Afghanistan bans reporting of attacks during vote

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan ordered Western and domestic media on Tuesday to impose a blackout on coverage of violence during Thursday’s presidential election, saying it did not want Afghans to be frightened away from the polls.

An Afghan policeman keeps watch at a vehicle checkpoint in Kandahar province, August 18, 2009. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

Taliban militants have vowed to disrupt the election and authorities fear reports of violence on election day could hurt turnout and damage the chances of staging a successful vote.

Two decrees were issued, one from the Foreign Ministry banning all broadcasts of information about violence while polls were open, and the other from the Interior Ministry requiring reporters to keep away from the scene of any attacks.

A suicide car bomber killed eight people and wounded more than 50 in Kabul on Tuesday, one of a string of attacks countrywide. Dozens of journalists were on the scene within minutes of the blast.

“We have taken this decision in the national interest of Afghanistan in order to encourage people and raise their morale to come out and vote,” Siamak Herawi, a spokesman for President Hamid Karzai, told Reuters.

“This decision will control the negative impact of the media. If something happens, this will prevent them from exaggerating it, so that people will not be frightened to come out and vote.”

The Head of the Afghan Independent Journalists’ Association (AIJA) said the decrees would not stop Afghan and foreign journalists from providing information to the public during the crucial election period.

“It shows the weakness of the government and we condemn such moves to deprive people from accessing news,” Rahimullah Samander told Reuters.

A vibrant and often chaotic domestic media has emerged in the years following the Taliban’s ousting in 2001, with privately run TV and radio stations as well as newspapers and magazines. There are also scores of international media covering the elections.

“All domestic and international media agencies are requested to refrain from broadcasting any incidence of violence during the election process from 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m on 20 August 2009,” said a version of one decree released in English by the Foreign Ministry on behalf of the Afghan Security Council.

It did not explain the legal basis for the order or specify what the consequences might be for disobeying it.

Although the English version described the decree as a “request”, the version in Dari, one of Afghanistan’s official languages, said reporting on violence during the election would be “strictly forbidden”.

In the second decree, the Interior Ministry said it “requests all respected mass media not to enter the scene of any terrorist incident such as suicide bombings, explosions or rocket attacks, which causes destruction of initial evidence for investigation.”

A spokeswoman for the U.S. embassy said she was not able to comment on the specific decrees, but that “the United States always stands behind freedom of the press”.