Hard-won media freedoms in Afghanistan are under serious threat from a draft law that is seen as a concession to Muslim conservatives ahead of NATO's exit in 2014, a rights group warned Tuesday.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the Afghan government to withdraw the bill, which has been circulated for comment before going to parliament, saying that it would limit free speech restored after the 2001 US-led invasion brought down the Taliban.
"Press freedom has been one of Afghanistan's most important success stories since 2001," said Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW.
"The Afghan government should be acting to solidify media gains, not seeking to placate forces hostile to free expression," he said.
HRW said provisions in the bill, which would replace a 2009 media law, undermine free expression and increase government control.
For example, broadcasting of foreign programming would be restricted and sanctions would be created for a new, long list of media violations. The government would even be allowed to control the use of certain words, it said.
"Afghan journalists have bravely held the government accountable in key areas such as corruption and human rights. President (Hamid) Karzai should openly oppose any legislation that curbs media freedom," Adams said.
But the information and culture ministry, which drew up the draft, said "good opinions" would be taken into consideration before the bill was finalised.
"We will gather all the opinions, study them and definitely use the good opinions when we revise the draft," ministry advisor Delawar Nazirzoi told AFP.
Activists have accused the government of limiting freedoms as NATO combat troops prepare to end their involvement in Afghanistan in 2014.
Women in particular have been fearful that their rights could be under threat if the government cuts a peace deal with the Taliban, who banned girls from going to school and women from having jobs during their repressive 1996-2001 regime.
Last month, HRW also criticised the Afghan government for suspending a political party after it demanded the prosecution of war crimes suspects now in key positions of power.