President Ashraf Ghani’s spokesman Sediq Sediqqi has rejected claims in an article by The New York Times on Monday that the Afghan government has “sidelined spokesmen in an escalating misinformation war”.
Sediqqi said the claims are “baseless”.
Taking to Twitter, Sediqqi said “bizarre claims! For the record: there are more than 200 spokespersons in the Afghan Government, we have a strong access to info law with no limitation; there are 100s of statements issued by the top leaderships on access to information, flow and dissemination.”
He said: “No journalist is in prison. 1000s of free media functions, no suppressing, no one in the government, including the President is afraid of criticism. There has been no crackdown on spokespersons. Information management, countering fake news, misinformation, … and the Taliban propaganda, and managing the flow of information is the key responsibility of the Afghan government. It must not be considered as suppressing/denying, crackdown or being afraid of criticism, he tweeted.
On Monday, the New York Times reported that after Ahmad Jawad Hijri, the spokesman for the governor of Takhar Province, told the media that children were wounded in an Afghan airstrike in the province in October, government jailed him for three days and then fired him.
At the time officials in Kabul insisted that only Taliban fighters had been killed in the strike and that anyone who said otherwise would be prosecuted.
Hijri meanwhile told the New York Times that he saw the children himself.
“At the hospital I saw the wounded children,” Hijri said. “I did not make a mistake,” The Times reported.
The actions taken against Hijri signaled a shift in tactics by the Afghan government, The Times stated adding that news briefings that defined the early years of the war as both sides jockeyed to win Afghan hearts and minds have nearly ceased. That leaves its main players — the United States, the Taliban and the government — all testing different communication strategies to achieve their desired ends.
The Times quoted Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director of Human Rights Watch as having said the Afghan government is “so afraid of criticism, they are unwilling to admit to errors or hold themselves accountable.”
“It’s ultimately self-destructive, but they’re desperate to control information,” she was quoted as saying.
In the past, the Afghan government was reticent about civilian casualties inflicted by the coalition or by Afghan forces, but local officials from areas where civilians were wounded or killed were allowed to speak about them freely.
Since October, the Ghani administration has muzzled provincial spokesmen and district governors, demanding that they stop relaying information to the news media, several Afghan officials from multiple provinces told The Times, especially relating to civilian casualties.
Last month, government announced it had barred provincial government spokesmen from sharing information with the media, raising concerns among lawmakers and journalists that the move will be a major setback for press freedom in the country.
On December 26, Rahmatullah Andar, spokesman for Ghani’s national security advisor said: “From now onward, governors will take the responsibility of providing efficient information to the media and the public, and spokesmen will continue their duties as public affairs officers on the basis of their working regulation.”
Dawa Khan Menapal, a spokesman for Ghani, said at the time the decision was made “because some spokesmen had talked about some issues that had no truth and were against the policy.”
He also said the role of provincial spokesmen will now be to pass on questions from the media to governors. District chiefs were also barred from media interaction.
Provincial spokesmen in many regions were often the only official sources of information to the media in Afghanistan, which has become one of the world’s most dangerous places for journalists.
At least five journalists have been killed in the country in the past two months while a former journalist who was the spokesman for government Public Protection Force was killed in a targeted explosion in Kabul on Sunday.
At the time of the clampdown against provincial spokesman, Nasir Ahmad Noor, head of local media watchdog NAI, said the ban will lead to the “spread of rumors and sometimes false information.”
“When you do not have access to spokesmen and it is highly difficult to get to the governors, then you have to rely on accounts from unnamed sources,” he said.
At the time, Seddiq also denied that government was trying to limit information, saying that the Afghan government has “been a pioneer in supporting our vibrant media and the enforcement of access to information laws which are unprecedented in the region.”
But The Times reported Monday that ultimately, that according to a former US official, the Afghan government’s decision to stifle information at the local level means that the Taliban have more space to control the narrative in the country’s districts where they are present but that Afghan officials have greater command over the national narrative.
Uzbeks refuse to return military aircraft flown from Afghanistan last year
Uzbekistan authorities say dozens of aircraft flown into their country in August last year, during the collapse of the former government, belong to the United States and will not be returned to the interim government in Kabul.
Afghan air force personnel flew almost 50 helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft to Uzbekistan in mid-August as former president Ashraf Ghani fled the country and Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) forces took control.
Several more aircraft and Black Hawk helicopters were also taken to neighboring Tajikistan.
The IEA has however repeatedly requested that these aircraft are returned to Afghanistan.
But in a recent interview with VOA, Ismatulla Irgashev, a senior presidential adviser, said the aircraft would not be going back to Kabul.
“The U.S. government paid for them,” said Irgashev, his nation’s most senior diplomat dealing with Afghan matters. “It funded the previous Afghan government. So, we believe it is totally up to Washington how to deal with them.
“We’ve kept this military equipment in agreement with the U.S. and have told the Taliban (IEA) so.”
Little has been said since about the issue, in part because of the sensitivity of the issue in Uzbek-Afghan relations and the reluctance of officials on all sides to discuss it, VOA reported.
But U.S. defense officials confirmed to VOA that both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have no plans to give the aircraft to the IEA.
Blinken and Austin visit Kyiv; announce assistance package to Ukraine
The United States announced new military assistance for Ukraine and a renewed diplomatic push in the war-ravaged nation as President Joe Biden’s secretary of state and Pentagon chief completed a secrecy-shrouded trip to Kyiv.
In the highest-level American visit to the capital since Russia invaded in late February, top envoy Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told Ukraine’s president, Volodomyr Zelenskyy, and his advisers that the U.S. would provide more than $300 million in foreign military financing and had approved a $165 million sale of ammunition, the Associated Press reported.
They also said Biden would soon announce his nominee to be ambassador to Ukraine and that American diplomats who left Ukraine before the war would start returning to the country this coming week. The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv will remain closed for the moment.
Austin and Blinken announced a total of $713 million in foreign military financing for Ukraine and 15 allied and partner countries; some $322 million is earmarked for Kyiv. The remainder will be split among NATO members and other nations that have provided Ukraine with critical military supplies since the war with Russia began, officials said.
U.S. officials said they believed the new assistance would satisfy at least some of the Ukrainians’ urgent pleas for more help. New artillery, including howitzers, continues to be delivered at a rapid pace to Ukraine’s military, which is being trained on its use in neighboring countries, the officials said.
UN chief heading to Turkey ahead of Moscow, Kyiv visits
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will visit Ankara before heading to Moscow next week to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin and then to Ukraine for talks with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a UN statement said on Saturday.
Guterres will visit the Turkish capital on Monday, where he will be received by President Tayyip Erdogan, the statement said.
The UN aid chief, Martin Griffiths, said on April 18 that Turkey was a valuable host for humanitarian talks between Ukraine and Russia.
Eri Kaneko, Guterres’ associate spokesperson, told a news briefing on Friday that Guterres would head to Moscow on Tuesday and meet Putin as well as have a working meeting and lunch with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, hoping to discuss what can be done to bring peace to Ukraine, Reuters reported.
The United Nations also said on Friday that Guterres would meet with Zelenskiy on Thursday, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and staff at UN agencies to discuss the scaling up of humanitarian assistance efforts.
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