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Erica Gaston

Erica Gaston

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Hushing Up Civilian Casualties Investigations in Afghanistan

Posted: 03/ 7/11 01:20 PM ET

A Global Post report last week found that not only did recent US airstrikes in Kunar province, Afghanistan, kill as many as 67 civilians, but also that some journalists were prevented from investigating what happened. Jean MacKenzie reported that two Al Jazeera reporters were detained and interrogated by the US military for covering the incident.

Though both journalists were released within a day, and there was no permanent damage to the material or equipment confiscated, the incident is the latest in a trend toward government or military actions interfering with independent investigation and coverage of the Afghan conflict.

Afghanistan has among the strongest freedom of speech guarantees in the region. The freedom and development of media in the country is often considered one of the few unqualified successes since the 2001 invasion.

More recently, though, journalists working on conflict-related issues have faced increasing harassment, coercion, and even serious threats by all parties to the conflict. Journalists, particularly Afghan journalists, may be subject to detention and questioning, and even reprisals for simply doing their job.

The Taliban and other insurgent groups have often threatened or targeted journalists and human rights monitors who have reported on their abuses or attacks. International military do not overtly threaten harm; however, they have contributed to the eroding media space through their own lack of transparency (as seen in their recent handling of the Kunar incident), and by detaining local journalists or monitors based on their work activities.

In addition to two Al Jazeera journalists detained in Kunar last week, another two Al Jazeera journalists were detained by international military forces in separate night raid operations in September 2010. In one of the cases, the journalist was targeted because he shot footage of violence on election day. Though this would seem to be a basic part of local journalism coverage in Afghanistan, ISAF accused him of being an insurgent propagandist.

The greatest pressure on free speech recently, though, has come from the Afghan government. I myself experienced these restrictions during recent research into nighttime search and seizure ("night raids") by international military in eastern Afghanistan. Together with an international journalist and an Afghan journalist, I was interviewing an affected family in a public hospital when we were told to stop our interview. Interviewing victims in a hospital is a sensitive issue, so we would have completely understood had we been asked to stop because it was disturbing other patients, inhibiting medical treatment or recovery, or potentially politicizing the otherwise neutral hospital space. However, none of these objections were raised.

Instead, we were told that we had to stop the interview because only the National Directorate of Security and the governor of the province could authorize us to speak to someone about an incident involving international military. In a phone conversation to the hospital administrator (which was repeated to us), the governor said we had to stop the interview because there had been no incident; no bombing; and no one was harmed - an Orwellian explanation directly contradicted by the wounded patients sitting before us, and their testimony.

The Afghan government has been sensitive about potentially negative portrayals of violence and instability in the country, but often these have been directed at insurgent-related violence. In the run-up to the 2009 presidential elections, the Afghan government banned coverage of any suicide bombings or other violence on election day, but most journalists, at least in the capital city of Kabul, disregarded the warning. The Afghan National Directorate of Security reportedly told Afghan journalists not to report live from the scene of an insurgent attack in 2010, a warning that was later retracted by President Karzai's office after it received strong criticism.

The Afghan journalist who was with us at the hospital said he was often prevented from reporting on incidents and that he been beaten in the past for taking pictures after a civilian casualty incident. In his experience, local officials were most likely to stop him or get violent for incidents involving international forces. "The governor is working for American forces so he does not like such things to be publicized," was his explanation.

In the situation at the hospital, I do not think the international military had any knowledge that we were interviewing casualties resulting from their operations or that the governor tried to interfere with those investigations. But ISAF's general attitude toward transparency - namely, its lack of - and its habit of treating journalists who are doing their job as suspected insurgents creates an enabling environment for media censorship.

Free speech -- and more importantly open reporting -- is crucial during this difficult time in Afghanistan's transition. Actions speak louder than words: The detention of journalists for trying to provide an independent voice on security incidents undermines Western governments' otherwise positive efforts to support free media in Afghanistan in the past 10 years.