Afghanistan's intelligence service has announced a ban on live media coverage of insurgent attacks, saying that such broadcasts bolster the cause of militants.
Meanwhile, U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, the NATO commander in the country, visited Marjah in Helmand province, the town seized by U.S. Marines in the offensive, one of the biggest operations of the eight-year-old war.
He was joined by Afghan Vice President Karim Khalili and Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal, who met hundreds of local residents at a "shura", or traditional council meeting.
"The most important thing is to bring peace and stability to the people in Afghanistan. This is our priority. This is a promise," Khalili told the gathering.
The government's media ban came three days after Taliban militants struck at hotels in the heart of Kabul with suicide attackers and a car bomb, killing 16 people — half of them foreigners — in an assault that showed the militants remain a potent force.
The National Directorate of Security told representatives of The Associated Press and other news organizations about the ban during individual meetings Monday at its heavily secured compound. It cited Article 7 of Afghanistan's national security law.
Saeed Ansari, a spokesman for the directorate, did not disclose specific details about how the ban would be imposed, but said there would be punitive measures taken against journalists who did not comply. He did not elaborate on what steps the directorate would take against news organizations if they violated the ban.
During the meeting, the AP argued that the ban would make it difficult to provide the public with up-to-date information about insurgent attacks in Afghanistan.
"We believe broad, pre-emptive bans on coverage are inconsistent with a democratic society," John Daniszewski, AP senior managing editor for international news, said in New York.
"Experience shows there are many ways to cover important breaking stories without interfering with police or security operations."
Ansari said there had been cases during the Friday attack when television footage from the scene provided insurgents with tactical information about the counterattack launched by Afghan security forces.
Ansari said that it was appropriate to wait for the end of an incident and a preliminary investigation before reporting anything at all.
'We will not accept it'
The head of the Afghan Independent Journalists Association, Rahimullah Samandar, said Tuesday that the informal nature of the request by Afghan officials shows that the government knows it cannot legally keep journalists from reporting on attacks or visiting the sites of incidents.
"We have not received a written document or letter from the intelligence service," Samandar said. He said that Afghanistan's constitution protects journalists' right to decide what to cover and said he does not expect Afghan reporters to abide by the request.
"It is censorship of media coverage," Samandar said. "We will not accept it." He noted that the government's attempt to ban coverage of violence during last year's election was largely ignored without retribution.
"The majority of the media did not pay attention to this on election day and reported whatever they wanted," he said.
Samandar said he was planning to meet with intelligence officials Tuesday to get clarification on whether this was a requirement and if so, what actions they will take if reporters do not follow it.
Ajmal Samadi, a spokesman for Afghanistan Rights Monitor, a civil liberties group, said restricting freedom of expression is unsavory and contradicts international human rights laws and Afghanistan's constitution. "Unfortunately the international community has been silently watching the Karzai regime's undemocratic moves, which are not limited to the state control on media," Samadi said.
Last year, the Afghan government issued a similar directive, instructing journalists not to broadcast "any incidence of violence" during the hours of polling in the Aug. 20 presidential election and directing journalists to stay away from the scene of attacks until investigators could collect evidence.
The orders were not strictly enforced.
VIPs visit Marjah Not all were impressed by General McChrystal and vice president Khalili's statements during their visit to the Marjah shura.
"You promised not to use big weapons. Why was my house destroyed?" asked Abdul Kader, a white-bearded village elder, according to Reuters.
McChrystal told reporters the goal was to build a government in the area that villagers would embrace: "In the near term, they have to feel represented, they have to feel it's fair."
There could be 200-300 fighters left in the town "who were Taliban two weeks ago," McChrystal said. "Now, whether they still are is a personal choice for each of them. Some may become sleeper cells waiting for someone to tell them what to do. Some may just put the gun away and see what's going to happen."
Fighters have responded with attacks in other parts of the country, using roadside bombs and suicide attacks.
In the past week, the Taliban have carried out four big attacks killing at least 29 people and wounding scores more.