Afghanistan has experimented with different forms of government since its emergence as a modern nation-state. From absolute and constitutional monarchies to the first republic and communist/Marxist regimes, never has Afghanistan experienced as much democratic rule as over the past 18 years since the fall of the Taliban. Even though democracy has gradually evolved, with most of the Afghan state institutions still developing to deliver on the promise of democracy in a system of checks and balances, the process of institutionalization of democracy continues unhindered with the strong support of the Afghan people and commitment of the country’s leadership, including President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.
Free press, which is one of the key features of any rising and functioning democracy, has played a seminal role in strengthening democratic governance and rule of law in Afghanistan. More notably, free media have directly contributed to the rapid development of a still growing civil society and, as its essential member, have empowered such vulnerable groups as women, youth, and the poor — a clear majority in Afghanistan — to increasingly exercise their rights under the country’s progressive constitution.
In other words, where women and youth are often relegated to the bottom of society given traditional practices of gender inequity and other cultural double-standards, the free press — through TV, radio, and print — has awakened them to see how they can play their rightful, equal role in helping stabilize, rebuild, and develop Afghanistan on a sustainable basis. Moreover, Afghan media have lost no opportunity to tap into social media platforms — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and others — to serve their role as a check on the government, helping expand transparency and highlight efforts or lack thereof to fight corruption.
Since the judicial institutions of Afghanistan, including law enforcement agencies, lack adequate investigative capacity and are still developing, the free press has filled some of the gaps, investigating and reporting on major crimes and cases of corruption. This interim contribution from the press has helped the government take punitive measures against the perpetrators, who could possibly escape justice.
Even when exposure by the press of corruption and crimes has delivered gradual results, the public has at least been informed of the principal criminals and those engaged in corruption and undermining rule of law. This naming and shaming by media have helped expose the corrupt, who would otherwise evade public knowledge and eventually justice.
This critical role of media as a check has extended to the Afghan parliament and the functioning of this key legislative institution. Media reporting from parliamentary sessions and meetings has informed the public of the laws proposed or adopted for implementation and enforcement, as well as follow-up reports on whether the passed laws have actually been applied and made a difference in the lives of Afghan citizens.
Moreover, Afghan media have helped shape and direct electoral processes, reforms, and campaigns, including presidential, parliamentary, provincial, and now district elections across the country. As relevant state institutions remain weak, media have informed the public of their electoral rights, how to exercise them, as well as the logistical and security preparations in place for conducting elections at the national, provincial, and local levels. Ensuring transparency and fairness in all electoral processes has been one of the key achievements of media as a contribution to institutionalization of democracy in Afghanistan.
Despite its constructive role in ongoing gains over the past 18 years, however, war and violence have limited the reach of media to do more to help strengthen democracy in Afghanistan. Since 2001, over 60 Afghan journalists have been killed and many wounded, according to the Reporters Without Borders, which recently reported that 2018 in Afghanistan was the deadliest year when “a total of 15 journalists and media workers were killed in a series of bombings that began early in the year, nine of them in a single day.” Even though the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee (AJSC) — which is led by a dedicated journalist and advocate for free press, Najib Sharifi — has conducted many safety training workshops for journalists across the country, they remain vulnerable to complex terrorist attacks, as well as to threats and intimidation by criminals, whose crimes journalists often investigate and report.
In spite of these challenges, which have intensified since the end of 2014, when most of international forces withdrew from Afghanistan, the 2019 World Press Freedom Index ranked Afghanistan 121 out of 180 countries. That puts Afghanistan ahead of all its immediate neighbors in South and Central Asia, and higher than regional powerhouses India and Kazakhstan. Where there used to be one radio and one newspaper solely for the propaganda purposes of pre-2001 regimes, today, Afghanistan boasts over 1,000 print and broadcast media outlets. And this unprecedented progress is continuing unabated, despite ongoing terrorist threats and targeted attacks on Afghan journalists.
Moreover, in 2018, Afghanistan ranked top on the Global Right to Information Rating with an impressive score of 139 points out of a possible 150, or 93 percent. Indeed, this is a shared achievement of the Afghan government and its international partners, who remain firmly committed to ensuring and protecting the freedoms of press and expression in Afghanistan.
All told, however, like the rest of Afghanistan’s state-building enterprise, media development and the contributions it has made to institutionalization of democracy remain a work in progress. In the years to come, the international community — especially the United States, Europe, India, and other major democracies — has a clear opportunity to help Afghanistan further build on its hard-earned democratic gains of the past 18 years. This should underpin the current peace efforts, in support of the Afghan government, whose key precondition for negotiating a sustainable political settlement is the preservation of the Afghan constitution and its core provisions for institutionalization and protection of human rights, including the freedoms of expression and press.
M. Ashraf Haidari is the Ambassador of Afghanistan to Sri Lanka and a Senior International Security Fellow at New America in Washington-DC. He tweets @MAshrafHaidari.