Azerbaijan: Embattled Journalist Blocked From Travel AbroadAn Azerbaijani journalist who has been honored by Amnesty International says authorities have prevented him from taking a flight out of the country.
Aqil Xalil, a 25-year-old correspondent with "Azadliq," Azerbaijan's largest opposition daily, was shortlisted for Amnesty's Special Award for Human Rights Journalism Under Threat. The award, which was announced earlier this week, went to Yemeni newspaper editor Abdul Karim al-Khaiwani.
Xalil this year has suffered a series of attacks that he and fellow "Azadliq" employees say is connected to his work investigating claims of government corruption in major land deals in Baku.
"Statements from international organizations and embassies have been a great source of support for me," he tells RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service. "Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International, this award. In a word, I want to thank all my colleagues for the support I got from them."
Xalil was hospitalized in March after being stabbed in the chest. It was the second time he had been attacked in less than a month.
In April, the prosecutors who had been formally tasked with investigating the attack instead supplied television stations with footage presenting Xalil as a homosexual. The tapes, which were broadcast repeatedly on all state-run TV channels, were purportedly meant to identify Xalil's assailant. But Xalil and others say the footage was meant as a smear campaign.
Xalil says the campaign against him is part of a broader strategy to eliminate "Azadliq," which remains the most vocal opposition newspaper in the country.
"'Azadliq' is the only newspaper fighting the current regime in Azerbaijan and uncovering the negative sides of the regime," he says. "That's why the authorities want to stop this newspaper. The editor in chief, Qanimat Zahid, has been arrested; our satire writer, Mirza Sakit, has been arrested; Fikret Heseynli and Nijat Daglar, both from 'Azadliq,' have been harassed. And look what's happened to me. The goal is to shut down 'Azadliq,' because it's criticizing the government."
The government in Azerbaijan has come under repeated criticism from press-freedom advocates for its steady clampdown on the media. Numerous publications have been shut down or fined, and journalists jailed.
The crackdown comes as Azerbaijan prepares to enter a critical election season, with the dynastic incumbent, Ilham Aliyev, looking to win a second term as president in October.
Press watchdogs say authorities have intensified their attacks on the nonstate media as the election nears. Xalil says authorities are looking to "escalate the situation" to dangerous levels. But, he adds, that won't keep him from pursuing his work as a journalist.
"I will do whatever I used to do and say whatever I used to say, regardless of what they do," he says. "I will continue the fight."
Slain Journalist's Father Accuses Uzbek President Of Murder
The father of slain journalist Alisher Saipov is accusing Uzbek President Islam Karimov of complicity in his son's murder.
Avas Saipov insisted to RFE/RL in an interview that Karimov ordered and financed the killing of his son, with the assistance of Kyrgyz intelligence officials.
He said Karimov must be held personally responsible for the 2007 shooting, which took place in broad daylight in downtown Osh, in southern Kyrgyzstan.
He alleged that the murderers received help from Kyrgyzstan's Interior Ministry and the State Committee for National Security (GKNB).
"All I know is that Islam Karimov is responsible for Alisher's death; it was done on the orders of Islam Karimov," Avas Saipov said. "People paid by Islam Karimov in Kyrgyzstan -- officers of the Interior Ministry and the GKNB as well as government officials -- provided assistance."
He offered no evidence to support his charges against Karimov or the Uzbek and Kyrgyz security officials.
Alisher Saipov was editor in chief of the Uzbek-language political weekly "Siyosat" (Politics) and was shot dead shortly after leaving his office in October.
Speculation quickly arose suggesting that Uzbek security forces had ordered the killing of the 26-year-old ethnic Uzbek.
Saipov, a Kyrgyz citizen, also contributed to Voice of America and RFE/RL. He wrote about corruption in the upper echelons of power in Uzbekistan and also criticized cooperation between the Uzbek and Kyrgyz governments, writing that Uzbek intelligence officers were operating freely in southern Kyrgyzstan.
Saipov also covered alleged rights violations against Muslims in the Ferghana Valley, which lies in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan as well as Tajikistan. He often interviewed members of banned religious groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
Saipov reported on the bloody events in May 2005 in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon. He visited a refugee camp in Kyrgyzstan and interviewed Uzbek refugees who fled Andijon after government troops opened fire on peaceful protesters, killing hundreds.
Before he was killed, Saipov told his friends he had received death threats.
He also was a target of an Uzbek state-media campaign that carried numerous reports about Saipov, calling him an "enemy of the Uzbek nation" and accusing him of destabilizing the situation in Uzbekistan.
A representative for the Moscow-based rights group Memorial has implicated Uzbek intelligence agents in Saipov's death, saying the motive lay in Uzbekistan's presidential election in December 2007.
Memorial's Vitaly Ponomarev told a news conference in the Kyrgyz capital in November that "we have information from certain sources -- on an unofficial level -- that the Kyrgyz special services have received from their Uzbek colleagues information that this [killing] was politically motivated."
Ponomaryov then charged that Kyrgyz investigators had stalled their murder probe.
Avas Saipov said his son's reporting on sensitive issues is the reason politicians in both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan wanted him dead.
"The [Kyrgyz] Interior Ministry and special services collaborated with Uzbekistan's secret service and were involved in [Alisher's killing]," he said. "Why were they interested in this? Because they did not like the truth."
Earlier this month, Saipov sent an open letter to Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev. He wrote that the Kyrgyz Interior Ministry's offices in Osh "became the headquarters of Uzbek intelligence" and "some Kyrgyz officials work for Uzbekistan."
Saipov expressed hope that Bakiev would keep his promise and find those responsible for the killing. A day after Saipov's murder, Bakiev announced that he would personally oversee the investigation into the killing, and promised to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Saipov told RFE/RL that he was waiting for the president's response. "Will he respond or not? It is up to him," he said.
"Alisher was a citizen of this country [Kyrgyzstan]. I am also a citizen of this country. I point out that he and I have been citizens who fulfill all the duties of citizenship. As such, I wrote a letter to the president," Avas Saipov said. "[Alisher] was born on this soil, he drank water here. He was a patriot of Kyrgyzstan in the true meaning of the word. Thank God he remained one until his death."
Saipov despairs that his son's murderers will never be found. "Honestly, I don't believe the case will ever be solved," he said, charging that some high-level Kyrgyz officials do not want those who masterminded the murder to be found.
The concerns voiced by the slain journalist's father come amid international criticism of the growing state control over media in Uzbekistan and even Kyrgyzstan.
On June 4, President Bakiev signed amendments to Kyrgyzstan's press law that media watchdogs, including Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists, have said jeopardize the independence of the country's media.
In Uzbekistan, state-controlled regional television stations in the Ferghana Valley aired a program in mid-June that made sweeping allegations against RFE/RL's Uzbek Service journalists and divulged personal details about their families.
On June 7, Solijon Abdurahmanov, one of few independent journalists working in Uzbekistan, was arrested in his native Nukus in the western part of the country. Abdurahmanov, who is also a former RFE/RL contributor, was accused of drug possession.
RFE/RL Uzbek Service correspondent Hakimjon Husanov contributed to this report from Bishkek
Uzbekistan: OSCE Concerned Over 'Harassment And Intimidation' Of RFE/RL JournalistsThe Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Europe's main human rights watchdog, has expressed concern over Uzbekistan's assault on the independent media, including RFE/RL journalists.
Miklos Haraszti, the OSCE's media freedom representative, voiced concern over Tashkent's "intimidation and harassment of nongovernmental journalists." The OSCE statement, issued on June 17, came after Uzbekistan detained an independent reporter and accused RFE/RL Uzbek Service journalists of antistate activities.
"Independent journalist Solidzon Abdurakhmonov was recently detained on drug charges, and reporters working for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty were accused of carrying out antistate activities in an hour-long program broadcast repeatedly since June 9 by Uzbek state television," the statement said.
Haraszti added that the assaults on free journalism in Uzbekistan were "especially regrettable as Uzbek authorities told me during my visit last week that they were ready to start the much-needed reforms of the media governance in the country."
While in Tashkent, Haraszti said he also called on the Uzbek government to carry out specific steps to help the country's nonstate media, including providing accreditation for reporters from the BBC, RFE/RL, and Deutsche Welle. He also called for the release of all those imprisoned "for expressing critical views," which together with "the return of foreign media outlets to Uzbekistan would be important first steps toward compliance with OSCE commitments, as well as a signal of stability."
Haraszti also "asked his counterparts in meetings to liberalize media regulations and to allow for pluralism and political debate in the press. He also called for privatization in the print media, the creation of a public-service broadcaster, easy registration and licensing of media outlets, and decriminalization of libel," the OSCE statement said.
The statement was the second time in recent weeks that the OSCE's representative on media freedom has intervened on behalf of RFE/RL journalists in Central Asia, where the environment for nonstate media appears to be steadily deteriorating.
On May 21, Haraszti sent a letter to Kazakh Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin, urging the government in Astana to restore access to RFE/RL's Kazakh-language website. The website had been blocked for some two months for "technical reasons," according to the Kazakh state telecom operator. Service was finally restored two weeks ago.
News Analysis: Pressure Increases On Belarusian Press
The legislation seeks to impose curbs on the Internet -- the last outpost of uncensored information and free exchange of ideas in one of the world's most authoritarian countries.
The bill, which was submitted by the government on June 10, was endorsed in its first reading by the Chamber of Representatives within a week. The speed with which it was rushed through the lower house reportedly surprised even some legislators well accustomed to rubber-stamping documents coming from the presidential administration or government. "But this has already become a tradition," Belapan quoted one lawmaker as saying after the vote. "There's no help for it."
The bill was supported by 93 lawmakers in the 110-seat legislature and opposed by one. It proved impossible for journalists to determine the identity of the rogue legislator following the secret ballot. Colleagues speculated that the dissenting vote might have been the result of someone pushing the wrong button on the voting machine.
The nonstate Association of Belarusian Journalists (BAZh), which desperately seeks to prevent the independent media sphere in Belarus from shrinking to naught, sent individual letters to all the lawmakers last week, asking them to discuss the media bill jointly and in public; but to no avail. Additionally, on June 16, BAZh sent a 17-page commentary on the bill with reservations and remarks to the Chamber of Representatives. There was no positive response to this move either.
BAZh Chairwoman Zhanna Litvina tells RFE/RL's Belarus Service that the authorities are deaf to any dissenting views regarding this particular piece of legislation. The authorities' "goal is understandable, clear, and precise -- to pass the law as soon as possible," Litvina says. "Therefore the existence of a different opinion or view is not needed by anyone."
BAZh lawyer Andrey Bastunets explains to RFE/RL that the new media bill introduces several groups of new restrictions regarding the operation of the media in Belarus in comparison with the current media law, which has been in force since 1995.
First, media outlets are required to reregister with the Information Ministry every time they change their legal address.
Second, the bill makes it possible for the authorities to shut down a media outlet following just one warning issued by the Information Ministry or a prosecutor (the 1995 media law provides for such a move after two warnings).
Third, the bill defines "media" as forms of the distribution of information in print, online, and in electronic formats. It also authorizes the government to issue regulations regarding the registration of online media outlets and their operation. The BAZh is afraid that the government might introduce state registration for all online sites and block access to those that fail to obtain such a license.
Natallya Pyatkevich, deputy head of the presidential administration, argued on June 16 that the new media law would not entail a government directive requiring the compulsory registration of online sites in Belarus.
However, Liliya Ananich, first deputy information minister, said in May that her ministry favored a registration requirement for online media outlets, as "there is a problem of disinformation flows" from abroad. According to Ananich, such a problem has been successfully tackled by China, "which has cut off access to its territory for such sites."
Yury Ziser, the founder of the popular Belarusian online portal tut.by, predicted on June 17 that the requirement to obtain a state license for online information resources would lead to a mass migration abroad not only of opposition-minded Belarusian websites but also of those far outside politics.
The new media bill also includes such vague and ambiguous provisions as making media outlets liable to punishment for "distributing false information that can cause damage to state or public interests" or for "distorting generally established language standards."
According to Alyaksandr Starykevich, editor of the online publication "Salidarnasts," it is too early to predict whether the new media regulations might kill the Belarusian Internet completely or leave some free territories intact. But he, too, had no illusions as to the direction of the official media policy in Belarus.
"Our practice is worse than any laws. For the time being, it is hard to see what threats are coming with this bill, because it includes a lot of ambiguities regarding not only individual provisions and terms but also their interpretation," Starykevich says. "But it is clearly understandable that the Belarusian authorities are doing this solely for toughening control over the press."
"You can expect the worst," President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said in May, in response to a Reuters question about whether he would run for the presidency in 2011. As testified by Belarus's modern history, the worst in Belarus has usually been preceded by bad and worse. This case appears to be no different.
Kyrgyzstan: Rights Groups Assail Restrictive New Media Law
Bakiev had promised to give full independence to the National TV and Radio Broadcasting Corporation as well as all other state-funded media outlets in Kyrgyzstan. But on June 4, Bakiev signed amendments to the country’s press law that appear to jeopardize the independence of the media.
In a statement on June 16, the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said the amendments "put many media under threat." RSF said part of the law "gives the president the power to appoint the executive director of state-run TV and radio KTR," which effectively "wrecks efforts undertaken to make [KTR] a public and not a state company."
Prior to the amendments, a 15-member supervisory council had governed KTR, with the president, parliament, and civic groups each selecting five board members.
Bakyt Orunbekov, a member of the supervisory council, tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the new law is an obstacle to further media reform. "This law is a huge impediment on the path to realizing the idea of creating public television," Orunbekov says. "Moreover, this has a negative influence on democratic processes and freedom of speech, which until recently Kyrgyzstan was praised for having."
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) last month urged Bakiev to veto the media bill, saying it "obliterates Kyrgyzstan’s attempt at broadcasting reform.”
The CPJ had objected to other changes in the media bill, such as legislation requiring that "half the programming carried by any television or radio station must be self-produced and in the Kyrgyz language," and a change that "enables state agencies alone to revoke, sever, or annul broadcasting licenses for various technical violations."
The CPJ noted that "those penalties could be sanctioned solely by the state agencies; approval from the Kyrgyz courts would no longer be required."
Marat Tokoev, the leader of Journalists, a Kyrgyz NGO, tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the new law could spell the end of some independent Kyrgyz television and radio stations.
"This law represents a step backward," Tokoev says. "Television channels and radio stations cannot endure the regulations included in it. That means that we are creating obstacles to the development of the [state television and radio] company. It is possible that many television channels and radio stations will be closed down."
Two television channels in the southern Osh area, Osh TV and Mezon TV, lodged appeals against the new law that were rejected by the Constitutional Court. Both stations broadcast in the Uzbek language to a large ethnic-Uzbek audience in the Osh area and across the border in Uzbekistan. Since the broadcasts are not in the state language of Kyrgyzstan, the channels fear they will be taken off the air.
Not Only Broadcasters
Tokoev could also have mentioned the print media. At least one independent newspaper is encountering troubles not seen in Kyrgyzstan since the 2005 change of power.
On June 14, Kyrgyz authorities raided the office of the independent newspaper "De Facto," confiscating the weekly's computers. The raid was troubling to many observers partly because such moves against the media have been rare since Kyrgyz independence in 1991.
The raid is merely one of several recent events in Kyrgyzstan that are raising concerns about the government's commitment to democratic principles.
A Kyrgyz court ruled that "De Facto" had printed libelous information and issued a warrant for the raid after the newspaper's June 12 edition alleged that an official of the Kyrgyz Taxes and Duties Committee was involved in corrupt activities. In the article, author Zamira Moldoeva appealed to Kyrgyz authorities to bring the official to justice.
Cholpon Orozobekova, the weekly’s editor in chief, said the article’s author is prepared to testify in court against the allegations and the raid. She added that the subpoena against the reporter is an attempt to silence the independent newspaper.
“De Facto” was earlier fined 1 million soms ($27,600) on June 2 for printing an article that alleged Bakiev's nephew was involved in a traffic accident that resulted in the death of a pedestrian.
Nongovernmental organizations in Kyrgyzstan are showing their support for “De Facto.” On June 17, the coalition For Democracy and Civil Society said in a statement that the legal case against the weekly is politically motivated and aimed at the "elimination of the free press and the intimidation of journalists."
Culture and Information Minister Sultan Raev urged patience, telling RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the matter is not yet settled and that the president and civic groups can still propose changes to the newly signed law.
"The decree of the president was signed with current realities in mind," Raev says. "For it to be implemented there are still some unresolved questions on which the president has already made recommendations to the culture and justice ministries. We are working currently to honor these recommendations."
Bakiev says the new law is still open for debate, and a special commission has been appointed to study proposed changes.
But RSF, among others, questions that effort. “We do not understand why the president should sign a law which he knows is unsatisfactory and then ask ministers to study proposals from civil society," the media watchdog said in its statement.
Director Tynchtykbek Tchoroev and correspondent Kubat Chekirov of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report
Russia: Irreverent English-Language Tabloid Closes Down
The alternative tabloid -- known for its Gonzo-style journalism on drugs, sex, politics, and the seamier side of Moscow nightlife -- announced the closure in a blog posted on its website on June 11.
The paper's demise, and the investors' flight, was sparked by a visit on June 6 by inspectors from the Federal Service for Mass Media, Telecommunications, and the Protection of Cultural Heritage.
"In the current atmosphere...just the thought of having this government looking at you, reading you, and deciding if you are violating laws is pretty scary, and it's not something you can win," Mark Ames, the newspaper's editor in chief and founder, tells RFE/RL. "It was enough to frighten away people who were helping us stay afloat the last couple years."
The inspectors told Ames that someone complained that the paper "mocks and humiliates Russian traditions and history." Ames says the inspectors, who he described as "reasonably civilized officials," were particularly interested in the paper's relationship with bombastic opposition leader Eduard Limonov, who writes a column for the paper.
"The first thing they asked about was Eduard Limonov. They wanted to see a copy of a recent article by him," Ames says. "They asked what kind of stuff he publishes with us, do we know about him, why he was in there, and so on. They were more than anything interested in our style."
Foreign-Language Media In The Crosshairs?
Ames -- whose documentary films have appeared on "EuroNews" and on the Kremlin-controlled English-language television station "Russia Today" -- says the inspectors took three issues of the paper for analysis to determine whether it violated legislation prohibiting the promotion of extremism, pornography, or narcotics. The inspectors were due to complete their analysis by June 11, but by that time the paper's backers had already backed out, dooming it to discontinue publication.
Limonov tells RFE/RL that he believes "The eXile's" demise is a continuation of a drive to rein in and control all media operating in the country.
"The authorities have completely destroyed the Russian-language free press. Now they are starting to look around in order to shut up the foreign-language free press," Limonov says. "They started with the weakest foreign-language paper because 'The eXile' is not owned by foreign capital. Their owners are Russians."
Limonov adds that such is the atmosphere of fear in today's Russia that the authorities did not even need to formally close "The eXile" down themselves. All it took was a little inspection to scare away financial backers.
"The newspaper is dead, not because the Russian authorities said it would be closed but because investors got scared and they just scattered out of sight," Limonov says. "That is the problem in a police state like ours. It's a great problem."
Officials from the Federal Service for Mass Media, Telecommunications, and the Protection of Cultural Heritage could not be reached for comment.
Silly Gags, Serious Reporting
Launched in 1997, "The eXile" quickly made its mark on the Russian capital with a unique mix of hard-hitting political analysis, quirky columns, and offbeat humor that many believed stretched the boundaries of decency.
Writers, for example, would recount their sexual exploits and decadent club-hopping in graphic detail. In 1999, in the waning years of Boris Yeltsin's presidency, the paper published a cover picturing the ailing and wobbly Kremlin leader with the headline: "Die Already!"
"The eXile" was also renowned for its childish -- and often hilarious -- gags.
Its reporters once called former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and, posing as representatives of the New York Jets football team, offered him the job of defensive coordinator. Another time they ordered a call girl. When she arrived at the paper's office, instead of performing her usual services, she was asked by the staff to write an article for publication.
In the 1990s, Matt Taibbi, now a correspondent for "Rolling Stone," wrote a widely circulated article about how he applied for a firearms permit in Moscow -- while wearing a gorilla suit. Ames, for his part, wrote a detailed account of using the toilet in retired General Aleksandr Lebed's home, where he and Taibbi were interviewing the politician.
Every year, the international press would dread "The eXile's" annual "Worst Foreign Correspondent In Moscow" contest, in which the paper would pillory what it saw as their laziness, inaccuracy, and sloppy reporting.
But the paper also earned praise for more traditional journalism. In a 1998 story, Ames predicted the massive financial crisis that would befall Russia in August of that year. Taibbi wrote well-received firsthand reports on the plight of Russian coal miners and the state of the country's high schools.
Ames throws modesty to the wind in reflecting on his tenure at the paper. "We've done God's work and I plan to carry it on in some other way," he says. "We all do. All the writers who write for us do."
The paper has launched a fundraiser on its website in an effort to keep its online edition afloat.
Russia: Media Play Key Role In Fanning Racist Tensions
But the media's reaction was not all benign. The cave-in also prompted a number of hostile remarks about the victims -- most of whom were traders from Azerbaijan, Georgia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
"Thank God it didn't happen during the afternoon, when there would have been many more people, more Muscovites. These were merely people from the Caucasus," one reader observed in comments published in the high-circulation tabloid "Komsomolskaya pravda." The reader went on to argue that the financial compensation allocated for the victims' families would be "better spent on pensioners."
The newspaper quoted another reader complaining about how "blacks" -- the blanket terms used by some Russians to denote many non-Slavs -- once barred her 81-year-old uncle from selling his homegrown apples at a Moscow market.
Human rights groups have long warned that xenophobic tendencies in Russian mainstream media are feeding into a nationwide surge in racist attacks, which have already claimed 57 lives since the beginning of the year.
"Xenophobia itself is not on the rise. If you look at polls by the Levada Center, xenophobia remains very stable at 55-57 percent of the population," says Galina Kozhevnikova, the deputy director of the Sova center, a Moscow-based organization monitoring hate crimes. "But the mass media is contributing to maintaining this degree of xenophobia, to provoke conflicts, and to transform latent xenophobia into open aggression."
Kozhevnikova, who co-authored a book last year about xenophobia in the Russian media, says "Komsomolskaya pravda" remains one of the worst publications in terms of the frequency of racist comments.
In December, it published an editorial in response to the conviction of an Azerbaijani man on murder charges in Russia's Far East.
"This happens in other Russian cities -- road disputes with firearms and the inevitable participation of people from the proud Caucasus," wrote the daily's deputy editor in chief, Sergei Ponomaryov. "It's also possible to slaughter offenders with a dagger, slice them in two with a saber. Mountain customs, you know. But then what kind of treatment, dear Caucasus people, do you expect from the native inhabitants of inner Russia?"
'A Complete Nonentity'
Smaller, local publications aren't much better.
A newspaper in the northern city of Murmansk in January published a test offering readers to evaluate their level of culture.
One of the questions was: "Do you have Jews in your family?" A positive answer prompted the following conclusion: "Don't be upset. You are a complete nonentity. But people nonetheless adore you."
And Moscow's "Vechernaya Moskva" recently published an article blaming Roma for the country's rampant crime. "Being illiterate, they cannot set up a legal trade," the author argued. "So what's left? That's right: criminal goods, from which gypsies choose the most lucrative: drugs and 'live meat' -- prostitutes."
Nazar Mirzoda, a spokesman for the Tajik community in St. Petersburg, says racist remarks in the press do particular damage to migrant workers, the vast majority of whom perform unwanted jobs for a pittance.
"Some journalists and tabloids accuse migrants of all ills, they write lies about migrants violating everything and spreading diseases," complains Mirzoda. "That's not true. Migrants are not criminals and thieves, 70-80 percent of them work on construction sites, they are workers, simple people. But newspapers don't write about that, about the fact that countless square meters [of construction] in Russia were built by Tajik workers."
Russian lawmakers have yet to vote on a bill introduced last year in the State Duma that would ban media from mentioning the citizenship of victims and perpetrators when reporting on a crime.
The draft law has received a mixed response from ethnic minorities and rights campaigners. While many support it, others like Kozhevnikova point out that journalists will be able to bypass the law by using broader derogatory terms such as "blacks" and "southerners."
Afghanistan: Death Threats, Intimidation Part Of Journalists' Daily Lives
But the more these daring investigative journalists reveal about deeply rooted problems in Afghan society, the more dangerous their jobs become.
Intimidation and death threats against reporters or their families have become commonplace -- not just from Taliban militants, but also from warlords, drug barons, but even corrupt government officials and police who do not want the media spotlight cast upon their activities.
The killing in the southern Helmand Province of BBC reporter Abdul Samad Rohani is seen by journalists in Afghanistan as the latest example of a worrying trend. Rohani was kidnapped on June 7 while working on a story about illegal opium-poppy cultivation in Helmand. His body was discovered the next day.
The Taliban -- usually eager to claim responsibility for such high-profile attacks -- denied any role in Rohani's abduction and execution-style killing. Many journalists in Afghanistan think Rohani was killed by gunmen with links to the illegal drug trade -- and possibly with connections to local authorities.
Rahimullah Samadar, the head of the Afghan Independent Journalists Association, says that journalists "have always faced tremendous challenges from different groups and factions" in Afghanistan. "They have faced suppression and have been killed in the past. I think illegal gunmen who are working within the government -- or in an area under governmental control -- are involved in this."
Jean MacKenzie, the Afghan country director for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), oversees a network of Afghan correspondents who file reports for the nonprofit investigative-journalism organization. MacKenzie tells RFE/RL there are vested interests in Helmand Province, besides the Taliban, who may have been responsible for Rohani's murder. She suspects powerful local figures who also have threatened her own reporters.
"Our reporters are working in some very risky areas and are taking on some very edgy topics," MacKenzie says. "That brings them into conflict with various members of the Afghan society. Certainly, our reporters in the south are under constant threat from a variety of sources. And, as the murder of Abdul Samad Rohani is testament to, it is not necessarily the Taliban or the insurgents who are the major source of risk."
MacKenzie agrees that the threats against Afghan journalists are growing as they increasingly cover stories about government corruption and the drug trade.
"I don't want to downplay the dangers associated with covering the Taliban or covering the war in the south. But Afghanistan is also a deeply corrupt and criminalized society," MacKenzie says. "There is very big money involved in the [illegal drug] trade. And certainly, there is a very long chain of traffickers. These people are very sensitive to being exposed and being written about or covered in any way by the media."
MacKenzie cites the case of Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, an Afghan journalism student sentenced to death on blasphemy charges by a provincial court in northern Afghanistan. She says the sentence is in fact an attempt to stop journalists from covering corruption in the local government in Balkh Province, noting that Kambakhsh's brother is an IWPR journalist who has filed investigative reports on local officials there.
She says Afghan journalists also face intimidation and death threats from powerful warlords -- some of whom have links with the government.
"These are sometimes very big commanders, and sometimes more petty commanders who are surrounded by their own private militias," MacKenzie says. "They engage in extortion, both large and small, in the communities around them...including rape, murder, and just plain robbery. These people are also very sensitive to being covered. And in many cases, they are entwined with sources within the police and within the government."
Akbar Ayazi, the director of RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, agrees with MacKenzie's assessment about sources of intimidation for reporters, pointing out that the threats vary depending on the location in Afghanistan. Journalists "are not only faced with the challenges of the Taliban. They are faced with challenges from the drug lords and warlords, and also, sometimes, with challenges from government officials," Ayazi says. "We have had reporters who are detained and questioned by governors or district chiefs -- asking them questions about why they are reporting on an issue or why they are not reporting on certain issues."
Ayazi says Radio Free Afghanistan's reporters -- like journalists from other media organizations -- receive threatening phone calls not only from within Afghanistan, but also from neighboring Pakistan. Sometimes, he says, the threats have a chilling effect upon the reporters.
"There are times when the reporter would get threatened and he will have this fear [about] reporting," Ayazi says. "When they are threatened, we transfer them from one province to another. We temporarily stop their reporting -- not airing their voice or their name. We get the audio. We get the material to [RFE/RL's] Prague headquarters. And then we put them together and write a report without giving the source. These are ways that we can manage things."
In fact, Ayazi says he has to deal with a death threat or other form of intimidation against a Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent almost every month. One female correspondent was moved to a different province and stopped reporting temporarily until she and her colleagues believed the threat had subsided. Another reporter was kidnapped by the Taliban for four days, but the service managed to secure her release.
In another case last year, Ayazi says, a reporter from Quetta, Pakistan, was threatened by Pakistani officials. "He was arrested on the border [of Pakistan and Afghanistan] and then he had to quit the job. He just could not take it anymore because he and the lives of his family were threatened. So these are extreme cases that we have," Ayazi says.