By Miriam Arghandiwal
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan journalists are claiming a small victory in their battle for press freedom after the government agreed to some softening of media restrictions, industry representatives said on Monday.
Journalists have been locked in a row with the government for months after authorities proposed a revision of the existing media law, which looked to significantly tighten Kabul's grip over the fledgling but lively Afghan press corps.
The legislation raised fresh concerns that authorities were trying to appeal to the more conservative side of society ahead of the pullout of most foreign troops by the end of 2014.
A frequent gripe though was that the changes would have forced reporters to "observe the principles of Islam", a vague catch-all stipulation which some journalists say the government uses to detain them.
The Ministry of Information and Culture agreed to five of 19 changes suggested by journalists. They include getting rid of special courts for alleged media violations and a clause that proposed restriction on foreign programming on radio and TV.
"Afghan journalists consider the new proposal of the media law a move in the right direction," said Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar, executive director of media advocacy group Nai.
"Taking in the considerations of the (media) community means the government believes in, trusts and recognizes our field."
President Hamid Karzai trumpets the existing 2009 law, which took years to pass, as one of his government's major achievements, though war and an atmosphere of impunity make Afghanistan one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist.
The new draft still presents the media with restrictions, including a heavy government presence on the High Media Council, a 15-member body which has enormous sway over ethics and legal procedures.
"This draft is significantly better than the last one, but the biggest question still remains, which is why there is a need for a new law in the first place," said Heather Barr, Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch.
The New York-based organization had called for the draft media law to be withdrawn, saying it "chilled free speech".
A final draft is expected to be sent to the Ministry of Justice which will review it before forwarding it to be approved by parliament and finally rubber-stamped by Karzai.
"I am very happy with the changes... but I hope they will take further consideration of the concerns Afghan journalists have," said TV reporter Houmyain Shohaib from Voice of America.
Many media workers and their representatives not only reject the revised legislation, but want more amendments, including more legal protection, clearer libel laws and greater transparency.
Afghanistan ranks seventh on the "Impunity Index" compiled by New York-based watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a list of countries where journalists are killed regularly and governments fail to solve the crimes.
CPJ said in its annual report in April that while Afghanistan has experienced a slowdown in targeted killings, it had made no progress in prosecuting the killers of journalists.
(Writing by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Nick Macfie)
(This story corrects the fourth and 14th paragraphs to revised laws, rather than current)
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