UNESCO voices strong suppot for press freedom at Kabul Media SeminarParis - Declaring that democracy cannot be established without a "wide range of impartial and editorially independent information sources", UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura today urged the Afghan Government to fulfill its pledge to diversify media outlets and "remove itself" from the media it controls.
In a message - read at today's opening of the International Seminar on Promoting Independent and Pluralistic Media in Afghanistan (Kabul, September 3-5), organized by the Afghan authorities at UNESCO's initiative - Mr Matsuura declared: "A free and independent press is the cornerstone of democracy and, without access to a wide range of impartial and editorially independent information sources, citizens cannot fully participate in the democratic process."
Afghanistan's new press law is one of the key topics for discussion at the Seminar. Aspects of the press law, adopted earlier this year by the Transitional Administration, were perceived as restrictive of press freedom, leading to criticism by several international organizations, including UNESCO, and NGOs promoting freedom of expression.
In response, the Ministry of Information and Culture issued a policy statement saying the press law "was a first step in opening up the media environment in Afghanistan, allowing the establishment of commercial and private radio, television, press and news agencies. To help and encourage them further, we intend to amend, to clarify and to extend the scope of our press law and develop the infrastructure which the media need to work more effectively."
In his message Mr Matsuura welcomed the Ministry's statement as a commitment in favour of press freedom. He said that it "contains a range of innovative and courageous options that would see the State remove itself from many of the currently Government funded media organs, thus allowing for more editorial and financial independence."
The statement, containing "policy directions" for the reconstruction and development of the media in Afghanistan, recognizes the need for "free and independent media, which can reflect our society as it is, truthfully and without bias."
It presents a media strategy "rooted in the vision of a social and political future that our people deserve and aspire to - a free, independent and united Afghanistan […] where people can build a modern society in accordance with the principles of Islam, democracy and human rights."
It further states that, "the media must become an essential instrument in making the government transparent and accountable, and in generating national debate on the crucial decisions which we will have to make in the rebuilding of our country in the years ahead."
UNESCO was invited by the Afghan authorities to be overall facilitator of the Seminar. Other key partners in preparing the meeting include the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA); the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC); and the international media NGOs Internews, Baltic Media Centre and Article 19.
The Seminar will also look at the status of state-funded national media, such as Radio-Television Afghanistan and the Bakhtar Information Agency, and recommend options for the future. The authorities have indicated their interest in corporatizing both bodies as editorially independent media outlets. Other Seminar sessions will cover support for the on-going development of free and independent media in Afghanistan.
Since the fall of the Taleban, who totally muzzled the media during their 7-year rule, some 90 independent publications have appeared in Afghanistan. Most of them, however, have very small print-runs and are not economically viable. Distributing them outside the major cities also poses a major problem.
Broadcasts by state-owned Radio Television Afghanistan's do not cover the entire country due to transmission difficulties. Major international broadcasters and a number of foreign-based short wave radios target Afghanistan with programmes in the local languages. Some of the international broadcasters also operate local FM stations. Television is only available in and around the main cities.
In its strategy statement, the Ministry of Information proposes to establish an independent broadcasting authority responsible for frequency allocation and broadcasting licences. It will also be in charge of developing regulatory guidelines for the electronic media. The ministry further proposes to transform the state radio and television company into an editorially independent national public service broadcaster accountable to the public. The broadcaster should provide programmes to everyone, everywhere in the country, according to the document. These programmes "will reflect fairly the ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity of all the people of Afghanistan, men and women," the Ministry says. It also stipulates that national radio and television broadcasts should include a wide range of educational programmes.
The ministry further says it will "review the status of the government news agency, Bakhtar, with the objective of transforming it into a national public service institution, which will be editorially independent, and accountable to the public."
It stipulates that, "anyone will be able to publish newspapers and periodicals without having to obtain a licence. The printed press will be subject to rules of general application, as defined by common law." It further pledges to "help and encourage the print sector to develop a self-regulatory code of conduct in accordance with Afghan and international conventions, in close consultation with the representative institutions of civil society."
The Ministry proposes "to review the status of all the government newspapers, and allow as many of them as possible to become independent commercial entities." It promises to "help and encourage the establishment of independent institutions for protecting journalists and safeguarding their professional integrity. Journalists will be free to set up professional associations, but will not be required to be members of any particular association to be able to work in the media."
More than 70 participants, including senior journalists and media professionals from provinces throughout Afghanistan, are expected to take part in the Seminar. Women are strongly represented through the professional media association, the Voice of Afghan Women in Global Media, established with the help of UNESCO. Representatives from wide range of international organizations - such as the International Press Institute, the World Association of Newspapers, the World Press Freedom Committee, and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting - are also taking part.
Key speakers at the seminar include the Minister for Information and Culture, Sayed M. Raheen; Deputy Minister Abdul Hamid Mubarez; President of Radio-Television Afghanistan, Mohammed Es-Haq; and Director of the Bakhtar Information Agency, Khalil Minawi. The opening ceremony will feature messages from the President of the Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai; the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General in Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi; Mohammad Akbar Popal, Rector of Kabul University; and Abdul Bari Rashid, President of the Academy of Sciences of Afghanistan. UNESCO contracted Riz Khan, former host of the "Q&A" programme on CNN, to be the moderator of the seminar.
Participants are to meet President Karzai at the Presidential Palace on Thursday, after the adoption of a declaration at the end of the seminar.
Since Mr. Karzai's administration came to power in December, 2001, UNESCO has been actively assisting the development of the media in Afghanistan through a range of projects, including the refurbishment of the Faculty of Journalism at Kabul University, skills-upgrading of lecturers and the provision of computers. UNESCO has also funded the first multi-language independent newspaper, the Kabul Weekly, and has established a publications unit to support several specialist newspapers and magazines for women, including Seerat and Malalai.
UNESCO also supports the AINA Media and Culture Centre, and funds its Women's Publication Unit, which backs the publication of Seerat and Malalai. The Centre houses training facilities, workshop rooms and the offices of several NGOs, including the Voice of Afghan Women in Global Media.
Some 102 video programmes from UNESCO's CreaTV initiative, to support quality television production in developing countries and countries in transition, have been provided to Radio-Television Afghanistan, while the Bakhtar Information Agency has been fully computerised.
In his message to the Seminar, the Director-General reiterated that "UNESCO has made assistance to Afghanistan one of its priority areas" and went on to declare that "we await the outcome of this seminar with much interest to see where UNESCO can continue to play a fruitful and active role in assisting Afghanistan as it moves to a modern, democratic State."
He recalled that, "within the United Nations system, UNESCO's mandate to promote freedom of expression is clear and unequivocal. This mandate lies at the very heart of all our activities, as is affirmed by the UNESCO Constitution when it calls upon the Organization 'to promote the free flow of ideas by word and image'."
UNESCO is Programme Secretariat for Culture, Media and Sport in Afghanistan. In this role, it co-ordinates and liaises with donors, NGO's and international bodies that are supporting activities in the sector. Its particular responsibility is capacity-building in the Ministry of Information and Culture and, to this end, has established a full-time office within the Ministry. The Programme Secretariat also assists in planning long-term budgets and strategies.
For more information about UNESCO in Afghanistan contact:
Martin Hadlow, Director of UNESCO's Office in Afghanistan