U.S. voices concern over Afghan media rules

KABUL Tue Mar 2, 2010 3:57pm EST

Afghans view a destroyed site a day after blasts and gun battles in Kabul, February 27, 2010. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

Afghans view a destroyed site a day after blasts and gun battles in Kabul, February 27, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Ahmad Masood

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KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan promised on Tuesday to clarify restrictions on news coverage of Taliban strikes, and hinted it may row back from the most draconian measures, which amount to a total ban on filming during attacks.

Washington said it would make clear to Kabul its support for a free media, one day after the Afghan National Directorate of Security spy agency summoned journalists to its headquarters and threatened to arrest anyone filming while strikes are under way.

"It is pretty obvious that we support a free press. We don't like restrictions on the press. My whole career has been devoted to supporting that," U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, said in Washington.

Holbrooke said both he and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would make their positions known to the Afghan government. He did not elaborate.

President Hamid Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omer, said on Tuesday the new guidelines had not yet been drawn up, and promised they would not amount to censorship.

"I would not call it restrictions. There is nothing even discussed or conveyed to the media called restrictions on the media," he said.

The goal would be to prevent insurgents from using live media reports to get tactical information, and to keep journalists themselves out of danger at the scene of violence, he said, without elaborating on how that might be achieved.

"Live broadcast of the scene of the attacks has in the past been useful to the enemy to give instructions to their people who are on the scene. Through a mechanism, we want to ensure that does not happen again. We are also blamed for not protecting the lives of the journalists," Omer said.

The strict ban on news coverage of attacks initially unveiled on Monday by the NDS had alarmed Afghan journalist groups, which said it would deprive the public of vital security information.

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Ever-bolder Taliban fighters have staged several major commando-style attacks during the past year in the capital and other cities, most recently last Friday when suicide bombers struck hotels and battled police in downtown Kabul for two hours.

Sixteen people were killed, including Indian government officials and an Italian diplomat. Vivid images were broadcast worldwide as combat was under way.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the U.S. State Department would discuss the matter with Kabul, adding that to his knowledge, the U.S. military was not consulted about the planned policy change.

He also played down any impact on U.S. news media embedded with coalition forces who might capture a Taliban attack on camera.

"I haven't seen anything that the U.S. news media has been covering, or the way in which the U.S. news media has been covering our military operations, or even our joint operations, that go to the concerns as I understand it of the Afghan government," he said.

NDS officials conveyed the new ban in one-on-one meetings with journalists on Monday, including Reuters. All filming at the scene of attacks would be banned until fighting was over and NDS gave permission, NDS spokesman Saeed Ansari said.

Omer suggested the rules were likely to be milder than the blanket ban described by journalists who were briefed by NDS, although he would not be more specific.

"I think I can ensure you that it's not the way it's been interpreted. This is not an attempt to restrict the work of the media," he said. Afghan officials, including from NDS and the information ministry, would meet Wednesday to help draw up the new rules, which would be made public "very soon," he said.

(Additional reporting by Sue Pleming and Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Bryson Hull)

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