Al Jazeera accuses Nato over arrest of journalists in Afghanistan

The TV station says Nato is attempting to stifle its coverage of the war after two of its journalists were taken into custody by coalition troops this week.

DOHA // Al Jazeera has accused Nato of attempting to stifle its coverage of the war in Afghanistan after two of its journalists were taken into custody by coalition troops this week. The Doha-based satellite television network identified the two cameramen, both Afghans, as Mohammed Nader and Rahmatullah Nekzad. Mr Nader was arrested in the southern province of Kandahar on Wednesday, while Mr Nekzad was detained in Ghazni province, south of the capital, Kabul, on Monday.

In a statement issued to the network on Wednesday, the Nato-led security mission in Afghanistan, known as the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), said it had intelligence information linking the journalists to Taliban propaganda networks and described them as "suspected Taliban media and propaganda facilitator[s]." Isaf also said it found two grenades at Mr Nekzad's home. Since then, it has offered no further comment on the pair's detention.

Al Jazeera officials rejected any suggestion that its reporters posed a threat. "This has nothing to do with security issues. They were just doing their job," said Mustafa Souag, the director of news at Al Jazeera. "We believe they are innocent and we ask for their immediate release." Network officials said that in connection with their work, the cameramen had extensive contacts among both government authorities and insurgents. In keeping with company policy, however, they had not been present when militants had planned attacks.

Mr Souag demanded that Isaf produce concrete evidence of their allegations against the two journalists. "We would like them to explain why they arrested them, what evidence they have," he said. "We believe it's because they are trying to keep the international community from knowing what's going on there." Press freedom advocates challenged Isaf's justifications for the detentions. "What exactly does it mean to be a 'propagandist' or 'facilitating information networks'?" asked Anthony Mills of the International Press Institute in Geneva. "Being a journalist covering that side of the story should not be considered a crime."

News organisations operating in Afghanistan, both domestic and foreign, hold a delicate position. The Afghan government has recently expressed displeasure over their pervasive coverage of violence, Mr Mills said. Last week, Afghan intelligence arrested the leader of the Kapisa Province journalists' association, according to the governor's office. No reason has been given for his arrest. Al Jazeera officials, in particular, says their network has been a target of eavesdropping by US intelligence services, which routinely monitor communications between Qatar and Kabul. They also say that their Qatar headquarters has received pressure from Isaf forces in Kabul, urging them to alter the network's editorial stance.

The network has frequently drawn the attention of US-led forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. During the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, Al Jazeera's Kabul bureau were destroyed by an American bomb, an attack the network believed was deliberate. In 2003, an Al Jazeera cameraman working in Iraq was arrested by US troops and held in Guantanamo prison for six years before being released without charge. Mr Nekzad, who has also contributed photos and video to The Associated Press, was detained by Afghan forces for two days in 2008 after photographing the Taliban executing two women.

After the Isaf raid this week, his family told Al Jazeera that he had been beaten and his equipment destroyed. @Email:dlepeska@thenational.ae