For several hours this morning, Afghanistan’s small, but active social media scene held its collective breath while the National Security Council decided whether to issue a ban on Facebook until the outcome of the nation’s highly contested presidential election has been determined.
The meeting of the National Security Council, Afghanistan’s highest security body, comes two weeks after several Senators called for a temporary ban on social media due to contentious online debates over an election that pits a Pashtun against a half-Tajik, half-Pashtun.
By the early afternoon, the NSC, headed by Rangin Dadfar Spanta, Hamid Karzai’s chief national security advisor, decided not to ban the social network.
Shortly after the announcement was made public, Adela Raz, Karzai’s spokeswoman, said the council did call “upon all users, especially the Afghan youth, to use Facebook responsibly.”
With claims of widespread corruption having plagued the two-man runoff between Abdullah Abdullah, former foreign minister, and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, former finance minister, since the June 14 polls, social media has increasingly come under fire as the battleground of choice for supporters and detractors alike.
Though she is unsupportive of restrictions on free speech, Wazhma Frogh, founder of the Research Institute for Women, Peace & Security, said Afghans should be more judicious with their online debates.
“We should learn ethics of using social media responsibly and not to propagate hatred,” Frogh said.
Still, Afghans online wondered why in a nation where speech is relatively unrestricted (especially when compared to regional neighbors), social media was targeted as particularly threatening.
“Finally some sense prevails. AFG NSC decides against banning Facebook. Choice clear: let them vent on cyberspace, or they vent on streets,” Mujib Mashal, a Kabul-based freelance journalist, tweeted.
Mashal’s tweet was a reference to the fear that the sporadic protests that have sprung up around Kabul and other urban centers — still largely peaceful — in recent weeks could turn violent and spurn ethnic divisions.
On the streets, several young Afghans asked why a service with an estimated user base of 1 to 2 million was being singled out when private television stations, which can boast up to 12 million viewers in primetime, have been relatively unhampered.
“These TV stations are ten times more dangerous than Facebook. They not only play favorites, they also broadcast incredibly incendiary statements,” said Muslim, an NGO worker based in Kabul.
Ramin Anwari, a civil society activist, worried that if approved, the ban could have been a harbinger of future reversals of free expression.
“Welcome to Republic of filter-breaking: Afghanistan. Get softwares 2 fight facebook ban. See who prevails; Us? or the dictator Government,” he tweeted in response to several tweets that engaged users in questioning the impact of such a ban.
Ahmad-Bilal Askaryar of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, took a more cynical approach, wondering if at a time when the electoral bodies and candidates were at odds over the release of preliminary election results, the government didn’t have larger concerns.
“I haven't seen people get so mad about something until the 'possibility' of a Facebook ban today,” Askaryar tweeted.
Elsewhere in the capital, Abdullah, who led the April 5 initial polls with 45 percent of the vote, held a press conference to follow up on his accusations of widespread government-assisted fraud in favor his rival Ghani.
Speaking in Kabul on Sunday evening, Abdullah reiterated his accusations of government complicity in what he said could be as many as 2 million fraudulent votes. Once again the former foreign minister called into question the Independent Election Commission’s claims that, “more than seven million” votes were cast in the runoff.
Addressing the public a day before the IEC plans to release preliminary runoff results (delayed from last week), Abdullah warned that his team would not “accept the preliminary results unless clean votes are separated from fraudulent ones.”
Abdullah’s statement comes only hours after Ghani told Voice of America that he has not cut any political deals with his rival.
Ghani’s insistence that no deals have been made caused renewed fears for elections watchers — in Afghanistan and abroad — who are hoping for a quick end to the deadlock that has resulted from Abdullah’s repeated accusations of fraud.
However, Abdullah’s Sunday evening statements seem to point to ongoing talks between the candidates.
“Discussions with the opposing team including technical and political talks … are still going on, but not for gaining any form of monetary or power sharing interest.”
Instead, Abdullah said his team simply wants to “defend the clean votes” of the people.
Follow Ali M Latifi on Twitter: @alibomaye