Prague, 9 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- 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.
Worldpress.org 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, Worldpress.org 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. Worldpress.org 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 Worldpress.org notes contains an article stating that every Afghan citizen, whether male of female, has equal rights and responsibilities before the law.
Barekzai is scheduled to receive her award today at a United Nations luncheon attended by some 100 global rights activists and UN and U.S. officials.
Worldpress.org 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."
During her trip to the United States, Barekzai will attend a roundtable discussion at the Global Interdependence Center on the role of the U.S. in Afghanistan and other Islamic countries. She is also expected to give several speeches on the challenges women are facing in Afghanistan.
(Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Nazira Karimi contributed to this report.)