Karzai accused of media stranglehold
KABUL - Spend an evening watching state-run Radio Television Afghanistan (RTA) and you may be forgiven for thinking that Afghanistan has just one prominent public figure: President Hamid Karzai.
Every meeting, trip, signature or speech seems to have acquired particularly newsworthy status and the president's face is seldom absent from the television screen.
In normal times, this might just be considered bad television, but during a presidential election campaign, it borders on a gross violation of the election law, according to the Media Commission, which operates a media monitoring unit under the Independent Election Commission, or IEC.
"We have set up principles of covering the news related to the president, who is also a candidate," said Sidiqullah Tawhidi, head of the commission, at a news conference in mid-July. "Except for covering his daily routine, everything else counts as campaign coverage."
Covering Karzai's daily routine takes up a lot of air time and column inches. According to Tawhidi, during the first two weeks of monitoring, Karzai was on the TV news 55 times; his closest rival, Abdullah Abdullah, was a distant second with 13 appearances. Ashraf Ghani, the only other challenger given a chance in the poll, enjoyed a mere six airings.
In print media, the story was similar. Monitors found that state newspapers devoted twice as much space to Karzai during the monitoring period as to Abdullah and about ten times as much as Ashraf Ghani got.
This goes far beyond the normal advantages of incumbency, Tawhidi said.
"The president is dominant in the state media," said Tawhidi. "The Ministry of Information and Culture should pay attention to this, and act impartially."
The ministry oversees state media outlets and is responsible for their coverage. It has denied violating balance and impartiality in coverage of election candidates.
The president's prominence on the airwaves is simply a function of his status as incumbent, said Zia Boomia, head of the state-run Bakhtar News Agency, speaking for the ministry.
"We cover the president's state business," he said. "For example, the president has a cabinet meeting once a week. The other candidates do not have such an event. If we cover it, this does not mean it is related to the elections."
Boomia insisted that all news related to Karzai's re-election campaign was relegated to election coverage, alongside the campaigns of other candidates. But even here it would be impossible to guarantee complete balance, he said.
"Some candidates have made ten campaign speeches, while others have not left their houses. Are we supposed to ignore those candidates who are active because of those who have done nothing?" he said.
Afghanistan's increasingly chaotic campaign features 41 candidates with widely differing backgrounds, skills, and finances. Some, like Karzai and Abdullah, can afford to blanket the capital with posters and billboards, as well as taking out expensive television advertisements. A one-minute spot during prime time on the most popular station - the commercial channel Tolo - costs US$600.
Karzai and Abdullah are sinking thousands into their television campaigns, while the more modest candidates have to content themselves with posters and the occasional election tour.
"Karzai and Abdullah were very active," said Boomia. "Their events were newsworthy, and we covered them. We try to be balanced. We even count how many seconds a clip lasts."
Boomia insisted that state media had implemented the guidelines laid down by the IEC's media unit.
"We followed them to the letter," he said.
But the media monitors at the IEC did not sound convinced.
"The state media is supporting Karzai," said Tawhidi. "This is evident even in the language that they use. They will say, for example, that there was 'a gathering in support of Ashraf Ghani' while they will always say 'a large gathering of people in support of Karzai'. This has an impact on the campaign."
This was a subversion of the mission of state media, said Tawhidi.
"The state media belong to the Afghan nation, so they must keep the balance between the candidates."
Nonetheless, the media commission insists that state media are siding with Karzai, not only in terms of coverage but also language.
"For instance, RTA says 'a gathering of people in support of Ashraf Ghani .' and then says 'a large gathering of people in support of Karzai and these gatherings should continue, etc.' Such words have a special impact in the campaign," said Tawhidi.
Some of the candidates also are not happy with the government media.
Ramazan Basher Dost, who is standing against Karzai, said, "For the past seven years they have been conducting propaganda for Karzai, and it's still going on. As far as I know, RTA has done a 20-minute interview with all the candidates, including me, but I am not sure that all of my campaign speeches and stops are covered."
He added, "I am not worried about RTA now, because everybody knows that it's taking sides, and do not listen to it. What is important for me is going to the provinces and villages and maintaining direct contact with my people."
Basher Dost accused the media commission of calling news conferences rather than taking action, "The solution to this issue is not press conferences. If there is a violation, they should hand it over to the complaints commission of the IEC."
Some time ago, Abdullah's campaign's office also complained of media bias, citing full coverage of Karzai's news conferences by RTA but brief reporting of his.
Other candidates also have accused Karzai of misuse of government resources for his own ends but Karzai's campaign office denied these claims and insisted that, if a candidate has proof of such abuse, he or she should give it to the IEC.
A number of people also believe that Karzai not only uses state and private media but also other government resources.
Abdul Saboor, a resident of Kabul, said, "From the start of the campaign, RTA has been talking about Karzai. We are bored with his name already. Karzai does not need a campaign. It has been the eighth year that he is riding on the people's shoulders with his weak policies. People know Karzai and his gang very well. But why is he printing posters again? And he wants to come out on TV? Let the other candidates to be known by people."
Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter based in Kabul.