The current suffering of the people of Afghanistan is in some ways greater even than in previous years. This is because the country’s immediate future remains wholly uncertain. A tantalizing peace might be at hand, or it might not. The peace process isn’t exactly a smooth operation, with peripheral argumentation causing delays to the schedule of the Istanbul talks, where the Taleban have agreed to sit down with the other parties, though on conditions that are problematic. The situation remains unresolved, despite American sources’ assurances that they’re hopeful of a commencement soon.
Until a few months ago, the main debate centred on whether the talks could be a truly national peace process, or whether they would merely be a locus of foreign policy manoeuvring by exogenous powers. Today, though, people are asking each other a more difficult question: will conferences and negotiations even take place? The media are currently unable to provide an answer to this question.
To try and get some answers, Ahmad Soheil Ahmadi spoke to Professor Mohammad Akram Gizabi, the Afghan writer, journalist, and political activist. He gave us a seasoned perspective on today’s media and journalistic landscape in Afghanistan and the jockeying among participants of the peace talks.
ASA: Given the lack of real-time information which characterized the Doha talks, do you think the Afghan media can freely cover the daily news of the upcoming conference, or will much of the process be kept secret like in Doha?
The answer depends on the circumstances. If the Turks allow the Afghan media to access the news at the Istanbul Conference, there will be no problem for the media to report facts and issues to the people. I should point out that in Qatar, the visa issue was a major problem because people are not easily granted visas, but at a possible Istanbul conference, this weakness may be remedied and Turkey will allow Afghan journalists to go there. Should this happen, there should be fewer problems publishing the latest developments.
ASA: At the time of the Bonn conference in 2001, there was almost no Afghan media infrastructure. Is the situation better today?
Yes, I think this time the situation is better than in 2001. At that time, there was almost no foreign media in Afghanistan and people did not have access to free media. Today, the media is much better than it was 20 years ago. We have good reporters and we think the situation is better than in 2001.
ASA: Do you think freedom of the press and media will be affected by the debate over amendments to the Afghan constitution which is almost certain to take place?
The status and freedoms of the press are perhaps two of the most pressing agenda items to be resolved in the constitutional debate. Of course, there is a real question here: how much do the participating factions in the Istanbul talks actually believe in the freedom of the press? Since half are from the Taliban, and the other half are representatives of the Ghani the government, major questions of commitment arise.
In my opinion, these groupings do not believe in a free press. Although the fate of the constitution will not be discussed in the forthcoming negotiations, in the future the Taliban, with their potential influence over a future parliamentary session on constitutional amendments, will do their utmost to stifle the voice of the free press.
ASA: What do you see as the future for Afghan journalists and news outlets?
Unfortunately, I am very pessimistic about this. Currently, the Taliban are not in the government of Afghanistan, but Afghan journalists are nevertheless extremely cautious on a range of issues. In the last one or two years, the press has become very restrained and self-censored. Journalists have been threatened and assassinated. Targeted assassinations have forced journalists to flee the country. When the Taliban take control of Kabul and other provinces, they will certainly stifle the press if they do not shut it down completely.
ASA: Does Mr. Ghani’s government support journalists or do they want to suffocate the press in the current situation so as to make bargaining easier?
No, and yes. There is no doubt about this. Some journalists have been destroyed and assassinated by factions within the government. So it is not only the Taliban who are to blame for these assassinations, but also others, about whom the police have no leads. Nonetheless, we should not indulge in too much speculation about the role of the government in these matters.
What we can say is that some prominent journalists have been assassinated in cases where the Taliban and ISIL have been ruled out as perpetrators. So we can by no means assert that all journalists are killed by ISIL and the Taliban. Definitely not. There are numerous other interests and factions that want to keep the enormous corruption and embezzlement that is happening in the country away from the eyes of the people and the media.
For example, a number of embezzlements were recently exposed relating to the Code 92 fund [editor’s note: the allegations relate to the use of a fund designated as an ’emergency fund’, which paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars to individuals in or closely related to Ghani’s government, including former president Hamid Karzai. The payments, allegedly for numerous items ranging from car rental expenses up to apartment purchases, were channelled through the Office of Public and Strategic Affairs of the President, run by Ghani ally Waheed Omer. Details of the ode 91 and 92 accounts were leaked to the press in 2019 and a parliamentary commission began investigating the matter in January 2020] The reporting of this had a severe impact on public perceptions of the Afghan government. If they can find a way to prevent such corruption from being exposed, they will definitely do it.
ASA: The Ashraf Ghani government has been making a lot of demands since the Doha talks. Will such insistence pay off?
On issues such as early elections, we have witnessed the government’s insistence, but there are many things that are beyond the power of Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai’s government. There are factions in the government that do not agree with the continuation of the system as it is. In fact, the government has become a three-person administration.
Many of the government’s decisions are in the hands of three people, but the Afghan people and other politicians do not want to follow these decisions, made by people inserted from abroad. It is true that they are of Afghan origin, but they have spent most of their lives abroad and are not fully aware of the internal situation in Afghanistan, such as the stances, ethnic relations and opinions of the general public. In addition, they still have prejudices and opinions that are unfortunately ethnic. As a result, they will not be able to overcome all the problems facing Afghanistan and will not be able to produce positive results in Istanbul.
ASA: In your opinion, at the end of the Istanbul talks, who is likely to be the candidate for the presidency of the interim government?
In the past, some names were mentioned that may have a share in the interim government. Two different factions are facing each other and it is not at all clear whether the future government will be an Emirate or a Republic. If supporters of an emirate gain power in the negotiations, the Taliban candidate will definitely be chosen, but if the chances of a republic are stronger, then someone will be chosen by agreement between the two parties. It is unlikely that they would choose a relative unknown, as they did at the Bonn Conference. There, negotiations reached a dead end, so they selected the political unknown Hamid Karzai.