June 19, 2007

Tussle at the top

The Afghan Parliament, dominated by minority interests, initiates a series of bills, not all of them intended to benefit the people it represents. AUNOHITA MOJUMDAR

June 17, 2007

IN October 2005, the international community was in a celebratory mood. Elections to Afghanistan’s first fully representational parliament had been completed. Sceptics and critics were silenced as doubters and cynics. Yet, since then, this opti mism has dribbled out. Violence has reached proportions higher than at anytime since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001 and there are serious issues regarding the non-delivery of development. However, while these problems are visible, less evident but more serious are the systemic flaws that are revealing themselves in the institutions of State. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the Parliament itself.Hurried reforms
In 2005 the international community pushed through its agenda of Parliamentary elections in the face of concerned and informed criticism on the grounds that a less than perfect election was better than no election since it was time to empower the representatives of the people. In its eagerness to meet its own deadline, it accepted many compromises. It agreed to President Karzai’s desire to ban political parties from contesting (in any other country this would have been likened to autocratic governance), it agreed to a multi-seat constituency contest while marrying it to the single non-transferable vote system — a hybrid system that beggared belief. Elections also took place before a country-wide census (anyone claiming to be a voter could get a voter identity card), before the disarmament of the legal and illegal armed groups and before any efforts to rein in the more powerful war lords. The result has been a Parliament that is dominated by a minority of interests. In the absence of political parties, issued based politics and ideologies, the most powerful groups emerging from Parliament are those coming together to preserve the status quo, whether it is their own power or a conservative dogma.
Adding to the confusion is a lack of clarity about the procedures of Parliament, or even the demarcation of authority between the three pillars of State. In fact each contested decision is now becoming the battleground for this separation of powers, with the jury out on who will emerge the strongest.
The first visibly disturbing law to be passed was the “amnesty law”. The bill, piloted by former warlords, called for immunity from prosecution for all jihadis, regardless of their actions, on the grounds that they shoul d be honoured. It also called for reconciliation with currently warring groups.
What of the MPs? The Chairman of the Religious and Cultural Affairs Commission, Haji Mohammed Mohaqiq, a former commander, told this reporter that the international community should not interfere with the right of the Parliament to make laws. “There is a contradiction in the action of the international community. First they spent $360 million to organise elections and now they are criticising democracy. We have the right to make laws. Anyone criticizing us is violating our sovereignty and interfering in our internal affairs. The Parliament is the highest law making body.”
Woman MP Shukriya Barakzai challenged this right stating, “in which country does a criminal become his own judge? These people are just using their chairs to protect themselves.”Missing the wood
Eventually protests from the international community led President Karzai to include a clause that would allow individuals to pursue prosecution for individual crimes notwithstanding the reconciliation with currently warring groups. This was, at best, a dubious protection of the interests of the thousands of victims. However, rather than pursuing this flagrant breach of the human rights of victims of war crimes, the international community decided to accept each clause at its face value on a stand-alone basis, rather than examine the contradictions of the law in its totality.
The debate however opened up interesting questions about the authority of the parliament. While internationals suggested that war crimes could not fall within the ambit of amnesty, parliamentarians cited the process of reconciliation in South Africa to defend their right. So did the members have the right, however morally reprehensible their decision might have been?
This week threw up yet another conundrum. The fieriest parliamentarian in Afghanistan, the young woman MP Malalai Joya was suspended for insulting the house. In her comparison of Parliament with an animal barn, animals had come off better. Human Rights Watch rushed to her defence arguing “the article banning criticism of parliament is an unreasonable rule that violates the principle of free speech enshrined in international law and valued around the world.” While the extent of the punishment, suspension for the remainder of her entire term was indeed extreme, there are provisions for punitive action for breach of privilege in every parliament and HRW may have jumped the gun.
In recent weeks, the Parliament has also attempted to dismiss two ministers of the Hamid Karzai on ground of non performance. While Karzai accepted the removal of one minister, he has challenged the decision on the second on the grounds that the process was flawed. The international community came up with an entirely different stance saying that the right of parliament to dismiss ministers was not spelt out explicitly. While the Supreme Court will be the deciding authority the issue does highlight the differing interpretations or rules.
A similar confusion exists over a “bill” passed by the Parliament’s upper house calling for an end to military operations by international forces and talks with the Taliban. No one is quite clear whether the upper house has the authority to initiate a bill.Controversial moves
Other contentious moves have included attempts to pass through a media bill restricting many rights (the bill has now been moderated after an intense campaign by journalists and is under consideration) and several moves which have received far less publicity since they relate to women’s rights, a low priority for parliament, the international community and the Afghan government. They include attempts to lower the age of majority of girls to 13 years, make it mandatory for women MPs and officials to have a mehram or male escort from the family for visits outside the country and an attempt to abolish the Ministry of Women’s Affairs altogether.
The series of conflicts leads to an interesting conundrum. How do you strengthen a democratic institution, the Parliament, while at the same time tempering its democratic authority in the interests of upholding larger democratic values?

Afghan media pin hopes on new law

By Aunohita Mojumdar Kabul

June 5, 2007

The media in Afghanistan works under lots of restrictions

In her newsroom in Afghanistan's only independent news agency, Pajhwok, Farida Nekzad sits worrying about information-gathering.
Greater curbs from government and greater threats to her reporters have made her task more difficult.
Last month she compered a function on world press freedom day when Ajmal Naqshbandi's father limped onto the stage on crutches to receive an honour on behalf of his journalist son who was killed by the Taleban.
The same function saw the mother of another journalist, Tawab Niazi, accept an honour on behalf of her son, who is in jail for talking to the Taleban.
We have some concerns, though there are some good things in the new bill
Aqa Hussain Sancharaki,Afghan National Journalists' Union
"The death of Ajmal Naqshbandi and the media law have brought Afghan journalists together," says Aqa Hussain Sancharaki, a journalist who earlier held the post of deputy minister of information.
He now heads the Afghan National Journalists' Union.
Mr Sancharaki is taking a breather from campaigning for press freedom after the lower house of parliament passed the hotly debated media bill last week.
The bill will now go to the upper house of parliament and subsequently for presidential assent before it becomes law.
In its initial form the bill caused a great deal of concern since it brought the state-owned Radio Television Afghanistan under greater government control and opened private media content to more intense scrutiny and government control.
It also listed a number of broad-ranging restrictions on media content that could be widely interpreted or open to misuse.

Intense lobbying of MPs by journalists, open debates and seminars, an informed critique of the provisions of the draft law, an awareness campaign and some political manoeuvring have helped remove some of the more restrictive clauses from the draft law.
Journalists are, however, cautious about celebrating, aware that the bill might still undergo many mutations and that several of the current provisions are still less than desirable.

Journalists have been targeted and killed in Afghanistan
"We have some concerns, though there are some good things in the new bill," says Mr Sancharaki.
His opinion is also shared by the president of the Association of Independent Afghan Journalists, Rahimullah Samander.
Mr Samander states their concerns bluntly when he says that journalists were worried that the warlords who were amongst the more conservative members would push through a law that would impact negatively on the media.
His fears were not unfounded.
The Religious and Cultural Affairs Commission, headed by former commander Haji Mohammed Mohaqeq, had argued along with the government that an unfettered media would run amok, discrediting individuals without any checks or balances.
Information and Culture Minister Abdul Karim Khurram argued that the country could not afford to have a state broadcaster that was not under government control in a situation of war.
In its current form the media bill has freed the state broadcaster Radio Television Afghanistan from under the control of the Ministry of Information and Culture.
Instead, the broadcaster has been brought under an independent commission which comprises professionals and civil society representatives, including journalists.
The move has been welcomed by journalists, but they are still unsure about the extent of control the government will exert.
A council for formulating media policy now has representation from journalists, although it is still heavily weighed in favour of the government, and the commission for monitoring private media is now made up of professionals.
There are, however, no clear provisions for resolving disputes or the extent of powers of each of the commissions.
The new draft bill also retains some of the wide-ranging content restriction clauses.
The list of prohibitions includes:
content that goes against the principles of Islam
materials humiliating and offensive to real or legal entities
materials inconsistent with Afghanistan's constitution
anything that is considered a crime by the penal code
publicising and promotion of religions other than Islam
broadcasting pictures of victims of violence and rape in a way to cause damage to their social dignity
topics that harm the physical, spiritual and moral well-being of people, especially children and adolescents.
Some of these prohibitions remain open to wide interpretation.
Also worrying is the stipulation that makes it mandatory for the mass media to include programmes on health, the environment, and education, as well as on the dangers of cultivating, producing and consuming illegal drugs.

Ms Ayubi says the new revised bill is better than the previous one
While public education is indeed a necessary component of media, the law does not stipulate a limit on the amount or nature of mandatory material, again leaving this open to interpretation and possible misuse.
The manager of Radio Killid, Najiba Ayubi, is cautious.
"It is not a complete or perfect law, but I can say it is better than before."
Ms Ayubi has been involved with the debate and campaign for a better law during which journalists also brought in Article 19 to explain some of the issues to parliamentarians.
This achievement of Afghan journalists has come at a crucial time.
One of the most successful stories of post-conflict reconstruction, Afghanistan's media are now facing one of their most challenging periods.
Increasing curbs on information have been accompanied by greater violence and increasing intolerance from all sides, even as a sharp cut in donor funding has forced many media organisations to close down, downsize or worry about their survival.
Afghan journalists hope that the new media law, once passed, will give them more rights, rather than making their jobs more difficult.

Afghanistan anodyne

Review June 2007
By : Aunohita Mojumdar

No Space for Further Burials by Feryal Ali GauharWomen Unlimited, 2007

Feryal Ali Gauhar’s new novel is an unmitigated tale of horror – bestial fact stacked upon bestial fact, evoking revulsion and nausea. The book’s jacket claims that the work powerfully reveals the tragedy of Afghanistan, the terrible madness of war. But No Space for Further Burials never reaches that broader bank, staying caught instead in the narrow sewer it describes.
Although the book’s publisher gives only sketchy details about the author, Gauhar is well-known enough in her multiple roles as a UN goodwill ambassador, a TV actress, and as the author of the 2002 The Scent of Wet Earth in August, which explored Tibbi Galli (Lahore’s red-light area) and the abuse of women. In No Space for Further Burials, she moves away from both Pakistan and gender issues, instead basing her novel in post-Taliban Afghanistan.
Gauhar’s central figure is a US Army soldier who, having strayed from his base, is captured, and suddenly finds himself shoved into in a mental asylum along with mentally deranged, physically crippled and diseased inmates. Inside the walls of the asylum he is known as ‘Firangi’. The asylum, once funded by the government and serviced by foreign doctors, has now been abandoned to itself, with only the inmates/captives remaining behind, kept forcibly by the asylum’s caretaker and his wife. There are several mysteries here: why the caretaker continues to hold these people here; why he and his wife do not turn the inmates free, and escape themselves; where the group’s food comes from, and why they choose to slowly starve rather than leave the asylum’s horrific confines. Perhaps Gauhar feels no need to explain these issues, preferring instead to allow them to build into her endless vortex of sordidness.
In the midst of all this, there are some references to the outside world. Soldiers, who are interchangeable with looters and rebels (the distinction is not explained at any length), come regularly to plunder the asylum for whatever it might yield. There are some brief snapshots of Firangi’s earlier life in his military base, as well as occasional references to the possible futility of the American military attempt to bring democracy and liberation to a country such as Afghanistan. Gauhar tries to weave in bits of Afghan history, as well as that of the Great Depression of 1930s America. Where the book fails is in linking these issues together; in broadening the peephole show to take in the larger world; in balancing the horror with the human element that would let the reader relate to the characters or their squalid situation.
No single character in this asylum is afflicted by just one ailment. Instead, each has a string of horrors plaguing him or her. Even the one friend that Firangi makes in the asylum, Bulbul, ends up making lewd gestures at him before stealing his clothes. All the while, Firangi’s homophobic fear of contact with Bulbul hangs over the relationship like a pallid, overcast sky. At other times, limbs are broken and deformed, flesh is torn, and family tortures family; pus, mucus and blood are liberally smeared over this tale. All forms of madness also make appearances here – rape, injury, the killing of families, and people driven insane by the terrible things that have happened to them.
AnaesthetisedSitting in Afghanistan reading this book, this reviewer notices interest in Afghanistan flagging in the international media. Only the big, sexy stories continue to capture interest: the drug wars, the Taliban and the deaths. There is the fear that reporting on Afghanistan will go the way of Iraq, reduced to stories of the dead and not the living. The incessant roll call of death in Iraq has blunted media viewers the world round – immunised us from feeling anything but the mildest shock. Death tolls of more than a hundred are relegated to sidebars in newspapers, taken off the headlines after cursory mentions in brief bulletins.
The unmitigated reporting of horror functions as an anodyne. The lack of shock evoked by the coverage of Iraq is skewed; not because no one cares about the living, but rather due to the fact that the media does not talk of them. When understanding of a country is reduced to its death count, there is no human face to the tragedy there, and it slowly ceases to matter. Similarly, the sheer horrors in Feryal Ali Gauhar’s book also act as an anodyne, to anaesthetise any sensation.
There is an element of Mantoesque madness recreated in No Space for Further Burials: the blurring of lines between the sane and the insane, between memories and reality, between dreams and facts; the loss of concepts of time and space; the nowhere land of Toba Tek Singh, from where Firangi will not be rescued. At best, however, this remains a mere attempt. The attempt to make everything absolutely horrifying, surpassed by even more unimaginable horrors that lie in wait, destroys what the book sets out to do. No Space for Further Burials may bring up plenty of bile, but it does little to stir real emotions.