One of the most heralded "success stories" of post-Taliban Afghanistan has been the growth of its independent media. Afghan and international news organizations in Afghanistan have largely enjoyed press freedoms rivaling those of many Western nations.
But today's expulsion of New York Times correspondent Matthew Rosenberg calls into question how much progress Afghanistan has made in terms of rule of law and press freedoms.
Afghanistan's attorney general's office ordered Rosenberg out after he refused to reveal anonymous sources for a story published Tuesday. In it, Rosenberg quoted top Afghan officials discussing the possibility of forming an interim government due to the protracted and unresolved presidential election.
A statement released today by the Afghan government's media center says Rosenberg was acting more as a spy than a journalist and that the country had to protect the national interest.
Media experts in Afghanistan say the attorney general cannot order a journalist to reveal sources — only a court can.
A spokesman for the attorney general said the office demanded that Rosenberg name his sources in order to prove that the quotes were real. Rosenberg's refusal to do so, the spokesman says, means the report was fabricated. The attorney general determined it was a risk to Afghan national security to allow Rosenberg to stay in the country.
Afghan media expert Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar says this is nothing but the government playing politics and exploiting a vague clause of the Afghan constitution that states the press must not report against the national interest or national security. He says Rosenberg's reporting violated no laws — and in fact, the attorney general never charged the correspondent with a crime.
Rosenberg issued this statement on his way to the airport today (where he was escorted through immigration by Kabul's chief prosecutor and police general):
"The expulsion order is legally groundless and even ridiculous (the day before they expelled me, they ordered me not to leave the country). I'm leaving because the alternative is to risk an arbitrary and equally groundless arrest.
"This order was issued because President Karzai insisted on it. It was clear the authorities had no interest in following their own laws, but were intent on expelling me because they disliked a story. I'm lucky enough that I can just leave. The millions of Afghans whose lives are governed by these same officials deserve better."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly accused The New York Times of following secret agendas and attempting to divide Afghanistan.
Karzai spokesman Aimal Faizy says that Rosenberg's expulsion was necessary to "stop the evil in the NYT's reporting."
Faizy also tweeted: "... biased reporting by the NYT, not properly sourced can be considered nothing but a fabrication aimed at seeking a specific motive."
Addressing the issue today, U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham said, "We deplore this decision, which is unjustified and based on unfounded allegations." His statement continued:
"This first expulsion of a journalist in post-Taliban Afghanistan is a regrettable step backward for the freedom of the press in this country. There is no mistaking the signal this sends to all journalists working in Afghanistan, whether they are Afghan, American, or any other nationality. I expressed today to President Karzai our strong concern about this unwarranted action. I asked him to affirm his government's recognition of the importance of protecting the freedom of the press, as an important part of the legacy of his presidency."
Faizullah Zaki, spokesman for presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani, called the expulsion unacceptable and says this type of government abuse will not happen under the next administration.