“My Father Didn’t Care About Freedom of Speech”

Abasin Azarm was born in Kandahar Afghanistan in 1983. He has managed and run several radio projects in Afghanistan and worked there as a journalist for over 9 years. Now he talks about the changes in his country and the freedom of speech. -> Recent articles and publications on Asia. 

Can you tell us what is it like to be a young journalist in Afghanistan?

The freedom of speech we currently have in Afghanistan is a fresh experience, something that only began in 2001, with the new government. In Afghanistan, freedom of speech is a new experience for both journalists and the people.

In the past, we only had one TV station, one radio station – and the government ran both. There was not a single private media outlet. Additionally, journalists in Afghanistan, whether they were working for the government or as freelancers, did not have freedom of speech. Of course, there were people who wanted to express their ideas and opinions, but they had to heavily self-censor everything they said. Even today, there are still journalists who cannot speak freely; the present conditions lead to self-censorship, too. We still do not enjoy the level of freedom of speech that exists in the West.

Under the Karzai government many new electronic and print media were founded, and there were new journalists, too – people with standards, fresh minds, ones that believed in the freedom of speech, professionals who trained by all kinds of media organisations. Today, a majority of Afghan journalists is young.
Over the past 10 years, Afghan journalists have tried to extend their freedom of speech. Unfortunately, these struggles have not been without sacrifices. Afghanistan is the country with highest risks for journalists. Also, since freedom of speech is such a new experience to the people of Afghanistan, journalists have had trouble with local communities. This happens when journalists use their freedom of speech to talk about religion or traditions and customs. People who believe in the freedom of speech say what they think; no matter if they are right or wrong, they take their right to express what they believe. This, however, may get them into trouble.

Are there still restrictions in terms of media coverage? What topics are considered inappropriate?

One of the major achievements of the past ten years is a limited kind of freedom of speech. As a result we now have hundreds of private radio stations, tens of TV channels, hundreds of papers, and maybe some thousands of websites. Nevertheless, there are many issues that journalists cannot speak about. The two issues that are out of bounds are religion and Afghan traditions or customs.

The Ulema Council (the council of religious scholars) puts pressure on the government to censor the media. For example, a while ago a TV show was cancelled because the show master, a comedian, was wearing female clothes while singing and dancing. The show was cancelled because the Ulema Council believed a man should not wear women’s clothing, nor a woman men’s clothing, as this would at variance with Afghan culture and would make young people misbehave.

Also, if you want to say something about polygamy, you have to take into consideration religious and cultural sensitivities. Whatever your thoughts on that might be, you will have to censor yourself.

Would you say that politics does not so much interfere with journalism when it comes to reports on corruption and mismanagement but rather when the issues are to do with religion and traditions?

Tradition and religion provide the government, the leaders, the Mujahideen, and common people, too, with a pretext to interfere with our work. If they don’t like what you say about corruption or mismanagement, they won’t openly criticize you for that, as it falls under freedom of speech. Yet, they will try to find some issue where you touched on tradition or religion. That way they can interfere, ban, and censor media. The media laws guarantee that there is no censorship – with the exception of issues to do with religion and tradition. Therefore, you may criticize corruption, poor decisions, and politics in general, but you cannot say anything that might offend religious or traditional sensitivities. This means that whenever the government or anybody else doesn’t like your work, they do have a big opening for censoring you. Usually it is no problem to discuss minor religious or cultural issues, however, it might give your opponents the opportunity to get you banned.

How would you describe the media landscape in Afghanistan?

In urban areas radio, TV, and newspapers are all good sources of information. In rural areas, though, the radio is by far the best medium. First of all, people in the countryside are reluctant to pay for newspapers – and there’s much illiteracy, too. As far as TV is concerned, there are a few provinces where people frown upon television programmes. This is because TV shows and dramas from India are considered to be inappropriate, and so are music videos. In addition, you need a power supply for your TV, something not every household has – and you need the money to buy a TV. Radio is generally considered far less offensive – and radios are cheap and can be run on batteries. Therefore, I think, radio is still the best medium for us journalists. Whenever we do media campaigns or public awareness projects, radio is our first choice as, that way, you can reach the highest number of people. Internews, one of the major organisations to support the development of media in Afghanistan, has thus far helped set up more than 40 radio stations.

In light of recent developments in the Middle East, there has been lots of debate concerning new media and social networks. How are they being used in Afghanistan?

In Afghanistan, the usage of new media such as Facebook or Twitter is different from what it is in Egypt. In Egypt, there are far greater numbers of young, well-educated people with internet access, which they can use to plan demonstrations etc. In Afghanistan, it is mostly young professionals, who work for civil society organisations, NGOs, government, embassies etc. who have internet access and use social media such as Facebook. Those services are being used to plan social activities, concerts etc., but also for gatherings and campaigns – for example there was a tree planting campaign in Kabul. However, they are also an instrument for political and social debates, since they might offer the only space where you can talk about any topic without fear of repercussions. There is no registration and you can use an alias and thus feel free to talk about the Taliban, castigate the government, criticise religion and traditions. Web-based media are used by people to develop and debate new ideas. However, as I said, the level this is happening on is not comparable to Egypt or the other countries of the Middle East.

What is the role of journalism for democracy building? What role does it play concerning the relations with Afghanistan’s neighbours?

The media is one of the main tools for changing people’s attitudes. Right now, I am working on a project to improve communication between Pakistani and Afghan journalists because there is a great deal of misunderstanding. For many Afghans, Pakistan is where the terrorists come from. In Pakistan, there is much anti-Afghan propaganda, claiming that Afghans are not Muslims and that they are working with the West against Islam. This kind of propaganda makes Pakistanis want to go to Afghanistan and fight. If the media is able to provide a different image it might get people start thinking. If someone watches the news and sees Afghans praying in a mosque, he might say: ‘Who am I going to kill, if I go to Afghanistan next week?’ It will stop him, make him think.

As a young Afghan growing up in chaotic 1980s Kabul, how do you see the changes your country has undergone since then?

I was born in 1983. At that time, there was war in Afghanistan. I lived under the communist regime, the Mujahideen, the Taliban, and the government we have now. For me, personally, and for people who think like me, there are many changes to the better, lots of developments and achievements in the last ten years. The Taliban were dictators and under a dictatorship, there is no chance for anyone to grow, to live the way one wants to live. We weren’t even allowed to listen to music. We were dressing as we were told to, went where we were told to, and did what we were told. All decisions were made for us; we were living the will of others. The Mujahideen regime was not like that, but there was constant war. Therefore, we did not have the chance to plan, not even a week ahead. Every day we were on the run. There was no education; everything was about how to survive, nothing else.

At that time, people were not thinking about values. I am sure my father didn’t care about freedom of speech. He was concerned that his son might get killed, that he himself might get killed. Today, we have a chance to live, think, follow our goals. Along with this other values come, too: freedom, education, the right to access information, the right to ask a question, criticise, talk about things like women’s rights. These have become our values, they are part of our lives, and we know we are entitled to such rights. Over the past ten years, we had the chance to fight for them and we succeeded in part. If you consider the number of foreign troops and the amount of money that goes into the country you might say the achievements are few. Nevertheless, for us there are achievements everywhere. There are the big issues such as civil rights, reconstruction, and development; and there are the small things, like being able to go out for a coffee or a nice meal. These small things are very important, too.  

Is the young generation showing interest and taking part in politics?

Once you don’t have to be afraid of being killed anymore, it gives you the chance to get your life in order. When you start doing that, you realise you want other things, other rights as well. Today, this is the case in the main cities where the government is in control. In the south, the situation is still difficult and people there have no chance to pursue their dreams. In the safe provinces, though, young Afghans have ideas and they are struggling to make them real. In schools and cafés, people talk about politics. Now, people do have an opinion. Some might do something, some might not – but at least they do have an opinion. Some people are on their way of getting active, others already are.

The balance between the tribes is an important issue, too. During our history, most of the time the country dominated by one tribe alone. It is good to see that things are getting more balanced now. The tribes struggle for their share of power, they gather information, and they go and vote for their favoured candidate. People get active, they have opinions, and they stand behind them. The talk is about issues now. As yet, they might nor be many who do that, but to us these are still new experiences.

What do you think about the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan?

From my point of view and in the current situation, I’m against the idea of the foreign troops pulling out, no matter if they are German, Italian, or American. At present, we need those troops. Normally people don’t like to have foreign troops in their country. However, if your country’s not stable you have to go with the most reasonable choice. For a number of reasons the presence of the coalition forces is vital for Afghanistan. For one, over the past ten years, Afghanistan has not become a self-sufficient country. The security forces have improved in terms of quantity but when in comes to quality their capabilities are still insufficient.

Additionally the neighbouring countries are still destabilising Afghanistan. There is strong evidence that they support terrorism in Afghanistan while, on the other hand, the fight against terrorism has not yet succeeded; if anything, terrorism today is stronger than it was in the past.

Women’s rights, human rights, freedom of speech, and other rights enshrined in Afghanistan’s constitution can only be upheld through the presence of the coalition forces. Without them all these achievement will simply disappear. If the international community withdraws from Afghanistan, leaves it in its present state, the country will become a centre of international terrorism.

The fight against terrorism, the main reason for the international forces’ presence in the country, has still not been won. If this fight is ended before it has been won, one has to ask, what has been the purpose of the ten years presence of international forces in the country? In addition, if the international forces leave Afghanistan in the current situation the international interest in Afghanistan will plummet, and the country will be left on its own in terms of its economic and political development.

In August 2010, Aisha, an Afghan girl, made headlines in the international media after a photos of her was published on the cover of TIME Magazine. The publication of her picture by TIME raised many debates concerning the situation of women in Afghanistan and about their future should the international forces be withdrawn. The headline beneath the picture of Aisha, whose nose had been cut off, read, “What happens if we leave Afghanistan.”
This is a simple and perceptive statement of what will likely happen in Afghanistan, if the international forces are withdrawn today – yet, much worse could come. It is worth to stay in Afghanistan; the fight should be brought to an end.