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Afghanistan bans live coverage of Taliban attacks

world Updated: Mar 02, 2010 18:54 IST

The Afghan government has banned live coverage of militant attacks in a bid to prevent the Taliban from exploiting television news to their advantage, sparking swift criticism of censorship on Tuesday.

The ban appears to apply to domestic and international news organisations, although the country's intelligence agency refused to provide details.

Afghanistan's constitution guarantees freedom of speech and media.

An official at the government's media unit confirmed the ban.

A spokesman said live television coverage of attacks -- such as that in Kabul last Friday which killed 16 people -- could alert militant organisations to police actions against their operatives on the ground.

"While journalists are going to the scene of ongoing attacks, they endanger themselves and also they help inform the enemy with their live broadcasts or reporting of the progress of (police) operations," Hakim Ashir, the head of the Government Media and Information Centre, told AFP.

The National Directorate for Security (NDS) refused to comment when contacted by AFP. A spokesman said only that media organisations would be "invited in small groups to meetings and the new rule will explained to them".

Afghanistan's Pajhwok news agency said some organisations -- including the BBC and Al-Jazeera -- had already been informed.

It reflects an earlier attempt to ban coverage of Taliban attacks during elections in August, under threat of expulsion for international reporters and confiscation of equipment for Afghans.

Afghan media groups slammed the latest move as censorship, saying it contravened the constitution.

"We see this as direct censorship. This is prevention of reporting and contravenes the constitution which says access to information is the right of everyone," said Rahimullah Samandar, head of the Afghanistan Independent Journalists' Association.

A reporter with a network told about the restrictions said live coverage probably helped save lives as people who watched telecasts "know to stay home and stay safe".

A major achievement since the Islamist regime of the Taliban was overthrown in 2001 was the growth of a thriving media industry, he said, with more than 20 private television channels and hundreds of newspapers and radio stations.

The NDS's Ashir said: "The government of Afghanistan supports freedom of speech and media, but live reporting of ongoing incidents has created some problems recently.

"The government of Afghanistan does not want... the enemy to benefit from such reporting."

A government spokesman denied media restrictions had been introduced and said there was no intention to restrict media at attack scenes.

"There are two things -- number one, the protection of the lives of the journalists," said Waheed Omar.

"Number two, a mechanism which will ensure the enemy does not use live broadcasts to plan or to get instructions to their people on the scene which makes not only the security forces vulnerable but also civilians and also journalists," he reporters.

He said "nothing has been discussed or conveyed to the media called restrictions" and had no comment on why news organisations were being told by the intelligence agency that their movements would be restricted.

Last Friday's assault in Kabul was launched by heavily-armed militants, some wearing explosives-packed suicide vests and police uniforms.

In one of the deadliest attacks on foreigners in the capital, nine Indians, a Frenchman, an Italian man and three Afghan policemen were among the dead.

Analysts said regular attacks in Kabul serve to show how vulnerable the city remains despite tight security, as the Taliban insurgency rages into a ninth year and foreign troop numbers are set to rise to 150,000 by August.