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Media Matters: December 29, 2005

29 December 2005, Volume 5, Number 21
By Golnaz Esfandiari

Afghan journalist Ali Mohaqeq Nasab, the editor of the "Hoqoq-e-Zan" (Women's Rights) monthly, was sentenced to two years in prison in October on blasphemy charges. An appeals court reduced that to a six-month suspended sentence last week, after Nasab -- who is also an Islamic scholar --apologized for articles he had written that 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.

His arrest was condemned by international media rights groups, such as Reporters Without Borders and the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Conservative clerics had originally demanded the death penalty for Nasab, but the independent Journalists Association of Afghanistan said even the nearly three months Nasab spent in prison was too severe a penalty. In an interview with RFE/RL from Kabul on 29 December, Nasab said his arrest and incarceration shows there is still only limited freedom of expression in Afghanistan. He also said Afghan journalists are under attack by those who are using religion as a tool to advance their own causes.

RFE/RL: You were jailed and put on trial on charges of blasphemy and insulting Islam. What was the basis for the charges against you?

Nasab: I was arrested on a charge of insulting Islam, but this was only an excuse because the real issue was a plot that originated from outside the country. Insulting Islam was only an excuse. The reality was something else.

RFE/RL: Could you be more specific?

Nasab: Currently, the conditions are such that I don't want to name people. The order came from one of Afghanistan's neighbors, and the plot originated from there. Insulting Islam was used as an excuse. I had an article in Issue No. 7 of "Hoqoq-e-Zan." The title was "Apostasy According to the Koran." In that article, I wrote that apostasy -- or abandoning one's [religion] -- is not a crime. Although is it considered haram [religiously unlawful or prohibited] in Islam, it is not a crime. People should not be prosecuted because of their ideas. They said my article was an insult against Islam, and they carried out [their plan].

RFE/RL: You rejected the charges that were brought against you.

Nasab: Yes, I rejected the charges. I did not accept them. In my view, apostasy is not a crime. I expressed it as a religious and a legal view. There is strong evidence to support this, and a group of scholars share this view.

RFE/RL: You were released from prison a few days ago. Why did the court drop the charges against you?

Nasab: My guilt or the charges against me were not proven. Even the first sentence against me -- two years in prison -- was politically motivated. Otherwise, if apostasy had been proven, the sentence is much heavier, according to most religious authorities. Even in the first stage, the charges against me were not proven. But because of political issues and because there was a group behind it, they sentenced me to two years in prison. Finally, in the last session of the court [on 21 December], I was acquitted.

RFE/RL: You say the case against you was a plot by foreigners, but yet you were arrested after complaints by some conservative clerics in Afghanistan.

Nasab: Yes, the conservative clerics executed this plot. It originated from outside, but they were the executioners.

RFE/RL: Who do you blame for your arrest and for spending three months in jail?

Nasab: I consider the main culprit to be the movement that came from outside and religious extremists who mobilized inside it. There are a group of people who -- based on their family background and race -- are against our [Hazara] people, although I don't belong to any [political] group or party, and I'm neither for or against anybody. But they targeted me as part of my people and tribe, with the aim that from these people nobody should grow and reach success. That's why they created this problem.

RFE/RL: Your arrest created fear and concern among journalists in Afghanistan. It also led to concern that self-censorship would increase among media workers in Afghanistan. What is your view? What are the consequences of your arrest?

Nasab: It had mixed consequences. Regarding the coordinated efforts of the journalists, they reached a positive result [with my release from jail]. But it also showed that, in Afghanistan, freedom of expression has not been achieved as we had expected. There is no freedom of expression. Some have said that if it goes on like this, freedom of expression may be no more. But finally we reached some positive results. We were able to prove to the world, to our country, to those in charge and others that there should be freedom of expression, if not now then in the future.

RFE/RL: But currently, as you said, the situation is far from ideal, and journalists face many challenges in Afghanistan. There are certain red lines they should not cross, such as criticizing or questioning religious issues.

Nasab: Of course, now the reality is that we are claiming that there is democracy and freedom of expression. I think Article 34 of our constitution says that freedom of expression is immune from violations. But those who are in charge of enforcing democracy and freedom of expression are people who do not believe these [principles]. They are even the enemies of these principles. Therefore, there isn't enough freedom of expression. There are many red lines. But God willing, we will do our best to slowly overcome these issues and support freedom of expression.

RFE/RL: So does that mean that, despite everything, you are going to continue to work as a journalist in Afghanistan?

Nasab: Yes, I'm in my office [in Kabul] now, and I've been having talks with officials and academics, so that I will continue with energy and force. I am not looking for adventure. I just want to perform my job right and work for national unity and democracy.

RFE/RL: Are you concerned that you or some of your colleagues could be arrested in the future?

Nasab: Yes, this concern always exists in Afghanistan for all journalists in all provinces. There have been problems and similar incidents in Herat, in the north, in Kabul, in many other places. But as the result of efforts by [journalists and organizations defending press freedom], the situation is a bit better, and the government will also strive for better cooperation. We will succeed in consolidating freedom of expression in Afghanistan.

RFE/RL: Who are the biggest enemies of journalists in Afghanistan?

Nasab: In Afghanistan, most attacks [against journalists] come from reactionaries and people who use religion as a tool. During the last 25 years of conflict, they have always used religion for their own goals. It's the same now. They are against issues such as freedom of expression, democracy, and civilization. Although many of them are in charge of enforcing democracy, they don't believe in it.

RFE/RL: The last question is about the conditions inside the prison in Kabul where you spent the last three months. You said in a press conference shortly after your release that the conditions were very bad.

Nasab: There are several problems [in prison]. One is that addiction is widespread. Different types of drugs are distributed inside the prison. There are cigarettes, opium, and similar things. Secondly, they insult the prisoners. Some were beaten. Some were chained and put under "special regimes," as they call it. There are things that have remained from the Middle Ages. The feet of the prisoners are chained, and they have to walk with those chains. These treatments are neither legal nor religiously correct. There are also many people held there who are innocent.

By Karine Kalantarian

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) will likely agree next month to hold hearings and make a ruling on the hotly disputed closure three years ago of Armenia's main independent television station, the lawyer for A1+ television predicted on 22 December.

Tigran Ter-Yesayan said he believes that the A1+ station's appeal against what he called the politically motivated revocation of its license will be the first Armenia-related case to be heard by the court in Strasbourg. "We expect to receive final information about the A1+ case by the end of January," he told RFE/RL.

A1+, the only national channel not controlled by the Armenian authorities, was taken off the air in April 2002 after losing its broadcasting frequency in a tender administered by a presidentially appointed regulatory body.

The National Commission on Television and Radio blocked all of its subsequent attempts to win another frequency despite international pressure exerted on Yerevan. The Council of Europe and other international organizations said the A1+ closure dealt a serious blow to press freedom in Armenia.

A1+, which has been struggling to remain afloat by producing programs for regional TV stations and publishing a newspaper, appealed to the ECHR more than two years ago after exhausting all possibilities of legal action in Armenia. The court, whose rulings are binding for all Council of Europe member states, is still examining the appeal.

"There has been a two-month break [in the examination process],"Ter-Yesayan said. "Until then the European court was actively demanding written clarifications from the plaintiff and the government."

With Council of Europe officials no longer raising the issue with Armenian leaders, an ECHR verdict annulling the results of the April 2002 bidding appears to be the station's sole chance of resuming broadcasts in the foreseeable future. The Armenian authorities insist that the contest was legal and fair, a claim disputed by local and Western media watchdogs.

The A1+ appeal is only one of the cases filed with the ECHR by Armenian citizens. Ter-Yesayan, whose Forum law firm helps Armenians make such appeals, said the court is currently considering accepting legal complaints from six opposition activists who were controversially imprisoned under Armenia's Code of Administrative Offenses for their participation in unsanctioned antigovernment demonstrations.

The Council of Europe considers the Soviet-era code an archaic tool of government repression and has repeatedly demanded that the Armenian authorities repeal it. The authorities used it to jail hundreds of people for up to 15 days both during the 2003 presidential election and last year's opposition protests in Yerevan.

By Victor Yassman

The year 2005 was a mixed bag for television in Russia -- a year in which quantity came at the expense of quality, and the number of entertainment offerings ballooned as the Kremlin tightened control over information programming.

The renaissance of Russian cinema in 2005 also served to benefit Russian television, a result of President Vladimir Putin's decision three years ago to restore state support for the decaying film and television industry. Since then, Russian studios have produced more than 150 films and serials.

This turnaround -- coming after the industry was on its deathbed -- has placed it on par with developing producers such as Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, which have found a niche for low-budget soap operas.

In addition to positioning itself in the romance genre, the Russian entertainment industry has found success with criminal underworld and patriotic-historical programs. Examples of the latter are often devoted to the country's military past, such as the mini-series "Turkish Gambit" and "Bayazet," both centered on the 19th-century Russo-Turkish War, or "Demise of Empire" about World War I.

In the tradition of communist-era glorification of chekist agents and their role in the first years of the Soviet regime, 2005 saw the emergence of programs highlighting the efforts of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) to combat "international terrorists."

Historical documentaries were also in the spotlight, with the three-part "Brezhnev" receiving the national television award TEFI in November. A documentary depicting former Soviet leader and KGB Chairman Yurii Andropov as an early reformist was also aired.

Another trend of 2005 was the rise in the number of comedy shows, accounting for up to 50 percent of prime-time broadcasting on weekends. If television bosses thought that airing lighter programs could help raise Russians' spirits, they were mistaken. The move provoked numerous protests from all corners of society accusing TV executives of attempting to make "morons of the population."

But while entertainment programs might dominate the airwaves, television's role as an efficient vehicle for communication and political influence in a huge country with great ethnic and social disparity was not forgotten.

Nikolai Popov, research director of the ROMIR Monitoring polling center, told RFE/RL's Moscow bureau in September that for 79 percent of Russians, three national networks -- Channel 1, RTR, and NTV -- are their main sources of information on the outside world. According to a ROMIR poll, just 14 percents of Russians read nationally distributed print media -- and just 3 percent trust it. By contrast, national television has the highest level of public trust, 44 percent, followed by national radio at 8 percent and the Internet at 5 percent.

The Kremlin is well aware of the high status afforded television, and took steps in the past year to increase its influence on the national networks as a means of advancing its political agenda.

It is telling that President Vladimir Putin is increasingly afforded near-hero status on Russian information programs, which have all become extremely loyal not only to him personally, but to his entourage.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service in October, Eduard Sagalaev, the president of the National Association of Television Broadcasters, shared a personal experience that characterizes the extent of the networks' servility. "I can understand why Russian television is so loyal to Putin," Sagalaev recalled an American friend as telling him. "But I cannot understand why it treats his Labrador [his dog Koni] the same way."

The Kremlin continued in 2005 to tighten its grip on political coverage on national television networks by appearing to crack down on independent-minded journalists. In this regard, the Kremlin's main target became REN-TV, which until recently had widely been considered the only remaining independent liberal television channel in Russia.

Irena Lisnevskaya and her son Dmitrii, who together owned 30 percent of the company, founded the channel in 1997. Another co-owner was Unified Energy Systems (EES), headed by Anatolii Chubais, whose good relationship with Putin had helped the channel preserve its liberal orientation.

REN-TV took advantage of its independent status by reporting critically on Kremlin policies on a number of issues -- including the war in Chechnya, the investigation into the Beslan tragedy, the Yukos case, and corruption in the government. But this deviation from the general political line was not to be tolerated by the Kremlin for long. In July 2005, Chubais announced that EES intended to sell its stake in REN-TV, as it did not "correspond to the company profile," reported on 12 July. EES's shares were purchased by Severstal, the metallurgic holding owned by Aleksei Mordashov, a magnate loyal to the Kremlin and the pro-presidential Unified Russia party.

The same day, it was announced that the Lisnevskii stake in REN-TV was to be sold to the Luxembourg-based RTL Group, which is part of the German multimedia giant Bertelsmann. Presumably as a consolation prize, Irena Lisnevskaya and REN-TV producer Lev Nikolaev received a TEFI for their contribution to the development of national television.

In November, it became clear that the new management did not plan to uphold its promises not to alter the channel's editorial policy when Olga Romanova, anchorwoman of the main information program "24," was taken off the air for three months. Romanova sued the company for violating her journalistic rights, and subsequently left the company together with a group of editors, anchors, and others who submitted their resignations.

The development was the icing on the cake in terms of the Kremlin's efforts to subordinate independent television outlets, as the fall of REN-TV effectively leaves no resistance to Moscow's manipulation of Russia's television airwaves.