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Afghan president wants 3 detained journalists released

NATO coalition suspects two of aiding Taliban

By Deb Riechmann
Associated Press / September 24, 2010

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KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai called yesterday for the quick release of three Afghan journalists — whose arrests analysts said were reminiscent of a strategy the US military used in Iraq, detaining local journalists to disrupt insurgents’ propaganda networks.

All three journalists were picked up over the past week — two by a joint NATO and Afghan force and one by Afghan intelligence officials. Previously, only two other journalists were believed to have been detained in Afghanistan over the course of the nearly nine-year war, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

The NATO-led 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 say many reporters in Afghanistan have developed close connections to both insurgents and government officials to cover all sides.

“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 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 US military, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. No one 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 captures of top Taliban leaders and emphasizing civilian casualties caused by insurgent attacks.

US military officials insist, however, that they do not target journalists.

Major 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 held nationwide — by Afghan intelligence and transferred the next day to the capital, according Mohammad Sharif, acting provincial governor.

Sharif said he did not know why 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.’’

Meanwhile, Afghan officials released the first partial results from last week’s parliamentary elections yesterday amid mounting allegations of fraud in a poll seen as a test of the Afghan government’s commitment to rooting out corruption.

Saturday’s vote was the first since a presidential election last year that was nearly derailed by widespread ballot-box stuffing and tally manipulation. That poll led many Western powers to question whether they should be supporting the administration of President Hamid Karzai with military forces and funds.

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