UN seeks end to Afghan media ban


The United Nations has asked Afghanistan to lift a last-minute ban on media reporting of violence during tomorrow's presidential election, saying the Afghan constitution guaranteed a free press.

Afghan authorities imposed the ban yesterday with two decrees, the first barring journalists from reporting any violence in the country between 6am and 8pm (2:30am-4:30pm Irish time) on polling day.

The second ordered journalists to stay away from the scenes of any attacks.

The government says the measures are intended to prevent reports of violence from scaring Afghans away from voting. Taliban fighters have vowed to disrupt the election.

The United Nations said Afghans had a right to information, and restricting the media could undermine confidence in the poll.

"People need access to information, not only on polling day but after polling day. The credibility of these elections is directly linked to the information that they have access to," said Aleem Siddique, spokesman for the UN mission in Kabul.

"Its unclear to us what if any legal basis there would be for such a directive when Afghanistan's constitution guarantees freedom of expression and freedom of the press. We are making this point to the Afghan authorities," he said today.

Afghan police have taken a more aggressive attitude towards reporters in recent days.

Several journalists were beaten by police at the scene of a suicide car bombing yesterday and a siege with gunmen today.

A cameraman and reporter for private Afghan television station Tolo were detained briefly today.

A spokesman for President Hamid Karzai defended the decrees. Mr Karzai is seeking re-election and is hoping to avoid a second round run-off, but his chances could be hurt if violence dampens turnout in southern areas where he draws support.

"We have taken this decision in the national interest of Afghanistan in order to encourage people and raise their morale to come out and vote," Siamak Herawi said.

"If something happens, this will prevent them from exaggerating it, so that people will not be frightened to come out and vote," Mr Herawi said.

The head of the Afghan Independent Journalists' Association said the decrees would not stop Afghan and foreign journalists from reporting during the election.

Meanwhile, at least six people have died after armed gunmen battled security forces in the Afghan capital today in what the Taliban said was an election eve attack on a government target, but police said was a robbery gone wrong.

Gunmen stormed a bank building in the Kabul and fought a gun battle with police for a number of hours today, the eve of elections which the Taliban has vowed to disrupt.

The early morning raid was the third major attack in Kabul in five days, shattering the calm in a capital which had been secure for months.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the raid was carried out by five gunmen, some wearing suicide bomb vests. Police sources said three fighters and three policemen were killed during the four-hour siege, which now appears to be over.

Afghan security forces took reporters into a nearby compound and showed them the bullet-riddled bodies of three fighters killed in the clash.

In a statement on a Taliban website, the Islamic group said 20 suicide bombers had infiltrated the capital. Another statement said the militants were closing roads across the country to disrupt the poll, and warned voters to stay away.

"From today onwards until the end of tomorrow, all main and secondary roads will be blocked for traffic and the Mujahideen will bear no responsibility for whoever gets hurt," it said.

Explosions and gunfire could be heard from the scene of the early morning clash, just south of the presidential palace compound in the centre of the capital.

It also came a day after a suicide car bomber killed eight people in the capital, the second such strike in four days. Such attacks had been common in the south, but had not taken place in comparatively-secure Kabul for months.