Media’s role in protecting human rights spotlighted in UN-backed radio series

10 Oct 2017

Media’s role in protecting human rights spotlighted in UN-backed radio series

KANDAHAR - An ongoing UN-backed radio series in southern Afghanistan is underscoring the importance of media freedom and access to information as essential tools that can help foster peace and uphold human rights.

The current initiative, coordinated by the regional office of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), consists of 16 programmes broadcast by Zma Radio in Kandahar and Bost Radio in Helmand, along with off-air events joining provincial officials with human rights advocates and journalists.

The programme is focusing on the link between freedom of expression and human rights, with the speakers in the radio shows and the events engaging in lively debate about what freedom of expression means, how access to information can support the work of media, and where civil society and media professionals can work together with government to strengthen human rights.

A resident of Helmand, Abdul Sattar, who was interviewed for one of the programmes, talked about how there are challenges with freedom of expression and transparency.

“Residents do not have access to information and civil society can hardly do anything to change this situation,” he said. “I hope people are granted access to information so that the gap between people and government closes.”

In another programme, Fakhrudin Fayaz, acting head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission office in Kandahar, stressed the importance of the media laws in Afghanistan. “The Afghan Constitution stipulates that every Afghan has the right to express his or her views through a picture, though voice or in written form without seeking permission from the authorities,” he said.

To help strengthen the campaign work, UNAMA’s Human Rights Director, Danielle Bell, met with media professionals in Kandahar this week, along with human rights advocates, the Provincial Governor and officials from the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. In each of her meetings, she listened to views on the human rights situation in the southern region and underlined the important role of media in promoting of peace and strengthening democracy.

“An active, independent and accurate media is of critical importance in a democratic, just society, and is essential in Afghanistan, particularly in the current context of supporting efforts toward sustainable peace and ending impunity,” Ms Bell told a group of Kandahar journalists, stressing that the role of journalists in providing the public with timely, accurate information should serve to promote transparency and build accountability.

“The role of media in reporting human rights violations is so important because it increases public awareness and provokes actions to ensure better protection of human rights, including accountability,” she said.

According to Javed Ahmad Lodin, the head of Kandahar’s Media Centre, an advocacy group, the province's human rights activists and journalists work in a challenging environment where they regularly risk harassment, intimidation and violence.

“Access to information and protection of journalists are crucial,” he said. “Journalists are finding it difficult to access information on behalf of their audiences, and they are facing security threats, with many having lost their lives while trying to keep the local residents informed about ongoing developments.”

Afghanistan has an Access to Information Law in place, guaranteeing every Afghan citizen the right to access information held by public institutions, including budget allocations and expenditures. But according to Mr Lodin, many citizens and government officials in the southern region are either not aware of the law or aren’t adhering to its precepts. Requests for information from public authorities are difficult and sometimes dangerous undertakings, he explained.

Media watchdogs have tracked and documented how journalists in Afghanistan, including in the southern region, have been targeted with both threats and violence in their pursuit to inform the public. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Afghanistan is among the 10 deadliest countries in the world to be a journalist, with 21 journalists killed in the first half of 2017.

Zma and Bost, the media outlet broadcasting the programmes, are maintaining a social media discussion to address listener questions and receive feedback on the ongoing radio programmes. The broadcasts are reaches audiences estimated at 600,000 people in and around the provincial capitals of Kandahar and Helmand.

UNAMA has been working with media not only in the country’s south, but also in other parts of Afghanistan, to build support for Afghan-led peace and reconciliation efforts. Since 2015, UNAMA has supported journalists’ forums to provide media workers an opportunity to network, share their experiences, and most importantly bring communities together through accurate news and reporting.

UNAMA is mandated to support the Afghan Government and the people of Afghanistan as a political mission that provides 'good offices' among other key services. 'Good offices' are diplomatic steps that the UN takes publicly and in private, drawing on its independence, impartiality and integrity, to prevent international disputes from arising, escalating or spreading.

UNAMA also promotes coherent development support by the international community; assists the process of peace and reconciliation; monitors and promotes human rights and the protection of civilians in armed conflict; promotes good governance; and encourages regional cooperation.