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Media Matters: April 4, 2008

Shots Fired At Offices Of Independent Kazakh Newspaper

Editor Ermurat Bapi speaks to journalists after bullet holes were found in the window of "Taszharghan's" offices

Kazakh police are investigating who fired three shots through the windows of the independent newspaper "Taszharghan" (Stonebreaker) in Almaty.

Employees discovered the bullet holes on April 1.

"This is a warning for us," said Ermurat Bapi, the newspaper's founder, adding, "We often deal with corruption and sensitive cases within the government."

Bapi ruled out hooliganism, but said he does not believe anyone in the government was involved in the damage.

"We cannot say that this was an action organized by the state to frighten us because currently Kazakhstan is trying to promote an image of being for democratic reforms and is changing its laws and regulations accordingly," Bapi said. "We don't think those in power would be interested in doing something like this. However, shooting two bullets through an office window could be considered to be someone's warning to our journalists."

Bapi has been an editor in chief of independent newspapers in Kazakhstan for more than a decade and says he's been on the receiving end of numerous threats.

In 2003, Bapi was tried and convicted of falsification of documents and tax evasion. He received a suspended jail sentence but was barred from working as an "editor" or "journalist" until 2009, which explains why his official title at "Taszharghan" is "chief reader."

Police say they have no information on who could have fired the shots.

The news of the shots came the same day that independent Kazakh websites reported that independent journalist Bakhytzhan Mukushev had died after being in a coma for seven months. Mukushev was involved in an automobile accident, one of more than a half-dozen independent journalists in Kazakhstan to be killed or injured in auto accidents.

Merhat Sharipzhan, director of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, contributed to this report

Popular Afghan TV Channel Attacked As 'Immoral,' 'Un-Islamic'

By Farangis Najibullah

Television has become more popular again after the fall of the Taliban

A popular Afghan television channel, known for its Indian soap operas and "Pop Idol"-style talent contest, has come under pressure from Afghan officials for broadcasting what they call "immoral and un-Islamic" programs.

The Afghan Information and Culture Ministry on March 29 "strongly condemned" the broadcasting of a scene on Tolo television that showed a group of Afghan women and men dancing together at a film awards ceremony.

The ministry said that the program was "against the beliefs and traditions of the Islamic society of Afghanistan." Afghan Culture Minister Abdulkarim Khorram told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that Tolo will be referred to a state media-monitoring committee to determine whether it violated the media law by showing the dance scene.

"Not only do we denounce this show, we will also try to find ways to prevent these issues from happening again," Khorram said.

Tolo editors told Radio Free Afghanistan that airing the dance scene, on the night of March 28, "was an unfortunate mistake that occurred because of some technical errors."

Heated Debate

The broadcast led to a debate in the Afghan parliament the following day, with some conservative deputies calling for the station to be shut down. On March 31, the lower house of parliament passed a resolution, which aims to ban television programs from showing dancing and other activities deemed un-Islamic.

The strongest condemnation came from Abdurrasul Sayaf, a deputy and former warlord, who accused Tolo of being an entry point for "foreign conspiracies."

However, other parliament deputies stood by the station and what they called "freedom of speech and media."

Fawzia Kufi, a female legislator from Badakhshan Province, insisted that the parliament has no right to close a television channel, and that such action by the deputies would undermine the country's constitution. And media-rights activists in Afghanistan say the government and the conservative lawmakers' stance is an attack on freedom of speech.

Rahimullah Samandar, the president of the Independent Afghan Journalists Association, told RFE/RL that "it is not only Tolo that has been targeted by some conservative and former jihadi elements inside the government and the parliament."

'Immoral' Foreign TV

According to Samandar, the Information and Culture Ministry and the Afghan Religious Council recently condemned several television broadcasters, including Tolo, Ariyana, and Noorin for broadcasting foreign TV series, which they deemed "immoral." They demanded that the television stations discontinue the series.

Samandar says most ordinary Afghans, however, enjoy such programming.

"Afghans are tired of decades of war and restrictions, and now they want light and entertaining TV programs," Samandar says. "As a young person myself, I support these shows. Most young Afghans want these programs to continue and even increase. Apart from a group of hard-liners and those who belong to jihadi or religious groups, the rest of society is in favor of such television shows."

Tolo, which was launched in October 2004, is considered by many Afghans to be the country's most popular television station. While attracting huge audiences among Afghan youth, it is often criticized by conservative clerics and politicians for its relatively liberal programming.

Afghan Star

Earlier this month, Tolo was severely criticized by hard-liners for hosting "Afghan Star," a national music contest held among young singers -- both male and female. The final program of the six-month show was reportedly watched by more than 10 million viewers, while around 300,000 people sent text messages from their mobile phones to vote for the competition's two finalists.

Conservative government officials, however, demanded that the show be banned, saying it was designed to encourage immorality and was against Afghanistan's culture and tradition. Their main objection was to the participation of women on the show.

Lema Sahar, a 20-year-old Pashtun woman, became the first female contender on "Afghan Star" to finish so high -- placing third -- since the show was launched in 2005. Sahar is from the conservative Kandahar Province, the onetime capital of the Taliban regime, which had enforced a complete ban on music during its reign.

Sahar says she has been physically threatened several times, including by phone calls during the night. Another female contestant, Setara Hussainzada from the western Herat Province, was forced to go into hiding in February after she received death threats for taking part in the television show. In January, Afghanistan's national council of religious scholars called on President Hamid Karzai to ban several "immoral" television shows, including "Afghan Star."

More than 10 private television stations have been launched in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban administration in 2001. During its strict regime, the Taliban banned television as un-Islamic, with its supporters smashing people's television sets and beating up and arresting offenders.

Independent Belarusian Media Targeted By Authorities

By Michael Scollon

Materials were seized from Radio Racyja in Minsk

Raids on the offices of independent media outlets, journalists' private apartments, and the recent mass arrests of opposition activists in Belarus have evoked a harsh reaction by the West -- but the criticisms have apparently fallen on deaf ears.

The Belarusian authorities this morning resumed their crackdown, a day after dozens of journalists were detained for questioning by the KGB. Many of them also had their private apartments searched.

In a telephone interview with RFE/RL, independent journalist Alena Stsyapanava described the KGB's search of her home in Vitsebsk.

"Around 9 a.m. someone rang to my apartment -- not from the house intercom but the doorbell," Stsyapanava said. "My husband opened the door. I heard that he was being asked for the passports of residents because, they said, it was a check of whether the residents have the right to live there. Only after that did they show us a search warrant."

Targeted were media outlets or journalists with ties to the outside world, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Investigators also zeroed in on employees of Radio Racja and Belsat, both primarily Polish-funded, and the EU-funded European Radio for Belarus -- which have all been denied government accreditation.

U.S. Criticism

In a statement issued on March 27, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack condemned the raids, saying, "some 30 independent journalists in 12 cities were detained without legitimate cause."

He said this week's incidents show that a "brutal, authoritarian dictatorship that blatantly ignores human rights and fundamental freedoms" is in power in Belarus.

Polish President Lech Kaczynski expressed the "deepest possible anxiety" over the developments, and said the situation in Belarus is taking a turn for the worse.

Homel-based independent journalist Anatol Hatouchyts spoke to RFE/RL after his home was searched on March 27.

"I have been a professional journalist for more than 30 years. Naturally, I have a computer, and my wife has a computer. I have tape recorders, diskettes. All this was confiscated. They confiscated 31 items in total. In fact, all this was done in order to paralyze the work of journalists who work for nonstate media," Hatouchyts said.

Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maryya Vanshyna said on March 27 the searches were being conducted to uncover journalists working illegally in Belarus. "The illegal character of these individuals' activities in Belarus has never been hidden by their foreign owners," she said.

Cartoons Controversy

Belarusian Deputy Prosecutor-General Alyaksey Stuk, however, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service the same day that investigators were looking for signs the targeted journalists had cooperated with the creators of animated cartoons deemed insulting to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Youth activists in court after police broke up a street rally

Independent journalist Stsyapanava supported Stuk's claim.

"The search was linked to me. The search warrant stated that I have to be a witness in a criminal case opened in 2005 against citizens by the name of Marozau, Minich, and Abozau," Stsyapanava said. "While staying abroad, they allegedly disseminated -- via the television company Belsat -- cartoons that defame the president of the republic of Belarus."

Andrey Abozau, Pavel Marozau, and Aleh Minich fled Belarus in 2007 to avoid arrest in connection with the cartoons, which were originally posted on their website, "Third Path," and continue to circulate on the Internet.

Defaming the Belarusian president is punishable by up to four years in prison.

The Polish-funded television station Belsat, which has broadcast the cartoons, said 20 of its Belarusian employees were detained. The Belarusian Journalists Association recorded 16 journalists who were either detained or whose apartments were searched.

A human rights activist was also reportedly detained during a search of a journalist's apartment in Visebsk for swearing. Pavel Levinau had arrived on the scene to ensure that the search was being conducted in accordance with the law.

The Belarusian Journalists Association has petitioned the Prosecutor-General's Office to stop the searches, and has objected to the confiscation of audio and video equipment and printed material.

Embassy Recall

The crackdown came on a day that 17 U.S. diplomats left Belarus -- a concession to Minsk's recent demand that the U.S. Embassy's staff be halved. U.S. Ambassador to Belarus Karen Stewart was recalled two weeks ago, and some embassy services in Minsk have been curtailed or suspended.

The staff reductions followed accusations that the embassy had recruited a dozen Belarusians to pass information for use against Belarus to the FBI -- allegations the United States has denied.

U.S.-Belarusian relations were further strained when truncheon-wielding Belarusian police violently broke up a street rally on March 25 and detained some 80 demonstrators. Several hundred opposition activists had gathered in a Minsk square to mark the 90th anniversary of the creation of the Belarusian People's Republic, which was subsequently crushed by Bolshevik forces.

The newly appointed U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, David Kramer, told RFE/RL earlier this week that breaking up the rally was "thuggish behavior on the part of the security forces."

"A reminder, I think, of the total lack of respect that the authorities have demonstrated in the past for citizens' rights to assemble and speak freely. It is very unfortunate that a number of people not only were arrested, but many beaten up by the authorities. Totally uncalled for," Kramer said.

Kramer at the time touted a united U.S.-EU front in calling for the Belarusian authorities to ease restrictions on citizens and civil society.

"Belarus is in the heart of Europe, and it remains the last dictatorship in Europe, and it is a country where, together, the United States and the European Union feel we need to both apply pressure on the government so that it demonstrates greater respect for human rights for its own citizens, but also where we reach out to civil society and the democratic opposition and NGOs in Belarus to show that we support what they are trying to achieve in their country," Kramer said.

The EU has echoed the U.S. condemnation of the recent events in Belarus, calling on Belarus to end the crackdown if it wants to improve relations with the bloc.

Since the beginning of the year, President Lukashenka has indicated that he wants to improve relations with the EU. He has released most of the country's political prisoners -- a key EU demand -- and given the European Commission the go-ahead to open up a branch in Minsk.

However, one former Belarusian political prisoner, Syarhey Skrabets, believes Brussels could do more:

"I think all this [political persecution] takes place only because the European Union maintains permanent contacts with the current authorities. Had they taken the position that was taken by the United States, all this would not have happened."

Iran Pushes Cross-Border Regional TV Project

By Farangis Najibullah

Hard-liner in HD?

As part of its vigorous cultural diplomacy in neighboring countries that share its language, Iran is driving plans for a Persian-language satellite network to broadcast in Afghanistan and Tajikistan. But it's unclear whether the region's viewers will tune in to shows tailored to the tastes of the Iranian leadership's arguably radical brand of Islam.

For years, Tehran has pursued vigorous "cultural diplomacy" in neighboring countries that share its linguistic roots -- namely, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Such efforts were in the spotlight this week after a March 24-25 meeting in Dushanbe of the three countries' foreign ministers. Among other issues, the ministers reportedly prepared a deal on launching a common Persian-language satellite-television network to be run jointly by all three governments.

"The common television network will start broadcasting programs in Farsi, Dari, Pashto, Tajik, and the other languages of the three countries," Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrohkhon Zarifi told a news conference in Dushanbe on March 25. He added that the three countries' presidents would sign the deal on the joint television project when they meet next, possibly as early as August.

Although the headquarters of the television channel would be based in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, some observers have been quick to characterize the new network as merely the latest instrument aimed at spreading Iranian influence in Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and other Persian-speaking areas of Central and South Asia.

Courting Tajiks

Tehran has invested in cultural ties in Tajikistan since the impoverished former Soviet republic, whose government is militantly secular, gained independence in 1991. Iran has set up a cultural center in Dushanbe that supports a variety of cultural and educational programs. Since the early 1990s, Tehran has also organized frequent cultural trips to Iran for Tajik writers, journalists, and influential intellectuals.

Journalists who have traveled to Iran in such trips say they have been encouraged by the Iranian Embassy in Dushanbe to write about their journey and impressions. Tajik teachers, university professors, and doctors in recent years have been included on such trips, which are fully paid by the Iranian side.

Many Tajik writers, poets, and scientists have also had their books published in Iran. For example, Muhammadjon Shakuri, a prominent Tajik scientist, travels to Iran almost yearly on trips funded by the government in Tehran. He says he is grateful to Iran because when he fell ill recently he was taken there for two successful operations -- all expenses paid by Iran, of course.

Shakuri says Tajik intellectuals appreciate what he calls Iran's desire to strengthen cultural ties and support people who share the same language. "Many books by contemporary Tajik poets have been published in Iran, in the Arabic/Farsi alphabet," he tells RFE/RL. "Such cooperation is expanding now, and Tajikistan is welcoming it, too."

In addition to its cultural center, Tehran finances "Iranian Rooms," which have been set up in almost every university in Dushanbe. There, students and professors get free Internet access, textbooks, and daily newspapers and magazines.

The cultural center has also taken over a significant part of the Tajik National Library -- a complex long popular among students, professors, and young professionals. In recent years, Iran has also donated thousands of books in Persian, Russian, English, and other languages.

Crowded Field

Rahmatkarim Davlat, a correspondent for RFE/RL's Tajik Service, says many Tajiks believe that Tehran is pursuing a clear political agenda through its cultural programs. "Iran wants to have its supporters among influential intellectuals, and most importantly among the younger generation of Tajiks," Davlat says.

But Hamza Kamol, the head of the Tajik Cultural Foundation in Dushanbe, notes that Iran is just one of several countries that pursue a cultural agenda in the Central Asian country. "When it comes to cultural diplomacy, Iran has not done anything more than other countries, such as Russia, have been doing in Tajikistan," Kamol says.

Russia's cultural centers and embassy in Dushanbe reportedly provide financial support for Russian publications in Tajikistan, among many other activities, such as organizing Russian film festivals and art exhibitions. Likewise, the French cultural center in Dushanbe offers a library, language courses, and promotes French movies.

Turkey has also set up several Turkish-language schools, which have become popular among children from well-to-do families. By contrast, Iran has set up no such schools in Tajikistan.

Tajik authorities, meanwhile, say they support widening cultural and business ties with Iran. But there are tensions between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the secular government in Dushanbe.

In the early 1990s, when supporters of the Tajik Islamic and democratic opposition briefly took control of state-run television, they began rebroadcasting Iranian programs in Tajikistan. But the government, after reasserting control over the station, quickly banned all such broadcasts, which it regarded as too religious.

Tajik authorities also have yet to register the Organization of Persian-Speaking Journalists, a group set up by Iranian and Tajik journalists and their financial sponsors in 2007. The group has reportedly applied at least eight times to the Tajik Justice Ministry for official registration. But the ministry has repeatedly refused to give the group any official permission to operate.

Early Reviews

While Tajik, Afghan, and Iranian officials have played up plans for the new Persian-language satellite channel, many Tajik journalists and experts tell RFE/RL that they believe the project will be dead in the water. They say that despite the shared language, there are big differences among peoples in the three countries when it comes to their attitudes about culture.

For example, they say Iran would not allow television presenters and guests to appear without adhering to its strict Islamic dress code. Nor would Iran want to broadcast modern songs and movies where women are not covered head to toe. In Tajikistan, however, modern songs and dances, Western movies, and television series are extremely popular.

That is to say nothing of politics. Adolat Mirzo, a female Tajik journalist, tells RFE/RL that it would be almost impossible for the regional, state-run, Persian-language television network "to organize even an ordinary political roundtable because the three countries have totally different political lines."

While Iran has poor relations with the West, the government of Afghanistan depends on military and economic support from the United States and European Union.

Tajikistan, while desperate for economic aid from any source, has sought to strike a balance in its relations with Iran, Russia, and Western countries. Tahir Shermuhammadi, an independent Iranian-born analyst based in Germany, tells RFE/RL's Tajik Service that Dushanbe, which gets significant financial support from Washington, "won't jeopardize its relations with the West by getting too close to Iran."

Other Tajik observers say Iran's cultural policies have actually brought about the opposite of what Tehran might have intended.

Before Iran expanded its cultural activities in Tajikistan, many Tajiks had cherished the idea of improving relations with Tehran. After all, Iranian prerevolutionary literature was popular in Tajikistan, while Iranian songs and movies -- largely created by Iranians abroad -- had attracted huge audiences.

But then the Islamic Republic of Iran started showing movies and concerts with artists covered head to toe. Coupled with Iranian publishers filling Tajik bookstores with Islamic tomes, many Tajiks say they were "disappointed."

Will the new satellite television network change their minds? It's unlikely, but stay tuned.