Published on 29 Aug 2012 at 11:42
Afghanistan’s National Assembly (NA) – the country’s legislative body – recently established a room for journalists called the media-pool, where NA plenary sessions will be recorded using NA cameras and the footage will be passed along to journalists. As a result, journalists only receive pictures and broadcasts of NA activity taken through the Information and Technology Department (ITD). They cannot record Assembly activity on their own.
The aim of the media-pool, according to many within the NA, is to protect the privacy of legislators and prevent biases in the media. On the other hand, many journalists and media actors claim this is simply a tactic to ban journalists’ access to the assembly hall and an attempt to censor information available to the public.
The National Assembly’s ITD monitors and reviews photographs taken in the National Assembly hall and then provides them to journalists in the media-pool room. “This system provides online pictures for journalists,” said Mohammad Shuayeb Fitry, head of the ITD. “We can’t provide any picture of the plenary sessions based on the journalists’ own will and taste.”
But Seddiqullah Tawhidi, Director of Media Watch at the Nai Supporting Open Media Organization, believes that this is a kind of censorship and, therefore, violates the law. “Establishing the media-pool room is against article 4 of the Media Law, which states that everyone has the right to freedom of thought and freedom of speech, and everyone can ask for and gain information and data within the laws without being disturbed, limited or threatened by government officials.”
Seddiqullah Tawhidi: “The Assembly hall is not the representatives’ private room, and thus they should take care with their words and actions. The plenary session should be broadcasted without any censorship.”
Journalists and free press advocates began to rouse criticisms after a session between the Defense and Interior Affairs ministers and National Assembly representatives on August 4. When discussions got heated, Afghanistan’s national television network, Radio Television Afghanistan (RTA), turned off the cameras and for several minutes viewers could only see the NA’s logo.
“As we witnessed during the summoning session of the Defense and Interior Affairs ministers, the decision of the NA’s secretariat to ban journalists’ direct access to the plenary sessions is clearly censorship,” said Tawhidi. “When verbal disputes began, the media-pool, which was broadcasting pictures for the journalists, cut off its broadcasting entirely. Thus, [the journalists] could not report on the verbal disputes.”
But, media-pool officials claim that this system will prevent biases and prejudices in selecting pictures of the plenary sessions and safeguard NA representatives’ privacy.
Abdullah Faramarz, head of the Communication & Information Department of the NA, says that the aim in establishing the media-pool is to prevent broadcasting pictures which infringe upon representatives’ privacy. “A number of media outlets broadcast pictures of the National Assembly which should not be broadcast. These pictures show representatives sleeping or representatives while they are not doing parliamentary work, or are engaged in a personal activity,” he said.
Ghaffari "The media coverage of the
Assembly should be managed in a fair
way. But this should not limit freedom of
information and should not be controlled
But, Media Watch is not convinced. Tawhidi believes that a legislative session is not a private meeting. “The Assembly hall is not the representatives’ private room, and thus they should take care with their words and actions,” he says. “The plenary session should be broadcasted without any censorship. They should know that when they are in a plenary session, they are in public and out of their private realm.”
Naheed Farid, a member of the NA, agrees that it is the media’s role to show what is going on inside the Assembly, so that representatives who act inappropriately will have the compunction to stop. But, she also says that the media should not fixate only on the negatives. “They should broadcast the opinions of those representatives who work hard,” she said.
According to ITD officials, the media-pool was also established at representatives’ request. “A number of representatives have asked not to be under the TV camera’s focus. Also, this is to quiet the hall,” Fitry says.
But, Farid disagrees. She says that the Constitution protects the right to access information and people have the right to know what is going on inside the NA. “This system and restricting media access to the hall will cause problems, even for the representative themselves. Because the media does not have access to all opinions and they receive only what the Assembly’s ITD gives them, the opponent of the government and critic representatives’ opinion will not be covered and will be censored,” she said.
Some other representatives insist that the media-pool will not limit the public’s access to information. “Since the representatives have complained several times to the administrative board of the National Assembly about the coverage of plenary sessions by journalists, we believe that the media coverage of the Assembly should be managed in a fair way. But, this should not limit freedom of information and should not be controlled with censorship,” said Nematullah Ghaffari, second deputy of the NA.
Naheed Farid: "The Constitution protects the right
to access information and people have the right to
know what is going on inside the NA."
Nonetheless, many representatives and media institutions remain unconvinced and believe that implementation of the media-pool will result in censorship and limit the public’s access to plenary sessions.
“If the system is to cover the plenary meetings in better way, they would allow all media to broadcast sessions live and without any restrictions. But now, only RTA can broadcast it live. Unfortunately, in practice this will cause censorship and restriction,” said Farid. She says that a majority of the representatives disagree with the media-pool and she suggests that the media be allowed into plenary meetings.
Tawhidi argues that, although other legislatures around the world have established media-pools, those media-pools work as facilitators for better coverage of legislative activities, not as censors. “What happened in our parliament is based on the will of weak and inactive representatives who are trying to escape from the people’s eyes and judgment by restricting media access.”
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