By Amie Ferris-Rotman
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan journalists are locked in a row with their government over media freedoms, in what appears to be the latest attempt by authorities to appeal to the more conservative side of society ahead of the pullout of most foreign troops.
A revised media law looks to significantly tighten the government's grip over the fledgling but lively Afghan press corps, and limit foreign programming in a move likely to please the Taliban, with whom Kabul is seeking peace negotiations.
"The government wants to be prepared for 2014, and are paving the way for conservative elements to return," said Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar, executive director of media advocacy group Nai, referring to the deadline for most NATO troops to withdraw.
During the Taliban's five-year reign, which ended in 2001 when they were toppled by U.S.-backed Afghan forces, the Islamist group permitted only one radio station and a newspaper, and women were denied basic rights such as voting and most work.
"We are very worried. The press, freedom of speech and women will be sacrificed first," Hashmat Radfar, editor of daily paper Nukhost, told Reuters.
President Hamid Karzai trumpets the existing 2009 media 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 in the world to be a journalist.
Western backing of the relatively large Afghan media has failed to prevent the intimidation, abduction and even death reporters face for uncovering corruption and other government failings, and some say it is getting worse.
Though not yet passed, the revision of the 2009 law proposes handing the High Media Council, a 13-member body headed by the Culture Minister and including a religious scholar and civil society representatives, enormous sway over the country's media, from ethics to legal procedures.
A key difference between the existing and draft laws is the restriction on foreign programming on radio and television, a nod to the huge popularity of Turkish soap operas and Bollywood films, which display more liberal views of women and romance than are typically found in traditional Afghan culture.
While no limit currently exists, the new law proposes foreign programmes broadcast on certain state media receive the Council's "acknowledgement", and in some cases, do not exceed thirty percent of air time.
"One begins to wonder if the openness (of the press) was just because of Western pressure," said Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch in Afghanistan.
"There could be very dark days ahead for freedom in Afghanistan," she added.
Jalal Norani, an advisor to the Culture Minister, dismissed accusations the government was seeking to satisfy conservative elements, adding: "We will work with journalists together to make a better law".
Many media workers and their representatives not only reject the revised law, but want amendments made to the original law, including more legal protection, better libel laws and greater transparency.
A frequent gripe under the current law is the stipulation that reporting must "observe the principles of Islam", a vague rule which some journalists say the government uses to detain them for a host of reasons.
Nai's Khalvatgar said journalists, lawyers and unions are planning to present their recommended changes to the Ministry of Information and Culture on July 15.
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.
(Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)