him.
The threats are taking place in Daikundi, a rugged central highland province, where tiny villages are connected by goat paths along a stunning moonscape of immense boulders set in the mountains amid almond groves lining dusty valleys.
In many respects, Daikundi is a microcosm of the rest of the country and a test case for Afghanistan’s future stability. In roadside tea shops, weary travelers stop to exchange stories about a grinding war that surrounds – but has not yet engulfed - the province and an influx if newly-displaced Afghans asking for shelter.
United Nations officials here say that for Afghanistan to stabilize, government, on a local level, needs to prove itself worthy of the trust and respect of all its citizens. For that to happen, a new culture of openness – one in which the media is allowed to operate without threats will be essential. To this end, working through the governor’s office and a panoply of local media representatives, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) is trying to help instill the principles of ethical journalism, as well as the public’s right to access information as key pillars of an open society and a responsive government.
In her long office set with a dozen matching tea tables, Daikundi’s governor speaks with the cautioning words of a high school head mistress, the post she occupied before being appointed two years ago to govern one of Afghanistan’s newest, poorest, and most challenged provinces. Masooma Muradi, who is currently Afghanistan’s only woman governor, claims that her work is hampered by a highly-critical media that has gone to extremes to discredit her – including through innuendo on Facebook and by secret taping of private discussions, including those of her husband.
“When I arrived, here there was so much opposition – some people just didn’t want a lady as their leader,” she said. “Political parties opposed me and civil society as well, but my main problem was the media. They didn’t understand what their role should be.”
Enter the UNAMA strategic communication team, which brought together a beleaguered press corps with the lady governor in a make-shift conference room at a local roadside restaurant.
“We saw the problems getting worse, and so I asked, ‘What can the United Nations do to help?’” said Jaffar Rahim, UNAMA’s Public Information officer in the central highlands region, who has worked for the UN in Afghanistan for more than a dozen years. “I said, ‘So let’s have a dialogue and let’s talk about ethics and how the press can access the information it needs to inform the public. Basically, we needed to help both sides in this dispute determine their own interests and think about standards for working openly together.”
Rahim went to work with a conscientious senior reporter from nearby Bamyan, Hadi Ghafari, who insists, “One bad doctor can kill a patient, but a bad reporter can upset an entire society.”
As a result of the UN efforts, the Daikundi governor’s office has implemented a series of regular press conferences in order to allow journalists to pose their questions in an open forum. In addition, leading government figures have provided Afghanistan’s state television with regular interviews.
For its part, the media says that it is being more careful about using anonymous sources and taping government officials without their knowledge.
Still, efforts to repair frayed relations between the government and the media are still a work in progress. Media representatives remain disgruntled and upset at the Governor’s office for not providing the timely information they seek and for what they contend have been a series of indirect threats.
For her part, the governor must also persuade security services, who often work through back channels with the judiciary, to join a more open and transparent government.
“We are not permitted to work freely and I am being threatened by persons close to the governor,” said Anwar Shahab, the owner and manager of Radio Daikundi, a local FM station.
Shahab, 38, and a long-time journalist in Nili, said his latest woes began when he posted on his personal Facebook page a rumor from inside the governor’s offices that someone had raided the safe and stolen the carpets after hearing the governor would soon be removed from office. The governor’s office has denounced the allegations.
“Since then, I’ve had anonymous posts, which have ‘tagged’ the governor, saying that my wife and daughter were raped,” Shahab said.
“I’ve informed the police of these threats against me, but they continue, nevertheless.” His FM radio station sits atop one of the largest hills in Nili and the government is now threatening to run a road through his studios, he said.
Similar complaints of harassment come from Reza Wahidi, the manager of Radio Nasim and his staff members. Usually the threats cannot be traced to any specific person, and the local authorities have been slow to investigate, he said.
“Most importantly, we don’t have the access to the information that we need,” said Wahidi, 32, sitting with a group of fellow reporters in popular kebab house. “We want to report on corruption and with an ability to dig deeper.”
Wahidi said that Daikundi government officials do not make a habit of explaining anything. “When a senior agricultural department was picked up by the National Directorate of Security (NDS), apparently on charges of corruption, we could get no details,” he said. “All they would tell us is that he had been ‘warned,’ but about what we don’t know. That’s not the kind of news we can use in a serious report.”
Like other members of the young press corps, Wahidi does not have formal training in journalism, but he is a computer technology expert and he comes across as savvy and dedicated to his new profession.
“We have a responsibility to cover social issues, but we don’t get much help with those either. For example, we have a serious problem with violence against women and we see the statistics, but no one is ever willing to talk to us about the reasons for his kind of violence, which sometimes leads to self-immolation.”
Though progress is being made, the broader public fear across Daikundi is that without a focus on free press and an open government, citizens will lose faith in their own government, giving rise to more disputes and the encroachment of armed conflict.
This remote and often-overlooked region of Afghanistan appears, in any case, open to a robust UN effort aimed at helping to resolve roiling disputes.
“The UN was able to do the one thing that is most needed – provide a platform for all sides to present their ideas and recommendations,” said Rahmatullah Shariati, who represents two major civil society groups in Nili.
“We want to see this worked out because it is the public that needs to know and has the right to know.”
About this Feature Story: The UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) has a mandate to support the Government of Afghanistan and its citizens in a shared goal of becoming a stable, open, and peaceful nation. The following news feature is meant to tell a human interest story related to how Afghanistan and the UN are working together to overcome the many challenges to achieving this goal.