These days, there is much talk about where Afghanistan is headed in 2014 and how it will achieve the critical milestones needed in order to continue on the path of progress, including the country's first political transition from one elected leader to another, Afghan forces assuming full security responsibility from international partners, and peace talks with the Taliban.
However, in the midst of these major changes, discussions over the future of Afghan media and freedom of expression in the country, which many consider Afghanistan's biggest achievement of the past decade, are noticeably absent. These gains make the country not only a bastion of freedom in a region suffocated by authoritarian governments and military regimes, but they also help promote transparency and human rights, curb corruption, and strengthen the country's young democracy. Additionally, the media provides a much needed interlocutor that highlights local priorities and vulnerabilities for the central government, a critical function as Afghanistan's geography, bureaucracy, and weak subnational government limit the exchange of information between the capital and the countryside.
Under the Taliban, a mere criticism of a ruling official could land someone in prison indefinitely. Talking to foreign journalists was forbidden. And the only radio station, the Voice of Shariat, governed by the Taliban, was used to instill fear and promote its own version of the truth to the Afghan public.
However, today Afghanistan has more than 75 private television stations, more than 200 private radio stations, and hundreds of print and online outlets. Through these outlets, Afghans laugh at themselves and their leaders, as well as shed tears of joy for their gains and tears of sorrow for the abuses and tragedies occurring in the country. In other words, after the U.S.-led invasion, the Afghan media, despite all of its shortcomings, became the window Afghans needed to see the lives beyond their own walls.
But as the Afghan people march into 2014 with cautious hope, serious challenges are emerging that threaten these hard fought gains. The Afghan government's increasing tendency to enact suppressive policies and its disinterest in creating a safe working environment for media workers top the list. Moreover, government workers' reluctance to facilitate access to information, the biased implementation of media laws, and the absence of proper regulating mechanisms -- such as a national code of ethics and editorial policies -- as well as an apparent lack of strategic outlook on the part of media owners are additional impediments toward sustaining and improving the industry. Declining support from the international community, which has been the major proponent of Afghan media to this point, has only compounded these challenges.
The reluctance of the Afghan government to prosecute perpetrators of violence against journalists has also emboldened warlords and conservative members of society, who see the media as a threat to their influence and interests; they have increasingly attacked media workers, both verbally and physically, without fear of retribution. Meanwhile, the Taliban's growing interest in and focus on information warfare has brought the media under their closer surveillance, thereby increasing intimidation against reporters who are seen as not abiding by the Taliban's reporting and programming content demands.
Furthermore, Afghanistan's impending economic depression, subsequent to the drawdown of international forces, could force some independent stations to declare bankruptcy -- a phenomenon that will expand the space for partisan media. Financial necessity could also make independent media outlets more prone to the influence of countries or groups that see them as an effective way to promote their own interests in Afghanistan. Should this dangerous scenario come to pass, it will seriously damage the credibility and image of Afghanistan's media and discourage the public from relying on the industry as a whole for information.
Increased pressure from the government, coupled with government workers' increasing violence against journalists, has made reporters adopt a more hostile approach towards the government; their critiques often seem more like deliberate demonizations of the government than impartial analysis. The government, in turn, exerts more pressure on journalists. The ongoing friction has undermined the constructive role of journalism and perpetuated a vicious cycle that harms both the government and journalists, while creating a space for the propaganda machines of the Taliban and other violent extremist groups.
Considering the important role of the media in Afghanistan's democratic endeavor, it's important that the Afghan government refrains from adding more restrictions to the existing media law, and avoids threatening journalists and media outlets with legal action if they do not comply with its wishes. Such attempts will only prove counterproductive. For instance, the recent attempt by the Ministry of Information and Culture (the main government body dealing with Afghan media) to add three more articles to the current media law -- aimed at giving more authority to the minister to punish journalists -- will only widen the gap between journalists and the government. Officials at the ministry should instead seek common ground with industry partners and the journalist community on issues such as improving the practice of fair and transparent journalism. The ministry should likewise encourage and facilitate debate and participation over these regulatory mechanisms, filling a crucial vacuum.
Candidates in Afghanistan's upcoming presidential elections should also make clear their position on the future of media and freedom of expression, and Afghan media should initiate debate over the matter. Furthermore, the international community, as a strategic priority, needs to adopt a clear stance towards the media and resume its commitment to the industry. International donors should also realize that short-term solutions and interventions will not yield the needed results.
Despite all of these challenges, however, the Afghan media industry continues to move forward and local journalists are taking more risks to expose corruption, instill the values of an open society, and promote fundamental values of human and women's rights. As such, freedom of the press in Afghanistan is an achievement for the Afghan people, a gain for the Afghan government, and a credit to the investment of the international community. It should be recognized as such. To lose it now would be catastrophic for all.
Najib Sharifi is co-founder and president of Afghan Journalists Safety Committee -- a local entity that works to create a safe working environment for Afghan media workers. He is also an analyst at Afghanistan Analysis & Awareness -- a Kabul based think tank. He can be reached via email at email@example.com