KABUL, Afghanistan | Media freedom, one of Afghanistan's key post-Taliban achievements, is under assault as journalists grapple with worsening security and threats from warlords and Islamic hard-liners who wield an increasingly heavy hand against the government, media rights groups and some state officials.
The myriad dangers faced by foreign journalists trying to report on the gathering insurgency are exceeded by those dogging their Afghan counterparts, who run the risk of being killed outright by the Taliban if caught, and harassed, arrested or worse at the behest of powerful politicians averse to criticism.
Topics related to national security, religion and official corruption have become "red lines," according to Rahimullah Samandar, head of the Afghan Independent Journalist Association (AIJA). Self-censorship is on the rise, and there is concern that instability and a steady erosion of public support may combine to make the government even more rigid toward reporters.
"Warlords in the Cabinet wield too much power and have no respect for freedom of the press," Mr. Samandar said. "In some ways the government is now worse than the Taliban."
According to the Nai Supporting Open Media in Afghanistan, a nongovernmental organization, the government was responsible for at least 23 of the 45 reported incidents of intimidation, violence or arrest of journalists between May 2007 and May 2008.
This amounts to a 130 percent spike compared with the same period the previous year and explains in part why the country dropped 12 places, from 130th to 142nd, in the annual Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.
Even critics admit that Afghan journalists have come a long way and still have greater freedoms than those working in neighboring countries such as Iran and Pakistan. The domestic media was entirely controlled by the state at the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Since then, the market has blossomed with more than 400 print publications, 50 privately owned radio stations, five news agencies and eight TV channels that use slick production methods and female anchors.
However, this impressive growth has recently been stunted by a decline in mobility and independence.
"If a foreign journalist gets caught by the Taliban, they can expect to live in exchange for some big money," said an Afghan staff photographer for an international news agency, requesting that his name not be used. "If we are caught, for sure they will kill us."
Last April, Adjmal Nasqhbandi, a free-lance Afghan journalist and translator, was accused of being a spy, abducted and beheaded by the Taliban in southern Helmand province, an insurgent stronghold. The Italian correspondent traveling with him, Daniele Mastrogiacomo, was later released in exchange for five militants.
Another Afghan reporter working in Helmand, Abdul Samad Rohani, was killed in June while investigating a story for the British Broadcasting Corp. on illegal poppy cultivation. The Taliban, usually quick to take responsibility, denied any role in his death. Afghan journalists and rights watchers say they believe he was slain by gunmen with links to the drug trade, possibly on the order of local government officials.
The primacy of local strongmen over a weak central government, and traditionally conservative values over progressive ones, mean that the "further you get from Kabul, the less respect people have for freedom of expression," said Mujeeb Khalvatgar of the Open Society Institute, a private foundation that promotes democracy and human rights.
Several powerful former mujahedeen, or holy warriors, have bought media outlets to use as propaganda machines, Mr. Khalvatgar explained, while others use fear to impose their agenda.
This month, the owner and chief editor of an independent radio station run by women in northern Faryab province was warned by the provincial governor, Abdul Haq Shafaq, that the station would be shut down unless programming was consistent with his political requirements, according to the AIJA.
Even more alarming is the death sentence issued in January by a court in northern Balkh province against Parvez Kambakhsh, 23, a student journalist convicted of "blasphemy" for downloading an Internet article concerning the role of women in Islamic societies.
Mr. Kambakhsh, a devout Muslim, was accused of authoring the article in question, though it was later proved that he only distributed it to classmates, according to a February report by Reporters Without Borders. He remains on death row.
The case was fabricated by crooked authorities to put pressure on Mr. Kambakhsh's brother, a respected journalist who has aggressively investigated abuses by powerful warlords in the north, the report added.
Death threats and intimidation are not limited to the provinces, however.
Nasser Fayez, an outspoken Kabul TV anchor, was arrested and kept in a cell for two days by Afghanistan's secret service, the NDS, after airing a series of shows heavily critical of President Hamid Karzai's Cabinet. Mr. Fayez has since gone into hiding and says armed agents have staked out his home.
"The pressure is coming from all sides, and I want to get out of here," Mr. Fayez said by phone, having refused to meet in person for safety reasons.
There was no comment from the NDS, implicated in a host of similar incidents against journalists.
In a related case, the U.S. military said last week that it had freed Afghan journalist Jawed Ahmad, an employee of a Canadian TV network, who was held as an "enemy combatant" at an American air base in Afghanistan for more than 10 months.
The Afghan government maintains that it fully supports press freedom, though some officials argue that critical reporting on sensitive security issues at a time of war must be hedged if deemed harmful to the national interest.
Najib Manalai, an adviser to the minister of information and culture, readily admitted that the secret service has abused its mandate, and that influential figures with "ideological reflexes" or "self-preservation interests" continue to take matters into their own hands.
But, he added, wrongful actions do not reflect a change in democratic principles.
"Mistakes from time to time are not a step back but a step to be corrected," he said. "The freedom of media in Afghanistan is not at stake."