BAKHTER NEWS AGENCY

One morning there came a telegram for me from Kabul informing me that in a reshuffle of personnel in the Department, I was elevated to the position of Vice President the Department of Press and Information and had, therefore, to get ready to return home soon. Shortly thereafter, I was informed via another telegram, that I had been chosen to represent Afghanistan at the forthcoming UNESCO Seminar on Freedom of Information in Bangkok. I was to go there via Kabul.

I believe it was February 1960. I returned home via Prague and Moscow, saw the family, was given some information about the seminar by the Minister and headed for Bangkok via New Delhi.

The contrast between the controlled air of the Air France plane and that of the Thai airport at about 3 A.M. was unbelievable. For a moment I thought I was getting suffocated. But the feeling went away as soon as it had come and the excitement of the seminar and things to come took over. We were taken to a hotel in town some 40 miles away. The place was air conditioned and I got a few hours of sleep before getting ready for the plenary session of the meeting next morning.

I was elected vice chairman. The main theme of discussion was how to expand the dissemination of news throughout the developing countries by taking advantage of all modern facilities and how to do so freely in order to get the right news to everyone at the right time. There was a lot to be said about government control of the news and the limitations that several governments seemed to have placed on the free dissemination of news by the media within countries and to the outside world.

There were no laws in force in some countries on the freedom of information and where there were laws, they seemed to be set up to suit the whims of people in control. UNESCO had done some studies of such laws in a number of countries and had noted discrepancies in the free flow of information. The seminar was aiming to bring some uniformity to laws governing the freedom of information. The matter of news accessibility to the media was also discussed.

Some developing countries found the machinery for electronic news dissemination too costly for private runners of the media. In such cases, only the State could afford such services and they often chose to control what the readers should have access to. That was not what press freedom meant. In the end, it was left to journalists to bring about the freedom of the press to their societies and create the atmosphere for it through peaceful, democratic ways. UNESCO could and would only furnish some guidelines.

My return to Kabul coincided with a change in the Cabinet of Sardar Mohammad Dawood. I was asked to wait sometime before returning to wind up my work in London. In three months’ time, a new head of the department of Press and Information was chosen and I was appointed as President of the Bakhter News Agency. This was a demotion for me, but I was a government employee and simply had to take it. The new Head of the Department was a professional medical doctor who was then the elected Mayor of Kabul, and in that capacity, I had an encounter with him regarding some Mayoralty action that my paper, Anees, had strongly stood against and criticized.

In his first meeting with Departmental leaders, the New President appealed to us all to “help” him as he was given this post not due to his expertise in matters of mass media. We agreed and I, too, followed that policy. Our foreign news came to us via the ancient Morse code system. We also had some officials listening to foreign news broadcasts via short-wave radio programs and also went over news bulletins of various embassies.

My first attempt was to improve upon these methods of newsgathering. To solicit outside help, I first contacted the West German Ambassador who promised to assist us with some special, powerful short-wave radio receivers. When they arrived and were installed, they greatly reduced static and facilitated getting the news directly from such distant stations as All India Radio, BBC, Voice of America, Radio Tehran, etc. Then I contacted the Associated Press, the UPI, Agence France Presse and Tanyug and arranged to have their daily news transmitted directly to the Bakhtar News Agency via teletype. These services mostly started free of charge and some of them, such as Tanyug, Tass and Hsinhua, came to us without any fees for a long time. I checked the incoming news and selected items of interest which then went to our translators, specially employed for this service. These were re-checked by me prior to dissemination to the two newspapers and our national radio. This was in direct contrast with my own principle of free press. But the press had no access to such services and, per force, we were the source of international news at the time. We did the best we could and gave our clients more information than they could use. We thus gave them an opportunity to choose what they thought fit.

Our reporter service was also expanded with assigned daily beats for city-wide news gathering and photography. Over all, during the year that I worked at the head of the Bakhtar news Agency, notable advances were made in our news gathering both within the country and from abroad.

My personal relationship with the President of the Press Department also went from boss/subordinate to one of close associates. We gradually became friends. He would read his latest poems (which he often wrote) to me over the phone and ask for my comments and, most often, accepted my input before sending them out for publication in some magazine.

He would also visit me in my office to get the top news and then to convey the ones he considered highly significant to the Deputy Prime Minister via the telephone. Within a year, he sought and got the approval of the Prime Minister, to my reappointment as the Vice President of the Press and Information Department.

In 1961, the government decided to give our Department a ‘rank lift’ to a “Ministry. “ We became the Royal Afghan Government Ministry of Information and Culture. Consequently, my official title became Deputy Minister.

I introduced a new publication to our list: an English language pictorial magazine, titled Ariana (Ancient Afghanistan). My aim as editor was to present to the English readers all about the Afghan culture, tradition, arts and handicrafts, and to introduce Afghans as a people with their characteristics and habits throughout the ages. It turned out as an appealing magazine not only to the foreign community, but also to the Afghan elite. It came out every two months as I did not have a lot of free time to give it. It was discontinued when I left the post to serve my one-year conscription at the ROTC, Afghan Military Academy. (It began to be re-published after the Coup d’Etat of Sardar Mohammad Dawood, in 1973, when he expressed a desire for its revival. But then I was under ‘forced retirement’ by the Sardar who changed the traditional monarchy and made himself the President of the first-ever Republic of Afghanistan.)

For my military service, I was enrolled in the class of logistics along with many other government employees who were finally drafted into the army after receiving deferments from service year after year for the significance of their jobs and the non-existence of candidates for those jobs. My Minister had assured me that he would arrange for me to spend part of the time in my office in the Ministry and for that reason he asked that I keep the government car at my garage. But that chance did not occur, for my eldest son secretly got hold of the keys and drove the car out without anyone’s knowledge or permission, and crashed it en route back from the resort town of Paghman some 25 kilometers west of the city.

I later had to purchase another car through the Afghan National Bank from Germany and turn it over to the Ministry in lieu of the “totaled” vehicle. This matter took several months and no one did anything about returning me, part-time, to my job in the Ministry until I graduated from the ROTC with the rank of a second lieutenant in the Reserves.

There was an exception, though. A leave of absence was requested for

me by the Minister of Information and Culture for two weeks, during which I was to head a committee of experts and draft a new Press Law for Afghanistan. I returned to the army school of logistics after completing the draft within the specified time and presenting it to the Ministry. The draft was later explained and defended by me to the Council of Ministers in my capacity as Deputy Minister of Information and Culture, and then placed with the Ministry of Justice to be forwarded to the Parliament for passage.

Thus, in 1965 Afghanistan had a fairly decent Press Law which brought about, once again, private press onto the scene in Kabul.

The earlier attempt at “free” private press was made in the late fifties under the government of Prime Minister Shah Mahmood, an uncle of the King. He had freed some political prisoners, brought back several persons from exile and encouraged the election of a few enlightened members to the Shoora (the lower house of parliament) who enacted laws permitting private press to appear. Three such publications came out in Kabul under the names of Angaar, Watan and Nedaaye Khalq. Soon there appeared articles in these papers critical of the government, demanding that various Ministries be held responsible to the Shoora and there should be more freedom of expression. The University students created a Student Union, which was instrumental in dramatic performances and speeches that were critical of the royal family. It was more the utterances of criticism by the students and the fear of a repeat performance of 1933 resulting in the killing of king’s father, than any thing else that Shah Mahmood was forced to put a rein on the freedom of the press and stop the papers.

I have no record of any of my writings with me at present. Luckily my very good friend Dr. Louis Dupree has quoted a few articles of the July 1965 Press Law in his book AFGHANISTAN which I would like to quote here:

Article 1: Freedom of thought and expression is immune from any encroachment in accordance with Article 31 of the Constitution of Afghanistan.

In order to implement the said article and to take into consideration the other values of the Constitution, the provisions set forth in this law organize the method of using the right of freedom of press for the citizens of Afghanistan. The goals, which this law aims to secure, consist of:

1. Preparing a proper ground over which all Afghans may express their thought by means of speech, picture or the like and may print and disseminate matters.
2. Safeguarding public security and order as also the interest and dignity of the State and individuals from harms which they may be subjected to by the misuse of freedom of press.
3. Safeguarding the fundamentals of Islam, constitutional monarchy and the other values enshrined in the Constitution.
4. Assisting the healthy development of the press in a way so that this organ of society may become an effective means for dissemination of knowledge, information and culture among the people of Afghanistan as well as truthfully and usefully reflect public opinion to the society.

Article 31: The publication of matter implying defamation of the principles of Islam or defamatory to the King of Afghanistan is not allowed.

Article 32: Incitement through the press to commit action the end of which is an offense, will also be considered an offense. Such actions may be:

1. Incitement to disobey the country’s laws.
2. Incitement to disrupt public security and order.
3. Incitement to seek depravity.

Article 33. Every action which is considered an offense will also be an offense if committed through the press. Such actions may be:

1. Disclosure of state secrets such as:

a) Secret government or parliamentary proceedings.

b) Secret court proceedings.

c) Military secrets.

d) Secrets pertaining to Afghanistan’s international relations.

2. Incitement to seek depravity by means of:

a) Publication of false or distorted news, in spite of the knowledge that the said news is false or distorted, provided such news causes damage to the interest or dignity of the state or individuals.

b) Publication of obcene articles or photos which tend to debase public morals. (Publication of obscene articles or photos prejudicial to good morals.)

c) Publication of views and comments the aim of which is to divert the courts from reaching correct decisions on cases under their scrutiny.

d) Publication of comments and views the aim of which is to divert the public prosecutor, police, witnesses or even public opinion from the correct path over a definite case.

3. Defamation of persons and publication of false stastements about them.

4. Attack upon the sanctity of the private life of individuals.

Article 34: If the publication of an item causes direct and actual

disruption of the country’s social health or economic life, or even deceives public opinion, the editor is required to refrain from publishing it. Such action may be:

1. Publication of items with a view to purposely weakening the state’s fiscal credit.
2. Publication of false advertisement of medicine in spite of knowledge about them.

Article 35: Publication of matters with a view to weakening the Afghan Army is not allowed….

Article 48: A newspaper will close down if it does not have an editor.

My work in the Ministry of Information and Culture, started as a working journalist, based on my specialized training. But it did not last long. My various new postings had some aspects of professionalism and some administrative activity. When I was appointed as the Deputy Minister, at that point in time, most of my work consisted of administrative responsibilities and the day to day running of the Ministry. Policy making was left with the Minister who either organized things himself or had special suggestions made to him by the Prime Minister or the Council of Ministers. From time to time, I suggested modernization of the Press, adding a new magazine or improving the form and contents of the government papers and magazines. I must say that most of my suggestions were accepted by the Minister and endorsed by the Council of Media Directors and duly implemented.

One of these was the introduction of a flatbed press so as to enable us to print eight pages at a time instead of the then prevailing four-page papers, two pages at a time..

Our type then was set by hand, consuming a lot of man hours. We needed modern linotype machines and considerable time training our typesetters in Pushto, Dari and English languages. It also needed a long time to acquire these machines competitively. At the time only England could provide magazines of type for Pukhto and Dari and it was arranged that our Information Officer in London and the Afghan Embassy there undertake the purchase of two units. Each unit had four magazines, one each for Pukhto, Dari, English and French. We soon found that just two machines would not do the job of training of personnel. We then started our search for a flatbed press. The version that the Soviet Union offered was only a four page press. The U.S. Information Service (c/o the American Embassy), put us in touch with an American Company who possessed just what we wanted.

Our findings were presented to the Ministry’s Council of Media Directors, it was unanimously agreed that we go with the American flatbeds. Again, we used the services of our Embassy in Washington D. C. to finalize the necessary agreement, making sure the Company would send technical personnel to set the machine up in the Government Press and give us a demonstration of the workings of this new kind of press in Afghanistan.

It was then that the acute shortage of the linotypes and trained personnel to run them became a top priority. The technicians decided to give us a demonstration using hand-set type, warning us that in the process, our machine may sustain severe damage in case a hand set page or more breaks loose and thousands of pieces of type fly all over the machine seriously affecting it. The 8-page paper test was run at snail’s pace. This would not do. We had to wait until we could import a number of simpler, one magazine linotypes and train our personnel to run the new press at speeds above 25,000 copies per hour.

Our brand new flatbed press sat as a white elephant in the Government Press until, many years later, I sought the aid of the U. S. government who sent a couple of specialists to help us change our newspaper printing to the new high production eight-page method. In fact the very first issue of the morning paper, the Republic, replacing the Islah/Anis, came out in eight pages on an off white newsprint that I arranged flown to us by the Government of India after Sardar Mohammad Dawood’s Coup d’Etat (July 17, 1973). I think President Dawood was given the impression that this was an act of sabotage by me who was running the Ministry then. We immediately appealed to India and the Soviet Union for help and did get white newsprint from the latter source. But the damage was done. Just 13 days after the Coup, Sardar Dawood forcibly retired me from my post at the Ministry and also from my teaching job in the Department of Journalism, Kabul University — a job that I had taken voluntarily and had served on for eight years without any remuneration.

Going back to the subject I was talking about before the above digression….

Toward the end of my service in the ROTC, there came about another change of Ministers in the Government and the new Minister reinstated me as his Deputy, and, several months later, when he was chosen as the next Prime Minister of the Royal Government, he selected me as a Member of his Cabinet to the post of Tribal Affair