This week, journalists in Kabul learned of new restrictions against reporting, including this one: no more live coverage from the scene of a terrorist attack. Saad Mohseni heads Tolo TV, one of Afghanistan's most popular stations. He explains why the Afghan government has imposed these new restrictions and why the ban is destined to fail.
Artist: The Q4
BOB GARFIELD: On Monday journalists in Kabul were informed by the Ministry of Justice that they would be operating under a new rule, no more live coverage of terrorist attacks. In fact, reporters aren't even supposed to go near the scene of an attack. This new policy comes amid increasing violence in Kabul, such as last Friday’s suicide bombing in the heart of the city.
[SOUND OF BOMBS]
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Taliban fighters attacked central Kabul shortly after down this morning. A squad of five -
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Taliban bombers struck two guests houses. The intent - to kill as many foreigners as possible.
[SOUND OF BLASTS]
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Another blast, civilians flee to safety.
BOB GARFIELD: The stated reasons for the ban, live coverage could expose police movements, could jeopardize security and could embolden attackers by allowing them to bask in the media spotlight. Also, the ban protects journalists by keeping them safe from stray gunshots or shrapnel. But so far the decision has been met with resounding criticism from journalists and free press advocates. Saad Mohseni heads the Moby Media Group, which runs one of Afghanistan’s most popular TV stations, Tolo TV. Mohseni says that in recent days, even some in the government have distanced themselves from the coverage ban, saying it was the unsanctioned work of a few individuals in the security forces and not an official decree. Meanwhile, journalists continue to work in the midst of the confusion. As Mohseni explains, the new rules are both vague and all-encompassing.
SAAD MOHSENI: This applies not just to Afghan media but it applies to international media as well, such as CNN, NPR and Reuters and AP.
BOB GARFIELD: Let me see if I understand this. If there is a bombing, for example, then there is, of course, an aftermath. If ABC or CBS or your cameras show up and report live from the aftermath of an incident, they will be subject to having their cameras confiscated and to being jailed?
SAAD MOHSENI: According to this letter, yes, and according to the verbal warnings that our journalists have received, that’s correct. When they say a terrorist act, they don't actually specify what that entails. As far as the government is concerned, it could last 24 hours. So we have to seek the approval of the intelligence agency before filming, even after the incident was over. And if we decided to film without that permission, then our person would be locked up and equipment confiscated.
BOB GARFIELD: The pretext for this ruling was to protect security forces. Do you think that was what the government had in mind?
SAAD MOHSENI: No, I think it’s just that they don't want to be seen as a bunch of novices or amateurs. We are Afghans. We care about the security of this nation. Of course, we're not going to give away operational secrets. You have to understand that in the past, coverage of these types of incidents have exposed the security forces’ vulnerabilities and their weaknesses and their lack of professionalism, and I think that that’s what concerns the government. For example, when we had a situation a few weeks back, when we had a major avalanche in the north of Afghanistan, there were reports – and we did, of course, cover these – of police officers emptying the pockets of dead victims or officials neglecting half-dead individuals, assuming that they were dead; they'd just been frozen. So, of course, this concerns the government. But as a media organization, we have to cover these sorts of things. How could we not?
BOB GARFIELD: It’s fair to assume that coverage of bombings does a kind of propaganda favor for the Taliban. Do you think the government just doesn't want to give the enemy the opportunity to parade its successes on live TV?
SAAD MOHSENI: When 9/11 happened, would you have expected CNN to stop its transmissions of the Twin Towers getting hit? This situation is no different. The public demands to know what’s going on. And you have to understand also that in a city the size of Kabul, you can't avoid hearing the explosions and the gunfire. The public doesn't want to watch this because they're bored. They want to watch what’s going on because they need to know. They have kids at school. They have partners at work. People get very, very stressed not knowing. The government could use this medium to reassure the public. It can cordon off the area to ensure that the media doesn't get too close, but it cannot ban the media. You cannot kill the messenger.
BOB GARFIELD: I'm wondering, based on the message and the warnings that you got, have you changed your coverage at all?
SAAD MOHSENI: No, of course not. I mean, I think at the end of the day we will do what’s right for the Afghan public. It’s difficult for all media organizations and for journalists to abide by the wishes of the government. This goes even in the U.S. But I think that now we're starting to see some common sense prevail, and discussions we've had with senior government officials, including the Minister for Information and Culture, indicates that the President wishes for this issue to be resolved amicably. And it seems to us also that the President probably never endorsed this ban. This ban was probably the working of one or two individuals within the security apparatus. But, at the same time, we cannot accept such a ban.
BOB GARFIELD: Do you think the Afghan government is concerned about only the Afghan audience, or are they concerned about images reaching the rest of the world?
SAAD MOHSENI: Well, I mean, you have to understand that the Afghan state is a heavily subsidized state, and, of course, viewers in the U.S. and the U.K., as well as Europe, can ultimately determine how much assistance Afghanistan gets, and so forth. And, of course, they don't want to be seen as weak, inept, disorganized and corrupt. And I think that’s why it’s very important for them also to have some sort of a say as far as what goes out to the outside world.
BOB GARFIELD: Saad, thank you very much.
SAAD MOHSENI: Thank you, my friend.
BOB GARFIELD: Saad Mohseni is director of the Moby Media Group. He joined us from Kabul.