KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — President Hamid Karzai called Thursday for the quick release of three Afghan journalists — two held by the NATO-led coalition and the other by Afghan intelligence officials.
The arrests over the past week were reminiscent of a strategy the U.S. military used in Iraq to detain local journalists as a way to disrupt insurgents' propaganda networks, analysts said.
The coalition said it had information linking the two journalists in its custody to networks that act as a mouthpiece for the Taliban and hinder efforts to win the loyalty of Afghan citizens skeptical of foreign forces and the Afghan government.
But advocates for the journalists said many reporters in Afghanistan have developed close connections to both insurgents and government officials in order to cover all sides of a war.
"It's dangerous to think by analogy that Afghanistan is the same as Iraq, but rounding up journalists seems to be a common thread," said Bob Dietz, Asia program coordinator for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. "This kind of activity really discredits the people trying to build a public base."
Since the Iraq war started in 2003, 14 journalists have been arrested and held by the U.S. military, according to the CPJ. None was convicted in an Iraqi court. All were released, many after months of detention.
In recent weeks, NATO has held briefings on the propaganda war and stepped up its own public relations campaign with news releases highlighting the capture of top Taliban leaders and emphasizing civilian casualties caused by insurgent attacks.
U.S. military officials insist, however, that they do not target journalists.
Before this past week, at least two other journalists were believed to have been detained in Afghanistan over the course of the 9-year-old war, according to CPJ.
Maj. Sunset R. Belinsky, a spokesman for operations, intelligence and the special operations force at NATO headquarters in Kabul, confirmed that a joint NATO-Afghan force detained journalists on Monday and Wednesday.
"In both instances, Afghan and coalition forces had intelligence information linking them to Taliban propaganda networks," she said. "The insurgents use propaganda, often delivered through news organizations, as a way to influence and, in many cases, intimidate the Afghan population. Coalition and Afghan forces have a responsibility to interdict the activities of these insurgent propaganda networks."
A third journalist, Hojatullah Mujadadi, a radio station manager in Kapisa province north of Kabul, was arrested Saturday — the same day that parliamentary elections were being held nationwide — by Afghan intelligence and transferred the next day to the capital, according Mohammad Sharif, acting provincial governor.
Mr. Sharif said he did not know why Mr. Mujadadi was arrested, and officials with the National Security Directorate would not disclose the cause of his detention.
"Journalists have a right to talk to all parties to the conflicts and must not be arrested for doing this," Reporters Without Borders, a France-based advocacy group, said in a statement. "We nonetheless fear that in these three cases, the journalists are being held just for being in contact with the Taliban."
The group called on Mr. Karzai to intervene.
On Thursday, Mr. Karzai did just that, instructing the Ministry of Information and Culture to follow up on the detentions and work for the quick release of the journalists.
In the most recent arrest, Al-Jazeera cameraman Mohammad Nadir was detained about 4 a.m. Wednesday at his home in the southern city of Kandahar. Coalition troops woke up Mr. Nadir's wife and forcibly removed him from his bedroom as they searched the house, Al-Jazeera said in a statement.
On Monday, Rahmatullah Naikzad, who has worked for Al-Jazeera and as a freelancer for the Associated Press, was arrested in his home in the eastern town of Ghazni.
NATO said three grenades, magazines and a "significant number of AK-47 rounds" were found in the compound where Mr. Naikzad was detained.
His relatives reported that the joint force detonated explosives at the gate of the compound and used dogs to search the house. They said that the house was ransacked and that the troops left with a couple of grenades, money and computer disks.
It is common for Afghans to keep weapons for self-protection.
The coalition said they suspected Mr. Naikzad of working with the Taliban to spread insurgent propaganda and film attacks tied to the parliamentary elections.
The NATO statement did not specify if any news outlet used video or photos of insurgent attacks allegedly provided by Mr. Naikzad during the elections. He supplied the Associated Press with photographs of Afghans voting peacefully, but the AP did not use them.
Paul Colford, media relations director for the AP in New York, said Mr. Naikzad has contributed to the AP from time to time since 2007 as a freelance photographer and videographer. He has supplied images to the AP and other news organizations of the Afghanistan war and its impact on the daily life and people of Ghazni province, Mr. Colford said.
Al-Jazeera, which has strong connections with insurgent groups in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Mr. Nadir and Mr. Naikzad were both innocent and called for their immediate release.
"As part of their work, cameramen and crew need to have contact with all sides of those involved in a particular issue, which in this case includes NATO forces, the Afghanistan government as well as the Taliban," the Dubai-based Al-Jazeera said. "These contacts should not be seen as a criminal offense, but rather as a necessary component of the work that journalists undertake."
That sentiment was echoed by nearly two dozen journalists in Kandahar, who showed up Wednesday at the provincial governor's compound to express outrage at the arrests. They said Taliban leaflets, videos and other things related to the insurgency can be found inside all of their homes. If that's the only evidence NATO has, then the coalition should arrest them all, they said.
NATO's senior civilian representative, Mark Sedwill, said Afghan law enforcement officials will have to decide whether their contacts with Taliban commanders reflected their work as journalists or was evidence of more complicit activity.
"We're well aware of the concerns that the media have about this," Mr. Sedwill said. "But on the reports that I've seen so far, the Afghan legal process will go forward and will give people in those circumstances a fair opportunity to explain themselves."
NATO has not disclosed where the journalists are being held, but it has said that they will be treated humanely and in accordance with international law and U.S. policies.
"We want to know where they are," Mr. Dietz said by phone from Washington. "Our biggest fear is that they will fall into a black hole. We really, really need to know what specifically they are accused of. General statements just are not good enough."
Associated Press writers Eric Talmadge and Mirwais Khan contributed to this report.