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New Afghanistan Law Encourages Open Media - 2002-03-19

With the departure of the Taleban, Afghanistan is endeavoring to set up democratic institutions. The interim administration has promulgated a new law that opens up the once tightly controlled media.

A new law has the potential to give Afghanistan the most open media Afghans have ever experienced. Under the new press law, promulgated by interim government Chairman Hamid Karzai about one month ago, the media are free to print and broadcast what they like. Moreover, the state monopoly over broadcast media has been abolished.

Asked about the issue, Mr. Karzai said it remains up to the next Afghan government to ensure the law remains in force. "Well I did my job, it's up to the next government to choose for Afghanistan. I think they will choose the right course," Mr. Karzai said.

The government will still issue media licenses. Deputy Minister of Information Abdul Hamid Mobarez wrote the law. He says anyone who wants to open a media outlet will be allowed to do so. Government media will co-exist with private.

"So, we now have the authority to give the permission for every Afghan who wants a newspaper, magazine, radio, television, news agency, filmmaking, cinematography all is free. So, we have now two kinds of press in our country. One is governmental press and the other is free press, private press," Mr. Mobarez said.

Since the law was issued about one month ago, Mr. Mobarez's office has received some 85 applications for print media licenses and two for private broadcast outlets.

The most surprising development was the abolition of the government monopoly of broadcast media. Afghanistan's print media have always been subject to restrictions of one type or another, under the country's various governments over the past 23 years. But radio and television have always remained firmly in government hands - be they the hands of the Taleban, the mujahedin, or the communists - and have been widely seen as only government propaganda machines.

Only about 30 percent of Afghans - most of them male - can read and write, making television and radio, especially foreign radios, the prime sources of news.

Mr. Mobaraz says that was particularly true during the long years of war and civil strife. "In the time of the war, they hear radios Voice of America, BBC and other radios. It now has political information. They are a kind of political education," he said.

He says he encountered little resistance to breaking the state's broadcast monopoly. "We profit from your experience, from other countries' experiences. So now we have the decision to have, beside the governmental TV, will have private TV, too. Because you know, our people, all is not literate. They can't read and can't write. But radio and the TV is the only way which we will have close contact with our people. Because we are going to democracy as a target, which we agreed in the Bonn Conference. And the free press is the first step to go to democracy," he said.

The next step for Afghanistan is for the Loya Jirga, or grand council, to choose Afghanistan's next government. It remains to be seen if that government - whatever it is - will have the same devotion to open media.