In October 2005, Ali Mohaqiq Nasab, an editor of an Afghanistan monthly magazine called Women’s Rights, was sentenced to two years in prison by Kabul’s primary court under the country’s blasphemy laws. The prosecutor called for the death penalty.
In April of last year the lifeless body of slain Afghan journalist Ajmal Naqshandi was delivered to a Kandahar hospital by his magnanimous Taliban murderers.
In June of last year Zakia Zaki, owner and director of Peace Radio Afghanistan, was shot dead in her home. At news of her death, head of the Independent Association of Afghan Journalists Rahimullah Samander said, “She believed in freedom of expression, that’s why she was killed.”
This isn’t a laundry list of a journalist’s reoccurring worst nightmares, it’s a lesson in nothing less than an assault on freedom of press and freedom of speech. Afghanistan, which has become a mismanaged afterthought in the “war on terror,” has seen a welcome growth in media outlets since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 (in 2005, 300 print publications were registered with the ministry of culture). But the fledgling state’s burgeoning news industry has been met with uncompromising violence and conservative backlash.
Last week, a three-judge panel in northern Afghanistan sentenced 23-year-old Sayed Perwiz Kaambaksh, a student journalist at Balkh University in Mazar-e-Sharif, to death for distributing a paper he had printed off the Internet that allegedly blasphemed Islam.
There could be lessons drawn here about the failure of the U.S.-led invasion to spread political liberties outside the fragile and waning stability of Kabul. Or perhaps, to paint on a broader canvas, about the vast and underestimated culture clash that has dogged Bush’s global war and its inherent hubris. Those will come in due time and in their proper place. But for student journalists, Perwiz’s draconian punishment is about fundamental press freedoms. And regardless of his pamphlet’s contents (because their nature is utterly unimportant) there is little to say about his persecution except that it is devastating and wrong.
Perwiz’s case is different from Nasab’s, Naqshandi’s, and Zaki’s: he is a student, and his journalism career has been nipped in the bud. What’s more, there has been speculation that Perwiz’s arrest was a retaliatory warning against his brother, Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi, a prominent journalist whose stories chronicled his local government’s human rights abuses and unchecked hypocrisy. By condemning Perwiz to death, then, the Afghan court has killed two liberal birds with one stone: both the dangerous unruly journalist and his blood relation and protégé.
The Afghan government’s response to Perwiz’s death sentence has been disheartening. Balkh provincial state prosecutor Hafizullah Khaliqyar blithely dismissed the charges that the court violated human rights and press freedom, insisting that the verdict was given “in accordance with Islam’s values.” The culture and information ministry has said it has no authority over the case because, according to an absurd logic, “neither Kambakhsh’s arrest or conviction was linked to his journalistic activities” and therefore did not violate press freedoms.
So the Afghan court has delivered a fatal blow to a future journalist, and figuratively speaking, to the future of a free media in its country. In a brutal perversion of his journalistic education, Perwiz has been taught to remain silent, and the haughty yardstick of punishment has forfeited his life. As students ourselves, we should be outraged.