HEIDI VOGTKABUL (AP) ¿ Afghans turned to the Twitterverse to share news of Taliban intimidation at the polls and voter turnout in the presidential election, even as the country was just trying to keep electricity running and attacks at bay. The memory of neighboring Iran's media crackdown during that country's vote is still fresh here, and orders from the Afghan government on the eve of the election to censor reports of violence during Thursday's voting suggested news on the ground could be thin. While far smaller than the response after the Iran vote, the online activity in Afghanistan was an amazing contrast to the last presidential election in 2004, when the country was only a few years removed from Taliban rule that banned many types of technology, including TV and the Internet. Afghans now have cell phones even in remote areas. Those without computers or electricity at home go to Internet cafes to check their e-mail. And as elsewhere, Twitter is a relatively new phenomenon in Afghanistan. "A lot of people are watching from abroad what's going on and it's an easy way to get in touch with a lot of people without writing a blog post or sending it through a news desk," said Alex Strick van Linschoten, a Dutch researcher in the southern city of Kandahar who spent the day visiting polling stations and sending updates to Twitter.
Some of his posts: "Explosion just now in Kandahar City (sounded like IED)" and "'for $1000 i have to get 1000 votes.' conversation overheard in Kandahar.." Many of the most prolific Twitter posts were not from foreigners but Afghans either here or abroad, trying to keep the world abreast of the news and rumors. Pahjwok Afghan News, an independent Afghan news agency, started posting about attacks in Kandahar well before polls opened. In nearly minute-by-minute posts throughout the day, the agency reported on President Hamid Karzai voting, blasts in Kandahar, problems with ballot-marking machines, rocket attacks, a district police chief killed, a polling site that didn't receive ballots and another that opened without security guards. A Web site called "Alive in Afghanistan" gave Afghans the chance to report violence or polling irregularities via Twitter, e-mail, SMS or the Web that were recorded on an interactive map. More than 100 reports came in during the day to the site, run by a nonprofit group that has done similar projects in Iraq and Gaza. "Armed Taliban keep voters away from 14 polling stations in Ghormach district of Faryab province" was one of the messages at 8 a.m., followed by "No girls voting at one of the big female stations in Kandahar city," five minutes later.
The project mirrors the type of eyewitness online reports that got attention during the Iranian election, and which could thwart official Afghan attempts to control negative reports. "We have a network of people all over the country and we do have this way for individual citizens to report and it can't be controlled by the government, they can't shut it down," said Brian Conley, a Philadelphia-based documentary filmmaker who created the site. Saad Mohseni, owner of a media conglomerate that includes Afghanistan's most popular TV channel and radio station, tweeted about his pride in casting a ballot and security forces beating two of his cameramen in Kabul as they tried to cover a gunbattle between police and Taliban insurgents. Candidate Ashraf Ghani was the only presidential contender with a Twitter account but had only 143 followers, a small number by most standards. He and many other candidates have Web sites. Ghani didn't tweet until after polls closed but then the statements were harsh and frequent, claiming warlords were forcing people to vote at gunpoint for other candidates or talking about fraud in the southern city of Kandahar.
Outside voices tweeted admiration that the vote happened at all. "Amazed at determination to vote despite rockets, attacks, poll site burnings. An inspiration to the world," New York-based Veterans for Afghanistan sent on its Twitter feed.