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Media Matters: February 5, 2007

CPJ Official Discusses Dangers, Obstacles Journalists Face

Iranian journalists at work (file photo)

WASHINGTON, February 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) --The Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, said today that 55 journalists were killed because they were doing their jobs in 2006. Among them were 32 killed covering the Iraq war -- 30 of them Iraqi journalists, according to the New York-based advocacy group. RFE/RL correspondent Andrew Tully spoke with Joel Simon, the CPJ's executive director, about the problems facing the media in Eurasia, Central Asia, and the Middle East.

RFE/RL: Many in the West had great expectations for democratization in Central Asia after the breakup of the Soviet Union. What was the state of the media in the region in 2006?

Joel Simon: Central Asia is a place where information has unfortunately become increasingly scarce. Not too long ago, Turkmenistan stood out as a "black hole," and in fact Turkmenistan was named as one of CPJ's 10 most-censored countries in the world last year. However, Uzbekistan has been closing quickly, and the crackdown that began in the aftermath of the [May 2005] Andijon massacre has really turned Uzbekistan into a place where information of any kind is hard to come by. The independent press corps that existed there has been dismantled, is in exile. So clearly the trend in Central Asia is toward greater restrictions, and we're very troubled by that.

RFE/RL: Can you be more specific? For example, Kazakhstan's economy has been growing, and Kyrgyzstan has had a change of government that followed a pro-democracy uprising. How are these two countries faring?

Simon: Kazakhstan is a place where there is some potential to report on what's happening there -- obviously it's experiencing an economic boom -- but there are serious and severe restrictions and limitations on the press. And in Kyrgyzstan, the hope in the aftermath of the democratic uprising there that media would become freer -- that's only partially taken place, and in fact I think that the general rule there that media is constrained still holds.

RFE/RL: There also have been pro-democracy uprisings in Ukraine and Georgia. How have the media fared in these two countries?

Simon: The media is freer and more vigorous and more open in all of those three places [Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, and Georgia]. But yet the perception exists that because of these democratic revolutions, the media now operates without constraint, and that's just not the case. The level of restrictions varies from country to country. I think Georgia and Ukraine -- more reforms have been implemented [in these two countries] than in Kyrgyzstan. But all three countries have not gone far enough in implementing the kinds of reforms that would truly limit the government's ability to control and influence the media.

RFE/RL: Has there been any advance in press freedoms in Belarus in the past year?

Anna Politkovskaya (in an undated courtesy photo) was killed in October 2006

Simon: Not much. Unfortunately we don't have a lot of news from Belarus. Belarus is another country where it's really a black hole when it comes to information. We carried out a mission to Belarus in January [2006] in advance of the [March presidential] election there, and unfortunately conditions were so constrained in Belarus that we weren't even able to hold a press conference to announce our findings. We held that in Moscow because we didn't think the Belarusian press would even be able to cover our findings. So it is a place where the press -- the extremely limited independent press that exists in Belarus -- operates under enormous pressure and constraints, and that has not changed.

RFE/RL: Regarding Russia, U.S. President George W. Bush, who says he admires Russian President Vladimir Putin, has cited Moscow's slow pace of reform. Are you concerned too?

Simon: Russia is a very different situation. I recently returned from Russia. I was there earlier this month, and we had some very good meetings with government representatives. And in one of those meetings with the Foreign Ministry we discussed Russia's terrible record of impunity: 13 journalists have been murdered in Russia since Putin came to power [in 2000]. None of those cases have been adequately investigated. And we spoke specifically about the Anna Politkovskaya case, and we were told that the Prosecutor-General's Office had determined that one of the possible motives for Anna Politkovskaya's murder was linked to her work, and that several police officials in Chechnya were being investigated. And we announced that at our press conference. And the Foreign Ministry subsequently retracted part of what they'd said [during the private meeting], but I think what's become clear is that an investigation is under way. There appears to be some progress; certainly links to Chechnya are being explored.

RFE/RL: And are there encouraging signs in this picture -- that the message that journalists must be protected is somehow being heard?

Simon: We were very pleased that President Putin in his [February 2] press conference for the first time acknowledged publicly the vital role that journalists play in Russia. [Putin] pledged to provide greater protection; and specifically described Anna Politkovskaya as a critical journalist, and he said that that was good. So we're encouraged by those signals and hopeful that a full and vigorous investigation into the Politkovskaya murder -- and all these murders -- will take place, and that the perpetrators of these terrible crimes will be brought to justice.

RFE/RL: Your report prominently cites the journalists killed in the Iraq war during 2006. Why so many?

Simon: One of the most disconcerting statistics that we documented this year was in Iraq, where 32 journalists were killed. That is the single highest number we've ever recorded for one country in a year. So obviously that's an unprecedented record of violence against journalists. And journalists in Iraq face danger from all sides.

RFE/RL: Who is targeting the journalists?

Iraqi journalist Atwar Bahjat was killed in February 2006 (AFP file photo)

Simon: They are targeted by insurgent groups; they face violence from paramilitary forces linked to the government; U.S. forces have been responsible for detentions of journalists and harassment of journalists; and journalists have been killed by U.S. forces on a number of occasions in crossfire incidents, incidents that have not been adequately investigated. So there's a record of violence that is unprecedented in Iraq. It is truly the most dangerous country for journalists in the world.

RFE/RL: Then there's Iran, next door. On the one hand, it's the most advanced democracy in the Middle East outside Israel. On the other, there have been complaints about government pressure on the media there. What did you find?

Simon: The situation in Iran -- there the risk by and large is not violence but government persecution, and the government of Iran is fairly sophisticated in the way in which it controls and restricts the work of the press. Not too long ago, when there was a vibrant press movement, journalists were being jailed. Now the press is more constrained and fewer journalists are being jailed. How is that possible? Because Iran has implemented a kind of revolving door. Journalists are detained for brief periods, they're released, they're pressured, they're harassed, they face legal persecution, and it creates an environment in which the exercise of independent journalism is all but impossible. And that's the reality in Iran today.

RFE/RL: Iraq isn't the only place where journalists are killed. But these other countries aren't war zones. What kind of physical violence do reporters face?

Simon: Russia and the Philippines and, to a certain extent, Colombia -- places where there's conflict, but it's more isolated -- these are places where impunity is perhaps the common thread. These are all places in which journalists have been killed by violent groups, criminal groups, and the government authorities have not been able -- or willing -- to fully investigate these crimes. And in all of these countries it creates an environment that perpetuates violence. This environment fuels self-censorship and ultimately deprives the public of information.

Middle East: RSF Calls Iraq, Iran 'Graveyard Of Freedom'

Hajar Smouni (file photo)

February 1, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says 2006 was the deadliest year for journalists in more than decade. The death toll was the highest since 1994, a year of conflicts in Rwanda, Algeria, and the former Yugoslavia. In its "Freedom Of the Press Worldwide In 2007" report released today, the Paris-based group says 81 media staffers died in the course of their work last year -- 65 of them in Iraq. RFE/RL correspondent Eugen Tomiuc talked to Hajar Smouni, from RSF's Middle East desk, about the situations in Iraq and Iran.

RFE/RL: Your report calls the Middle East region and Iraq, in particular, "the graveyard of freedom." Could you sum up the situation of media freedom in Iraq for us?

For regular news and analysis on media issues throughout RFE/RL's broadcast area by e-mail, subscribe to "RFE/RL Media Matters."

Hajar Smouni: There are two main threats. There are threats that journalists are killed anywhere, at any time. Most of those killed last year were the victims of targeted attacks. They were killed outside their offices or outside their homes -- or also, some of them were killed after being kidnapped. Those are the two main dangers that journalists face -- targeted attacks and kidnappings. Most of the journalists that were attacked in 2006 are local journalists. The reasons for that -- the major one is that they live among the population, without any particular protection measures, so they are easy to find.

RFE/RL: The report says that in Iran, fewer journalists are currently in jail, but many of them are being harassed with legal procedures and daily threats. Could you outline the overall situation of the media in Iran?

Smouni: Iran is one of the repressive regimes against journalists and against the media. What we have noticed in 2006 is that there was a new form of pressure. If you look at the statistics, you're going to see that [fewer] journalists have been jailed in 2006. You're going to see that [fewer] of them have been [convicted].

But there is a new form of pressure that they are facing that is not less dangerous or less repressive. What we've noticed is that journalists are being arrested, they are being questioned by prosecutors and then they are being released on bail, without having a date for a trial set, or without having the possibility to express themselves or to defend their case. And so this threat, this trial stays as a menace in case they write something that will displease the regime again.

CIS: Media Situation Worsening In Central Asia, Russia, Azerbaijan

Elsa Vidal (file photo)

February 1, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says that 2006 was the deadliest year for journalists in more than decade. The death toll was the highest since 1994, a year of conflicts in Rwanda, Algeria, and the former Yugoslavia. In its "Freedom Of The Press Worldwide In 2007" report released today the Paris-based group says 81 media staffers died in the course of their work last year -- 65 of them in Iraq.

RFE/RL correspondent Eugen Tomiuc talked to Elsa Vidal, from RSF's European and post-Soviet countries desk about the situation in Central Asia, Russia, Belarus, and the South Caucasus.

RFE/RL: Your report says the situation has not improved in 2006 in Central Asia. It cites Uzbekistan for maintaining pressure on independent local and foreign media, and says the Kazakh government has stepped up legal harassment of opposition media. But it singles out Turkmenistan as having "the world's worst press freedom record along with North Korea." Could you outline the general situation of media freedom in Central Asia?

For regular news and analysis on media issues throughout RFE/RL's broadcast area by e-mail, subscribe to "RFE/RL Media Matters."

Elza Vidal: Our most worrying topic in Central Asia is definitely Turkmenistan. Since [President Saparmurat] Niazov's death [in December 2006], we hope for a liberalization of the regime with the upcoming election [on February 19], but until now, there haven't been any concrete steps taken in that direction. We lost one journalist last year in Turkmenistan [RFE/RL correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova, who died in prison in September 2006], but we also have got no news from two other colleagues of Ogulsapar Muradova who were arrested and convicted in the same trial last August. As we have no news from them we are pretty worried and fearing that the worst has happened to them.

RFE/RL: How about Uzbekistan?

Vidal: In Uzbekistan we have seen the disappearance of almost all foreign media on Uzbek soil, and we know that most of the human rights defenders are forced to work clandestinely. Very recently, we have also learned about the arrest of an opposition journalist, a prominent journalist [Umida] Niyazova, and it's unfortunately not the first -- and we are quite convinced that it won't be the last, to be arrested under false reasons.

RFE/RL: Your report calls the situation in Russia "grim," and highlights the killing of journalist Anna Politkovskaya. It also says that in Belarus, more pressure was put on media outlets offering a voice to, or even mentioning the existence of, the political opposition. How much worse is the situation in these countries compared to previous years?

Vidal: What we have seen in Russia and Belarus is a tightening grip on the administrative and financial means of media control. Of course, there has also been a burst of violence in Russia against journalists -- three of them were murdered last year, including, of course, Anna Politkovskaya. But in Russia we are most worried about the spreading of violence in all society -- a trend that affects also the security of journalists. But [both] in Belarus and in Russia, we have seen last year an attempt to get firm control on the all the means of production and distribution of newspapers and of all the free press.

RFE/RL: In the Caucasus, your report singles out Azerbaijan, where it says that 2006 was a "dark year" for the media. Could you explain why?

Vidal: The main problems [in the Caucasus] are, from our point of view, in Azerbaijan. Although the country experiences a real economic boom, we know that in Azerbaijan this tremendous growth doesn't benefit the free press, and there has been a real temptation on the side of [President Ilham] Aliyev to silence the opposition and the press that is linked to this opposition. But what we want to underline in Azerbaijan is also that there is a growing use of abduction and aggression against journalists that are mainly investigating corruption cases.

RFE/RL: How about neighboring Armenia?

Vidal: Armenia is far less violent for journalists compared with Azerbaijan, and the problems that we have witnessed are much more linked to the difficulty for some journalists to raise geopolitical problems, so it is much more a problem of censorship. It is worrying, but compared with Azerbaijan, it is really not on the same level.

Mass Media Law Comes Under Scrutiny

By Amin Tarzi
February 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The prospects for advancement and freedom in Afghanistan's media sector are perhaps closer now than at any other time in the country's history. The difference is even more marked if one compares the situation to that under the Taliban regime.

Since the demise of the Taliban regime in late 2001, the dissemination of information has gotten steadily easier and its purveyors more professional. But signs have recently emerged of efforts within both the executive branch and the legislature, the National Assembly, to curtail the activities of the media under the pretexts of national security or religion and culture.

Much discussion is emanating from the National Assembly's Wolesi Jirga (People's Council), which is due to review the Mass Media Law that President Hamid Karzai decreed shortly before the legislature came into existence in 2005.

Constitutional Context

In January 2004, a Constitutional Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) approved a new constitution for Afghanistan. It declares that "freedom of expression is inviolable...[and] every Afghan has the right to express his thought through speech, writing, or illustration or other means, by observing the provisions" of the constitution. The same article (Article 34) further gives every Afghan the "right to print or publish topics without prior submission to the state authorities in accordance with the law." The constitution also stipulates that directives related to the media "will be regulated by the law."

Freedom of expression is further strengthened by Article 7, which obliges the state to "abide" by international conventions to which Afghanistan is a signatory, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Lawmakers are faced with a historic responsibility. They can increase the country's vulnerability to the arbitrary exercise of power. Or they can pave the way toward a more inclusive, tolerant, and democratic society that is mindful of the country's religious and cultural values.

But the freedoms enshrined in Afghanistan's Islamic constitution are also guided by Article 3, which stipulates that "in Afghanistan, no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam."

The 2004 constitution calls for the mass media to be governed through legislation. Consecutive administrations -- first the Interim Authority in February 2002 and then the Transitional Administration in March 2004 -- approved temporary media guidelines before President Karzai decreed a new media law just days before the Afghan National Assembly was inaugurated in December 2005.

The draft media law already contains problematic clauses, and there are indications that the Wolesi Jirga could try to make the law more restrictive.

Viewed in that light -- assuming that the executive branch believes in freedom of the media and that the judiciary is not bent on curtailing freedoms to make political statements -- the current law already looks like a positive first step, allowing Afghanistan to become a democratic state.

Wolesi Jirga And Media Law

The Wolesi Jirga is essentially reviewing the 2005 media law in order to change it from a presidential decree to a law. Within the lower house, matters related to the media fall under the Wolesi Jirga's Religious and Cultural Affairs Commission.

Virtually all of that commission's proposed modifications of the existing media law are of a restrictive nature.

A radio-repair stand in Kabul (AFP file photo)

The proposed preamble emphasizes the role of religion by recalling Article 3 of the constitution, which stipulates that "no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam."

In a seemingly redundant statement, the proposed preamble then states that the media law should be in accordance with the Afghan Constitution and the "international covenants" that the country has signed.

While the 2005 media law was intended to cover all mass media, the proposed amended law states that the media law "is the first legislative step related to Radio and Television and supporting independent media in the reconstruction process of Afghanistan...but it does not cover all related matters." It adds that other areas -- such as electronic commerce, intellectual property (copyright), and "access to information held by the public authorities" require "separate laws to be construed in harmony with the [media law]."

The proposed Article 11 would call for the formation of a High Council of Media to "keep track" of income and expenditure of mass media, ensuring that they are "overt and transparent." The Religious and Cultural Affairs Commission's recommendation on the composition of the High Council of Media is still in flux, but so far the names include members of the Wolesi Jirga, a representative of the Ministry of Justice, a mullah from the Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs, and the head of the Journalism Faculty at Kabul University. There are no recommendations for the inclusion of members of civil society; nor is there any suggestion to include a representative of the media industry itself. If Afghanistan's media sector is to develop in a democratic direction -- while respecting the country's constitution -- media professionals and media lawyers should be included on the High Council of Media.

The Religious and Cultural Affairs Commission's proposed Article 33, on the "Dissemination of Prohibited Material" -- which in the original MML included four categories: "matters contrary to Islam or insulting to other religions," "insulting or accusative matters concerning individuals," matters contrary to the Afghan Constitution or Afghan criminal codes, and the exposure of the identities of victims of violence -- is modified to include four additional restrictions: "material jeopardizing stability, national security and territorial integrity of Afghanistan," "material providing false information which might disrupt public opinion," "publicity and promotion of any other religion other than Islam," and "material which might damage physical well-being, psychological and moral security of people, especially children and the youth."

A man sells newspapers in Kabul (AFP file photo)

Most of these restrictions -- including those listed in the original media law -- contravene provisions of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, given the supremacy of Afghanistan's religious beliefs over other laws -- as clearly stated in that country's constitution -- an argument can be made that restrictions in the media law should either be limited to constitutional limitation or, if listed separately, clarified further to prevent abuse in the future. As listed in the media law -- particularly in the additional restriction proposed by the Religious and Cultural Affairs Commission -- there are also vague terms such as "insult" and clauses open to interpretation, such as "information which might disrupt public opinion," that beg clarification or deletion from the law.

There are also proposals for the creation of "independent" commissions to oversee complaints against Afghanistan's state-owned radio and television stations and against the official news agency (Bakhtar). But ensuring the independence of these commissions arguably demands that they not be included in the media law. Their creation and funding belongs in the arena of open and public debate within the National Assembly, and commission members deserve to be allowed to vote on their commissions' internal hierarchies.

Forward-Looking Law

Afghanistan has taken strides forward in the past four-plus years in the realm of media freedom. The current challenge is to avoid basking under slogans touting what has been achieved -- and instead to enact laws and regulations that protect the safeguards enshrined in the Afghan Constitution. At the same time, there is an obligation to list clearly the constitutional restrictions on the media.

To demonstrate real progress, the media law that the Wolesi Jirga's Religious and Cultural Affairs Commission proposes should do more than simply protect existing freedoms and create space for a professional and self-regulating media. It should also protect basic media freedoms against unwarranted encroachment by any future executive.

The Religious and Cultural Affairs Commission -- and in fact all of their colleagues in the lower house -- are faced with a historic responsibility.

They can increase the country's vulnerability to the arbitrary exercise of power. Or they can pave the way toward a more inclusive, tolerant, and democratic society that is mindful of the country's religious and cultural values -- which are fully protected within the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan's constitution.