Radio Farda Correspondent Describes Ordeal In IranJune 6, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Radio Farda broadcaster Parnaz Azima has been prevented from leaving Iran for the past five months. Azima -- an Iranian-American -- had traveled to Tehran in January to visit her sick mother when authorities confiscated her Iranian passport and charged her with working for Radio Farda and spreading propaganda against the state. Since then Azima has been unable to leave Iran and return to her work in Prague. Azima talks about her situation in a phone interview with RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari.
RFE/RL: You have been trapped in Iran for the past five months, authorities have confiscated your passport, and you cannot return to your work and life here. How do you feel about this?
Parnaz Azima: On the surface it seems that everything is well, I'm in my mother's house and I can go anywhere I want and no one stops me. That is on the surface; but the truth is that I am facing a state of uncertainty and waiting. I can describe it as a prisoner who is in a larger prison and the length of the prison term has not been determined. [The prisoner] is expecting an answer any minute that he will remain in jail or be released. But I have to say that I'm grateful when I compare my [situation] with that of Haleh Esfandiari, Kian Tajbakhsh, Ali Shakeri [Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh are Iranian-American scholars recently jailed in Iran; Shakeri is an Iranian-American peace activist who has also been detained], and many other prisoners who do not enjoy the relative freedom that I have. I do my best to use this opportunity -- when I left Iran some 25 years ago I left some unfinished work -- I have found some of my manuscripts but many have been lost and I am working on them.
RFE/RL: There's been lots of support for you in the United States and internationally and several human rights groups have called on Iran to let you go and also release Esfandiari, Tajbakhsh, and Shakeri, the Iranian-Americans who have been jailed in Iran. Have you received support also from inside Iran?
Azima: There has not been such organized support [inside Iran], though I have received emotional support from my family, my friends, and it's very positive. There are people that I didn't even know and they just had heard my name and seen my work; they came to my house with flowers. Such gestures lift up my morale but I also have to say that the extent of such support is very limited because everybody knows that it is very likely that my phone is being tapped, my calls are being monitored and people are to a large extent worried about their everyday lives. They are common people with no support and protection therefore I have many close friends who have not contacted me and I understand them and I know that they have the right to think about their own [situations].
RFE/RL: You have been charged with spreading propaganda against the state by working for Radio Farda. What is your reaction to these charges?
Azima: I gave an example to [the authorities] who interrogated me: news organizations such as the BBC, CNN, and others that are based in foreign countries, the governments of [these countries] can also accuse them of propaganda against them because they bring the voice of opposition forces to their [audience] -- and even the voice of those who are against the policies of the U.S. government -- they cover their views. In my eyes this is what journalism is all about: informing freely. Unfortunately in [Iran] journalism is such that journalists should always praise officials or they face censorship and pressure. But if we increase our awareness about journalism and the principle of the free flow of information then we will realize that [such practice] is not propaganda against the state, in my view it's to the benefit of a state. Of course democratic states, because dictatorships or totalitarian regimes are afraid of people, they're afraid of telling the truth, they're concerned about informing people. But officials from Iran's Islamic republic, who always say that [Iran] is one of the best democracies in the world, should not have any fear for [those] telling the truth. If they really care about people's thoughts and opinions, they should consider people's ideas and value them in order to improve the Islamic republic. The other issue is that journalism is a profession that doesn't take sides and is impartial; a journalist should say everything objectively therefore I think -- as Mohammad Hossein Aghasi [Azima's lawyer] has said -- these charges are baseless.
RFE/RL: Do we know how authorities will proceed regarding your case? Have they set a date for another court hearing?
Azima: The judge in charge of my case decided that I will not be detained but I was allowed to remain free on a very heavy and unprecedented bail of about 500 million tooman [approximately $550,000]. They will now do their investigation -- the Intelligence Ministry is doing the investigation. It will give the results to the judge in charge of the case and the judiciary, then they will decide about having a court session. My case is waiting now for the response from the Intelligence Ministry so I will have to see what their decision will be regarding my case. It is possible that they will decide to return my passport and since I'm an optimistic person I think it is very likely, but it could be quite the opposite -- so I'm waiting and I've been in this state for five months now.
(See also "Iran: Simin Behbehani, A Poet For The Ages, Captures Nation's Suffering And Joys," by Parnaz Azima.)
Latest Female Journalist's Slaying Highlights Plight
Zakia Zaki, who ran the private broadcaster Peace Radio, was killed by multiple gunmen in her home north of Kabul, in the central province of Parwan, late on June 5. The gunmen reportedly shot her in front of her young son before fleeing the scene.
Neither the identities of the killers nor their motive is clear at this point.
Zakia was a former headmistress and a representative to Afghanistan's Constitutional Loya Jirga in 2003-04. But she had received threats in the past in connection with her work at Peace Radio, which she had managed since 2001.
The head of Afghanistan's Independent Journalists Association, Rahimullah Samander, says that Zaki had contacted his group over those threats.
"She has been threatened because of some of her programs, and [the people who issued the threats] said that some [Peace Radio] reports were [critical of] one of the region's [prominent] figures; they said the programs were a plot against that person," Samander says. "Regional commanders are influential in the province and they have created problems for her several times in the past. She had come to me and told several other colleagues about it."
No Isolated Case
Zaki's slaying comes less than a week after the murder of a popular 22-year-old television presenter, Shakiba Sanga Amaj, who was also shot dead in her family home in the capital.
A suspect has been arrested in the Sanga Amaj case, and some reports suggest that her murder was an act of revenge for spurning a proposal of marriage.
Reporters Without Borders has suggested that even if a family feud is behind the "cowardly" killing of Shakiba, Afghan authorities should not overlook her professional activities as their investigation proceeds.
Two years ago, in May 2005, a presenter on the private Tolo Television, was shot dead in her Kabul home in a case that remains unsolved. Shaima Rezaee had been criticized for what some regarded as her Western style and appearance.
Samander says these recent murders have increased fear among journalists.
"A large group of journalists are going from Kabul to [Zaki's hometown of] Jabalussaraj right now...to view the body of Zakia Zaki," he says. "All [journalists] are concerned. In less than two weeks, there have been four incidents -- two murders and the plunder of equipment at a radio station and the closure of a newspaper in Konduz, which happened two or three days ago."
Afghanistan's independent media sector is in its infancy. The media sector has grown rapidly since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. But intolerance remains, and journalists and media workers are regularly subjected to threats and harassment from former warlords and conservatives.
Women are a particularly vulnerable minority in a country where culture and other forms of orthodoxy frequently conspire against female professionals. The number of women working as journalists, reporters, or presenters has increased, but women still remain a clear minority in the country's media sector. The intimidation and threats of violence are sometimes accompanied by pressure from male-dominated families.
Shukria Barekzai is a member of Afghanistan's parliament and a former editor of a women's magazine. She tells RFE/RL she's distressed over the broader signals of the murders of Zaki and Amaj.
"I seriously condemn [these killings], and I'm also concerned about the murder of women who are unlawfully killed merely because they work for media organizations -- they're journalists, they're intellectual women, and they fight for women's rights in Afghanistan. We are deeply worried about this," Barekzai says.
She says the Afghan government should take measures to guarantee security for journalists, media workers, and human rights activists.
The journalists association's Samander is worried that threats and violence against journalists could seriously undermine advances in freedom of expression and media freedoms.
Reporters Without Borders describes press freedom as one of the few achievements of the past five years in Afghanistan. But the group warns that the sector remains fragile and that journalists feel the effects of deteriorating security, threats from warlords and conservative religious leaders, and a government that is feeling pressure from many sides.
NGO Highlights Increasing Internet Censorship
The group has released an initial list of countries engaged in Internet censorship, which includes China, Iran, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. The group believes that states will target other means of electronic communication next, such as mobile phone text messaging.
Although as many as 25 countries make the current list of countries that engage in Internet censorship, the list is by no means exhaustive, according to Ron Deibert, one of OpenNet Initiative's principal investigators and director of the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab.
Researchers at the ONI limited their first investigation -- carried out during 2006 -- to just 40 countries in part because of limited resources. But even a partial snapshot of the international landscape shows that a growing number of states are filtering the Internet.
The type of websites governments try to block varies from country to country, but prime targets have been blogs by individuals along with the websites of political parties and local NGOs. Also censored have been Google Maps; youtube; and skype, a low-cost service for making long-distance telephone calls.
Some countries, such as Uzbekistan, allow most international websites without much interference while extensively blocking local content. ONI ranks Uzbekistan as one of 10 countries that engage in "substantial political blocking," along with China, Iran, Syria, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.
Why does the Uzbek government bother to exert control over the Internet, something that only an estimated 3 percent of the country's population uses? One reason, according to Deibert, is that the Internet enjoys great credibility among users in this part of the world and plays a "disproportionately important role" relative to other types of media.
"The Internet is seen as the one place where you can get unbiased information," Deibert says.
In addition, Deibert point outs that statistics illustrating the low rates of Internet "penetration" can be misleading, because they understate the Internet's wider reach. In many parts of the former Soviet Union, Internet access is shared through places of work or at Internet cafes.
Internet access is less restricted in Uzbekistan's neighboring countries, although some steps have been taken to restrict or regulate the Internet. In Kyrgyzstan, the ONI found "very little Internet filtering." However, in Tajikistan and Kazakhstan some websites have "deregistered" or suspended by government order, the group says.
In Belarus, bloggers and independent media have faced criminal prosecution for alleged defamation and slander. In Ukraine, authorities have enlisted organizations to survey Internet content in order to "protect national security" and limit other forms of "undesirable" information.
In Azerbaijan, authorities have tried to remove politically sensitive material from cyberspace. However, in one case, a banned website that was critical of the government's plan to raise prices was restored and its author, who had earlier been detained, was released from police custody.
ONI has not yet done a study of Armenia and Georgia, and researchers tried to determine if Internet filtering is taking place in Russia and Turkmenistan, but the group says test results were inconclusive because of "limitations on testing methodology."
Some Countries Haven't Gotten Around To It Yet
Some countries allow the Internet to operate freely. ONI identified Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, and Israel as having an "open Internet."
But in the case of Afghanistan, Deibert is not certain that the country's relative freedom is the result of their authorities' commitment to freedom of expression. They could simply be distracted.
"I think in a place like that the security issues are so immediate that something like Internet content filtering is a bit down the horizon if at all," Deibert said. "I just think that there are so many more pressing security issues to deal with that the capacity just isn't there at this point."
While even countries with a low percentage of citizens connected to the Internet are filtering content, other electronic means of expression with much higher rates of usage, such as cell phones, are operating without government interference.
But Deibert believes this situation may soon change.
"Text messaging over cellular networks, I think, [is] going to be the next battleground where states are going to intervene," he says.
In April, Cambodian authorities shut off all access to SMS messaging over cellular networks two weeks prior to the national elections in that country.
Details of the OpenNet Initiative's country survey are available on its website. The site also has a tool that lets you find out if a particular site is blocked in any countries.
'Russian Journalists Have No Protection'
In a separate session before the opening of the congress, participants discussed a global campaign against the continuing murders of journalists in Russia.
In chilling footage shown at the start of the session, a female television journalist can be seen stumbling as she chases after a soldier while gunshots are fired overhead.
Participants at the May 28 discussion were convinced of the need to challenge the Russian government and its failure to adequately protect journalists.
But with no government officials present, some speakers said the debate was unlikely to change anything.
“Our journalists have no protection, and that tells you that journalism is a very risky profession and that there is a great deal of unhappiness in society," said Vladimir Ryzhkov, an independent State Duma deputy. "There are so many differing facts, so much corruption, so much crime committed in our country, that journalists who write about these things then find themselves at enormous risk.”
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), which holds its world congress every three years, chose Moscow for its 2007 session at a location just a few steps from the White House. But despite repeated invitations, government officials, including President Vladimir Putin, did not attend the event.
Dmitry Muratov, the editor in chief of “Novaya gazeta" newspaper -- where journalist Anna Politkovskaya worked before she was murdered in October 2006 -- was scathing in his doubts about what the preliminary session dedicated to impunity could achieve.
"There’s been a lot of talk of ‘condemnation’ and ‘discussion’ and the need to send a message to the authorities at this session," Muratov said. "That is, we're talking about people’s deaths in a session that’s not part of the congress itself. It’s optional -- it’s the warm-up act, as rock musicians would say. There’s no one here representing the government, who are the ones who should be listening to the presentations that are being given. Or maybe you think they’ll be able to watch this later on Russian television?”
According to the IFJ, Russia is now the most dangerous place to be a journalist, after Iraq. John Crowfoot, an analyst with the IFJ, has produced a database that outlines the deaths and disappearances of 289 journalists in Russia since 1993.
The youngest to have died is a 19-year-old reporter killed last September; the oldest, a retired journalist of 80, was stabbed to death in his home a few years ago. Forty-seven of those killed were women.
The figures are staggering. But Crowfoot says the deaths are one of just numerous indicators of how dangerous it is to be a journalist in Russia.
“There are attacks on journalists, there are attacks on editorial offices, there is cyber-warfare against websites, there are all kinds of different means of pressure," he said. "In some parts of the country, it's said that you don’t need to actually commit much violence because there are already so many levers -- control over printing presses and so on, which remain in the hands of the local authorities.”
The IFJ used the May 28 forum to launching a commission to investigate impunity in the killings of five journalists in Russia whose cases remain unresolved. (The journalists are Valery Ivanov, Aleksei Sidorov, Eduard Markevich, Dmitry Kholodov, and Vladimir Kirsanov.)
Miklos Haraszti, a representative for media freedom at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said the lack of government action in defending journalists has created an atmosphere in which violence can flourish.
“There is only one thing more intimidating for free speech than harassment, physical attacks and murder of media workers -- and that is when governments tolerate harassment, attacks and murders,” Haraszti said.
The guest of honor at the preliminary session -- and one with at least a tentative link to the current government -- was to have been former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. But minutes before the opening, he telephoned to say he would not be attending.
Kazakh Media Ownership Leaves Little Room For Independence
That's not necessarily because the government is running the country so well that everyone is completely satisfied. The lack of criticism of the government is the result of a process that has been under way for 15 years.
With the exception of a few independent newspapers and television and radio stations, the media in Kazakhstan is firmly under the control of people who are either loyal to or related to President Nursultan Nazarbaev. That situation has existed for years and was noted in 2001 by Emma Gray, who was working for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
"The most striking feature of media in Kazakhstan is the way in which Nazarbaev and his family and business associates have taken control of all of the most influential organs of the media in the republic," Gray said at the time. "Television, newspapers, radio -- [Nazarbaev] controls pretty much all of the most important, the most powerful and influential media in his country."
Relatives and friends of Nazarbaev started acquiring media outlets shortly after Kazakhstan became independent in 1991. The most visible example of this was Nazarbaev's daughter Darigha, who at one time was the head of the state news agency, Khabar. Darigha stepped down as head of the news agency when she formed her own political party in 2003, but she retains great influence there.
Independent media suffered a further setback when Kazakhstan's economy started to blossom thanks to rising oil exports. Many of the influential businesspeople in Kazakhstan are friends and allies of the president and they used their new wealth to buy stakes in television and radio stations and formerly independent newspapers.
One example is the weekly newspaper "Karavan" and the KTK television station, which during most of the 1990s were among the many media that carried reports criticizing the government.
A media group led by Darigha's husband, Rakhat Aliev, bought both the newspaper and the television station in 1998. (The Prosecutor-General's Office suspended operations at both organizations on May 24, after criminal charges were filed against Aliev.)
Other media outlets have experienced similar fates, being bought by wealthy friends and relatives of the Kazakh president in what some term a "soft" crackdown on the media.
This "soft" crackdown would not be possible, though, were it not for the much harsher tactics employed by the state when there were many independent media that often ran reports critical of the government and Nazarbaev.
These tactics included the harassment of independent journalists, some of whom were beaten and even killed under suspicious circumstances. Independent media offices were also vandalized, one example being the "Karavan" office, which was fire-bombed in 1995, days before a referendum that extended Nazarbaev's term in office.
Now the few independent media outlets that exist in Kazakhstan face a different threat -- fines or closure by the courts, as Tamara Kaleeva, the head of the Kazakh media-freedom group Adil Soz, told RFE/RL last year.
"We have a serious problem with judicial persecution of the media; these are criminal cases and the biggest obstacle we see from year to year is the civil and administrative cases [against the media], mainly accusations of insulting the honor and dignity [of government officials] and the crazy, astronomical fines imposed for moral damage," Kaleeva said.
The fines Kaleeva mentioned are often exorbitant enough to cause the closure of independent media. Unpaid taxes or irregularities in the media company's registration are also given as reasons for shutting down independent media.
(RFE/RL's Kazakh Service Director Merhat Sharipzhanov contributed to this article.)
Azerbaijani Media Under Growing Pressure As Election NearsBAKU, May 24, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Authorities in Azerbaijan have closed down the joint office of two independent newspapers.
Officials say the closure was due to safety concerns with the building.
Since then, National Security Ministry personnel have searched the offices of the Russian-language "Realny Azerbaijan" and its Azeri-language sister newspaper, "Gundelik Azerbaycan." Police have confiscated files and equipment.
The reason, according to the authorities, was that the newspapers' rented offices on the ground floor were unsafe.
That's an explanation the newspapers' staff contests. They claim the closure of the offices is political -- a response, they say, to articles critical of the government.
On May 23, both of the newspapers announced that they could no longer carry on printing.
"Our equipment has been confiscated," "Gundelik Azerbaycan" Editor in Chief Sahveled Cobanoglu said. "We don't have an office. We are on the street right now. While I'm talking to you at the moment, we are on the street."
Not The First Time
The papers have been targeted before. Their founder and investigative reporter, Eynulla Fatullayev, was sentenced to 2 1/2 years' imprisonment in April for defaming the armed forces.
Now, those charges have been extended. On May 22, the National Security Ministry opened a criminal case against Fatullayev on charges of terrorism. Security personnel have searched Fatullayev's Baku apartment and confiscated some of his belongings.
Mehman Aliyev, a member of Azerbaijan's Press Council and director of the news agency Turan, says he believes the new case against Fatullayev is political.
"I believe this case is fabricated" Aliyev said. "They have brought these terrorism charges to portray [the idea] that they are fighting against terror on an international level. The second goal here is to threaten people inside Azerbaijan -- so the journalists and others who are defending Fatullayev will be fearful because of these terrorism charges. The goal is here is to weaken his defense. Unfortunately all these latest arrests show that they have political means. The main goal is to silence journalists in Azerbaijan."
Journalists In Jail
Independent journalists in Azerbaijan say such charges and closures are part of a continuing trend of the authorities clamping down on free media.
On May 4, a district court in Baku sentenced two journalists to jail terms for an article that was deemed critical of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.
In November, the authorities evicted staff members from the opposition "Azadliq" newspaper on the grounds of an ownership dispute concerning the building.
And with seven journalists imprisoned, Azerbaijan has the highest number in jail among OSCE members.
International rights groups say that journalists are regularly pressured by the authorities. The Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders has included Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev as one of its "press freedom predators."
In an open letter to President Aliyev on May 23, the Chicago-based World Press Freedom Committee said that Azerbaijan's high number of imprisoned journalists made it "one of the least press-freedom-friendly countries in the world."
The big question is, why? Why has Azerbaijan -- a country with a weak, fractured opposition -- now taken action against two small-circulation newspapers?
Elsa Vidal from the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders has no doubt the recent clampdown is connected to Azerbaijan's presidential election in 2008.
"There is an absolute need to keep the journalists silent and, unfortunately, I would like to say to Mr. [President Ilham] Aliyev that this is not a reachable goal," Vidal said.
Officials have said that the country has a free press.
Ali Hasanov, a senior aide to the Azerbaijani president, on May 23 denied the government is cracking down the media. Hasanov said recent jailings of journalists were justified and called international criticism about attacks on the media "subjective."
Freedom of speech, he said, does not mean journalists can break the law.
Presidential chief of staff Ramiz Mehdiyev also denies accusations the government has political motives in its dealings with the press.
"The issue of the press is not connected to the presidential election," Mehdiyev said. "In no way is it connected. If today, we decided to conduct research, I believe that 98 percent of the population would vote for the president to become president once again."
In the 2003 presidential election, Ilham Aliyev received 78 percent of the vote. The election was marred by violence and widespread reports of violations.