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Media Matters: February 13, 2008

Iranian Women's Magazine Felled By Latest Government Closure

By Farangis Najibullah

The last issue of "Zanan" ahead of its late-January shutdown

Iranian authorities' decision to shut down an influential women's magazine for "damaging society" and painting a gloomy picture of life in Iran has sparked criticism at home and in the West.

The closure is notable in that the monthly, "Zanan," is widely regarded as a moderate magazine that cautiously avoids politics and focuses exclusively on women's issues.

That strategy had allowed it to survive the political pressure and crackdowns that had led many other publications in Iran to be shuttered by authorities.

Iran's Commission for Press Authorization and Surveillance revoked "Zanan's" license on January 28, saying the magazine offers "a somber picture of the Islamic republic" that "compromises its readers' mental health" by "publishing morally questionable information."

"Zanan," which means "women" in Persian, was founded 16 years ago by Shahla Sherkat, a Tehran-based journalist and editor who wanted to explore issues in her magazine that affect Iranian women.

The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) denounced the move as a "crusade against news media that stray from the official line."

Reza Moeni, who is in charge of the Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan desk at RSF, tells Radio Farda that "Zanan" was merely depicting what happens in Iranian society. He said the closing of the magazine shows that "people's right to know is seen by Iranian authorities as a security threat."

Dozens of publications and independent journalists have been accused of acting against national security in the more than two years since hard-line President Mahmud Ahmadinejad came to power.

"During the past two years, we have seen more than 50 cases -- which [Iranian authorities] themselves call 'cases against the press' -- and all these cases are related to national security," Moeni says.

Other Targets

The "Zanan" closure was followed by a court summons for female journalist Jila Bani Yaghoub on January 23. The daily "Sarmayeh" reporter is being prosecuted for reporting from a women's demonstration in March 2007, when she was arrested and held for three days. Bani Yaghoub was also charged with "activity against national security."

Female Internet journalists Maryam Hosseinkhah and Jelveh Javaheri were sent in November-December to Tehran's Evin prison on similar charges. They were released weeks later when their relatives posted considerable bail.

Badrulsadat Mofidi, a Tehran-based journalist and the secretary of the Iranian Journalists Association, tells RFE/RL that although the government commission has increased its attacks on the media, "apparently, there is no organization in Iran which can listen to journalists and protect them from these attacks."

"In the past two months, we have seen many publications being suspended," Mofidi says. "The newly established 'Ariya' newspaper was suspended even before it managed to publish its first issue."

According to RSF, the Commission for Press Authorization and Surveillance has suspended 42 publications and canceled 24 media licenses in the past two years. Several other newspapers have been temporarily closed by the courts.

The "Arzesh," "Bilmaj," and "Madrasah" publications are among those that have been suspended since October.

The Iranian Journalists Association says the Commission for Press Authorization does not have the legal right to suspend "Zanan," and that only a court can order such a halt.

"Zanan" could opt for legal action to challenge the governmental body over the magazine's closure, but Iranian journalists say that would lead to a lengthy, expensive, and likely futile process.

(Radio Farda contributed to this report.)

RSF Warns Of Dangers To Journalists

RSF activists in Paris highlight Anna Politkovskaya's death

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says in its latest annual report on press freedom that it remains a dangerous time to be a journalist in many countries around the world.

The Paris-based watchdog raises the alarm on issues ranging from journalists' safety in conflict zones, to censorship, to problems covering key elections in various countries.

It also says press-freedom surveys in every region of the world for the year 2007 suggest Western countries and top world bodies do too little to defend press freedom in many places.

The report notes that many governments in the post-Soviet region are unfriendly to the media.

Elsa Vidal, who heads the Europe and former USSR desk at Reporters Without Borders, told RFE/RL that the situation for journalists is poor across most countries of the former Soviet Union, and Russia itself is one example.

"What we have witnessed [in Russia] during the year 2007 is that much pressure was exerted on independent media with journalists being arrested during opposition demonstrations, independent newspapers being shut down, and some journalists being sent to psychiatric hospitals as punishments," Vidal says. "All these events seem to us to be very bad omens with the upcoming presidential election."

Journalists covering opposition protests were arrested in Moscow in the week before the December parliamentary elections. Security forces also exerted pressure on the editorial line of media outlets.

According to Reporters Without Borders, at least two journalists were sent to psychiatric hospitals during 2007 as punishment. The practice recalls a frequent Soviet tactic to discredit those with "undesirable" views and to discourage people from openly opposing the regime. The report also notes that little has been done to punish killers of journalists, those behind the murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

Vidal says that the situation is even worse in Belarus."Unfortunately, Belarus is [currently] a very good example of what [existed in] the Soviet Union in terms of repressions and censorship," Vidal says.

She says press freedom in the country is nonexistent and the situation did not improve in 2007. Official pressure is present in every aspect of the media, including government scrutiny of the Internet.

By contrast, life has become easier for media after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Political pressure on the media has decreased since President Viktor Yushchenko came to power in 2005, but polarization of the press and society does not make it easy to take an independent editorial stand. Vidal says Ukraine is still not an example of press freedom.

"Ukraine is not free of political pressure even if the situation is better, but I would say it is slightly better than in Russian for the year 2007," she says.

In Azerbaijan, meanwhile, independent and opposition media are under constant pressure from the regime.

Azerbaijan continued its crackdown on the media and treated journalists who exposed corruption among top officials as criminals, according to Reporters Without Borders. Heavy penalties for those who wrote "undesirable" articles had a dissuasive effect and President Ilham Aliyev ignored the many appeals from NGOs and international bodies such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The regime also broke off contact with Reporters Without Borders after harsh criticism from it.

The European Parliament's Human Rights Committee in August called the press-freedom situation in Azerbaijan "unacceptable."

The situation is bad in all the countries of Central Asia, according to Reporters Without Borders. However, Vidal says it would be not correct to say that the situation in all the Central Asian states is the same.

"Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, for example, do not face the dramatic problems that Uzbek journalists have to deal with on a daily basis and they are nor faced with the problems which exist in such oppressive states as Turkmenistan," Vidal says.

She adds that the most oppressive and media-unfriendly states in the world are Eritrea, North Korea, and Turkmenistan.

Reporters Without Borders also accuses public officials around the world of "impotence, cowardice and duplicity" in defending freedom of expression.

Robert Menard, head of the Paris-based watchdog, says that "the lack of determination by democratic countries in defending the values they supposedly stand for is alarming."

Menard particularly targets the UN's Human Rights Council, which he claims has "caved in to pressure from countries such as Iran and Uzbekistan." He also blames the "softness" of the European Union toward dictators "who did not flinch at the threat of European sanctions."

Afghanistan: Karzai Following Reporter's Capital Case 'Very Closely'

President Karzai's comments could help depoliticize the case

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's office says it is concerned about a death sentence given to an Afghan journalist for allegedly insulting Islam.

Presidential spokesman Humayoon Hamidzada told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that Karzai will not intervene in the blasphemy case against journalist Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh until an appellate court issues a ruling.

The death sentence, which was issued by a lower court in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, must be approved by the presidency before it can be carried out under Afghan law.

"There is no need for the president to speak about that conviction [in the] Kambakhsh case because there is a judicial process," Hamidzada said. "Of course the president is concerned, and we are watching the situation very closely."

The comments from Karzai's office appear aimed at easing the politically charged atmosphere surrounding the verdict, which has been heavily criticized by media groups and international media.

Sibghatullah Mujaddedi, the head of the upper house of the Afghan National Assembly, came out with an endorsement of the verdict in the form of a statement issued through the parliament's media office on January 30, although he later conceded that he should not have sought to intervene.

"We will follow the judicial process in consultation with the Ulema Shura (local clerical council) as well," Hamidzada said. "And then, in light of those decisions and the Afghan Constitution -- as well as our international obligations and respect for human rights -- the Afghan government will make a decision."

An Iranian blogger in France has come forward to say he wrote the opinion piece that is at the heart of the case, in which the author questions some interpretations of the Koran dealing with the treatment of women. Kambakhsh was charged with blasphemy after he reportedly printed out the article from the Internet and distributed it to fellow students.

Kambakhsh was convicted and condemned to death in a summary process in Balkh Province on January 22 in which his family says he had no legal representation.

He has said his death sentence was already in writing in front of a judge when he entered the courtroom.

The deputy prosecutor of Balkh Province, Qazi Hafizullah Khaliqyar, has called Kambakhsh's trial fair but said he would assign a "special committee" to the case.

Russia: Opposition Journalist Granted Asylum In Ukraine

A Russian NTV report shows Aleksandr Kosvintsev in the offices of "Vechernie vesti" in Kyiv

Ukrainian officials say they have granted asylum to a Russian journalist who alleges harassment in his home country after he took up a leadership role with a political opposition group.

Aleksandr Kosvintsev was editor in chief of the newspaper "Russian Reporter," in Russia's Kemerovo Oblast, and also headed the Kemerovo branch of Garry Kasparov's United Civic Front opposition organization.

The Ukrainian state migration service in Lviv Oblast announced this week that Kosvintsev had been granted asylum in late December, roughly a year after he left his homeland.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, Kosvintsev, who now lives in Kyiv, said a campaign of harassment and threatening phone calls began after he took over the local United Civic Front branch in August 2005.

"I received a very serious warning from people working in the law-enforcement agencies, telling me to be careful, not to travel alone, that I was going to be beaten up by some people dressed as police -- or that they would plant drugs [in my pocket]," Kosvintsev said.

Kosvintsev added that he thinks his "political activity was as important a factor" as his journalistic work to his alleged harrassers.

Before he joined the United Civic Front, Kosvintsev said the authorities often weighed in on his journalism work, suing him several times over his articles. After he began heading the local branch of Kasparov's group, his phone was tapped, he was removed from the passenger lists of scheduled plane flights, and he received visits from the police.

Kosvintsev also said that Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleyev personally requested in a letter that the regional prosecutor investigate him and "take appropriate measures."

"These measures were expressed through various provocations, telephone taps, constant chasing, police visits, and so on," Kosvintsev told RFE/RL. "This, in fact, proved the fact that their interest towards me was politically motivated."

The English-language daily "The Moscow Times" quoted a spokesman for the Kemerovo prosecutor's office as saying that prosecutors received Tuleyev's request two years ago but took no action because there were insufficient grounds to open an investigation.

A New Voice In Kyiv

Kosvintsev, who is now editor in chief of the Ukrainian daily "Vechernie vesti," said that newspaper's coverage of his homeland and the policies of Russian President Vladimir Putin has "significantly changed," becoming more aggressive during his tenure.

"As a journalist, I aim to tell the Ukrainians what Putin's regime represents," Kosvintsev said. "We publish a lot of facts that one cannot find in other Ukrainian papers."

Kosvintsev has accused Russian authorities of trying to block his asylum request by saying it would violate bilateral agreements.

Russia appears to have made no formal reaction to Ukraine's decision to grant Kosvintsev asylum. The case comes amid heightened tensions between Moscow and Kyiv over Ukraine's efforts to join NATO and generally distance itself from Russia's sphere of influence.

(RFE/RL's Russian and Ukrainian services contributed to this report.)

Afghanistan: Uncle Of Student Condemned To Death Says Court Biased

By Breffni O'Rourke

Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh has been jailed since his trial in October

The uncle of an Afghan journalism student sentenced to death for blasphemy claims that the appellate judge is biased against his nephew.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, Sayed Yasin Peroz described the original trial of his nephew, Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, on January 22 as "unfair, unjust, and one-sided," and called on Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the international community to intervene.

And he expressed shock at what he said was the attitude of the judge who will hear the appeal against the death penalty.

"I went to the appellate court together with the elders and ulema [religious scholars] to talk to the judge of that court," Peroz says. "It is very difficult for me to describe the situation of that court, because the judge was waiting for the case like a butcher impatient to slaughter an animal. He said that ever since he heard that story, he is enraged and his whole body is burning to [punish Kambakhsh]."

Kambakhsh's story is making worldwide news. He was arrested in October for reportedly distributing an article among students titled "The Koranic Verses That Discriminate Against Women."

Local authorities apparently believed he was the author of the pamphlet, which some Islamic scholars denounced as anti-Islamic and evil. He was sentenced to death by a court in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif.

However, a European-based Iranian student who goes under the name of Arash Bikhoda now says he was the author, and Kambakhsh's family says the journalism student merely copied it from Bikhoda's website and distributed it.

The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), a nongovernmental group that helps train journalists in troubled places, has accused the authorities of prosecuting Kambakhsh in order to punish his brother, a contributor to IWPR publications who was written articles critical of commanders in the northern province.

The IWPR reported that Kambakhsh was brought before the first court without a lawyer or any chance to defend himself. Kambakhsh said that he was taken to a room with three judges and that his death sentence "had already been written. I wanted to say something, but they would not let me speak."

The deputy prosecutor of Balkh Province, Qazi Hafizullah Khaliqyar, has called the legal proceedings against Kambakhsh so far fair and within the law, and says that the student will continue to receive due process at forthcoming appeal hearings. He also said that he would assign a "special committee" to the case.

The Afghan Constitution states that both universal human rights codes and Islamic law are to be upheld. There's an evident contradiction between the two concepts in this case, but Khaliqyar sees no problems.

"Of course we didn't intend to violate any rights of journalists," the prosecutor says. "The media law clearly prohibits insulting religious values and beliefs. They [journalists] can't violate the values of Islam and they have to keep that in mind. He [Kambakhsh] has been referred to an Islamic court and would be dealt according to Shari'a law. He has been asked if he wanted any lawyer, but he rejected the opportunity and preferred to defend himself."

Kambakhsh's uncle, Peroz, on the other hand, suggests the legal proceedings contravene freedom of speech, justice, and human rights.

(RFE/RL correspondent Sharifa Esmatullah contributed to this report.)

Afghanistan: Journalist Given Death Sentence For 'Blasphemy'

Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, whose brother has written articles critical of local authorities

A 23-year-old Afghan journalist has been sentenced to death by a court in northern Afghanistan for blasphemy in connection with an article that people close to the case say he did not write.

Local and international media groups have condemned the verdict against Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, which family members say followed a "secret trial" at which Kambakhsh had no legal counsel.

The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), a nongovernmental group that helps train journalists in troubled spots, has meanwhile accused the authorities of prosecuting Kambakhsh in order to punish his brother, a contributor to IWPR publications.

Family members denounced the verdict, saying the January 22 trial in Mazar-e Sharif was held behind closed doors and they did not even know the hearing had been scheduled.

Kambakhsh's brother, Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi, tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that the verdict was "unjust" and his brother did not have a lawyer defending him at the hearing.

"I told [my brother], 'Don't worry about this. It is not the final decision of the Afghan courts,'" Ibrahimi says. "But, anyway, every member of our family is concerned about it. We are sorry to see this unjust decision by the Balkh court."

Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, a journalism student at Balk University who also worked for the newspaper "Jahan-e Naw" (The New World), was arrested in late October over a controversial article that commented on verses in the Koran that were about women.

Kambakhsh's brother and other sources said the article had in fact been taken off the Internet and Kambakhsh had simply distributed copies of it among fellow university students.

"We feel very strongly that this is a complete fabrication on the part of the authorities up in Mazar, designed to put pressure on Parwez's brother Yaqub, who has done some of the hardest-hitting pieces outlining abuses by some very powerful commanders in Balkh and the other northern provinces," IWPR country manager Jean MacKenzie says.

MacKenzie notes that authorities in Balkh had searched Ibrahimi's computer and taken contact details of sources, adding that "we feel that what is happening with Parwez is not a very veiled threat against Yaqub Ibrahimi."

Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based media watchdog, says it was "shocked" at the verdict against Kambakhsh and has urged Afghan President Hamid Karzai to intervene.

Afghan media outlets have sprung up in large numbers since the ouster of the hard-line Taliban regime in late 2001, although press freedoms frequently run up against official obstacles or opposition from conservative forces that include the clergy.

Legal Questions

A three-judge panel concluded on January 22 that the article in question violated the tenets of Islam.

Rahimullah Samandar, who heads Afghanistan's Independent Journalist Association, strongly condemned the verdict against Kambakhsh. He tells Radio Free Afghanistan that the ruling contravenes the country's 2004 constitution.

"The Afghan Independent Journalists Association, and the...the Committee to Protect Afghan Journalists..., both organizations, strongly condemn this decree," Samandar says. "This is illegal, this is unjust, it's unfair. It is in accordance with neither Afghan law nor the Afghan Constitution."

The Independent Journalists Association's Rahimullah Samandar (left) has condemned the verdict

The constitution, adopted after the ouster of the Taliban, described freedom of expression as "inviolable" within the law, and committed authorities to respecting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But it also stipulates that "no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam."

Samandar also says President Karzai should reverse the verdict, which he says was made under the pressure of Islamic clerics.

"This was completely a decree [made] under pressure, under religious pressure, under political pressure, and we are against this, and we don't accept this," Samandar says. "We will appeal to other courts. We will appeal to the international community, to international media organizations, and also to the Afghan president, and the Afghan parliament to help us."

Balkh Justice?

Reporters Without Borders has urged Karzai to intervene in the Kambakhsh case "before it is too late."

"We are deeply shocked by this trial, carried out in haste and without any concern for the law or for free expression, which is protected by the [Afghan] constitution," the group said in a statement on January 22.

In an interview with Radio Free Afghanistan, Balkh Province Attorney-General Hafizullah Khaliqyar defends the sentence, adding that the trial was conducted in a "very Islamic way."

"This was not a violation of human rights or press freedom, not a violation of rights of a journalist," Khaliqyar says. "[Kambakhsh] violated the values of Islam. He did not make a journalistic mistake; he insulted our religion. He misinterpreted the verses of the Koran and distributed this paper to others. All ulama [Islamic clerics] have condemned his act."

Clerics had been pushing for Kambakhsh to be punished. They reportedly organized a demonstration in Mazar-e Sharif last week against the journalist, demanding that the government not release him.

Molvi Shamas ul-Rehman Moomand, head of the Primary Provincial Appeals Court that sentenced Kambakhsh to death

Clerics have also claimed that Kambakhsh confessed to having humiliated Islam.

But Abdullah Attaei, an expert in Shari'a law who studied at Al-Azhar University in Egypt, tells Radio Free Afghanistan that the verdict does not appear to be in line with Islamic law.

"If the convicted person doesn't accept that he wrote the article, and if he denies being quoted, then no court can judge his faith [according to Shari'a law]," Attaei says. "When he denies that he wrote the article, then no one has the right to arrest or investigate him or even to try to prove him guilty."

Journalists who defended Kambakhsh came under attack from authorities on January 21. Provincial Attorney-General Khalikyar vowed at a media briefing that he would arrest any journalist who defended Kambakhsh.

The case will now go to the first of two appeals, with Kambakhsh in custody throughout the appeal procedure.

A chief judge from Balkh Province, Fazel Wahab, said only President Karzai can forgive Kambakhsh because the journalist has confessed to the crime.

Central authorities have struggled for decades to reconcile efforts to liberalize Afghanistan's media environment with counterefforts by reactionary elements that frequently cite adherence to religious teachings. A major experiment in independent media began with King Mohammad Zaher's 1964 constitution, which ushered in what is frequently referred to as the "decade of democracy," although the Soviet puppet and subsequent hard-line governments fought hard to reverse its legacy in most respects.

Karzai issued a decree setting out a new law on mass media in December 2005 -- just days before the inauguration of the country's first directly elected legislature -- but frequent disputes have arisen on how the law should be interpreted and enforced.

(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report.)