President Karzai and Media
07 Dec, 2014

President Karzai’s thirteen-year tenure – a period marked by various political and social upheavals, extensive progress as well as numerous failures to seize opportunities – came to an end in September 2014. In 2001, President Karzai assumed office at a time when there was no existing state and no institutions what so ever. However, thirteen years later he handed a functioning state over to his successor, albeit one with numerous challenges and shortcomings.
Among the biggest gains over these thirteen years, which Mr. Karzai frequently referred to as huge achievements of his government, were the expansion of freedom of speech and the proliferation of mass media in Afghanistan.
During the Taliban regime, only a handful of media were operating in Afghanistan: one radio station called “Radio Sharia” and four publications, all of which were used as propaganda tools of the regime. In fact there was no such thing as journalism in Afghanistan at that time. The programming included religious sermons, speeches, and religious and militant chants. TV and photography were religiously taboo in the eyes of the Taliban and nobody was allowed to use those media. People were not familiar with the Internet and there was no Internet service provider in the country.
In the past thirteen years, the boom in the media industry has been remarkable. Today, around 1300 media outlets operate in Afghanistan. That translates to an average creation of 100 media outlets per year. Millions gained access to the Internet and the country has two million social media users. An “Access to Information” bill was approved by the parliament, multiple media support organizations were established and, more importantly, Afghanistan is the only country where an independent comprehensive safety structure exists, with aims to improve safety for media workers.
Are Mr. Karzai and his government’s policies and efforts to thank for progress in the area of freedom of speech? Or is this progress the outcome of sustained efforts by freedom of expression activists and political pressure from the international community? Would the state of media and freedom of expression be further improved had there been different government policies in place?
Many are of the opinion that the current state of freedom of speech is solely the result of the perseverance of writers and journalists who rose gallantly to voice people’s concerns and expressed truths that many, including Karzai’s government, were trying to hide. The international community’s support for freedom of expression has emboldened activists who believe that in the absence of pressure of the international community the Karzai government would have had no interest in freedom of speech. Critics point to the state-sponsored station Radio & Television Afghanistan (RTA) for evidence of the administration’s lack of interest in press freedom.
Despite thirteen years of growth and professionalization of the country’s other news media, RTA displays little “freedom of expression”. The station’s editorial policy is centered on serving government interests, exactly like government media in nondemocratic countries. Very little space is given to criticizing the state’s performance and no criticism whatsoever is directed at high-ranking government officials. The managers of RTA and its local stations in the provinces are discontented with the pressure government officials exert on them to publicize those officials’ activities regardless of their relevance, but they have no choice but compliance. Critics believe RTA showcases the type of media that are ideal from government officials’ perspective. They also argue that if the Karzai administration had the option of exerting similar pressure on private media, they would be no different from RTA. Other observers, however, admire Mr. Karzai for adopting a supportive policy and approach toward news media and credit him with creating a space where media and freedom of expression could thrive. They praise Mr. Karzai for personally supporting freedom of expression and for his tolerance towards the media’s staunch criticisms. Many media outlets have taken the liberty to personally attack Mr. Karzai without fear of his reaction, even as they lacked the courage to criticize some other powerful people in the government. Mr. Karzai even encouraged the media to be critical of him and his government. Below is an excerpt of Mr. Karzai’s speech at the National Conference on Development of the Salang Highway in December 2013:
“We gave our media, our TVs, commentators and comment writers, our political experts and speech givers complete freedom to say whatever they want in the media. Freedom of speech in Afghanistan is one of the best in the world. The world also accepts this. We saw that our TVs and those who have a viewpoint spoke with full freedom. They criticized the government, all aspects of it. They criticized me. They criticized harshly. They said whatever they wanted to say; yet we supported them, strengthened them and helped them. There are media which I have personally helped thrive and come forward to work alongside other Afghan media, to go ahead and have full freedom in doing so.”
He said in another part of the same speech: “My recommendation for media, while we have given them full freedom, is use whatever language you want to use against me; speak ill of the government as much as you want; it is actually your right. There are lots of evil in this government. It is fine, say whatever you say…”
Similarly, in his speech on occasion of the launch of Bayat Media Center, Mr. Karzai said: “The government should remain under criticisms of media, otherwise it will become reckless.”
Mr. Karzai’s tolerance to media criticisms was clearly visible in many instances; however, some look at this tolerance in a negative light and believe that Karzai countered the media by adopting the policy of indifference. According to this view, it is true that Karzai and his government did not react harshly against criticism, but at the same time they did not take any step to address the issues over which they were criticized. In many cases media criticisms have made no difference. Even in instances when media revealed compelling cases of corruption, the government officials did not take appropriate measures to improve the situation. This has caused the public to lose some confidence in media’s ability to induce reforms. When talking to the media, many people have expressed frustration and skepticism as to their ability to make their voices heard by officials and about prospects for positive changes.