Accessibility links

Breaking News

Media Matters: October 25, 2004

25 October 2004, Volume 4, Number 20

By Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Despite widespread fears that Afghanistan's 9 October election would lead to attacks against election workers, observers, and journalists, the scale of violence was surprisingly low.

Fourteen election workers, including four women, were killed in various incidents during the run-up to the balloting. But to date, no journalists appeared to have been killed or injured, although threats might well have been made. "Based on a preliminary perusal about the election and the past year for the Afghan press, I would say there were far fewer reports of threats and attacks against the media this year than last year," Abi Wright, Asia program director for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), told RFE/RL. CPJ did not receive any reports of attacks on the media during the election period. The journalist group's findings concur with the absence of reports of violence from Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in Paris, Internews Afghanistan in Kabul, and other media watchdog groups.

Given distances and the difficulty of communications, some reports of obstruction and threats might have yet to arrive, but the general absence of news of attacks boosted the prospects of a successful vote.

It did not necessarily characterize the true state of the media in Afghanistan, however. "While it is always heartening in transitional post-conflict countries such as Afghanistan to witness a decrease in violence against the press, I am concerned that it may in fact be a result of widespread self-censorship and intimidation," said Wright. It remains to be seen whether gains from the election will translate into stronger institutions to protect the media, she added.

Most complaints from the opposition revolve around the indelible ink used to prevent multiple voting, with media bias or lack of access apparently not reaching a threshold of major concern.

With most of the ballots counted from the 9 October voting, Afghan transitional leader Hamid Karzai expected to emerge with a majority of the vote.

Journalists ordinarily face a daunting array of challenges and threats, Internews, an international media-assistance organization, said in a 30 September press release. (No subsequent attacks were reported.) Security threats, intimidation, lack of access to information, and inadequate communication technologies are among the difficulties reporters can face. Day to day, however, reporters and editors face the more routine problem of learning on the job in a climate of confusion about the media's mission and responsibilities. As in other transitional states, many newspapers and small radio stations amount to house organs for factions, parties, or warlords.

It is difficult to assess what audience penetration state and independent media really have when it comes to candidates' messages. International organizations say that with only about 25-30 percent of the population believed to be literate, radio is the best way to reach and educate the population. "TV is rare because sets are expensive, coverage is poor, and electricity is irregular. So yes, radio is king," Jon Newstrom, director of Internews Afghanistan, told RFE/RL recently.

According to an Internews survey in April 2004, state radio broadcasts cover 74 percent of the population, international radio stations 69.4 percent, and independent stations 38 percent.

Newstrom said people run their radios on batteries and wind-up rechargers, but added that it is difficult to assess how much news they received about elections. Although by law radio stations were required to broadcast two minutes of candidates' messages per week, few candidates availed themselves of the opportunity, said Newstrom.

Abdul Hamid Mobarze, a deputy minister of information and culture, said that small radio stations are important because just 6 percent of Afghans have electricity and thus many cannot watch television, "The Washington Post" reported 8 October. People buy transistor radios and batteries to hear their favorite programs, which often only broadcast a few hours on stations that maintain their own generators.

Given these limitations, it is difficult to estimate how much impact the radio stations really had on elections, or how they will function in consolidating the fragile gains of democracy post election. But small stations -- like Radio Karabagh outside Kabul -- were able to use their limited airtime to convey messages such as the arrival of election equipment in the provinces, and alerted people who noticed election violations to go to the local monitoring organizations run jointly by the United Nations and Afghan authorities.

Mobarze told "The Washington Post" that there are now 47 radio stations in Afghanistan, including both national government-run broadcasters and small, local, independent radios. The latter are the hope of Afghan villagers receiving news from the wider world. Internews, funded largely by the United States and European Union, is establishing a network of 24 radio stations to give people more access to news, although Internews officials acknowledge that 70 percent of FM format is music with only brief news updates.

For many, the October ballot was the first time they had covered elections. Internews media monitoring found that apart from the state-controlled papers, independent papers showed "a fair degree of independence." Although many newspapers have appeared on the scene in the last year, their impact is hard to assess, says Internews Afghanistan. Journalists covered issues such as challenges to Karzai, other candidates' views, the registration of women voters, registration problems, and security threats. Still, radio coverage was described as "rudimentary" with news infrequently updated and limited use of sound clips or direct quotes.

In a 17 September interview with Internews, Rahnaward Zaryaab, who heads the Information and Culture Ministry's media-monitoring commission, said his ministry had received no complaints and evidently had not yet issued an election report. Candidates, working under an admittedly unfamiliar system, complained of alleged bias but for the most part did not lodge formal reports. Media-commission officials outlined certain issues they would not address -- such as Islamic values, insulting personalities, and "speaking about matters that damage national unity."

In another interview, Barry Salaam of "Good Morning Afghanistan" on 10 September, described reports of a mullah in Baghlan who was telling people to vote in favor of a certain candidate and implying that others were not "good Muslims." He said these incidents "were a very good opportunity for us to understand the mentality in the provinces to see how people are being used and being directed to vote in certain ways for certain persons."

As for journalists' safety, Salaam told Internews that he believed the lack of unity among journalists and their unions was partly to blame for security concerns, but that the government had also not made security for journalists a priority.

Although no major attacks on the press were reported during the balloting, incidents in the weeks prior to the vote were indicative of the climate of fear that the media endures. Uniformed and plainclothes officers burst into the offices of "Salam Watandar" (Hello, Citizen), a station that broadcasts in Dari and Pashto, demanding to know a reporter's source for a story about a bomb plot at an Afghan ministry, Roya Aziz, an Internews worker told "The Christian Science Monitor" of 7 October.

Stations targeting female audiences have faced particular difficulties in a culture with heavy restrictions on women's mobility, especially after dark, said Aziz. Radio Sahar, a women's community radio station in Herat, was raided by armed guards of former Herat Province Governor Mohammad Ismail Khan. There are only four women-owned stations in Afghanistan where women are allowed behind the microphone, reported on 21 October. That number is acknowledged as progress by many observers, but the effect is still difficult to analyze. "Impact is too early to measure," said Newstrom.

In the 30 September issue of "Media Monitor," Internews said it thought journalists had begun to grapple with the need to write objectively but faced major threats. In the first issue of its "Freedom of Journalism in Afghanistan" newsletter in September, Internews said that most incidents simply go unreported -- so that international organizations and journalists alike are left uninformed. A fear of repercussions is the reason most cited for not reporting incidents, but a lack of communication facilities is also a factor. Most media view the climate of harassment and threats as routine to their job, and are unwilling to make threats against them public for fear of greater retaliation.

The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), which maintains a journalists' training program and helps reporters cover issues locally, said in a 4 October report that candidates did not seem to avail themselves readily of the media. General Abdul Rashid Dostum failed to show up for a 28 September news conference, for example, passing up an opportunity to get out his message. The news conference was supposed to be broadcast by RTA in a format made available for everyone on the ballot. In his place, one of Dostum's running mates, Shafiqa Habibi, a female journalist from Kabul, arrived late and addressed the audience. Mir Wais Sosial, director of "Salam Watandar," said candidates' reluctance to come before the media was due to the newness of the concept of appealing to the electorate directly. He said some candidates would not even accept his station's invitation to come to its studio. Others seemed to understand well the importance of radio, he said, and even offered to pay for their messages to be broadcast.

Yet politicians might also have been concerned about accountability to the public and having their statements taped for later comparison with their actions. Warlords unused to "new media techniques" have found tried-and-true "old media" methods work find to keep themselves in power. In late August, during a battle between forces loyal to Ismail Khan and others loyal to local commander Amanullah Khan, the chair of RTA walked into an independent radio station and made his own speech on the air, IWPR reported. Accompanied by armed soldiers, the RTA official asked the people to support Ismail Khan. The station manager took no action to prevent his action, nor did he protest the incident.

In Joma Bazar in September, 30 militia reportedly supporting Dostum descended on a village bazaar and began assaulting shoppers who had refused to go to an election meeting to support Dostum. After one man was beaten unconscious, some 500 villagers obediently went to the meeting where they were ordered to vote for Dostum, "The Toronto Star" reported on 22 September.

The results at the ballot box of such heavy-handed tactics are difficult to judge, but lack of media savvy might have cost the opposition support. "It also appears that Karzai was more astute in making use of the media than his challengers, appearing more widely in interviews in print and on radio," said CPJ's Wright. Radio was probably the most effective conduit, Wright said, but local observers have reported to her that stations could have done more to educate listeners on issues and candidates.


By Kathleen Ridolfo

News of Iraq's upcoming January elections has dominated the pages of Iraq's major dailies in recent weeks, to some extent crowding out the more detailed coverage of the growing insurgency, the presence of multinational forces, and even the workings of the interim administration.

Newspapers in Iraq have been offering up a barrage of daily reports and opinion pieces over the past month on a variety of election-related subjects. Politicians and religious leaders "in the know" have commented on election developments, as the official Electoral Commission has detailed information on the mechanisms established to become a candidate and on voting. Articles have appeared on voter-education seminars that are being offered by political parties and organizations; the likelihood of whether or not expatriates will be allowed to vote from abroad, whether Sunnis will participate in the elections, as well as the political maneuverings as the parties work to forge alliances and place their candidates on election lists that will meet the stringent requirements established by the commission.

But perhaps the most salient barometer of the "mood" in Iraq can be found on the editorial pages of Iraq's dailies. Commentaries overwhelmingly support the elections and offer intelligent and well-constructed viewpoints on a variety of election-related topics. Writers regularly demand that the Electoral Commission provide more information on the election process, and call on the Iraqi people to cast their ballots on election day.

Writers publishing in a variety of newspapers supporting divergent political positions appear to agree on one fact: elections should not be derailed by terrorism and instability. Most contributors have stressed the necessity of holding nationwide polling. But some writers support the idea that partial elections in stable areas would be better than no elections. "Attaining half or three-quarters of legitimacy, so to speak, is better than no legitimacy at all in order to respond to the doubters and silence the loud voices that keep accusing the government of treason and illegitimacy. They act as if the whole Arab world enjoys legitimacy and as if Iraq is the only exception in the region that has no legitimacy in the middle of [an] ocean of Arab legitimacy," Latif al-Subayhawi wrote in the 18 October edition of "Al-Dustur."

Abd-al-Husayn Salman commented on the issue of terrorism and elections in a 13 October commentary in "Al-Adalah," published by the Shi'a group the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). "The question that begs an answer is the following: Will the enemies of new Iraq succeed in their scheme? The biggest blow that can be dealt to these is when the Iraqis are able to go to the ballot boxes with peace of mind to cast their votes for the first time in their lives freely, voluntarily, and without fear to choose their representatives in the future National Assembly."

Commentaries have also noted the lack of independent candidates, with many writers fearing that the parties now in power will remain in power after the elections. The independent "moderate" trend inside the country remains unrepresented, they argue.

Ali al-Basri writes in the 18 October edition of "Al-Mashriq" that, "In my humble opinion, I feel that the next elections will not solve the problem of security and stability. Although, theoretically, the elections are held in Iraq, the results will practically be 'American,' so to speak. That is to say, the United States, under any circumstances, will not allow any party or trend opposing its policies in Iraq to win. The United States will adopt offense as the best way for defense. So it will overwhelm the scene with lists of picked names seemingly clean and decent, and not considered U.S. agents. Surely these names and parties have already penetrated the Iraqi scene."

Commentaries also debate the formation of political alliances in preparation for the elections. "It is the right of every party to strike an alliance with any other party regardless of the beliefs, ideologies, and political course that each follows. Politics do not necessitate identity of visions and similarity of political discourse. What is important is agreement in their view of the situation in terms of what has existed and what must exist," Hamid Abdullah writes in the 19 October edition of "Al-Mashriq." "We have said 'goodbye' to ideological rigidity."

The dark reality of Iraq's political landscape is also addressed. Critics argue that although the leadership has changed, politics remain dominated by corruption and cronyism. "This corruption that has beset society as a result of what the Iraqi people have experienced makes us worry about the elections, that is, if we assume for the sake of the argument that they would be democratic elections. Our concern is that the Iraqis will not make the right choices. The first thing that the Iraqis would be asking themselves during the elections is 'to whom do I owe allegiance now?'" writes Ibrahim Mahmud in the 23 September edition of "Al-Jaridah." "These elections will install persons who are not qualified to lead Iraq, that is, if these elections are held in a democratic fashion. The government that will be installed by these elections will be like the transitional Governing Council. And like the interim government, it will be filled with the henchmen and cronies of the former regime who still have all the means and the financial resources that will play an important role in the elections," Mahmud argues.

Iraqis can consider themselves fortunate in that a diverse media representing nearly every political trend developed very quickly in the months after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. To be sure, the media in Iraq has its own set of problems and is far from meeting Western journalistic standards. But, the diversity of opinions to be found on the pages of political dailies is encouraging and demonstrates a strong desire by Iraqis to make the nation's first democratic elections as democratic as possible.


By Bill Samii

About 150 people gathered at the Society of Professional Journalists' office in Tehran on 21 October to protest the continuing arrests of Iranian journalists and Internet activists, the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) and dpa reported. Those at the gathering decided to send a letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei asking that the judiciary cease its actions against journalists and the media.

Among the prominent people in attendance were former parliamentarian Ahmad Burqani-Farahani, dissident cleric Hojatoleslam Mohsen Kadivar, journalist Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, Mustafa Tajzadeh of the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization and the Islamic Iran Participation Party, and Ebrahim Yazdi of the Freedom Movement.

A number of the people who have been arrested recently write mainly for online publications, a phenomenon necessitated by the crackdown on the print media. Javad Gholam-Tamimi, the editor of "Mardom Salari," was arrested on 19 October, according to the "Sharq" website ( The editor was summoned to the court and arrested after being informed of the charges against him, which relate to allegedly illegal websites. Omid Memarian was arrested on 10 October for contributing to reformist websites, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ( Memarian, as well as Shahram Rafizadeh, Hanif Mazrui, and Ruzbeh Mir-Ibrahimi, are accused of propaganda against the regime, threatening national security and incitement to rebellion, and insulting leading figures in the regime."

The aforementioned individuals are cited in a 29 September editorial in "Kayhan" newspaper titled "The Spider's Web." Affiliated with the supreme leader's office, "Kayhan" is one of Iran's more hard-line high circulation dailies. Hussein Shariatmadari, author of the editorial and the supreme leader's representative at the Kayhan Institute, describes a network with an "American identity" but an "Iranian identity card." The "Kayhan" editorial names a number of exiled journalists and uses the partial names of people still living in Iran. After working with reformist media and perhaps winning some awards, alleged members of this supposed network are sent overseas so they can criticize Iran -- the editorial then identifies some Iranian employees of foreign broadcasting organizations.

This vast conspiracy has branches throughout Europe, according to the "Kayhan" editorial, and, coordination of the alleged network takes place in Prague at the "Radio Farda building." The editorial goes on to falsely accuse Radio Farda of "dependence on the CIA," and it says the network acts through websites, reformist newspapers, extremist organizations, and its operatives in the government. Control and direction of the network allegedly comes from the U.S., which shapes and manipulates information from the network in Iran. This allegedly manipulated information is then relayed as news to Europe and then back to Iran.

Shariatmadari writes that he refers to this network as a "spiderweb" because a Koranic verse states that those who choose somebody other than God as their friend will build the shakiest and weakest house, like a spider.

It is difficult to explain the timing of the "Kayhan" editorial. Iran has been a target of international broadcast organizations for many years. Moreover, "Kayhan" and other hard-line media, as well as a number of state officials, have openly criticized international broadcasting previously (see, for example, "RFE/RL Iran Report," 14 May 2001). Identifying specific people could reflect an effort to intimidate them into silence. The regime would find it difficult to get at the expatriate broadcasters but it can reach their relatives in Iran. Indeed, in the case of Netherlands-based online journalist Sina Motallebi it has already done this by arresting his father (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 27 September 2004).

One week later, Shariatmadari wrote that the journalists' association has written to the head of the judiciary and complained about his editorial about "The Spiderweb," "Kayhan" reported on 6 October. Shariatmadari retorted that the alleged network was not established by the Iranians he named because they are just "second-rate soldiers."


By Robert Coalson

The conflict between oligarch Mikhail Fridman's Alfa Group and the Kommersant publishing house, which is the last major media holding in Russia of self-exiled former oligarch Boris Berezovskii, flared up dramatically late on 20 October.

On that day, the Moscow Arbitration court ordered the publishing house to pay Alpha Bank 321 million rubles ($11.7 million) in damages after ruling that a 7 July article in "Kommersant-Daily" was libelous, Russian media reported. The judgment was believed to be the largest ever handed down against a media outlet in a libel case, "Novye izvestiya" reported on 22 October.

The conflict -- which pits one of the Kremlin's favorite oligarchs against one of its staunchest opponents -- stems from the banking crisis earlier this summer (see "RFE/RL Media Matters," 2 August 2004). Berezovskii told on 22 October that he has had many offers to purchase the Kommersant group, which publishes "Kommersant-Daily" and several serious weekly magazines and is widely regarded as one of the best journalism companies in Russia. He said that many of the offers have come "from structures close to the Kremlin," including from "organizations connected with" Alfa Bank. He said that when he purchased Kommersant from Vladimir Yakovlev in 1999, Fridman was also vying for the company.

Kommersant General Director Aleksei Vasiliev told the media following the court's verdict that the purpose of Alfa Bank's suit was to destroy Kommersant because Berezovskii had refused to sell it to Fridman. Fridman, for his part, denied that he wants to purchase the company. An Alfa Bank board member Aleksandr Gafin told Ekho Moskvy on 21 October that "we never had the goal of purchasing or destroying the newspaper." Gafin also said that the newspaper published the article in question in order to benefit its owner, prompting Vasiliev to tell "Ekho Moskvy" that he is considering filing a slander suit against Gafin.

In the same interview, Vasiliev said that "among members of the business elite there is a tendency, a desire to pick up points with the authorities by harassing the independent media -- and this tendency is absolutely unpleasant." on 22 October also commented on the "logic" of such reasoning. "The destruction or sale of one of the few remaining major independent mass-media outlets in Russia would nicely decorate the list of services performed by this businessman and his partners for the authorities," the website noted.

State Duma Information Policy Committee Deputy Chairman Boris Reznik (Unified Russia) told "Novye izvestiya" on 22 October that he is concerned about the court's ruling. "In this ruling I see a dangerous precedent," Reznik said. "Not in the outcome of the proceeding, but in the amount of the judgment. In my opinion, this is just an attempt to destroy an undesirable brand. Even if Kommersant is able to pay this amount, some other publisher might fall victim to a similar suit. And if things go that way, we might end up without any independent press at all."

Media watchers were also concerned about the ruling. The "Kommersant-Daily" article contained only one paragraph about Alfa Bank, and it was purely descriptive. The article described a line of about 80 people outside a branch of the bank and quoted some of them as saying that they had tried earlier unsuccessfully to withdraw funds at the bank's downtown main branch. The article also said that about 40 people were queued up to withdraw money at an automatic-teller machine.

Nonetheless, Alfa Bank chose to sue "Kommersant-Daily," even though that newspaper -- unlike many other media outlets -- did not report on rumors that Alfa Bank had been included on a purported Central Bank blacklist of endangered commercial banks. According to Ekho Moskvy on 21 October, Kommersant presented a videotape shot outside the Alfa Bank branch in question as evidence in the case, but the court was not swayed by it and ruled that the article was libelous.

Kommersant has announced that it will appeal the ruling.