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Media Matters: May 13, 2005

13 May 2005, Volume 5, Number 10
By Amin Tarzi

In April, residents of the southern Afghan city of Kandahar were able to hear again Shari'a Zhagh (Voice of the Shari'a) -- the name used for Kabul's Radio Afghanistan during the Taliban rule between 1996 and 2001.

The opening statement of the broadcast in Pashto told listeners that "Shari'a Zhagh radio raises the voice of the Islamic brotherhood against the superpower, United States of America, and its associates who have been insulting the honor of the Muslim world and its religion and who [have] harmed Islamic rule."

Challenging Foreign Broadcasts

On 18 April, neo-Taliban spokesman Mufti Latifullah Hakimi told Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) that because foreign radio stations broadcasting to Afghanistan while claming to be independent and free are "not actually free," the neo-Taliban has established its own radio station.

Hakimi said the purpose of the radio would be to "report on the realities and facts" throughout Afghanistan and to introduce "the goals and objectives of the Islamic Movement of Taliban" to Afghans.

Hakimi said that the radio station resumed broadcasting after only "a six-month break." However, there is no credible information to suggest that the neo-Taliban operated a radio station in the past. There could have been experimental broadcasts, but neither the neo-Taliban nor others are on record discussing the issue.

According to Hakimi, the radio station began broadcasting on 18 April for one hour from 0600 to 0700 in Dari and Pashto and would resume for another hour in the evening between 1800 and 1900. Shari'a Zhagh was heard in Kandahar on 18 and 20 April, but since then no other confirmation of the radio's broadcast has been available.

The radio station broadcasting to Kandahar is one of three owned by the neo-Taliban, Hakimi said. The other two stations will "start functioning soon," he added. In a separate interview with AIP on 21 April, the spokesman said that the additional stations would broadcast in other local languages, namely Uzbek and Turkmen. The Afghan Constitution recognizes Pashto and Dari as the country's official languages, while several other languages have official third-language status in areas where the majority of residents speak that language.

Hakimi told AIP on 18 April that the equipment for the radio stations was imported from abroad and set up by Afghan engineers inside the country.

Conspiracies Abound

While the message of the broadcast has not been the center of much debate, the fact that the neo-Taliban has managed to establish a radio station has. This has led to conspiracy theories among Afghans and the Afghan media.

The pro-government "Kabul Times" daily on 26 April wrote that while the Afghan government has taken a nonchalant attitude towards the Shari'a Zhagh based on the calculation that most Afghans have suffered horribly under Taliban rule and therefore would not heed any message propagating a return to such a system, the U.S.-led coalition has vowed to find and destroy the radio station. There is "no doubt that the coalition will locate...[the transmitter] with the help of advanced eavesdropping devices," the daily hoped.

The "Kabul Times," however, also speculated that a foreign hand might be involved in the establishment of the neo-Taliban radio. Calling the militants a "bunch of mullahs" who are "completely ignorant about engineering," the daily questioned who is supporting the radio venture technically and financially.

Without directly accusing Pakistan, the "Kabul Times" wrote that the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) "has been dealing with the Taliban since its inception." The daily added that "surely the ISI" can "find answers" to the location, type of equipment, and funding for Shari'a Zhagh. The "ISI is expected to fall into line and find out" the necessary information about the neo-Taliban broadcast venture, the commentary recommended. Hakimi said the purpose of the radio would be to "report on the realities and facts" throughout Afghanistan and to introduce "the goals and objectives of the Islamic Movement of Taliban" to Afghans.

The mere existence of the Shari'a Zhagh has further fueled questions about the motives of not only Pakistan, but even the United States.

Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran on 21 April interviewed Kabul University professor Nasir Ahmad, asking why the United States, which "utilizes modern technological equipment and could easily find the Taliban radio station," has not done so.

Nasir Ahmad responded that, since the United States has long-term strategic plans in Afghanistan, it needs the neo-Taliban to justify its presence in that country. Thus, he argued, the United States is not challenging the radio station.

Hakimi told AIP on 21 April that he believes that U.S.-led coalition forces are looking for the transmission station of Shari'a Zhagh. He believes, however, they will fail in their efforts because the broadcasts are transmitted from a "mobile station." Furthermore, the programs are aired at dawn and dusk when "no-one can detect the station's frequencies," Hakimi contended. He also said that "expert Afghan engineers" have designed the station in such a manner to safeguard it "against all possible risks."

Worrying Echoes

For many Afghans, accepting anything associated with the Taliban regime is a dilemma at best, and loathsome at worst. Some may genuinely support the reconciliation efforts of the Afghan government aimed at bringing most of the former Taliban rank and file back into society, but very few seem to lend support to the return of a Taliban-style system of governance.

If the neo-Taliban radio manages to broadcast regularly and expand its coverage area, it would be a moral boost for the few people who still may be supporting the neo-Taliban for ethnic, personal, or political reasons. Many people are nostalgic for what they see as the Taliban's ability to safeguard public security.

By Golnaz Esfandiari

A woman who founded an Afghan weekly dedicated to women's issues has been named "International Editor of the Year." -- a U.S.-based online publication that every year honors editors outside the United States with the award -- has chosen Shukria Barekzai as this year's winner. Barekzai, editor in chief of "Aina-e Zan," or "Women's Mirror," received the award in New York on 9 May in recognition of her courage, dedication to press freedom, and tireless efforts to improve women's lives in Afghanistan.

This is the first time that any Afghan -- man or woman -- has been selected for the award.

Shukria Barekzai says her selection as Editor of the Year is a major accomplishment not only for her but for all Afghan women. She told RFE/RL's Afghan Service that the award was unexpected, saying when she received the e-mail announcing the award, she was in shock.

"I couldn't imagine it, because the fledgling press in Afghanistan is paving its own way in a country where freedom of expression has not existed for very long," Barekzai said. "How can a small publication -- and a woman -- receive this award?" Barekzai believes Afghanistan's independent press is playing a significant role in bringing stability to the war-ravaged country. dedicates itself to supporting press freedom and international exchanges of information. The nongovernmental organization established the award in 1975 to honor editors who displayed courage in advancing the freedom and responsibility of the press, enhancing human rights, and fostering excellence in journalism.

In consultation with some 300 correspondents, translators, editors, and activists worldwide, decided that, in 2004, Barekzai best exemplified the editorial characteristics that the organization seeks to honor.

During the rule of the Taliban, Barekzai helped run underground schools for women in Afghanistan. Several months after the fall of the fundamentalist regime, she founded "Aina-e Zan." The weekly publication, run by women, focuses on the development of women's rights. It raises awareness about women's issues in the deeply conservative and patriarchal society of Afghanistan. Produced in Dari and Pashto, "Aina-e Zan" covers a variety of topics -- from education, health, and Islam to beauty and cooking. It is distributed in 12 provinces of Afghanistan.

The number of media outlets in Afghanistan has grown rapidly in the past three years. More than 200 publications are registered in the country today. But journalists face intimidation and attacks from warlords and conservatives. As a result, self-censorship is widespread.

Despite such problems and economic hardships, Barekzai believes Afghanistan's independent press is playing a significant role in moving forward the political process and bringing stability to the war-ravaged country.

She says the achievements of the newly established Afghan press are unprecedented, adding: "The success of many of the political programs -- such as the elections, Loya Jirgas, and the process of parliamentary elections that has just been launched -- they are all the results of the tireless work of press people in Afghanistan. It has not happened in centuries in Afghanistan."

World Press says that as editor of "Aina-e Zan," Barekzai has courageously asked questions about corruption and accountability in the post-Taliban era. She has also spoken publicly against violence against women. says Barekzai has been a major advocate of Afghan women who are often denied a public voice.

Barekzai was a member of Afghanistan's Constitutional Reviewing Commission, the group tasked with overlooking the draft of the country's first post-Taliban constitution -- a document that notes contains an article stating that every Afghan citizen, whether male of female, has equal rights and responsibilities before the law. The "Aina-e Zan" weekly focuses on the development of women's rights in Afghanistan founder Teri Schure says the award may help Barekzai in her work. "What I hope is that the message that Shukria brings here to the United States -- to the journalists, to the UN senior officials, to the policymakers -- is heard loud and clear, and that they do what they can to try to change the situation in Afghanistan," Schure said. "We feel that opinion leaders and advocates will help Shukria in the campaign to help [end] economic hardship, try to eliminate domestic violence, help to support education, help to rebuild Afghanistan."

(Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Nazira Karimi contributed to this report.)

By Catherine Fitzpatrick

As journalists around the globe celebrate World Press Freedom Day on 3 May, it remains true that the single greatest factor affecting the level of press freedom in any country is the willingness of reporters to fight for their own freedom. While advances like text-messaging, smaller and less expensive video cameras, and wireless Internet accessibility have created a news-content boom, old-fashioned qualities like personal bravery and willingness to sacrifice one's freedom remain essential to press freedom. Arguably the year's most emblematic image was when a Ukrainian sign-language interpreter on state TV refused to sign an official news bulletin declaring Viktor Yanukovych the winner of the rigged elections.

This struggle by journalists, combined with the increasing public demands for fresh and unbiased news, were central to the past year's democratic revolutions in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, and vital for the relatively successful and violence-free elections in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet this struggle put them at grave risk in a number of countries; the Committee to Protect Journalists recorded an alarming seven journalists' contract-style murders in Russia in the last four years. They were a jarring reminder of not only the limits of new media to deliver a story with greater protection and less state interference, but also the risks of old-fashioned digging.

Innovate And Inform

Technological advances have revolutionized the way journalists and the public interact to allow people to become better informed about issues and place new demands on the government. 2004-05 saw the tide of mobile phones, pagers, text messaging, and wireless Internet already surging in the West to wash into Eastern Europe, Eurasia, and the Middle East. Demonstrators in Kyiv or Bishkek or Beirut could instantly capture digital photographs and videotape of peaceful protest as well as police brutality and instantly transmit such images by e-mail to supporters anywhere without even going back to their desks -- an especially effective tool when police were raiding and closing their offices. In Ukraine, real-time reporting by Western visitors as well as local media and NGOs -- enhanced by the Internet, mobile phones, and wireless laptops -- was crucial to uncovering election fraud to the public. Such enhanced reporting was also vital to the intricate job of enlisting Western leaders in a timely fashion to repudiate the results of elections -- ambassadors' quiet but widely redistributed e-mail messages and lists with their strategic blind copies can be as important as publicly accessed media on the Internet.

In Kyrgyzstan, the success of demonstrators in pressuring the reform causes and the resignation of President Askar Akaev was instantly communicated to the world in minute-by-minute accounts spread by e-mail using websites like (Russian-language speakers have a ready-made pun for their work in the coincidence that "net," an ending for some kinds of web addresses, also means "no," so that the dissident site spells out "No to Akaev.")

Still, the lower-income populations of countries in transition and servicing difficulties mean such new gadgets are not yet creating the thousands of wired and coordinated activists envisaged by Howard Rheingold in "Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution" (Basic Books, October 2003).

Reporting Challenges

The rising tide of new and more accessible media also created challenges for journalists in establishing credibility with readers as the old boundaries eroded between covering news and making news. Often when police beat or arrested journalists, they could claim they were indistinguishable from demonstrators. The gray area between suppression of the media and suppression of opposition parties with press organs was explored time and again by media-freedom advocates. The gray area between suppression of the media and suppression of opposition parties with press organs was explored time and again by media-freedom advocates. The dominant position that has emerged is that even journalists who are closely identified with opposition parties -- and in some cases might even serve in leadership positions in those parties -- must be defended because they still serve a role informing the public and providing a means for citizens' expression, particularly in a restrictive media environment. Arrests or punitive fines of editors in Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Belarus often fell into this category.

Journalists covering the increasing number of terrorist attacks by individuals looking to manipulate media to their ends also faced tough decisions -- about airing tapes of hostage taking and grisly beheadings, for instance -- in an effort to inform the public without becoming a mouthpiece for terror.

The unprecedented demand for coverage of conflicts 24 hours a day, seven days a week led more journalists to take greater risks and stay for longer periods in Iraq and other war zones. So just as the new technologies make it possible to e-mail and talk instantly even in the midst of combat, so they also prompt people to embark on more dangerous assignments and attempt more to keep their editors and their publics satisfied in their demand for fresh content.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 23 journalists and 16 support staff -- drivers, interpreters, fixers, and guards -- were killed while working in Iraq in 2004. In all, 36 journalists and 18 support workers have died since March 2003, making the Iraqi conflict -- one of the most reported-on wars in history -- one of the most dangerous for journalists in recent memory.

The Web As A Weapon

The number of Internet users steadily rose in many countries still listed as "partly free" or even "not free" by Freedom House, the U.S.-based democracy monitoring and advocacy organization. Even in the most repressive of settings, such as Turkmenistan, brave reporters can be found who record the government's many human rights violations and the efforts of ordinary people to counter them and send them out via e-mail or upload them to Internet pages. E-mail remains the most operative part of the Internet for most users because use is limited by slow-loading pages due to poor telephone infrastructure along with the high cost of subscriptions and transferring high amounts of data. While Internet users are a fraction of the numbers of state viewers, they do have a significant impact in shaping the views of the intelligentsia and the media in particular. Ukraine's Orange Revolution

Their importance becomes evident when we see the lengths to which some governments have gone to close down independent web pages -- or to imitate popular pages, such as in Uzbekistan. When the Russian Foreign Ministry found it could not beat the game of numerous opposition groups and independent media, with journalists creating alternative news sites to counter state propaganda, it joined them with sponsored sites like, capitalizing on the importance of Russian-language media in the Central Asian media space where it is perceived as less biased.

Websites of established independent media enable some journalists to keep virtual offices functioning to survive government crackdowns on their real offices, for example "Respublika" of Kazakhstan. That publisher survives as virtual outlets online, even when the editor is forced into exile -- although of course old-fashioned, real-world methods of police detention circumscribe the power of virtuality.

Arguably the year's most emblematic image for many a post-Soviet journalist was the moment when a Ukrainian sign-language interpreter on state television refused to sign an official news bulletin declaring the administration's anointed candidate in the presidential balloting, Viktor Yanukovych, the winner of those rigged elections. Viewers were first startled, then emboldened, to see her signing that the government was lying. When state-employed journalists were able to follow suit and break with their state-loyalist editors' instructions on how to cover the news, a corner was turned. Many state-employed journalists had been waiting in the wings for years, some to make use of their Western-sponsored training undertaken on the notion that they might one day make use of their dormant skills.

Yet it took a few courageous individuals to break the mold and create the necessary space for others to follow. In the end, regardless of the availability of old or new media, the critical decision of at least one person to tell the truth can tip the scales for a country that suffers a lack of press freedom.

By Julie A. Corwin

Dmitrii Frolov, a top Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) official, told legislators in Russia this week that the service considers it necessary to increase its control over the Internet on the grounds that it is winning "an ever larger audience and becoming a serious player on the information field capable of shaping public opinion." Frolov also called for the mandatory registration of mobile phones with Internet access. While the FSB's calls for greater regulation of the Internet is hardly new, its appeals had previously been based on the need to stem the spread of pornography and information about how to build bombs and other explosives, according to on 28 April.

The response from Russian information technology (IT) experts was predictably skeptical that authorities could -- even if they wanted to -- effectively filter the torrent of information flowing over the fiber optic cables and satellites linking Russia to the Internet. Igor Ashmanov, general director of the Internet company Ashmanov and Partners, told on 28 April that "the Chinese model is possible only in those countries where all spheres of communication are totally controlled." All of Russia's Internet service providers (ISPs) would have to route their traffic to a single server, he said. And if state officials tried to implement such a program, private ISPs would drag the responsible government agency through the courts, Ashmanov explained in an earlier interview with the website on 26 January.

People who track the level of freedom of the Internet from government regulation often use China as a kind of negative measuring stick. China reportedly has 50,000 people employed full time overseeing the Internet. It also employs powerful filtering devices that screen electronic messages. But as so often happens, state authorities are rarely limber enough to remain a step ahead of advances in technology. And China has proved no different.

According to "The New York Times" on 25 April, the thousands of Chinese who poured out onto the streets in several cities for anti-Japanese rallies were organized via e-mail, instant online messaging, and text messaging on cell phones. Political organizers were able to get people out over the course of several weeks despite a total ban on coverage of the protests in the state media. According to the daily, in one test, when the words "anti-Japanese protest" were typed into an online message service, an automatic response was triggered that the message could not be sent because it contains "sensitive or uncivilized" words. But when the same phrase was sent via mobile phone text messaging, delivery occurred without a hitch.

China is only the latest country where the mobile phone has proved mightier than the state-controlled pen. In Ukraine, the youth movement Pora had to operate under less rigid strictures than opposition groups face in China but, like groups in China, Pora members faced police harassment and a national television environment that was all but closed off to the political opposition. During the lead-up to the October presidential elections, only Channel 5 provided favorable coverage to opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, but its broadcasting reach does not extend far beyond Kyiv.

Pora and other opposition groups, nevertheless, managed to provide an alternative view of the leading candidate in the race, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. For example, Pora posted on its website video footage -- courtesy of Channel 5 -- of a now famous incident in which the 200-pound-plus Yanukovych was felled by a single raw egg in a very dramatic fall. Pora and other opposition groups also posted the hundreds of jokes inspired by the incident to ridicule Yanukovych.

The group's website ( also provided an invaluable means of keeping groups members and sympathizers throughout Ukraine up to date on group activities. Pora used their site to recruit people for various tasks, such as to attend rallies or monitor elections. They also created a "chronicle of repression" which detailed the almost daily police harassment of members. Pora also made extensive use of its members' cell phones. At one point the organization even hosted a contest to come up with the most interesting motto using Pora to send a text message to "Mobile Pora" members. In an interview with Cafe Babel in March 2005, Vladyslav Kaskiw, a Pora coordinator, said "We compiled a database of our members mobile telephone numbers so that we can exert the most pressure in the same place at the same time. We use the Internet to broadcast our ideas and to recruit. Without these technologies, we could never have succeeded."

In their use of the Internet and available information technology, Pora was following a path already forged by the Serbian youth movement Otpor, whose members used coded short-text messaging on cell phones to coordinate their actions. Their movement's website provided information to members and outsiders about events in Serbia and served an alternative forum amidst the attempts by the regime of Slobodan Milosevic to control the country's airwaves.

For forces hoping to prevent any repetition of what happened in Serbia or Ukraine, the important role played by mobile phones and the Internet has already been duly noted. In his remarks to the Federation Council this week, Frolov noted that various groups have used the Internet to mobilize political forces against authorities and cited the examples of Yugoslavia, Georgia, and Ukraine. And in his comments to, Ashmanov spoke not only about the impossibility of reining in the Russian segment of the Internet but he also speculated that Frolov's declaration is the FSB's reaction to the recent "colored" revolutions. Ashmanov also noted that a new department within the presidential administration, headed by Modest Kolerov, formerly of and, was created around the time of these revolutions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 March 2005). So far, Kolerov has kept a low profile, but with Frolov's recent pronouncements, Internet watchers will be on the lookout to see whether Russia will try to follow in China's footsteps.

By Antoine Blua

The Internet is not accessible to most people in Central Asia. Yet it still has managed to become an important medium in the region.

One reason is that it exerts a powerful influence on conventional media -- newspapers, television, and radio. Reporters often turn to the Internet as they search for material and the ideas expressed there can sometimes inspire major news stories or investigations.

Julien Pain works on freedom of expression on the Internet at the media-rights group Reporters Without Borders in Paris. He said that: "In Central Asia the penetration rate of the Internet is pretty low. So one would think this medium is not very important. However we see that in these countries lots of scandals, important affairs, have come out in the Internet first and then in traditional media. The reason is simple: in countries with rather authoritarian regimes, it is easier to control traditional media than the Internet, where dissents can express themselves more freely."

For example, five years ago in Kazakhstan the Internet site published the first report on what became known as "Kazakhgate," a corruption scandal involving President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

The Internet surfaced again as an important player during the recent Kyrgyz parliamentary elections -- important enough to attract direct attacks from parties trying to censor it. Websites belonging to Kyrgyz opposition parties and independent media were subject to hacking -- attempts by outside programmers to tamper with the content of a website -- or to mysterious technical problems. Several political websites were defaced. Zamira Sydykova, editor in chief of the independent "Respublica" newspaper, says other attacks included the sending of fake messages to divide the opposition: "Such e-mail messages with rumors and defamation articles were by well-known websites such as,, and so on."

It is unclear to what extent Central Asian governments actively try to control Internet content.

Eric Johnson, director of Internews International, an association of media support NGOs, says there is no strict government control on content in Central Asia. "They're worried about the Internet, but they don't perceive it as a major, major threat," he said. "So, they don't try terribly hard to control it. The governments' attempt to control content is weak and ineffective."

Daniil Kislov, the founder of the Russia-based Internet information agency, says censorship in Uzbekistan usually targets certain pages. "They don't block the whole site, for example access to the addresses, or," he said. "What they decide to block -- most likely the authorities -- are individual articles they consider as being on the opposition side, or a threat to the constitutional order, or against the state. However you [must judge whether] any of the sites have such purposes."

Johnson says Internet users can easily get around government efforts to control content. In Uzbekistan for instance, some websites are blocked in certain Internet cafes but not in others.

Yurii Misinov, chief editor of the Kazakh online website Navigator, says the use of proxies accessible on the web is also a way around Internet filtering. "Kazakh Telecom blocks the site Eurasia and it's possible to open it through proxies only," he said.

The government denies such charges.

Farhat Ilyasov, a Turkmen sociologist living in Moscow, says restrictions on the Internet are much stronger in Turkmenistan. He says citizens there are not allowed to connect to the Internet from home, and there are no Internet cafes.

"This policy of restricting Internet access is caused by the regime's desire to increase the information blockade, and prevent people from receiving any information containing any criticism of the existing Turkmen regime," he said.

Analysts say a major barrier to the Internet becoming a mass medium in Central Asia are technical illiteracy, the low level of computerization, and the cost of Internet connections.

Johnson notes that while governments have not actively tried to control content, they also are not creating an atmosphere to foster the development of the Internet: "The main way in which they prevent the Internet from becoming a more important force for information distribution [with] potential political repercussions is simply by not pro-actively trying to make sure that people have access. That means issues like government monopoly over international data transmission. Every time you have a monopoly, costs are higher. And those higher costs get transferred on to the consumers."

Even in Kazakhstan, the most economically developed country in the region, not more than 2 percent of the population has access to the Internet.

Despite the low regional penetration of the Internet, journalists writing for this medium face the same threat as those writing for conventional source of information.

In Uzbekistan, Ulugbek Khaidarov was badly beaten by an unidentified individual on 23 April in the Uzbek city of Jizzakh.

Reporters Without Borders suggests the attack is directly linked to recent articles Haidarov wrote on the Internet criticizing local authorities.

(RFE/RL's Kazakh, Uzbek, Turkmen, and Kyrgyz services contributed to this report.)