Afghan journalists charged on Wednesday that their government was violating the constitution by demanding that reports of violence be censored on election day. They vowed to flout the order issued by an administration that appears increasingly hostile toward the media.
The Taliban have ramped up attacks ahead of Thursday's vote and threatened to attack polling stations countrywide on Thursday. Fearing that reports of violence could dampen turnout, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement Tuesday saying that news organizations should avoid "broadcasting any incidence of violence" between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. on election day "to ensure the wide participation of the Afghan people."
A separate statement from the Interior Ministry said journalists should stay away from the scene of any attacks until investigators have a chance to collect evidence.
Even before the ban went into effect, police beat back journalists arriving at the scene of an attack on a Kabul bank on Wednesday.
They threatened reporters with loaded guns pointed in their faces and hit others with batons and the butts of rifles, according to journalists present at the scene.
One officer yelled "Your pictures help the enemy! Why are you helping them?" at a AP reporter as he shoved him back.
Over the last few days, journalists responding to attacks in the capital have reported increasingly rough treatment. On Tuesday, a police officer beat a photographer with his pistol at the site of a bomb attack on a NATO convoy, according to a photographer.
Afghanistan's active local media, the country has a host of newspapers, radio stations and television news outlets, condemned the government broadcast ban as stifling freedom of the press that was supposed to have returned after the ouster of the Taliban in 2001.
"We will not obey this order. We are going to continue with our normal reporting and broadcasting of news," said Rahimullah Samander, head of the Independent Journalist Association of Afghanistan.
US Embassy spokeswoman Fleur Cowan said the US acknowledged the sovereign rights of the Afghan government but believed that free media reporting "is directly linked to the credibility of the elections."
The English version of the Foreign Ministry statement said media "are requested" to follow the guidelines. The version in the Afghan language Dari, however, said broadcasting news or video from a "terrorist attack" was "strictly forbidden." Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmad Zahir Faqiri called the demand "an order to benefit national interest and national security." "If anyone broadcasts or gives news about any movements or activities of terrorists, domestic media offices will be closed and foreigners will be kicked out of the country," he said in a phone interview.
The media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders condemned the order, saying in a statement that it "not only violates media freedom but also the fundamental right of Afghan citizens to know what is going on in their country."
The AP said it would protest the ban as an infringement of the free flow of information.
"If authorities impose a gag on international news organizations inside Afghanistan, there is no doubt that reports of any violence will be spread by rumor and word of mouth, which may be more chilling," said John Daniszewski, the AP senior managing editor overseeing international news in New York. He also said he was troubled at early reports that journalists were being harassed and intimidated in the run-up to the vote.
"People around the world have a keen interest in election news from Afghanistan on this important day."
Samander, of the journalist association, said a presidential spokesman called him Tuesday night to tell him to inform members not to report violence on election day. He refused.
When there are rumors of violence, "the first thing they do is turn on their radios or TVs, or go on the Internet to read news," he said. "If the people aren't able to find information, it will be very difficult for them to participate in the election. If there is, for example, an attack on a highway going to a polling station, the people should know about it. It may be dangerous for them to use that highway."
Fahim Dashti, the editor of the English-language Kabul Weekly newspaper, called the demand "a violation of media law" and a constitution that protects freedom of speech.
"If some huge attack occurs, of course we are obliged to cover it," he said.
But the appeal may embolden security forces who have already been increasingly hostile to journalists trying to cover attacks in recent days.
On Wednesday, at least one photographer's camera was broken in the scrum of police and journalists, during which police also attacked civilians. One officer used the butt of his rifle to beat a man with a crippled leg, according to an AP photographer on the scene.
Saad Mohseni, the owner of a media conglomerate that includes the country's most popular television channel and radio station, said Afghan news outlets must consider how their reporting would affect voter turnout, but "to try to enforce it through some sort of presidential decree is bizarre."