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Media Matters: August 23, 2005

23 August 2005, Volume 5, Number 15
By Amin Tarzi

The UN-Afghan Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) announced on 15 August that the official campaign period for Afghanistan's Wolesi Jirga (People's Assembly, the lower house of the National Assembly) and provincial councils is to begin on 17 August and continue until 15 September, three days before the polling date.

While candidates have already been able to hold campaign rallies and distribute posters and leaflets after certifying their candidacy with the JEMB, for the next 30 days they are allowed to start their official campaign using broadcast media through a regulated system.

Candidates are now able to access a "sponsored advertisement" system supervised by the JEMB's Media Commission, according to the JEMB's 15 August press release. JEMB Chairman Besmellah Besmel said the system will enable candidates to produce and broadcast campaign advertisements on radio and television "free of charge, courtesy of donors, for an equal amount of airtime." The system will allow every candidate to have "an equal opportunity to reach voters in their constituencies through the broadcast media," Besmel added.

Each Wolesi Jirga candidate will be allocated a five-minute slot to be broadcast twice on radio or one advertisement of two minutes to be broadcast on television twice. Provincial-council candidates are entitled to a four-minute segment to be broadcast once on radio or a two-minute segment to be aired on television once.

Besmel expressed hopes for a "lively and peaceful campaign of free expression" and encouraged all candidates to "make full use" of the 30-day "official campaign period to reach voters through radio or television."

The final decision by the JEMB to allow all candidates sponsored equal time came after a series of confusing regulations.

According to a July report, "Afghanistan Elections: Endgame or New Beginning?" by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG), the JEMB on 7 July had banned candidates from advertising in newspapers for the entire campaign, while radio and television advertisements could be purchased between 17 August and 15 September. On 11 July, the JEMB reversed itself and banned all paid campaign advertisements on broadcast media, but allowed newspaper advertisements, limited to four pages per candidate.

While giving each candidate an equal amount of airtime is commendable, since financial and political resources of candidates vary widely, as the ICG pointed out in its report, if each of Kabul's 701 candidates for both the Wolesi Jirga and provincial-council seats chose to take the television option, "it would mean nearly 2 1/2 hours of dedicated programming for 26 days (the campaign period minus Fridays)."

It is very unlikely that the majority of voters would dedicate so much time to choosing their favorite candidates. Moreover, in such a crowded schedule, it is very difficult for a voter to determine the slot when his or her favorite candidate is due to appear on television.

For the undecided but interested voters, the order and time of appearance of candidates may be crucial. It is likely that the most determined voter becomes tired after watching two hours of short speeches and limits their choices by watching part of the program.

While there are no perfect models that could have been offered to Afghanistan -- a country with no democratic experience -- on which to base its crucial election-campaign advertisement system, with 5,800 candidates a campaign period of more than 30 days with more broadcast-media exposure would have helped the voters to gain more knowledge about the candidates.

Under the circumstances, the future of Afghanistan's democracy falls on the wisdom of the country's voters. It is up to the Afghans to canvass the candidates, among whose ranks are known gross violators of human rights and opponents of democracy itself, and select those candidates with good records or no records at all. Afghans will have to hope that many of those with no records turn out to support democracy and civil society.

By Amin Tarzi

In a commentary titled "Who Is The Taliban Spokesman?" in early August, the government-owned Kabul daily "Anis" questioned how the militants opposing the Afghan government can have a specific spokesman who is seemingly able to communicate with the media with ease from Pakistan. Calling the "freedom of action accredited" to the spokesman "a controversial matter," "Anis" asked why he has not been silenced.

Since the demise of the Taliban regime in December 2001, remnants and loyalists of that regime, disenchanted Pashtuns, religious conservatives, and increasingly criminals involved in Afghanistan's flourishing narcotics business joined forces to terrorize parts of southern and eastern Afghanistan. This loose coalition -- the neo-Taliban -- has its bases of operation in the tribal areas of Afghanistan and in neighboring Pakistan. And according to Kabul, they continue to receive assistance from elements within the Pakistani military, intelligence, and religious establishments.

The neo-Taliban began their disruptive activities against the Afghan government and its foreign backers in 2002 in a rather disorganized fashion and without any announced structural cohesion.

It was not until early in 2003 that the neo-Taliban issued a public statement of their intentions. In February 2003, the Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) cited a fatwa signed by "Amir al-Mo'menin, the Servant of Islam, Mullah Mohammad Omar Mujahed" saying that some 1,600 "prominent scholars from around Afghanistan" adopted two common articles.

The first article stipulated that it was every Muslim's duty to wage jihad "at a time when America has invaded Islam's limits and the Muslim and oppressed nation of Afghanistan." The second article warned that anyone who "helps the aggressive infidels and joins their ranks under any name or task" deserved death.

The statement requested the "Muslim people of Afghanistan" to either wage jihad against the U.S. forces or, if they were unable to join in the struggle, to separate themselves from the Americans, "their allies and their puppet that Muslims are differentiated from Christians."

Finally, the statement warned that after the issuance of the fatwa, people working with the coalition or the Afghan administration headed by Hamid Karzai would "be considered Christians by God and [by] the Muslims," and they would face punishment "in accordance with human society and by the mujahedin of Islam and the scholars."

In June, Mohammad Mokhtar Mojahed, who purported be the spokesman for the neo-Taliban, announced the formation of a 10-member leadership council. Three months later, Hamed Agha again reported the establishment of a 10-member leadership council under the chairmanship of Mullah Omar and claimed that he had been appointed as the neo-Taliban spokesman.

Since then, several people have claimed to be speaking on behalf of the neo-Taliban, often in contradictory terms. The list of people who have purported to speak on behalf of the neo-Taliban includes, in addition to Mojahed and Hamed Agha: Mullah Abdul Samad, Mohammad Amin, Saif al-Adl, Ustad Mohammad Yasir, and the person mentioned by "Anis," Mufti Latifullah Hakimi.

In February 2004, refuting some comments made by Saif al-Adl, the neo-Taliban faxed a statement to several news organizations naming Hamed Agha as the movement's only authorized spokesman (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 4 March 2004). Increasingly in 2004, Hakimi emerged as the person speaking for the neo-Taliban and unlike Hamed Agha, who usually faxed his statements to news organizations, Hakimi began giving telephone interviews, beginning with Pakistan-based news organizations and then to other outlets, including Western and Kabul-based media.

In December 2004, AIP quoted Hakimi as saying that Mohammad Yasir "has replaced Hamed Agha as the head of the Taliban cultural council." According to "Islam," a jihadist daily published in Karachi, in January 2005 Mohammad Yasir was appointed the chief spokesman for the neo-Taliban while Hakimi was made his assistant. Whereas Mohammad Yasir has appeared on an Arabic television network, Hakimi has been the main voice of the neo-Taliban since the latter half of 2004.

Who Is The Neo-Taliban Spokesman?

Hakimi -- whose first names have appeared in various sources as "Latif," "Abdul Latif," and "Latifullah," and who has been given the religious titles of "mufti," "mawlawi" and "mullah" -- is not an unknown figure. In early 1999, Shari'a Zhagh (Voice of Shari'a) -- the Kabul government radio station during Taliban rule -- mentioned Hakimi as the head of the justice department in the western Herat Province. Later in 1999 and in 2000, Taliban-run media referred to Hakimi as the head of the information and culture department in Herat. In all early references available, Hakimi has been identified as Mufti Latifullah.

The fact that Hakimi was a known personality in the ousted Taliban regime was one of the complaints that "Anis" presented and also one with which the Afghan government has been uncomfortable. In June, Jawed Ludin, who was then spokesman for Afghan President Karzai, called on Islamabad to curb the activities of the neo-Taliban, including their media access. Ludin charged that Hakimi had lived in the Pakistani city of Quetta. In its commentary, "Anis" goes further, charging that Hakimi maintains an office with a "specific" telephone number in Quetta.

Neo-Taliban Media Campaign

Recently the neo-Taliban have not only managed to increase their terrorist and disruptive activities, but have also become bolder in their use of the media.

In April, residents of the southern Afghan city of Kandahar were once again able to hear Shari'a Zhagh from what Hakimi claimed were mobile transmitters (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 9 May 2005). Although the radio was no longer detected after a few broadcasts, the fact that the neo-Taliban dared to transmit radio waves, even for few hours, was seen by their supporters as an accomplishment.

The neo-Taliban also flirted with a website in July, though it is no longer accessible.

The area where the neo-Taliban have made great strides is in using outside media to portray themselves as a legitimate opposition group in Afghanistan, not a as a terrorist group set on destroying the government. Hakimi seems to have no fear of being found through his telephone number and gives almost daily and lengthy interviews to an array of news organizations.

As "Anis" asks with some surprise, with the available technology to trace the location of telephone calls, why has Hakimi not yet been arrested?

By Jan Maksymiuk

In June, Germany's international broadcaster Deutsche Welle announced its plans to launch a Russian-language information program for Belarus called the "Belarusian Chronicle." Official Minsk has so far remained silent about plans for the daily show, which is scheduled to begin in October. But many of Belarus's opposition and pro-democracy circles -- who in theory could only benefit from such an endeavor -- have reacted with alarm, indignation, and even hostility. They want Deutsche Welle to speak Belarusian to Belarusians.

Media have since reported that Deutsche Welle won a European Commission tender to organize radio broadcasts to Belarus. Bidders reportedly included international broadcasters Euronews and BBC World Service. Brussels will spend 138,000 euros ($169,000) annually to support Deutsche Welle's Belarus project, which is to continue for three years. It was initially reported that Deutsche Welle would broadcast 15 minutes a day to Belarus, but Deutsche Welle's Russian Service Director Cornelia Rabitz later signaled that her team might in September come up with a 30-minute daily program in which 15 minutes would be devoted to European developments and another 15 minutes to Belarusian domestic news.

Aleh Trusau -- chairman of the Belarusian Language Society, a nongovernmental group working to support the mother tongue of most Belarusians -- was the first to urge Deutsche Welle to launch its Belarus broadcasts in Belarusian. "[Deutsche Welle broadcasts in Russian] would plunge Belarusian listeners deeper into the Russian information space and increase their isolation from Europe," Trusau argued in an open letter to Deutsche Welle in June. And in an interview with RFE/RL's Belarusian Service later in the month, he clarified his position further by saying, "There are a lot of Russian-language sections in international broadcasters -- Voice of America, BBC, Deutsche Welle -- that employ emigrants from Russia with an imperial point of view. For them, Ukraine and Belarus are not full-fledged nations."

'Better Than Nothing'

Belarusian opposition leaders seeking the role of a joint democratic candidate to face President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in the 2006 presidential ballot were cautious after news emerged of Deutsche Welle's plans. United Civic Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka said Deutsche Welle's broadcasts in Belarusian would be a more appropriate option but immediately added, "If we cannot influence the development of events, Russian-language broadcasts are better than nothing at all." However, most opposition leaders with any chance of securing the democratic parties' presidential nomination have chosen not to comment on the issue in any way.

As for anti-Lukashenka intellectual circles in Belarus, Deutsche Welle's project has sparked a heated debate over the fate of the Belarusian language in particular, and the country's political and civilizational choices in general. Belarusian political scientist Vital Silitski, in an emotional letter published in the Minsk-based "Nasha Niva" weekly earlier this month, appealed to Belarusians to boycott Deutsche Welle's Russian-language broadcasts. Silitski argued that the choice of Russian for broadcasting to Belarus is the result of a "complete misunderstanding" of the Belarusian situation by "European bureaucrats" who, according to Silitski, are following Lukashenka in his attempts "to instill the notion in public opinion that the Belarusian language has no prospects or real demand among Belarus's citizens."

Silitski claimed that the EU decision to sponsor broadcasts to Belarus by Deutsche Welle's Russian Service is "absurd," since the service employs people "for whom Belarus is just an extra job and from whom one cannot expect a deep knowledge or understanding of processes under way in Belarus." Silitski stressed that "the revival of national consciousness is a necessary condition for democratization of any nation" and again scolded "European bureaucrats" for what he perceives as their support of "the tendencies than consolidate the dictatorship in Belarus." "Nasha Niva" called on its readers to become signatories to Silitski's appeal.

Will Brussels Think Twice?

German diplomat Hans-Georg Wieck, former head of the OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group in Minsk and a staunch advocate of EU-sponsored broadcasting to Belarus, responded to this wave of protests in Belarus through RFE/RL's Belarusian Service earlier this month. Wieck said that neither Brussels nor Deutsche Welle is against Belarusian-language broadcasting. According to Wieck, there is currently no money to organize Belarusian-language broadcasts. "This is a problem of means. Now in Russian, later in Belarusian," Wieck said. "The [Deutsche Welle] new project is only the beginning." Wieck stressed that reaction to the Deutsche Welle project in Belarus is quite understandable.

Wieck, who was instrumental in uniting the cantankerous Belarusian opposition behind a single challenger to President Lukashenka in the 2001 presidential ballot, is doubtless among the most knowledgeable Western experts on Belarus. He is also one of the very few who seem to understand the important role of the Belarusian native linguistic and cultural heritage in the possible democratization of the country. In 2001, some forces in the anti-Lukashenka electoral coalition all but sabotaged the opposition campaign because of what they regarded as a disastrous choice of opposition candidates. Uladzimir Hancharyk, the single candidate "imposed" by Wieck on the Belarusian opposition in 2001, was a Soviet-era trade-union functionary who remained utterly indifferent to the revival of the Belarusian language and culture. This revival, which is being ardently advocated by a significant segment of the Belarusian opposition as a sine qua non for Belarus's "return to Europe" and no less stridently opposed by Lukashenka as a major obstacle to his "back-to-the-USSR" drive, has now been dealt a serious (even if indirect and/or unintended) blow by Brussels and Deutsche Welle.

Will Brussels, as Wieck expects, think twice and take a more favorable stance toward the Belarusian language (read: find money for Belarusian-language broadcasting) in the future? Judging by all appearances, not in the not-so-distant future. Because Brussels still faces the task of crafting a strategic policy toward Lukashenka's Belarus that would map out long-term priorities, not just "emergency measures" on the eve of major political campaigns in Belarus, to which Deutsche Welle's Belarus project appears to belong.

Belarusian Self-Awareness

It is difficult to imagine any "colored revolution" taking place in Belarus next year. And it has already become obvious beyond any doubt that Europe's assistance to pro-democracy activism in Belarus -- if it is to be efficient -- should not limit itself to training in election techniques but rather embrace a much wider program of activities intended to bolster Belarusians' awareness that they are not a "Russian" nation (as recently suggested by Russian President Vladimir Putin) and that they actually belong to Europe, not to Eurasia. The promotion of the Belarusian language, whether as a tool for imparting free and unbiased information or a means for attaining a stronger sense of national pride by Belarusians, arguably should be one of the key priorities in such a strategic program of European assistance to Belarus.

Deutsche Welle's Russian Service Director Rabitz told Belarusian journalists that her company should be praised rather than criticized for its Belarus broadcasting project. "It is stupid to say that Russian is bad and Belarusian is good," Belapan quoted her as saying on 8 August. Rabitz also noted that Deutsche Welle has been broadcasting in Russian to five post-Soviet countries in Central Asia, where she said these programs are valued, not criticized. Rabitz's irritation is perhaps to be expected. However, as far as opponents of Russian-language broadcasting from abroad to Belarus are concerned, both of those arguments miss the point.

Apples And Oranges

First, nobody in Belarus appears to be imposing such a "bad-good" evaluation on the two languages. The protests are directed primarily against what is perceived as Deutsche Welle's emblematic support for the policies and ideology of Russification promoted by Lukashenka in Belarus. Some might ask, not without reason, why Deutsche Welle found funding five years ago to sponsor Ukrainian-language broadcasting to Ukraine -- the country Russified to a level comparable to that of Belarus -- and was unable to repeat the act with regard to Belarus.

Rabitz's implicit comparison of Belarus with post-Soviet Central Asia, her opponents in Belarus say, does not hold water either, since none of those five post-Soviet republics has launched the kind of nationally traumatic linguistic and cultural policy that Lukashenka did 10 years ago in Belarus. In no former Soviet Union republic is the situation of the titular language so pitiable as in Belarus. Although the 1999 census suggested that 73.7 percent of Belarus's population declared Belarusian as its native language and 36.7 percent said it speaks Belarusian at home, Belarusian has been almost completely replaced by Russian in public life and state-run media.

On the other hand, while many Belarusians (including many with university diplomas) find it difficult to speak or write freely in Belarusian, the overwhelming majority has no problems whatsoever in understanding the language. Therefore, a Belarusian-language broadcaster could reach the same audiences in Belarus as a Russian-language one. This was amply demonstrated by the highly successful, private, Belarusian-language Radio 101.2 in Minsk, which was closed down by the Lukashenka administration in mid-1990s because, as one commentator put it, it broadcast in the language of freedom, not that of suppression.

One of the participants in the "Nasha Niva" discussion about Deutsche Welle's planned broadcasts to Belarus said the use of Russian language strips the project of any practical efficiency. He argued that tuning in to the Deutsche Welle Russian-language program on shortwave (over which Deutsche Welle will broadcast to Belarus) would be incomparably harder than tuning in to a Belarusian-language broadcast because of a multitude of other Russian-language stations on the shortwave spectrum. Thus the use of Belarusian by Deutsche Welle would arguably be a more pragmatic option. Some in Belarus believe that argument is even more appealing than any case based on Belarusian trauma resulting from its government's linguistic and cultural policies.

By Patrick Moore

The Chinese authorities have made it clear again recently that political rather than economic considerations are paramount in media affairs. Moves to keep foreign capital and influence out of the media appear to be at sharp variance with China's commitment as a new member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) to open its markets.

Beijing has used its well-honed skills in public relations in recent years to present an image to foreigners of spectacular economic development and a "peaceful rise" that will soon make China a major factor in virtually all fields of international relations. Occasionally, however, the Chinese authorities let their mask slip and do something that reveals once again that China remains a one-party state ruled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with "politics is in command" in the time-honored Leninist fashion.

Some recent developments in which the CCP -- and especially its Central Propaganda Department -- intervened in public life involved the media. The Propaganda Department, like the CCP, has an all-pervasive but shadowy presence. Neither institution has a clearly marked headquarters building in Beijing. The Propaganda Department has neither a listed telephone number nor a website. But it led no fewer than four government ministries in issuing a recent order strictly limiting the role that foreign investors can play in China's huge but fragmented media market.

Radio Free Asia's (RFA) Mandarin Service reported in early August that a new policy document from the Propaganda Department and four ministries prohibits, in the words of the state-run Xinhua news agency, "foreign investors from establishing or running news organizations, broadcasting stations, [and] TV stations, [as well as] film manufacturing companies, performing troupes, film imports, exports, and distribution" (see In addition, "no more licenses for foreign satellite channels will be issued," and Chinese officials will be obliged to "conscientiously strengthen management of foreign satellite channels that already have licenses."

Xinhua added that the purpose of the measures is "to safeguard the country's culture industry and ensure the industry's healthy development." The document did not specify which criteria will be applied when officials "strengthen management" of foreign broadcasts.

RFA quoted unnamed Hong Kong-based observers as saying that "the rules mean, in effect, that no licenses will be issued by the Ministry of Culture from now on to foreign companies wishing to set up newspapers, magazines, electronic publications, or children's cartoon production companies." The broadcast also quoted current affairs commentator Zhou Bin as stressing the contradiction between the latest curbs and Beijing's commitment as a member of the WTO to open its markets. "Nevermind about the propaganda side of it; there's a trade agreement in effect under which China should open up its markets gradually. Yes, of course, they want to do it step by step. But that means a gradual opening up, not just getting to a certain point and stopping altogether," Zhou said.

These restrictions seem significant, but they are not the only moves that the authorities have taken in recent months against the free dissemination of news and ideas. On 16 June, state media reported that the Beijing Security Service Corporation, which is run by the police, is setting up a new Beijing Internet Security Service and is looking for 4,000 recruits to staff it. About 800 of them will go to Internet cafes throughout the city and most of the rest to various other Internet-related businesses. Among their duties will be to "delete all kinds of harmful information" as part of a drive that is reportedly being extended to other cities as well.

Given the speed and dexterity that students and other ordinary Chinese have shown in using the Internet, text messaging, e-mail, and other modern electronic communications to organize protests -- such as the recent ones against Japan -- it is not difficult to see why the CCP feels a special need to try to control such sources of information and communication.

And journalists themselves have been reminded of their "duties." On 25 July, Xinhua carried a commentary that referred to "the journalistic front" and the need for those working on it to "do a better job of performing the glorious duties entrusted by the Party and the people." The editorial noted the "direct correlation between the continuous emergence of false news...and the relaxation of efforts by some journalistic personnel to study Marxist views on news [together with] their abdication of social responsibility and violations of professional ethics for economic gain." While acknowledging the positive role of some investigative reporting, the commentary called on journalists to "consciously build a 'fence' to keep out false news" and observe the newly announced "Regulations Governing the Employment of News Reporters and Editors." This does not sound like the stuff of which a free and independent press is made.

The Chinese authorities have, moreover, continued to be vigilant in keeping out "harmful information" from the outside. The prestigious Hong Kong-based "Far Eastern Economic Review" reported in its July-August issue that its June edition had been "banned" in China because of a book review written by Jonathan Mirsky, a former East Asia editor of London's "The Times." Mirsky's article discussed a new and critical 832-page biography of the late Chairman Mao Zedong entitled "Mao: The Unknown Story" by Jung Chang, Jon Halliday, and Jonathan Cape.

The authors' evaluation of Mao as a sadistic "mass murderer" is damning, and they debunk several myths that still remain part of the CCP's official assessment of the "Great Helmsman" and his life. Even though the CCP today officially considers Mao's legacy as just "70 percent good," he and the myths surrounding much of his career remain an integral part of the CCP's claim to legitimacy. Accordingly, the offending issue of the "Far Eastern Economic Review" was barred from circulation in China.

Another message of sorts was recently sent to the journalistic community that deals with China and its recent history. On 5 August the authorities announced that they had formally arrested Hong Kong journalist Ching Cheong, who writes for Singapore's "Straits Times," on charges of spying for Taiwan after having detained him since April. If found guilty, Ching could face the death penalty or at least a long prison term. He is an expert on the late CCP General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, who was sacked on 23-24 June 1989 for behavior that the CCP leadership around "paramount leader" Deng Xiaoping regarded as supportive of the Beijing democracy movement that Deng's tanks and troops crushed on 4 June.

Reporting on the Ching case, The "Los Angeles Times" quoted Abi Wright, the Asia coordinator the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, as saying that "the pattern we're seeing is very disturbing. The use of these kinds of security charges is a change for the worse."

At least part of the reason for the authorities' recent nervousness is apparent concern over the effect that the media in general and modern electronic communications in particular are having on "stability," meaning in the last analysis the continuation of the CCP's dictatorship. "The Washington Post" noted on 10 August that "the fallout from a series of [largely economically-motivated local] demonstrations has been magnified recently because of loosened restrictions on news reporting and increased use of cell phones and the Internet, even by villagers in remote areas.... Although [CCP] censors try to stifle reporting on the unrest...word of the incidents is transmitted at a speed previously unknown in China."