New York Times correspondent banned from leaving Afghanistan

New York Times correspondent banned from leaving Afghanistan

August 19, 2014

Afghanistan Journalists Center is learned by reports today that the Afghan attorney general’s office called in New York Times correspondent Matthew Rosenberg for questioning, and later banned him from leaving the country.

The Times published a story about discussions among some officials of imposing an interim government.

The correspondent, Matthew Rosenberg, 40, a three-year veteran of The Times’s Kabul bureau, was summoned to the attorney general’s office for what was billed as an “informal chat” Tuesday about an article published in that day’s newspaper. The article said that powerful figures in the Afghan government were discussing the formation of a temporary governing committee as a way to break the deadlock that followed national elections.

According to the Times, it was the fourth time this year that the Afghan government has threatened or initiated legal action against The Times because of complaints by senior Afghan officials over articles it has published.

The latest episode seems particularly delicate for Afghan leaders. The story published by The Times said that a prolonged dispute between the two top vote getters in Afghanistan’s presidential election had persuaded a coterie of powerful ministers to broach the idea that they would impose a new government to ensure stability in the country — effectively a soft coup, though one they said would later lead to a return to democratic rule.

The article said the officials were hoping that the threat of taking action of that kind would prompt the two candidates, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, to make the compromises needed to end the crisis.

The Times reported that, the senior prosecutor who summoned Mr. Rosenberg, Gen. Sayed Noorullah Sadat, whose title is general director of crimes against external and internal security, asked him to identify anonymous government sources quoted in the story, which he declined to do.

Mr. Rosenberg objected to General Sadat’s insistence that he sign a statement without a lawyer present. Mr. Rosenberg then asked to leave the interrogation room and was initially refused permission to do so, until the prosecutors conferred with a higher ranking official.

They declined to name that official. “It’s a confidential source,” said another general who was present at the interrogation. He declined to give his own name as well, but was later identified as Gen. Abdul Salem Ismat, who works in General Sadat’s directorate. (Although the attorney general’s office is a civilian agency, some officials retain the ranks they gained in police or military agencies.)

After the unidentified higher official consented, Mr. Rosenberg was allowed to leave on the condition that he return with a lawyer the next day. No mention of the travel ban was made at the time.

Later, however, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, Baseer Azizi, confirmed that a travel ban was in effect “until this issue over this article is resolved.” He also said the attorney general would demand that Mr. Rosenberg divulge his sources for the article.

The travel ban was first reported by Tolo TV, the leading private network here.

During the interrogation Tuesday, General Sadat was unable to name any criminal offense that was under investigation, or cite any laws that had been broken.

“Right now there’s no case, no legal charges, there’s nothing,” he said. But he did not rule out the possibility of charges in the future.

The State Department criticized the Afghanistan government’s actions.

“We are deeply disturbed by the actions of the Afghan attorney general and by this travel ban that has allegedly been put into place, and urge the Afghan government to respect fundamental freedoms of expression and expression of the press, and we’ll continue to monitor it,” Marie Harf, a deputy State Department spokeswoman, told reporters in Washington.

“And I think we’re still trying to get some more information about what exactly this, quote, ‘travel ban’ entails, what it looks like, who put it in place,” she said.

Referring to the article by Mr. Rosenberg published on Tuesday, Ms. Harf said: “We reject any attempts by any party to take power in Afghanistan by extra-constitutional means.”

Mr. Azizi said it was not the first time that the newspaper had published articles which he described as “against the national interest of Afghanistan.”

In April, a complaint from the presidential palace led to a formal investigation by the attorney general in response to an article on the election, which said President Hamid Karzai was concerned about the apparent success of Mr. Abdullah, the presidential candidate.

The complaint, which was never made public, focused on the use of unnamed palace sources, but it was dismissed by the minister of culture and information, Sayed Makhdoom Raheen, who called it “groundless” and said the use of confidential sources was protected under Afghan law.

In March, in a separate matter, an article by Mr. Rosenberg on the death of Vice President Muhammed Qasim Fahim angered some Afghan officials who felt it was insufficiently respectful, and delayed the renewal of Mr. Rosenberg’s journalist visa. Marshal Fahim had a reputation as a brutal warlord during the Afghan civil war, but the article also pointed out that his cooperation with Mr. Karzai’s government had helped to avert strife between rival factions.

More recently, an article by Mr. Rosenberg with Michael R. Gordon, The Times’s State Department correspondent, noted that Mr. Karzai was believed to be favoring Ashraf Ghani as president in the disputed poll results, according to senior officials quoted anonymously by Mr. Rosenberg.

A prolonged, internationally monitored audit of the election results has been underway for weeks, with both candidates, Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah, claiming victory.

“Such baseless reports by The New York Times are in violation of all the recognized principles of journalism, or they are politically motivated. Since the beginning of the presidential election The New York Times newspaper has sought to sow disunity among the Afghans by publishing several reports of this nature,” said Adela Raz, the deputy spokeswoman for President Karzai, in a statement posted as a link from her Twitter account.

“We have notified the administration of the newspaper in writing several times about the publication of reports that encourage disunity,” said Ms. Raz. “But they have repeatedly published such reports, and therefore we must take serious action in accordance with appropriate Afghan law.”

Afghanistan Journalists Center calls on the Afghan attorney general to lift all travel restrictions on the Times correspondent immediately. According to the Afghan Media law, article 4, every person has the right to freedom of thought and speech, which includes the right to seek, obtain and disseminate information and views within the limit of law without any interference, restriction and threat by the government or officials. The right also includes free activity of means of publication, distribution, and reception of information.

The same article says, government shall support, strengthen, and guarantee the freedom of mass media. Except as authorized under this law, no real or legal person including government and government offices may ban, prohibit, censor or limit the informational activities of mass media or otherwise interfere in their affairs.