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Media Matters: May 5, 2006

5 May 2006, Volume 6, Number 7
By Andrew Tully

In the 15 years since the end of the Cold War, several former Soviet-dominated states have worked to establish liberal democracies. Others lag far behind, based on several criteria. One such yardstick is press freedom. Today -- the eve of World Press Freedom Day -- the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based group that advocates press freedoms, issued a report on the "10 Most Censored Countries." Among them are three former Soviet republics: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Belarus.

The CPJ says the 10 countries cited in its report suppress the truth in a variety of ways and to a variety of degrees. But all share several patterns of behavior.

In most cases, the report says, their governments are controlled by autocrats who impose total control over what their citizens learn about their country and the world in general. And they promote what's known as the "big lie" -- permitting only good news about their countries and forbidding any critical reporting or other "bad news."

Speaking by phone from United Nations headquarters in New York, where she released the report, CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper says forbidding the reporting of bad news can have a direct impact on the country's population.

"It means that really important issues are often not reported on at all. North Korea, for example -- the state media there -- they really didn't acknowledge that there was a terrible famine in the 1990s that affected millions of people," Cooper said. "At some point the censorship begins to have an impact on the public welfare of citizens in these very censored countries."

Flattering Turkmenbashi

The top five on the list of the "10 Most Censored Countries" are North Korea, Burma, Turkmenistan, Equatorial Guinea, and Libya. The remaining five are Eritrea, Cuba, Uzbekistan, Syria, and Belarus.

Among the former Soviet republics, CPJ says Turkmenistan is the worst offender in censorship. Not only does the state own all domestic media, but it also forbids the importation of foreign sources of news.

The report says the Turkmen media not only deny their consumers the news they need, but also covers President Saparmurat Niyazov with exaggerated flattery, supporting the personality cult in which he has proclaimed himself "Turkmenbashi," or the Turkmens' father.

Cooper says public reaction to such fawning coverage is anyone's guess. "How do people [in Turkmenistan] really feel about this? It's very hard to know because media is so tightly controlled and all expression is extremely controlled in Turkmenistan," she said. "People don't dare speak their minds. They wouldn't dare tell you what they thought of their autocratic leader because of fear of the consequences."

Three Media Groups Forced To Close In Uzbekistan

The CPJ says that in Uzbekistan, the government of President Islam Karimov uses Soviet-style intimidation to keep the local media from covering the country's Muslim opposition, and the police torture to maintain rigid order.

Specifically, the report accuses Karimov's government of mounting a huge crackdown on journalists for foreign media reporting on the Andijon massacre of May 2005.

"There was a handful of journalists there [in Uzbekistan] who filed eyewitness reports to the world that were very much in contrast to the rosier picture of things that was put out by the government," Cooper said. "And for their trouble of reporting truthfully on the Andijon massacre, those journalists have all had to flee the country. So pressures in the wake of Andijon have certainly increased dramatically in Uzbekistan."

In addition, the report says, RFE/RL, the BBC, and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting had to close their Tashkent bureaus. Meanwhile, it says, Uzbekistan also has more journalists behind bars -- six by the end of 2005 -- than any other former Soviet republic.

Legal Techniques To Stop The Presses

As for Belarus, it is often referred to as "the last dictatorship in Europe," and its press freedoms -- or lack of them -- support this portrayal, according to the CPJ. The report says the media there are nominally independent, but they're careful to avoid reporting on what Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka doesn't want his people to hear.

Cooper says Lukashenka's government uses what she calls "legal and administrative techniques" to keep the press under his control. "Some of the techniques he [Lukashenka] relies on are ordering printing presses to not print those newspapers or the post office to not deliver them," she said. "So they [the newspapers] may technically still be in business, but they can't get their news out to the people. So that's a less dramatic form of censorship, but it's still an extremely effective one, because it means that the people ultimately are deprived of that independent reporting."

Cooper says censorship in former Soviet republics is not confined to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Belarus. She tells RFE/RL that the problem exists to some extent in virtually all of them.

"Unfortunately what we've seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, there's -- at the beginning -- something of an opening for press freedom, but in more recent years a closing down [of press freedoms] in most of the former Soviet countries."

In determining the "10 Most Censored Countries," the CPJ said it based its conclusions on 17 criteria including formal censorship, an absence of independent media, jamming of foreign news broadcasts and interference with publication. The group said all the countries on the list met at least nine of those criteria.

According to Cooper, the report on the "10 Most Censored Countries" is not one of a series of annual reports. She says the CPJ marks each World Press Freedom Day with a different report on threats to the media. Last year, for example, the group issued a report on the most dangerous countries from which to report the news. (Originally published on May 2.)

By Charles Recknagel

Iraq continues to be the most dangerous place in the world for journalists. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists says 68 journalists have been killed there since hostilities began in March 2003. In addition, 24 people have died working with journalists as liaisons, interpreters, and drivers. Usually, the media attention is on foreign reporters who are killed or taken hostage. But most of the fatalities -- some three-quarters of them -- are among Iraqi journalists.

Like so many of his colleagues, Radio Free Iraq (RFI) Baghdad bureau chief Nabil al-Haidari has had close brushes with danger. In November 2005, a car bomb ripped into the downtown hotel that housed RFI's Baghdad office.

"Our former office of Radio Free Iraq in Baghdad was bombed," al-Haidari told RFE/RL. "It was really severely damaged and even now that office is not repaired yet to allow us to return back to it. We lost all our furniture, we lost the whole ceiling. Luckily -- we are so lucky -- the bombing was early in the morning before we arrived at the office that day."

Getting To Work Through A Mine Field

Journalists in Iraq can be killed randomly by roadside bombs or deliberately by assassins. And usually, the identities of those who planted the bomb or who ordered the killing are never discovered.

Al-Haidari -- who, like many journalists in Iraq, goes by a pseudonym -- says those facts make his day a dawn-to-dusk challenge of taking precautions while remaining focused on reporting.

"First when I leave my house, I have to check the street," al-Haidari said. "I have to be sure that there is nobody waiting to kill me or to kidnap me. After this checking, I begin my way to the office, whether I am driving or my driver, but it's funny to be always trying to find your way in the middle of the street, to be away from the side of the street, because most of the roadside bombs are put on the side during the night or in the very early morning."

Making Yourself A Target

Al-Haidari says that the most difficult thing for reporters in Iraq today is field reporting. Identifying oneself as a journalist in a crowded public place can be an invitation to an attack.

Many extremist groups regard journalists -- with their inquisitive natures and desire for social harmony -- as their natural enemies.

"When you are in the street and want to make any report, when you show your tape recorder or camera, in a way that will be the first sign that you are a target for somebody," al-Haidari said. "So, most correspondents are afraid to go to the market now or onto any ordinary street to make a story, especially when they are working alone. Most of the media, for example the television media, Iraqi or foreign, they use some guards to support the reporter and the camera operator and the driver. But for individual correspondents, like sometimes our journalists, it is really kind of dangerous."

He says that the public has grown so exhausted with daily violence and with journalists rushing to the scene that people in crowds on occasion attack reporters to vent their frustration.

It's A Jungle Out There

Murders occur daily but the culprits mostly remain unknown -- be they insurgents, members of extremist groups, or simply criminals. "Sometimes I feel like Iraqi cities are like jungles now, because it is not only journalists who cannot answer who kidnapped or who killed whom, or who assassinated whom, even the politicians can't," al-Haidari said. "Today [April 27], we have the sister of the vice president, [Tariq] al-Hashimi -- his sister was killed in the morning. I am sure nobody will know the identity of her killer because this is not the first time, this is the 1,000th time it has happened."

The continuing instability in Iraq, says al-Haidari, has given rise to a professional class of killers that can be contracted by anyone with the money to pay them. The motives for the contract can be political, financial, or simply personal enmity. The killers are well-trained and reliable.

"The kidnappers and the killers are well-trained professional people," al-Haidari said. "I think mostly they were well trained in the forces of the Saddam [Hussein] period. At that time, he trained thousands of such people and nowadays I think they are a very professional class in this field, this market of killing, so many partners pay a lot for such kind of people to use them as a killer, paid killer."

Al-Haidari says one thing journalists sometimes find it hard to remember in such an environment is that all this is not a normal way to live.

"The strange thing is that here, day by day, we are becoming more flexible and adapting to this hard and bloody situation," he said. (Originally published on May 2.)

By Golnaz Esfandiari

Suspension of newspapers, the intimidation and harassment of journalists, arrests and prison sentences by Iran's conservative judiciary were frequent events during reformist Mohammad Khatami's presidency. His successor -- hard-line President Mahmud Ahmadinejad -- has not improved the situation for Iranian journalists who complain of increased pressure and tighter media restrictions. At the local level, a growing number of journalists have been jailed and their publications have been suspended.

Vahid Pourostad, a media lawyer and member of the editorial board of the reformist "Etemad Melli" (National Trust) newspaper, was attacked by an unknown assailant on the night of April 8.

The man reportedly placed a knife on his throat and threatened to kill him. Pourostad was not hurt but his files were stolen. He revealed the details of the attack in his online blog.

In recent months there have been other reports of threats and intimidation against journalists.

Rising Tide Of State Pressure

Mashaollah Shamsolvaezin, a prominent Iranian journalist and the spokesman of the Committee To Defend Press Freedom, tells RFE/RL that state pressure on journalists has also increased.

"The National Supreme Security Council allows itself whenever it wants to warn journalists and issue circulars to editors in chief telling them what to write and what not to write and Tehran's prosecutor-general, Said Mortazavi, directly contacts the press," Shamsolvaezin said. "I once said in an interview that Mr. Mortazavi is the editor in chief of Iranian newspapers. The Culture Ministry also summons journalists and talks to them and in these talks they also make implicit threats so that journalists don't cross red lines."

Iranian journalists have always had to deal with red lines. For example, any criticism of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is a red line that journalists know not to cross.

Figuring Out Where The Boundaries Are

In recent months journalists have come under pressure not to criticize the country's nuclear policies and not to depict the Iranian government's dealings in the nuclear crisis as unsuccessful.

Fariba Davudi Mohajer, an outspoken journalist in Tehran, tells RFE/RL that "the boundaries have become much tighter" than they were before. She adds, however, that in some cases journalists do not know where the boundaries are.

"Some of these red lines are very clear and some are not," she said. "The issue of talks with the U.S. was, until a month ago, a red line. For example, if I would write an article about it, it wouldn't get published. Therefore, journalists are confused."

The online daily "Rooz" recently reported that after March 21 -- the beginning of the new Iranian year -- Iran's National Supreme Security Council has announced new restrictions on the media.

According to the report, editors in chief have been warned to avoid publishing political analysis that differs from the country's official policy.

Shamsolvaezin believes that in recent months the situation regarding freedom of expression, freedom of information, and the safety of journalists has deteriorated in Iran.

Problems At The Regional Level

"Since the government of Ahmadinejad came to power we have not witnessed as many cases of journalists being arrested, but the act of bringing criminal charges against journalists is spreading to [other] cities and provinces," he said. "In Tehran, courts only issue heavy suspended sentences against journalists but don't send them to prison because of the negative international reaction."

Many journalists have also left the country. Others have changed their jobs and many have been forced to submit themselves to censorship and stay in line with official policies in order to keep their jobs.

Davudi Mohajer says some have also lost their jobs. "It seems that now there is freedom of expression only for the supporters of a certain opinion and not for all people," she said. "Just in the last few weeks we witnessed that about half of the ILNA news agency staff losing their jobs under the pretext of economic issues but, in fact, most of them are considered reformists and this dealt a severe blow to Iran's journalism community."

The Rise Of The Internet

In addition to increased pressure on the media, there are also reports of the government's tighter control of the Internet, which in recent years has turned into a serious alternative news source.

Many Iranian journalists have their own weblogs and some have accused the government of blocking and filtering their sites.

In the past two years many bloggers have faced harassment and some have been imprisoned.

There have also been reports of attempts to monitor text messaging (SMSes on mobile phones), which has become very popular in Iran for communicating and sharing jokes and is also used as a political tool.

There has been no comment from the Iranian government about complaints of tighter media restrictions and an assault on the freedom of expression.

Tehran Prosecutor-General Mortazavi, who has been called "the butcher of the press," said recently that "freedom of the press and freedom of expression are not absolute and are subject to respect for Islamic and legal principles." (Originally published on May 2.)

By Bruce Pannier

Journalists working for independent media outlets in Central Asia have more to worry about than meeting deadlines. Across the region they are harassed, intimidated, and sometimes physically attacked. As recently as April 23, a journalist working at an opposition newspaper in Kazakhstan was severely beaten by a group of men.

Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division for Human Rights Watch, says a significant number of the human-rights violations her organization has recorded are made against journalists.

"We get many examples of journalists being harassed in Central Asia in a variety of ways, either through criminal or civil penalties, libel penalties, through verbal harassment and threats, anonymous attacks, bogus criminal charges, and censorship -- the whole gambit," Denbar said. "We get numerous reports like that and in many cases journalists are attacked, they're imprisoned or, in some cases, they're forced into exile or otherwise just forced into silence."

'Working With Traitors'

Turkmenistan is the hardest place in Central Asia to work as an independent journalist. Recently, two RFE/RL correspondents in Turkmenistan were detained for 10 days for their reporting. Correspondent Meret Khommadov described what happened to him.

"We signed some papers that said one thing -- but orally they warned us not to cooperate with [RFE/RL]," correspondent Meret Khommadov said. "They said the radio was working with bad people who are traitors and they named all the people who cooperated with Radio Liberty, like [former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, who was convicted in 2003 of plotting to kill Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov and has since been jailed], [and] drug addicts and people who were traitors during World War II. They said it was not good to [work for RFE/RL]."

His colleague, Jumadurdy Ovezov, recounted the pressure some local elders put on the two correspondents.

"[The elders] yelled at us, told us we were traitors, enemies of the people," Ovezov said. "They told me I was a scoundrel and a liar. 'What are you doing?' they said. 'Who gave you the right?' they said. 'People like you don't have any rights,' they said."

The situation is not much better in neighboring Uzbekistan. Galima Bukharbaeva worked in Uzbekistan for the French news agency Agence France Press and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. Her reporting often irritated Uzbek authorities. She said there were clear signs her reporting was unwelcome.

"The government, through various means, tried to restrict my activities, first they took away my accreditation -- they wouldn't renew my accreditation at the Institute for War Peace Reporting in 2002, and then in 2003 for Agence France Presse," Bukharbaeva said. "At the Institute for War and Peace Reporting's office, we had the feeling we were constantly being watched. There was a car parked across from our office constantly from 2004 to 2005 and several of our correspondents were beaten. In 2005 there was new pressure [being put on the media]. In Tashkent they organized pickets to insult me. There were some kind of 'students,' I don't know, some young people who obviously didn't know who I was, or what I did. But they were holding signs denouncing me."

A Decapitated Dog

Journalists have been abused and threatened in other Central Asian countries. Kenzhegali Aitbakiev, of the opposition newspaper "Ayna Plyus," was attacked by a group of 10 men in Almaty on April 23. It was the third attack Aitbakiev had suffered since 2002.

One of the most extreme examples of intimidation in Kazakhstan was in 2002 when Irina Petrushova, the editor in chief of the opposition newspaper "Respublika," found a decapitated dog hanging outside the newspaper's office and a note that read "There won't be a next time." Days later someone threw a Molotov cocktail into the office, causing severe damage.

In Kyrgyzstan, several journalists were convicted of libel in the mid-1990s for writing about property allegedly owned by President Askar Akaev and for articles criticizing state officials and business figures. Some journalists were imprisoned under a law that criminalized libel. That law has since been changed.

Critical articles about officials are widely believed to have led to Tajik journalist Jumaboy Tolibov being imprisoned on charges of drunken behavior last year. Appeals by local and international organizations helped get him out of jail early. When he was released on December 16, 2005, he repeated what he had said during his trial and his imprisonment.

"I have not committed any crime," Tolibov said at the time. "I have only gone through all of this because of the articles I wrote defending people's rights."

Mukhtar Bokizoda, the editor of the Tajik opposition newspaper "Nerui Sukhan," was sentenced to two years in jail in August last year for the theft of state property. Specifically, Bokizoda was convicted of using $500 worth of electricity without paying.

The Talent Drain

Each such case of harassment produces a ripple effect that can quickly undermine a country's media environment.

"After me, so many talented journalists, really, really good people, left Uzbekistan," Bukharbaeva said. "This is a huge loss for the country."

Many of journalists from throughout Central Asia have left the region in recent years, afraid for themselves and their families.

(RFE/RL's Turkmen, Tajik, and Uzbek services contributed to this report. Originally published on April 28.)

By Golnaz Esfandiari

Four years after the fall of the fundamentalist regime that banished women and girls from public life in Afghanistan, their numbers are increasing in the world of journalism. Despite the legacy of the Taliban-era ban on education or employment, women are taking jobs as journalists, television presenters, broadcasters, and reporters. They still face serious strictures -- including on their movement outside the home -- and family pressures and threats.

Jamila Mujahed couldn't work under the Taliban. She had to stay home, like the majority of Afghan women. But soon after the U.S.-led military intervention there in 2001, Mujahed became the first female presenter to appear on television. In fact, she announced the fall of the Taliban regime.

She is no longer alone. Activists estimate that there are about 1,000 women working throughout Afghanistan as journalists for radio, television, or print publications.

Mujahed has moved on, too. She's founded a women's magazine focused called "Malalai." And she was integral to the relaunch of "The Voice Of The Afghan Woman," the first radio station dedicated solely to women's issues and interests.

Mujahed tells RFE/RL that despite the changes, there is still opposition in Afghanistan's deeply conservative society to women holding jobs outside the home.

Can't Leave Home

"Most families don't agree with their young girl or young woman taking a microphone in her hand and interviewing [someone] -- especially a man," Mujahed said. "They don't accept it. Because of the security problems, we cannot send our reporter even 1 kilometer away from the office for an interview. First of all, we wouldn't do such thing, and secondly, her family would never give her permission to go."

The situation is particularly difficult in southern Afghanistan, where most women are not allowed to leave their houses unaccompanied.

The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission complained in a report in March that Afghan women face discrimination and mistreatment that includes rape, murder, and forced marriages.

In May 2005, the female presenter of a popular music show on the privately owned Tolu TV station was shot dead in her home in the nation's capital. It is unclear whether Shaima Rezayee's murder was connected with her work -- and two of her brothers were eventually arrested in the case. But she had been heavily criticized by conservatives for her Western broadcast style.

Shafiqa Habibi is one another Afghan pioneer. She is among Afghanistan's most prominent television anchors and is the founding director of the Women Journalists' Center. She tells RFE/RL that the lack of security and lawlessness limit the work of female reporters.

Lack Of Security Constrains Journalists

"Women journalists are not used here like elsewhere in the world," Habibi said. "In Afghanistan, it is impossible for them to go wherever they want and prepare reports because of the security issue and fear for their safety. They can't go and report from remote places; they can't go and cover events alone."

Habibi adds that institutional and systemic obstacles lead to a lack of experience, expertise, and proper training for women. While the fear of harassment can hamper the work of all journalists, publisher Mujahed says women are particularly vulnerable. As a result, they often avoid sensitive issues in their coverage.

"Last week, in our office we wanted to report on the issue of the increasing number of men who get rich through the drug trade and through the use of force and arms and marry several wives," Mujahed said. "We wanted to ask the views of clerics: Islam says a man can marry four wives if he has a religious excuse. Many of my friends asked me not to touch these issues because they said it is very dangerous."

Mujahed says she has repeatedly been threatened in connection with her work and her high-profile views. She blames elements who believe that "women should not raise their voice beyond their standing."

Taboo Topics

Aside from a history of threats from warlords and armed groups over critical content, there are reports of intimidation against journalists who explore topics like women's rights and Islam.

But the Women Journalists' Center's Habibi says the ranks of Afghan women in the media are growing -- despite the obvious risks.

"It's a very pleasant job," she said. "Also, there are some places where men cannot get in, and it's much easier for women to penetrate [those places], and get there and report -- for example, on women's prisons. Or it's easier for women to go to villages and report on the lives of women there. There is also great demand for female presenters, newsreaders, and reporters at independent television stations, which are quite numerous."

Nonetheless, women remain a minority in the country's media sector. (Originally published on May 2.)