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Media Matters: May 24, 2007

New Novel By 'Kite Runner' Author Focuses On Women

By Ron Synovitz

A burqa-clad woman and child watch national army soldiers in Kabul in May 2006

May 22, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Millions of readers around the world were passionately moved by Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini's first novel, "The Kite Runner."

Hosseini's follow-up -- a novel called "A Thousand Splendid Suns" whose two protagonists are women -- is being released today.

Hosseini gained international acclaim after "The Kite Runner" was published in 2003.

But the 42-year-old Afghan emigre says that story about the troubled friendship of two boys left a large part of the Afghan story untold: the women's perspective.

Hosseini says he was "on a mission" to portray the plight of Afghan women when he wrote his second novel. In it, Hosseini asks what the world really knows about Afghan women who live behind the veil of the burqa -- what their inner lives are like, their thoughts, their hopes, and their dreams.

Hosseini says he wants his readers to lose themselves in the novel's story and characters. But he also hopes they can gain some understanding of the struggles of Afghan women, who live in a male-dominated society where they are routinely denied freedom or dignity.

"There's been so much said and written about Afghanistan, [but] precious little about the inner lives of the people there living in that environment in those conditions," Hosseini says in a video to promote the book. "And maybe after reading this novel, people will have a little bit more empathy for what happened to Afghans. Particularly the Afghan women, who really, really, I think, suffered the most out of everybody in Afghanistan -- especially in the last 15 years."

As the son of an Afghan diplomat, Hosseini did not experience most of the history that pervades his latest novel.

Hosseini's family left Afghanistan to live in Paris in 1976 when he was 11. In 1980, after the Soviet invasion, the family moved to California, where he attended high school and later studied medicine.

He says the main characters of his new book are not based on any women he knows. But he says they are partly inspired by the stories he heard in Kabul in 2003, when he returned to Afghanistan for the first time.

Horrible Cruelty

The title, "A Thousand Splendid Suns," comes from a 17th-century Persian poem. But Hosseini says the image that haunted and inspired him was video footage of women being executed by the Taliban at a Kabul sports stadium in 1999.

It is an event that was recreated in his first novel, as well.

Hosseini says his concern over the plight of women has been affected more recently by a visit to Africa early this year, as a U.S. envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. There, Hosseini says in a video clip on his promotional website, he met refugee women from Sudan's western region of Darfur.

"The visit certainly changed me in a very profound way," Hosseini says. "It strengthened my resolve that to see these things and to not do anything is not an option. It's just not acceptable."

Hosseini says what bothers him most about the Darfur crisis is that the kind of tragic stories told by refugee women from Darfur three years ago are still happening today.

"How do you meet 16-year-old girls who have been raped because they went out to gather firewood for their family, or women who have had their children taken from their arms and shot -- and then go on being who you were before? It's just not possible."

Powerful Debut

Hosseini's first book -- "The Kite Runner" -- is a difficult act to follow. It chronicles the painful fallout from an incident between a Pashtun and a Hazara boy growing up in Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion that led to two decades of political upheaval and civil war.

The hardcover version spent 114 weeks on "The New York Times" bestseller list, and the paperback edition remains a bestseller.

Its publisher, Riverhead Books, says it has been translated and published in more than 30 countries.

A film adaptation of "The Kite Runner," shot in western China, is set for release in November.

If the advanced reviews are anything to judge by, "A Thousand Splendid Suns" could seal Hosseini's standing as one of the most successful Afghan-born novelists of modern times.

That is quite a feat for a medical doctor who only took leave from that work two years ago to concentrate on writing -- after the success of his first novel.

Praise For Sophomore Effort

Critics from literary publications who received advance copies of the new novel have strong praise for Hosseini.

"Kirkus Reviews" calls him a "fearless writer" who has created another "artistic triumph and surefire bestseller." That publication describes "A Thousand Splendid Suns" as a "fine risk-taking novel about two victimized but courageous Afghan women."

"Publishers Weekly" calls the book "another searing epic of Afghanistan in turmoil." It says Hosseini has written a "forceful but nuanced portrait of a patriarchal depotism where women are agonizingly dependent on fathers, husbands, and especially sons -- the bearing of male children being their sole path to social status."

It says the story is a "powerful, harrowing depiction of Afghanistan, but also a lyrical evocation of the lives and enduring hopes of its resilient characters."

The "Library Journal" calls the book an "affecting new novel" by an author who "proves that one can write a successful follow-up after debuting with a phenomenal best seller."

"Hosseini deftly sketches the history of his native land in the late 20th century while also delivering a sensitive and utterly persuasive dual portrait," the "Library Journal" notes. "His writing is simple and unadorned, but his story is heartbreaking."

Another publishing industry journal, "Booklist," describes "A Thousand Splendid Suns" as "unimaginably tragic.... A sad and beautiful testament to both Afghani suffering and strength."

"Booklist" says the millions of readers who lost themselves in "The Kite Runner" will not want to miss Hosseini's "unforgettable follow-up."

(with additional agency reporting)

Russia: Media Moves Draw Protests

Activists marching toward Moscow's Ostankino TV broadcasting center

MOSCOW, May 21, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Several hundred demonstrators gathered outside Moscow's main broadcast tower on May 20 to protest what they called the deterioration of media freedoms on Russia's television airwaves.

Chanting "Down with Putin television!" protesters assembled in northern Moscow and made their way toward the city's Ostankino radio and television tower.

The rally, which attracted some 500 people and a police escort, came amid growing concerns about Russia's media situation as the capital prepares to host an upcoming international journalism conference.

An RFE/RL correspondent at the rally reported that speeches by human rights activists and politicians were directed mainly against state influence on television.

"We are very worried, unhappy about, and are protesting against lies on television; vulgarity on television; lack of professionalism on television; political censorship on television," Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky shouted to the assembled crowd. "We consider this to be very dangerous for the future of our country."

Yabloko, along with the For Human Rights movement and the Moscow Helsinki Group, organized the rally, which was authorized by the authorities and ended peacefully.

'Good' News Only

But the event came in the wake of recent incidents that have led to allegations that the country's media are overwhelmingly being turned into mouthpieces of the government.

On May 18, eight journalists resigned from the Russian News Service in protest against newly imposed editorial policies requiring that news portray the government in a "positive light."

Mikhail Baklanov, who was fired as editor in chief at the service, said people left because "there was no chance to work professionally." The news service reaches millions of listeners by providing news to three major radio stations.

The service's new editorial directives also allegedly included a blacklist of opposition politicians, activists, and academics whose voices were not to be heard directly.

The general secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists, Igor Yakovenko, told RFE/RL today that he is among those blacklisted.

And the union itself, which represents more than 100,000 media professionals, is encountering its own problems.

On May 15, the Russian Union of Journalists was given three days to vacate its offices in central Moscow for allegedly violating its lease. The union occupies the premises under the terms of a presidential decree issued in the 1990s by former President Boris Yeltsin.

As the authorities question the validity of the arrangement, the union has so far defied the eviction notice and vows to take the issue to court.

But the timing of the development has raised eyebrows. The union had been actively engaged in preparations for the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) World Congress, which is to be held in Moscow from May 28-June 2.

Heightened Scrutiny

The recent events threaten put the failures of Russian media squarely in the spotlight -- a possibility Yakovenko is not happy about.

"The last thing I wanted to see was the congress dealing with affairs of Russia or the Russian Union of Journalists," Yakovenko said. "I am very much ashamed that this situation had to become publicly known. I would not want journalists from 160 national unions discussing problems of Russia, or problems of the Russian Union [of Journalists]."

But Rachel Cohen, human rights and information officer for the IFJ, expresses the hope that the events will not negatively affect the intention of the congress.

"There are some worries about what could be possible negative impact on our congress," Cohen said. "But really we are trying to focus on what could be the positive impact. We hope that having this international event in Moscow, focusing on media, media freedom, and media safety will really, actually improve the situation there and not just be a way for journalists all over the world to show their solidarity with Russian journalists."

Nevertheless, the IFJ has sent a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, expressing its concern over the eviction of the Union of Journalists. The international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders has also responded with official statements.

And when thousands of journalists and media representatives from around the world descend on Moscow for the IFJ World Congress next week, they will be greeted with a special opening session on the "crisis of impunity" in Russia.

Afghanistan: Effort To Change Media Law Puts Journalists On Guard

By Farangis Najibullah

Protests and counterprotests followed the Afghan attorney general's order of a raid on a private TV station in mid-April

May 9, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Some Afghan journalists have expressed fears that media are facing new restrictions and increased government control. The Afghan parliament is currently debating an amended media law that critics warn could signal authorities' desire to tighten their grip on news outlets.

Backers of the draft changes dismiss the criticism, arguing that limits are in place to prevent official encroachments on an independent press.

Afghanistan's media law, which was decreed by President Hamid Karzai before the country's first directly elected legislature came into existence, is widely regarded as one of the most tolerant in the region.

Many local journalists and press unions have expressed concern as lawmakers attempt to refashion it.

Hampering Journalists' Work?

Said Agha Fazil Sanjaraki, the head of Afghanistan's National Journalists Union, is among those campaigning against the media amendments. He tells RFE/RL that his group is lobbying against several specific changes to the law, which -- in his view -- would hamstring journalists.

"The media commission, which monitors complaints, has been a great support for journalists in the past," Sanjaraki says. "Unfortunately, the new law abolishes this commission. Also, the Afghan Radio and Television [broadcaster] was a public service company. Now, National Radio and Television will work under the auspices of the Ministry of Information of Culture."

Sanjaraki says the draft changes include numerous clauses on Islamic principles that are "vague and need to be clarified."

Fahim Dashti, who is editor in chief of the "Kabul" weekly, tells RFE/RL that as an independent journalist, he would be directly affected by the changes.

"The new law will provide conditions for the authorities to control the media," Dashti says. "Also, it could create ways to pressure the media and media workers. It also opens the way to possible misinterpretation of what is published in the media."

'Even If There Were...'

Government sources have dismissed journalists' deepest concerns.

The current law came into effect in 2004, when the Afghan government updated media legislation that had initially been approved in 1960s. Since Afghanistan had no parliament at the time, Hamid Karzai issued the media law in the form of a decree.

Najib Manalai is a media adviser to the Information and Culture Ministry. He tells RFE/RL that the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of the parliament, has merely been discussing insignificant changes to the existing legislation. He also notes that Karzai's media decree was never debated or approved by the parliament.

Manalai rejects accusations that the government is trying to control the media.

"What the Afghan government wants or doesn't want is one thing, and what the Afghan government can or cannot do is another," Manalai says. "According to our media law, the government has no such right [to control the media]. So, even if there were someone in the Afghan government who wanted to take control of the media, they would not legally be able to do so."

Inexperienced Sector

Both supporters and opponents of the draft amendments agree on one point -- that the Afghan media is young and inexperienced, and thus vulnerable to errors and inaccuracy.

Shukriya Barekzai, a member of the Afghan parliament and a former journalist, tells RFE/RL Afghan journalists have a long way to go to fulfill their duties in a professional and objective manner.

"The Afghan media are not yet competent nor proficient," Barekzai says. "They are facing a lack of strategy and a lack of qualified people. Unfortunately, the media are involved in internal fighting among various political groups. Perhaps [the media] have taken that route involuntarily."

Barekzai and other critics of these draft amendments argue that any changes should create an environment to protect the journalists, not restrict them.