Network newscasts uncritically aired administration outrage in Rahman case

››› ››› RAPHAEL SCHWEBER-KOREN

Since March 23, each of the three major network nightly newscasts have uncritically reported administration statements expressing outrage over the prosecution and possible execution of an Afghan man for converting to Christianity, in defiance of Islamic law. But none of the nightly newscasts noted that when the Afghan constitution was ratified in 2004, President Bush hailed it for "lay[ing] the foundation for democratic institutions," despite a provision in the constitution asserting the supremacy of Islamic law.

Since March 23, each of the three major network nightly newscasts have uncritically reported administration statements expressing outrage over the prosecution and possible execution of an Afghan man for converting to Christianity, in defiance of Islamic law. But none of the nightly newscasts noted that when Afghanistan's constitution was ratified in 2004, President Bush hailed it for "lay[ing] the foundation for democratic institutions," despite a provision in the constitution -- which critics warned about at the time -- asserting the supremacy of Islamic law. In Afghanistan, Islamic law (Shariah), as interpreted by the conservative Afghan judiciary, reportedly views Muslims who convert to another religion as apostates who must be tried and possibly executed.

NBC News reported on March 27 that, according to an Afghan Supreme Court spokesman, the case against convert Abdul Rahman, was "dismissed because of 'problems with the prosecutors' evidence.' He said several of Rahman's relatives testified he is mentally unstable and prosecutors have to 'decide if he is mentally fit to stand trial.' "

When Afghanistan approved a new constitution on January 4, 2004, Bush issued a congratulatory statement, which said, in part, that the new constitution "lays the foundation for democratic institutions. ... A democratic Afghanistan will serve the interests and just aspirations of all of the Afghan people and help ensure that terror finds no further refuge in that proud land." U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, who at the time was the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, told the Los Angeles Times on January 5, 2004, that the constitution sets up a society where "[p]eople can practice their religious rights." And, as noted by the weblog Think Progress, Bush highlighted the Afghan constitution in a January 23, 2004, statement, in which he said: "We're making good progress, we really are, in parts of the world. Afghanistan has now got a constitution which talks about freedom of religion and talks about women's rights." Think Progress also noted that White House press secretary Scott McClellan reiterated this view at his March 23 press briefing, where he said that "it's important for the government of Afghanistan to reaffirm the bedrock principles in that constitution, one of which is freedom of religion."

Despite these assurances, the Afghan constitution, while providing for freedom of religion, also clearly establishes Islamic law as supreme. Chapter 1, Article 2 specifies that Islam is the official state religion, while also stating that "[f]ollowers of other religions are free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of law." Chapter 1, Article 3, however, declares that "no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam." As the January 5, 2004, Los Angeles Times reported (subscription required), at the time the constitution was approved, human rights advocates warned that the latter clause might nullify many of the constitution's guaranteed freedoms:

But such provisions as women's rights could also lead to further rancor because they clash with other parts of the constitution.

Sharia, the strict interpretation of Islamic law, appears to have been introduced by the back door. The constitution was amended to say that "no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam."

Human rights campaigners said the wording leaves all laws subject to interpretation by the nation's Supreme Court, traditionally controlled by strict Islamists.

"I am not really satisfied because of the contradictions," said Ahmad Nadery, commissioner of Afghanistan's independent human rights commission. "If a conflict arises between an international declaration and the country's law, it doesn't say which has precedence. If we have a conservative judicial system -- which we do -- they will interpret the laws in a conservative way."

Fundamentalists, who had boycotted the voting of amendments last week, expressed their approval of the clause.

"In my mind the constitution uses Sharia law," said Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai, the deputy to the fundamentalist warlord Ustad Abdul Rasul Sayyaf. "It doesn't say the word 'Sharia,' but it means the same thing. The demands of Islam are fulfilled."

According to an Islamic law professor in Kabul who spoke to The Washington Post, Rahman's case appears to be a casualty of this contradiction in the constitution since Rahman's exercise of religious freedom violates Afghanistan's interpretation of Islamic law. Think Progress also highlighted a September 13, 2004, press release by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) -- a federal government body created by statute in 1998 whose members are appointed by the president and congressional leaders -- which states that the constitution adopted in Afghanistan in January 2004 "does not include any guarantee of freedom of religion or belief for members of the country's majority Muslim community against unjust accusations of religious 'crimes' such as apostasy and blasphemy."

Despite this history, subsequent network evening news broadcasts uncritically reported administration statements expressing surprise or anger over Rahman's predicament. They featured a clip of Bush saying: "It is deeply troubling that a country we helped liberate ... would hold a person to account because they chose a particular religion over another," and another of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's statement: "People must have a right to conscience and religious conscience. This is a very deeply concerning development in Afghanistan, and we have raised it at the highest levels." Rice further stated that there is "no more fundamental issue for the United States than freedom of religion."

On the March 23 broadcast of CBS Evening News, anchor Bob Schieffer reported: "Muslim clerics renewed demands for executing a man on trial from converting from Islam to Christianity. But the U.S. government stepped up its pressure on the Afghan government to permit religious freedom." He then provided both of Rice's quotes, but mentioned neither the role of the Afghan constitution nor the administration's support for it. On the March 24 broadcast of Evening News, CBS White House correspondent Jim Axelrod noted that "under Afghanistan's new constitution, religious freedom is guaranteed. Trouble is it also stipulates Islamic law must be followed, and that makes conversion a crime punishable by death." Even though he noted that the administration wanted the case resolved, Axelrod failed to note that the administration had previously praised and supported Afghanistan's constitution.

From the March 23 broadcast of CBS Evening News:

SCHIEFFER: In Afghanistan today, Muslim clerics renewed demands for executing a man on trial from converting from Islam to Christianity. But the U.S. government stepped up its pressure on the Afghan government to permit religious freedom. Abdul Rahman converted to Christianity years ago in a violation of Afghanistan's strict Islamic law. Well, today, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took the unusual step of phoning Afghan President [Hamid] Karzai, and later spoke with reporters at the State Department.

RICE [clip]: People must have a right to conscience and religious conscience. This is a very deeply concerning development in Afghanistan, and we have raised it at the highest levels.

SCHIEFFER: Rice said there is, quote, "no more fundamental issue for the United States than freedom of religion."

From the March 24 broadcast of CBS Evening News, with correspondent Lesley Stahl:

STAHL: Now to a simmering dispute over freedom of religion in Afghanistan. Many people in this and other Western countries have been outraged by the prospect that an Afghan might be put to death for violating Muslim law by converting from Islam to Christianity. But chief White House correspondent Jim Axelrod reports that the looming crisis may be averted. Jim.

AXELROD: Well, Lesley, administration officials are growing more confident tonight that Abdul Rahman will not be executed for converting from Islam to Christianity.

RICE [clip]: We are working with the Afghans, and we look to a favorable resolution of this case. It needs to be favorably resolved.

AXELROD: While Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaks in guarded diplomatic language, Canada's prime minister says more, directly, he's been given clear signals.

STEPHEN HARPER (Canadian prime minister) [clip]: (through interpreter) President Karzai did say to me that freedom of religion and human rights will be respected.

AXELROD: In fact, under Afghanistan's new constitution, religious freedom is guaranteed. Trouble is it also stipulates Islamic law must be followed, and that makes conversion a crime punishable by death. Karzai is in a tough spot. Pressure's mounting from both the West to free Rahman and internally from Muslim clerics who say they want to kill Rahman.

REP. TOM LANTOS (Ranking Democrat [CA], International Relations Committee): You cannot live in the 21st century, be part of the global community and have ideas which belong to the darkest of dark ages.

AXELROD: Congressman Tom Lantos points to the 221 American lives lost and the $80 billion spent so far to free Afghanistan from the Taliban, and says this is outrageous. He says he's certain Karzai will not let Rahman be killed.

LANTOS: There is no doubt in my mind because, if he doesn't solve it, the consequences will be devastating.

AXELROD: Look for Rahman to be freed before Tuesday. Why? Well, Congress is considering a request from the Bush administration for an additional two and half billion dollars in aid to Afghanistan, and Tuesday's the day Secretary of State Rice goes to Capitol Hill to make the case for that money.

On the March 23 broadcast of NBC's Nightly News, guest anchor Campbell Brown introduced the story, saying: "The American-backed constitution in Afghanistan is supposed to protect religious freedom, so why is this man's life on the line?" NBC News anchor and correspondent John Seigenthaler reported that Rahman's conversion was "a violation of Afghanistan's Islamic law," but failed to address Brown's question as to why Rahman faced prosecution -- because Afghanistan's "American-backed" constitution established Islamic law as supreme, trumping any other provision that is inconsistent with it. Instead, Seigenthaler uncritically aired Bush's and Rice's statements expressing surprise and anger over the matter -- despite their previous support for the Afghan constitution.

Similarly, on the March 24 edition of Nightly News, NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell reported Rice's statement -- "We've been very clear the freedom of religion is a fundamental principle of democracy" -- but failed to note that the administration backed the constitution and its at best ambiguous guarantee of religious freedom. Instead, Mitchell reported that Afghanistan had seemingly departed from the principles the administration had laid out for it, reporting that "an Afghan Supreme Court judge said the judiciary will not bow to any pressure. This after President Bush showcased Afghanistan as a victory for democracy only three weeks ago and at the State of the Union in 2002" and that in response to the Rahman case, "[t]he U.S. is demanding a declaration that Afghans can worship freely despite Islamic law."

From the March 23 broadcast of NBC's Nightly News:

BROWN: We begin tonight with a story that many Americans may find shocking. A man in Afghanistan is on trial right now, because he converted from Islam to Christianity. Under Islamic law, his conversion is a crime in Afghanistan, punishable by death, a crime even today with the Taliban no longer in power and with more than 20,000 American troops still on the ground there. The American-backed constitution in Afghanistan is supposed to protect religious freedom, so why is this man's life on the line? NBC's John Seigenthaler has our report.

SEIGENTHALER: He is a 41-year-old former medical aid worker, born a Muslim. Sixteen years ago, he converted to Christianity. What's wrong with that? It's a violation of Afghanistan's Islamic law. Now an Afghan judge could decide whether Abdul Rahman will be put to death.

SEIGENTHALER: Today, a senior Muslim cleric in Afghanistan said Rahman should be beheaded. The controversy prompted Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to make a call to Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai today.

RICE [clip]: There is no more fundamental issue for the United States than freedom of religion and religious conscience.

SEIGENTHALER: With the deaths of 221 U.S. servicemen and women who fought to oust the Taliban and 23,000 American troops still on the ground in Afghanistan, the question that many are asking tonight is: Shouldn't the United States have something to say about whether Rahman is executed? President Bush has had little to say about Rahman's case until he was asked a question during a town meeting yesterday.

BUSH [clip]: It is deeply troubling that a country we helped liberate is -- would hold a person to account because they chose a particular religion over another.

From the March 24 broadcast of NBC's Nightly News:

BROWN: There may be a development tonight in the case involving that Afghan man on trial and facing death for converting from Islam to Christianity. He could be released over the weekend. This case has created a diplomatic nightmare for the U.S. at home and abroad; and Kabul's proposed solution may not be good enough for Washington. More from NBC's chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell.

CROWD [clip]: -- Abdul Rahman. Christianity is not a crime. Free Abdul Rahman.

MITCHELL: Christian conservatives, a crucial part of George Bush's Republican base, protesting today outside the Afghan Embassy in Washington.

CROWD [clip]: The whole world is watching. The whole world is watching.

MITCHELL: Desperate to prevent a rebellion on the right, the administration ratcheted up the pressure for the release of 41-year-old Abdul Rahman, threatened with death for converting to Christianity.

RICE [clip]: We've been very clear the freedom of religion is a fundamental principle of democracy.

MITCHELL: Afghan officials looking for a way out hint they may release Rahman over the weekend by declaring him mentally incompetent to stand trial. But at Friday prayers in Kabul, religious and political leaders denounced Rahman.

MITCHELL: This man said, "We want to see him dead." The supposedly moderately imam at the Kabul mosque said he should be punished and killed.

And an Afghan Supreme Court judge said the judiciary will not bow to any pressure. This after President Bush showcased Afghanistan as a victory for democracy only three weeks ago and at the State of the Union in 2002. But now Afghanistan's president is caught between his American backers and his country's powerful clerics, and the case could cost President Bush even more support for the war in Iraq.

LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS, RET. (Moody Broadcasting Network analyst): The American people don't want to think that we spent our blood and our treasure for wars that end up being just as oppressive new regimes as they were that -- those that we replaced.

MITCHELL: Afghan officials know they need to resolve this quickly. But the U.S. says declaring Rahman incompetent is not a solution. The U.S. is demanding a declaration that Afghans can worship freely despite Islamic law. Andrea Mitchell, NBC News, at the State Department.

The March 25 Nightly News report on the Rahman case focused on Pope Benedict XVI's letter to Karzai asking for Rahman's release.

ABC's World News Tonight noted that Afghanistan's constitution permits Rahman's execution, but did not mention the administration's prior support for the document. Instead, anchor Elizabeth Vargas introduced the segment by uncritically noting the administration's protests against Rahman's execution. She reported: "[W]hen Muslim clerics there [in Afghanistan] put a man on trial because he had become a Christian, it drew an international uproar, a sharp response from President Bush, and a call from Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, to the President of Afghanistan, asking him to intervene." ABC News correspondent Christopher Cuomo's report also aired, without challenge, Bush's comments that he was "deeply troubled" by the Rahman case.

From the March 23 broadcast of ABC's World News Tonight:

VARGAS: Good evening from Los Angeles. We begin with a man on trial for his faith and profound implications for the Bush administration. More than four years ago, the United States overthrew a repressive regime in Afghanistan. It was part of the "war on terror" but also part of an effort to spread democracy in that part of the world. So, when Muslim clerics there put a man on trial because he had become a Christian, it drew an international uproar, a sharp response from President Bush, and a call from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the president of Afghanistan, asking him to intervene. Here's ABC's Chris Cuomo.

CUOMO: In this tiny courtroom, Abdul Rahman is standing trial. His offense? Converting from Islam to Christianity, 16 years ago. The case raises serious questions about how much has really changed in a liberated Afghanistan.

BUSH [clip]: It is deeply troubling that a country we helped liberate is -- would hold a person to account because they chose a particular religion over another.

CUOMO: While the new Afghan constitution says, "The state shall abide by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," it also states that "In Afghanistan, no law can be contrary to the sacred religion of Islam." And under that supreme law, called Shariah, if a Muslim converts to another religion, it is punishable by death.

PREETA D. BANSAL (USCIRF Commissioner): That basically means whatever a judge declares to be the requirements of Islam. And there's no room for individual Muslims to debate or dissent from that.

CUOMO: Rahman refused to renounce his religion in court, proudly declaring, "I believe in Christianity. I believe in the Holy Spirit. I am a Christian." There has been considerable foreign pressure on President Karzai to rectify the situation, and late today, the Canadian prime minister announced that Mr. Karzai had given assurances that Rahman will not be executed. But also today, the judge in the case told ABC he would not bow to foreign pressure. And a local cleric gave a clear warning: "People have asked the government for this trial," he says. "If this does not happen, then the people will decide for themselves." One thing is certain: In Kabul, President Karzai is in a real bind, as ABC's Gretchen Peters reports.

GRETCHEN PETERS (ABC News reporter): In this region, he's largely seen as a puppet of the West. So, if he capitulates to Western governments that are complaining about the situation, that will cause him to further lose credibility on the streets of Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan.

CUOMO: And Mr. Karzai may also fail to satisfy leaders abroad. Despite his assurances today, the trial continues. And there are no guarantees that Abdul Rahman will avoid punishment.

However, the March 24 World News Tonight report on the Rahman situation by ABC News chief White House correspondent Martha Raddatz did note that "for four and a half years, the Bush administration has been touting Afghanistan and its president, Hamid Karzai, as shining examples of freedom and democracy."

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