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Media Matters: November 9, 2005

9 November 2005, Volume 5, Number 18
By Golnaz Esfandiari

The recent jailing of an Afghan magazine editor is raising concerns about the issue of press freedom in Afghanistan. Ali Mohaqiq Nasab, editor of the "Women�s Rights" monthly, was found guilty of publishing articles that were deemed un-Islamic. On 22 October, he was sentenced to two years in prison. The United Nations, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, and several international media rights groups including the International Federation of Journalists have protested. Journalists inside Afghanistan say they fear the case could pave the way for more attacks on the country�s independent media. Rahimullah Samandar, the head of Afghanistan�s Independent Journalist Association and the Committee To Defend Afghan Journalists, spoke to RFE/RL about the increasing harassment journalists are facing in Afghanistan for contributing to free speech.

RFE/RL: What have been the reactions among journalists to the court verdict that was issued against Ali Mohaqiq Nasab the editor of "Women�s Rights"?

Samandar: Afghan journalists are very worried about the decision of the court and they all reject it. Most journalists believe that the court procedures were against the law from the beginning; from the time Ali Mohaqiq Nasab was arrested till the hearing and the issuing of the verdict. Journalists are concerned that if the situation continues, maybe [more] journalists will face similar consequences. It is very painful and very difficult, it will lead to a setback for freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and it could pave the way for courts to issue more [such verdicts].

RFE/RL: Do you think that this concern and fear of persecution that exists among journalists in Afghanistan could lead to more self-censorship?

Samandar: Yes, definitely. There is fear among most journalists after they heard about the two years jail term for Mohaqiq Nasab, some colleagues say that such issues [Islamic issues] should not be touched upon. Also some people put the press and journalists under pressure for writing about such issues, [they say] it is not the right time to write about these issues and discuss it. All of these factors lead to self-censorship and it forces journalists not to cover Islamic and religious issues.

RFE/RL: Threats and intimidation are reportedly increasing against journalists in Afghanistan. Who or what groups are involved in attacks and intimidation against media workers in Afghanistan?

Samandar: Only in the last week we had three of four cases where journalists faced problems [in relation to their work]. For example I can name three cases that happened in Herat. In two cases Herat police created problems for the journalists, they were taken to police centers and interrogated. The journalists were asked why they had written articles that were critical of police activities. In addition, one of Tolo TV�s reporters in Herat was threatened by the police. Also, Ayna TV in Kabul was threatened by a number of armed men, who caused some damage. In general in many cases the threats and violence have come from the police or from some government officials. In the provinces, in most cases governors, the local police and commanders in charge of security cause problems for journalists .

RFE/RL: Were journalists also threatened in relation to their coverage of the 18 September parliamentary and local council elections? Did they face any problems?

Samandar: Yes we received reports that some colleagues were threatened or they were banned from publishing some reports. There were reports about candidates asking journalists to write in their favor. In addition, journalists who had reported about a lack of transparency in the procedures of the election centers faced problems from some officials and also in some cases from the election commission. Independent media, the independent press face such problems, they face pressure and they also practice self-censorship, they are harassed because of their reports. This is an ongoing problem that from now on can get even worse.

RFE/RL: Why do you think there are going to be more threats and attacks on independent media?

Samandar: Because efforts that have been made to somehow lessen [harassment of journalists] have had no impact. For example the Culture Ministry has written in this regard to the Interior Ministry and the Defense Ministry but instead we have seen that these cases have increased. Also now a number of people who belonged to different jihadi or extremist groups, they have gained a seat in the parliament. If they enter the parliament then it is possible that such cases will increase. For example there could be discussions in the parliament that Islamic issues, or issues considered sacred by the jihadis, or issues related to prominent people [should not be discussed]. Jihadi figures and leaders could attempt to increase pressure [on journalists]. They could try to achieve their goals in the parliament. Right now there are talks inside the country that maybe the new parliament will review all the country�s existing laws. If some laws were reviewed like the press and media law maybe it would lead to more restrictions, it would make the work of journalists very difficult.

RFE/RL: My last question is about your organization, Afghanistan�s Independent Journalist Association, could you briefly tell us about some of your main activities?

Samandar: From the time the association started its work in June 2005, it has investigated and defended the cases of more than 20 journalists who have faced violence. In addition we have been in touch with a number of international media organizations. We also have a sixth month and a one year plan aimed at increasing professionalism among Afghan journalists. A problem that exists in Afghanistan is the lack of an ethical code of conduct that exists in other countries. Journalists have not been taught about ethical issues. We are planning to hold workshops [about issues dealing with journalistic ethics]. The association is also trying to create a network among all journalists in Afghanistan.

By Golnaz Esfandiari

The arrest of the editor in chief of an Afghan women's magazine is causing concern and fear among journalists in the country. Ali Mohaqiq Nasab ran the respected monthly magazine called "Women's Rights" (Hoquq-e Zan). He was arrested in October for publishing articles deemed blasphemous and anti-Islamic. His arrest has been condemned by organizations defending press freedoms inside Afghanistan and also by international media rights groups, such as Reporters Without Borders and the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

One of the stories published in "Women's Rights" questioned the harsh punishment under Shari'a law for women found guilty of adultery, such as stoning. Another article argued that giving up Islam is not a crime.

The magazine's editor, Ali Mohaqiq Nasab, was arrested on 1 October following a complaint made to the Supreme Court by a religious adviser to Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Since then, Mohaqiq Nasab has appeared twice in court. The judges in charge of the case have accused him of intentionally publishing anti-Islamic articles and have said he should be severely punished. Mohaqeq Nasab, who is also an Islamic scholar, denies the charges.

Rahimullah Samandar, the head of Afghanistan's Independent Association of Journalists, told RFE/RL that the country's Media Commission met on 18 October and concluded that Mohaqeq Nasab did not insult Islam in his articles. The meeting was called following a request by Afghan media groups.

Samandar, who is a member of the Media Commission, said the panel is now calling on the Supreme Court to release Mohaqiq Nasab. "In all the words by Mohaqeq Nasab, the commission members did not find anything to prove that he is an apostate or that he had insulted Islam deliberately. Therefore, the commission found him not guilty and just ordered that, from now on, he cannot work as an editor in chief or managing editor of a publication [because of lack of journalistic experience]," Samandar said.

Samandar said it is unclear whether judges will agree to free the jailed editor.

Robert Kluyver, the country representative for the Open Society Institute in Afghanistan, believes the case is politically motivated. He said Mohaqiq Nasab ran into trouble with conservative Shi'ite clerics when he was campaigning as a candidate for parliament.

"It is a case where conservative Shi'a clerics are fighting the more moderate Shi'a. In other words, it very much reminds one of the problem that exists in Iran. It was a general Shi'a issue. Meanwhile, Ali Mohaqeq Nasab was also a candidate for parliament [and was] attacked by more conservative Shi'a clergy for his more modernist views on religion," Kluyver said.

According to Afghanistan's media law, journalists can be arrested only after their case is first reviewed by the Media Commission. In the case of Ali Mohaqiq Nasab, this process was not followed.

Kluyver said the case sets a disturbing precedent. "Unfortunately, the problem is that there has been no stance on the principles -- first, on the following of legal proceedings in this country, and second, on freedom of press issues," he said. "In other words, this person will be released, but there is absolutely no indication that in a couple of months, another journalist will not be picked up on charges of blasphemy and will be tried by the Supreme Court. [It] is basically not in the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court to arrest journalists and put them on trial for blasphemy."

Mohaqiq Nasab is not the first Afghan journalist to be picked up for alleged blasphemy. In 2003, two editors from the Afghan weekly "Aftab" were also detained for allegedly publishing articles that criticized the political use of Islam by conservative leaders. They were later freed, but were forced to leave the country because of threats.

Samandar said such cases deal a serious blow to freedom of expression in Afghanistan. He fears these incidents will lead to increasing self-censorship among Afghan journalists.

"In recent days, I see that journalists talk among themselves and say that such sensitive issues should not be touched on. Before this case, we had the issue with Tolo TV [in which the station's programs have been criticized by conservative clerics as un-Islamic]. Or before that, we had a crisis in Herat University where two journalists who had questioned some Islamic issues were expelled from the university for one year. If such cases increase, no journalist in Afghanistan will be able to write as it is needed," Samandar said.

A recent survey by a local media-development organization found that the harassment of journalists in Afghanistan is on the rise. The study found that many of the threats and intimidation tactics used against journalists are initiated by warlords and government officials.

Samandar said several measures need to be taken. "Article 31 of Afghanistan's media law should be [toned down]," he said. "It includes the issues that journalists are not allowed to write about. Journalists cannot write about Islamic issues, about religion. It should be [changed]. It is necessary for the freedom of journalists. In addition, international organizations which defend freedom of expression should put the Afghan government under pressure so that there is less pressure on journalists inside the country."

In a statement released after Ali Mohaqiq Nasab's arrest, Reporters Without Borders said the press is required to respect Afghanistan's official religion. But it added that authorities cannot assume the right to arrest those who peacefully express their views about Islam.

A group of Afghan writers based in Canada also wrote an open letter to Afghan President Hamid Karzai in which they refer to the arrest of Mohaqiq Nasab as "the imprisonment of all writers in Afghanistan."

By Golnaz Esfandiari

Iran has banned foreign films promoting secularism, feminism, unethical behavior, drug abuse, or violence. The ban was approved by the Supreme Cultural Revolutionary Council headed by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. It is still not clear how strictly the ban will be enforced and how it will affect the film industry inside the country.

The reason for the issuing of the new ruling and it�s timing is not clear. Western movies, deemed decadent and morally corrupt, have always been banned in the Islamic Republic.

The ruling, issued in October by the Supreme Cultural Revolutionary Council, bans the distribution and screening of movies that degrade "the true culture of Islamic societies" and feature propaganda for "the world oppression," a term used by the Iranian establishment to designate the United States.

Forbidden are also foreign films, which deny the existence of God and promote feminist, liberal, or nihilist ideas and alcoholism.

Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, one of Iran�s leading female filmmakers, told Radio Farda that the ruling contains nothing new. "In general, the policies that have been applied till now have been in the same line, now maybe it�s with a harsher view, but I really couldn�t find anything new in the directive," she said. "These are issues that have always been sensitive."

Ali Reza Motamedi, a film writer in Tehran, said it was expected that the election of ultraconservative Mahmud Ahmadinejad would lead to stricter rules on the screening of foreign films. But still he said the new ban comes as a surprise.

"Many people were surprised when they heard about it," Motamedi said. "I think maybe it was a move by the members of the new government to show that [they are in control]. They wanted to have a ruling in what was one of their first meetings. I don�t see any other reason for that, the ban is so [unprofessional] and there are so many [problems] in it that I don�t think it was issued after much thought."

Reportedly, Iran�s culture minister and the head of national broadcasting were charged with enforcing the ban.

Motamedi believes that it will be difficult to enforce the ruling because it raises many questions. "The concepts that are mentioned in the ban such as nihilism and secularism are so general and in the cinema industry they are so abstract that it is not easy to determine through such a ruling whether a film promotes secularism of nihilism," he said. "Or there is the question whether a film can really promote feminism or not. In fact, it means that we want to defend a patriarchic cinematography when it comes to the screening of foreign films."

Western movies are very popular in Iran, where entertainments are relatively limited. Most people rely on satellite televisions and the black market to watch the latest Hollywood releases.

In recent years, more Western films have been shown in cinemas, but scenes featuring sex, alcohol, or nudity have been censored. Recently some Hollywood productions such as "Terminator 3," "Kill Bill," and "The Aviator" have been screened in a few cinemas.

Motamedi told RFE/RL that the new regulations will not have a big impact on the screening of foreign movies in Iran. "Films that are being screened here are either [moral] films from Hong Kong or India," he said. "European movies have not been screened for a long time. American movies that are being shown are like for example 'Fahrenheit 9/11' -- that was screened in Iran during the U.S. presidential elections because it is anti-Bush. The other American movies that are shown are, in fact movies that tell a story, like Christopher Nolan�s 'Insomnia.'"

During his presidential campaign, Ahmadinejad promised to confront "Western cultural invasion". On 8 October he said he would support measures that would strengthen and spread Koranic culture in Iranian society.

Some are concerned that the new order could signal the beginning of an era of more restrictive cultural policies in the Islamic Republic. During the eight-year term of former President Mohammad Khatami, restrictions were eased to some degree.

Bani-Etemad said it will depend to a great extent on how the order will be interpreted. "The issue is different interpretations that result from such cases; we are always facing this problem," she said. "As I said, I don�t see anything new in it. Maybe as time goes by we will see to what degree the interpretation of these words and cases will bring new limitations." She added that it is highly unlikely that the new ban will affect films made in Iran.

(Radio Farda correspondent Nazi Azima contributed to this report.)

On 24 October, RFE/RL correspondent Andrei Sharogradskii spoke with political satirist and writer Viktor Shenderovich, best known as the creator of the television program "Kukly." Shenderovich is now running in a by-election for a seat in the State Duma. The same day, Shenderovich announced that he had asked the police to protect himself and his family from harassment by the presidential administration.

Shenderovich said that Aleksandr Levin, editor of the NTV program "Real Politics," had told him that some members of the Kremlin administration were unhappy with Shenderovich's decision to run for the Duma seat from the University district in Moscow and that they had threatened to take measures if he didn't withdraw or agree to "follow the rules." According to Shenderovich, "Levin explained that in the presidential administration, in his opinion and in the opinion of some unnamed confidantes, there are people who are capable of taking criminal measures toward myself and members of my family -- for example, there was mention of a possible road accident involving my wife."

RFE/RL asked Levin to comment on Shenderovich's announcement.

Aleksandr Levin: Yes, indeed, I had a conversation with Shenderovich. Until recently, I thought Viktor and I were friends. We met quite a few times, played pool, etc. Recently, we met in a club where we usually hang out. We indeed had a conversation -- a private one -- but that in no way translates into what he�s saying now. I asked Shenderovich what purpose he had for going into politics. He said he saw it as a continuation of his work as a publicist; that he is going there as a provocateur -- that is, to test how ratty the government really is, so to speak. It's quite a compelling argument. Then we had a conversation concerning "the powers and the opposition."

I demonstrated, using as an example the recently passed-away [Soviet-era Politburo member and ideologue of perestroika] Aleksandr Nikolaevich Yakovlev, that the real opposition in Russia is usually the opposition from inside the powers that be and that the opposition outside of them rarely has a chance to achieve real power. I explained to him my point of view that politics is a sort of closed, elitist club, in which there exist certain internal agreements, and so on. I explained to him that it is a club with its own strict rules. This conversation as a whole was concerned with power and the dynamic of power in Russia as I saw it. It was in no way related to Shenderovich, and his election to the Duma. I am extremely upset that, first of all, all this is being disseminated without anyone�s permission; and second of all, that for the sake of that stupid car with flashing lights and a seat in Okhotnyi Rad, a man is able to betray everything -- a long-time friendship, respect for private conversation and so on.

When they read this text to me, I called Shenderovich and told him that I�m crossing him off of my list of decent people and that I refuse shake his hand again. This is, basically, it. I mentioned [Soviet-era Communist Party First Secretary for Belarussia Petr] Masherov [who died in a mysterious car accident that many believe was punishment by the KGB for his liberal policies] to him, and various other "difficulties," nicely speaking, that politicians have experienced in the past. This was only to substantiate my thesis about politics as a harsh reality. He asked me several times whether I was someone's messenger and whether or not there was some hidden message in my words. And several times I told him, "Look at me. Would anyone ever try and convey anything through me?"

RFE/RL: And this is what Viktor Shenderovich said in an interview with Radio Liberty.

Viktor Shenderovich: According to Aleksandr Levin, I betrayed a 10-year-old friendship with him in order to increase my chances of getting a car with flashing lights. I don�t understand how he was friends with a dweeb like me this whole time. Having said that, I want to move on to what�s actually important.

The conversation occurred in the presence of my wife. She, too, has been long acquainted with Aleksandr Levin -- we even worked together. There was no theoretical talk. There were, of course, some deviations from the key topic, but the conversation was directly related to my candidature. It wasn't an abstract conversation about the fate of Russian democracy. It was a conversation about the fact that I, without permission, was breaking the rules, and that he felt that people he knew were unhappy about my candidature and that, in their opinion, I was breaking the rules and trespassing into their territory.

Indeed, I asked him straightforwardly whether or not he was someone�s messenger. He said no � and this is reflected in my statement to the police. There was no mention of Masherov. The road accident he mentioned was quite specific, with my wife in it. Not a word about Masherov. My family�s safety was mentioned in a direct cause-and-effect relationship with my actions, with my ability to go to "them" and begin to discuss conditions under which I was entering this political field.

Honestly speaking, when my family's life and health are in question, I have little concern for Mr. Levin's moral critique of my person. I am much more concerned with the fact that he, as a conscientious and well-meaning person, as a law-abiding citizen, should tell (and I hope the police ask him) who exactly it was in the presidential administration that was so annoyed by my candidature; who it was that -- even if they didn't personally tell him -- he sensed such annoyance from, and such danger to my family. He mentioned this danger quite frequently and specifically. Who did these people have in mind, when they mentioned that they knew some potentially criminal elements in the president's administration, which would resort to these measures like road accidents or other unfortunate events? I am much more interested in his testimony than his moral critique.

In my statement, which can easily be found online, the role of Mr. Levin in this affair is articulated quite neutrally and with a presumed innocence. It mentions twice that he was not a messenger -- in his own words -- and that his actions were motivated by concern for my family. From his present comments I must make further conclusions about his role in this affair. And I must note that, based on his reaction and present comments, he indeed was a messenger of the criminals who made me this dirty offer. To what extent he realizes that he was used is a question he can answer himself, but I won't ask him, since I've been unfortunate enough to be crossed off of his list of friends. I repeat, however, that I am interested not in his moral critique, but in his testimony, which I hope to hear soon.