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Monday 22 May 2017

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Shamela Rasooli, 22, Afghan presenter, adjusts her headscarf as she records her morning TV program at the Zan TV station (women's TV) in Kabul, Afghanistan May 8, 2017.

In patriarchal Afghanistan, where the media industry -- like the rest of society -- is dominated by men, a new TV channel dedicated to women is set to begin broadcasting.

In patriarchal Afghanistan, where the media industry -- like the rest of society -- is dominated by men, a new TV channel dedicated to women is set to begin broadcasting.

Zan TV Dari for “Women's TV” is set to launch on May 21. All its presenters and producers are female. They expect to gain a large viewership following an aggressive marketing campaign on social media and huge billboards in the capital, Kabul.

Khatira Ahmadi, 20, is a producer at the station, and she is looking forward to presenting her creations to Afghan women.

"I am so happy this TV station has been created for women because there are women in our society who are not aware of their rights," she said. "This station represents women, and we work to raise the voice of women so they can defend their rights.”

Female newsreaders, singers, politicians, and officials appear regularly on many Afghan channels, but an entire station for women is a novelty. Zan TV’s arrival marks the change taking place in Afghanistan despite the ongoing violence.

The Afghan government and foreign aid organizations often cite women’s rights and education and the country’s relatively free mushrooming media as among their major achievements since the demise of the Taliban regime in late 2001.

Afghanistan, however, remains one of the most dangerous places for women journalists. A media watchdog says more than 100 women journalists have left the profession in recent years because of mounting violence and threats. With a crowded TV landscape of around 40 stations, the media market is highly competitive with little guarantee of success.

Khatira Ahmadi (R), 20, producer of Zan TV (women's TV) station, works in the editing room in Kabul on May 8.
Khatira Ahmadi (R), 20, producer of Zan TV (women's TV) station, works in the editing room in Kabul on May 8.

Hamid Samar, a media entrepreneur and founder of Zan TV, hopes to tap into potentially large female audiences in big cities like Kabul.

"There has been a lot of talk about women's rights and media rights. But we've never seen anything special for women, and that's why we've done this," he said.

The station is now running on a frugal budget and operates out of a basic studio in Kabul. By employing low-cost digital technology, Zan TV now focuses on talk shows and health and music programs.

The TV’s team, mainly young students, hope their enthusiasm makes up for what they lack in experience and skills.

Some 16 male technicians handle the graphics, camera operation, and editing. Their behind-the-scenes operations include training female colleagues.

In conservative Afghanistan, some staff like Ahmadi have had to cope with disapproving family members or face down threats to work as journalists.

Ahmadi, however, is determined to be part of an effort aimed at giving a new generation of women a chance to work in media.

"I came to share my experience with colleagues here, and I am really happy working along with the other girls," she noted.

-- Sayed Hassib wrote this for Reuters

Shakeela Ibrahimkhel a star TV reporter abruptly ended her career and made a horrendous illegal journey across Iran, Turkey, Greece and other European nations to claim asylum in Germany in 2016.

Violence, threats, harassment, taboos and uncertainty has forced some 100 Afghan women journalists to abandon the profession with some even fleeing the country.

Afghan and international leaders often celebrate Afghanistan’s relatively free press as one of the major achievements after the demise of the hard-line Taliban regime 16 years ago.

In recent years, however, violence, threats, harassment, taboos and uncertainty has forced some 100 Afghan women journalists to abandon the profession with some even fleeing the country.

Shakeela Ibrahimkhel became a star during her 10 year reporting career with one of Afghanistan’s leading news channel, Tolo TV. But in April 2016 she abruptly ended her career and made a horrendous illegal journey across Iran, Turkey, Greece and other European nations to claim asylum in Germany.

“I and my colleagues were threatened several times, we did not take it seriously. But they [the Taliban] attacked a bus carrying our colleagues [in January 2016],” Ibrahimkhel told Radio Free Afghanistan. “That attack was too painful for us.”

The attack, by a Taliban suicide bomber, killed seven Tolo employees while they were being driven to their homes from work on the evening of January 20 last year.

Ibrahimkhel became her family’s breadwinner after losing her husband to unknown assassins during Taliban’s draconian stint in power in the 1990s. She, her two sons and a daughter are now awaiting a decision on their asylum application near Frankfurt.

For a decade Ibrahimkhel reported from the frontline of Afghan conflict.
For a decade Ibrahimkhel reported from the frontline of Afghan conflict.

“I really loved my profession but the situation was getting worse, so I decided to leave my country, my family and my friends against my wishes,” she said.

Najib Sharifi, the head of Afghan Journalists Safety Committee (AJSC), a Kabul-based monitoring organization, says threats against journalists, women in particular, have mounted in recent years.

Security in Afghanistan has deteriorated substantially since the December 2014 departure of most NATO troops after the end of alliance’s major combat operations. During the past two years the Taliban have overrun large swathes of the countryside and are attempted to project power into the cities.

“Threats against media increased in 2015, particularly following the Taliban insurgents’ statement in which Tolo TV and 1TV were threatened, and I witnessed that a woman left her job after the threats,” he said. “But when Tolo TV employees came under attack, many women quit their jobs.”

He estimates that more than 100 women journalists and media workers have stopped working in the Afghan media organizations since 2014 due to increasing insecurity.

“Some of them fled the country,” he said without elaborating on where they might have gone.

According to AJSC, some 500 women journalists are currently working across Afghanistan. But growing insecurity are forcing many to abandon their profession.

Mahnaz Mawzoon, 25, is a journalist in Mazar-e Sharif, capital of Afghanistan’s northern Balkh province. She has seen her freedom of movement shrink considerably in recent years.

Mahnaz Mawzoon, 25, is a journalist in northern Afghanistan.
Mahnaz Mawzoon, 25, is a journalist in northern Afghanistan.

“Because of increasing insecurity, we cannot go to many districts for reporting,” she said. “We cannot file reports from remote regions.”

Yet Mawzoon has little choice. "Even if I get hurt or receive death threats, I still cannot quit my job [because I need it for making a living],” she stressed.

Twenty-three-year-old Nadia Zahel works as a presenter for a private TV channel in Kabul. She says that the overall environment for women journalists is frightening.

"I am afraid of the environment [I work in] and it is a threat to me,” she said. “I once decided to leave my job, because of the bad security situation.”

Nadia, who started working for the Afghan media seven years ago, says she expects that someday she will not be allowed to go on TV or even go out unaccompanied.

She told Radio Free Afghanistan that she has repeatedly faced harassment on the streets of Kabul because people recognize her from TV.

“I have decided not to go unaccompanied to the office, because people want to harm female TV presenters,” she said.

Nadia says some Afghan officials harass and make illegal and immoral demands from women journalists.

Nadia Zahel works as a presenter for a private TV channel in Kabul
Nadia Zahel works as a presenter for a private TV channel in Kabul

“This issue exists in every government and private institutions,” she claimed.

In the western Afghan province of Herat, women journalists have similar stories.

“Some people think that women who do reporting in the field do not observe morality and engage in illegitimate relationships,” Sumaya Walizada, a young woman journalist in Herat said.

She says some families are turning against allowing women as journalists because they fear this profession exposes their loved ones to dangers.

Sharifi, the head of AJSC, says in some rural provinces such as Paktika, Logar, Nuristan, Kunar, and Laghman there are no female journalists. AJSC says patriarchal traditions prevent women journalists form working in Paktia, Wardak, Ghazni, Kandahar, Helmand, Uruzgan and Zabul provinces.

“The lack of women journalists in these provinces is shameful,” Sharifi said.

Maria, 34, who works for Radio Moska in Lashkar Gah, the capital of volatile southern Helmand province, says women journalists feel pressured by some officials to self-censor.

"They often want us to avoid sensitive issues,” she said. “Sometimes an interviewee tries to delete an interview to prevent it from being disseminated.”

AJSC’s study on the conditions for Afghan women journalists titled “The Reporting Heroes” shows that female media workers faced mounting challenges.

“Female journalists in Afghanistan need to persuade their families, close relatives and, in some instances, tribes [and communities], to grant them permission to work outside the house,” the April 2016 report noted.

Afghan media laws consider censorship by powerful individuals as illegal. Saber Mohmand, a spokesman for the Ministry of Information and Culture, says the government is working to improve the working conditions for female journalists and have created a committee to protect journalists.

“The Afghan president recently issued a decree for the establishment of a committee for journalist safety under the leadership of the second vice president,” Mohmand said. “The deputy minister of information and culture is the member of the committee which operates in all 34 provinces,” he added.

He says that Afghan journalists are welcome to report cases of threats and intimidation to the government.

Still Afghanistan remains one of the deadliest countries for journalists, particularly women.

NAI, an independent media watchdog in Afghanistan, says there have been more than 14 fatal attacks against reporters and other media workers since the beginning of last year.

During this period NAI documented more than 415 cases of violence. These include murders, harassment, short-term detentions, and torture. It attributed 326 of these cases to the Taliban and the rest to the Afghan government.

According to global press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders, 2016 has been one of the deadliest for journalists in Afghanistan.

“Three of the ten journalists and media workers killed in 2016 were women,” the organization noted on its website. “Thirteen women journalists and media workers (including five foreigners) have been killed since 2001, and at least ten have had to flee the country.”

In May 2005, Shaima Rezayee, the presenter of a music show on Tolo TV was shot dead in Kabul. Two years later, Shekiba Sanga Amaj a Shamshad TV presenter, was shot in her home in Kabul.

Similarly, Zakia Zaki, a journalist and presenter for Radio Peace, was killed in northern Parwan province in 2007. Palwasha Tokhi, who worked as a journalist for Radio Bayan-e-Shamal, was attacked with a knife in her house in the city of Mazar-e Sharif capital of Balkh in September 16, 2014.

Michelle Lang, 34, who was working for the CanWest News Service, was killed in a roadside bomb attack in Kandahar province in December 2009. An Afghan police officer shot dead award-winning German news photographer Anja Niedringhaus and seriously wounded her Canadian colleague Kathy Gannon in the southeastern Khost Province in April 2014.

The attack took place one day ahead of presidential and legislative elections that Taliban militants had vowed to disrupt.

The situation worsened dramatically in 2015 after Taliban declared Tolo TV and 1TV legitimate “military targets” because of their alleged "disrespectful and hostile actions" against the militant group.

An Afghan relative reacts alongside the body of Saeed Jawad Hossini, 29, who was killed in a suicide attack on a minibus carrying employees of Afghan TV channel TOLO in Kabul in January 2016.
An Afghan relative reacts alongside the body of Saeed Jawad Hossini, 29, who was killed in a suicide attack on a minibus carrying employees of Afghan TV channel TOLO in Kabul in January 2016.

"No employee, anchor, office, news team, and reporter of these TV channels will be immune," a Taliban statement on October 12, 2015 said. "All the reporters and associates of these channels will be deemed enemy personnel, all of their centers, offices and field teams will be considered military targets, which will be eliminated."

Less than four months after the Taliban statement, a suicide attacker targeted employees of Tolo TV in Kabul on January 20, 2016.

During evening rush hour a suicide bomber drove an explosives-laden car into a minibus carrying the Afghan network’s employees. The blast killed its seven Tolo employees including three female workers, Mehry Azizi, Zainab Merzaie, and Maryam Ibrahimi.

FILE: A demonstration outside the Turkmen Embassy in Paris

The media situation in Central Asia, generally, has been bad for many years now. But, according to recent reports by the Paris-based organization Reporters Without Borders and the New York-based Freedom House the situation with media in Central Asia actually got even worse in 2016.

The media situation in Central Asia, generally, has been bad for many years now.

But, according to recent reports by the Paris-based organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF), and New York-based group Freedom House, the situation with media in Central Asia actually got even worse in 2016.

It was not only the "usual" Central Asian countries -- Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan -- that received low marks in the two groups' annual reports. The lowered ratings for Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and even Kyrgyzstan indicated that all three were increasing pressure on nonstate sources of information.

What just happened and why? Is this a new trend in Central Asia -- policies that strangle independent media?

To try to answer these questions and look at other aspects of government moves against the news organizations and the Internet, RFE/RL assembled a Majlis, or panel, to discuss events concerning the media in Central Asia in recent months.

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL's Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. We were fortunate to have people who played key roles in preparing the two reports mentioned above. From Paris, the Majlis was joined by Johann Bihr, the head of RSF's Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. And the project director of Freedom House's annual rights report Nations In Transit, Nate Schenkkan took part from New York (Nate also hosts the Central Asianist podcast, which we at the Majlis highly recommend to everyone]. I have a connection to media in Central Asia, so I participated also.

Bihr started the discussion out by noting that "the situation with press freedom across all Central Asia in general has further deteriorated."

Control Habit

The situation for media in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan has worsened significantly.

The Majlis session came the day after it was reported that 20 journalists had fled Tajikistan recently to escape the government's tightening grip on media.

Bihr spoke about the "increasing habit of trying to control the Internet across Central Asia" and recalled, "In May last year, when Kazakhstan was marked by huge protests, the authorities were quick to make Facebook, Twitter, VKontakte, WhatsApp, etc. unavailable, which obviously prevented the free flow of information."

"Such kind of 'progress' also has been made in Tajikistan," he added.

Schenkkan said, "We actually see kind of a mixed strategy in [Central Asian] countries, particularly in Kazakhstan I would say, where defamation and libel suits have had a role for quite a while, in addition to some of those more aggressive tactics… like imprisonment."

Bihr saw a key similarity in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan that might partially explain why those two countries have recently been putting so much pressure on nonstate media. "Both in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan we can say that aging leaders are in power and succession wars have already started behind the curtains, this is clearly a factor of stress for the political life and press freedom in these countries."

Libel, Defamation Suits

Using the court system to shut down media that is critical of the authorities is nothing new. Schenkkan spoke about some of the independent media outlets in Kazakhstan that are "constantly subject to different kinds of libel and defamation suits."

And Schenkkan said, "I think [Kyrgyzstan's president Almazbek] Atambaev is picking up on that."

More than a dozen lawsuits have been initiated against independent media outlets in Kyrgyzstan recently.

According to Bihr, "the increasingly defiant speech of President Atambaev in Kyrgyzstan has been very worrying with very harsh words being pronounced [against journalists and media outlets]."

Both Bihr and Schenkkan pointed out the leadership change in Uzbekistan offers some small hope for an improvement in that country.

"The replacement of President [Islam] Karimov by President [Shavkat] Mirziyaev in Uzbekistan indeed raises hopes due to what appears to be increased pragmatism of the regime," Bihr explained.

Schenkkan agreed "there's been this wave of expectations after Karimov's death in August and a lot of attention to whether there could be some kind of thaw in Uzbekistan."

But they said Uzbekistan remained near the bottom of these most recent rankings by both their organizations, because their recent reports dealt with events during 2016.

Encouraging signs such as the release from prison of Uzbek independent journalist Muhammad Bekjonov, one of the longest imprisoned journalists in the world, in late February this year were not factored into the RSF and Freedom House reports that have just been issued.

Lack Of Leverage

Turkmenistan also stayed near the bottom of both lists, but there was no room for optimism from any of the panelists that the media situation could improve there.

Schenkkan said the very sparse information that can be gleaned from Turkmenistan kept that country from being at the very bottom of the Freedom House rankings. "You have a hundred-point scale," Schenkkan said, and added "we're at 98 on Turkmenistan right now."

The possibilities for convincing governments in Central Asia to ease their media policies are limited. "There are not so many powers that have some leverage on Central Asian countries," Bihr said.

Bihr noted, "The European Union… is continuing talks with Kazakhstan, for instance, about enhanced partnership agreements despite the fact the previous partnership agreement included some clear human rights conditions that were never fulfilled by Kazakhstan."

In the United States, President Donald Trump's administration has so far not sent any strong signals that it would press Central Asian governments on rights issues.

Schenkkan said, "I think there's no question but that the leaders in the [Central Asian] region have decided that they can go after the press pretty much as hard as they want and that there's practically no consequences, and that includes internationally."

Schenkkan added that Central Asian governments should be cautious in their treatment of independent media. Having only state media carries inherent risks for governments such as those in Central Asia.

"They [the Central Asian governments] still can't hide what's happening in terms of economics, in terms of politics," Schenkkan explained, and warned "it's dangerous for there to grow too large a gap between what you tell people [is] happening and what's actually happening."

The Majlis panelists had much more to say on these topics and other matters concerning the plight of the media in Central Asia.

An audio recording of the session can be heard here:

Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to the Majlis on iTunes.

Journalists in Kyrgyzstan

The U.S.-based democracy monitor Freedom House says only 13 percent of the world’s population live in countries with a free press.

The U.S.-based democracy monitor Freedom House says only 13 percent of the world’s population live in countries with a free press.

In its annual report released on April 28, the nongovernmental group says global press freedom declined in 2016 to its lowest point in more than a decade due to continued crackdowns on independent media in authoritarian states and unprecedented threats to journalists and media outlets in major democracies.

The report -- titled Freedom of the Press 2017: Press Freedom’s Dark Horizon -- assesses the degree of media freedom in 199 countries and territories to classify each as either "free," "partly free," or "not free."

Freedom House says a free press is a media environment where coverage of political news is robust, state intrusion in media affairs in minimal, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, and the press is not subject to legal and economic pressures.

It says 42 percent of the world’s population has a "partly free" press, while 45 percent live in countries where the media environment is not free.

The report says that while authoritarian regimes continued or extended their crackdowns on media, politicians in some democratic states launched or escalated efforts to shape news coverage by delegitimizing media outlets, exerting political influence over public broadcasters, and raising the profiles of friendly private outlets.

It says U.S. President Donald Trump has disparaged the press both as a candidate and now as president of the United States, rejecting the news media’s role in holding government officials accountable for their words and actions.

The report says Trump has repeatedly ridiculed reporters as dishonest purveyors of “fake news” and corrupt betrayers of U.S. national interests, while his senior White House adviser described journalists as “the opposition party.”

Freedom House warns that when media are lambasted by political leaders in the United States – a cornerstone of global democracy -- it encourages their authorities abroad to do the same.

The democracy monitor points out that the protection of press freedom in the United States remains vital to the defense and expansion of press freedom worldwide.

It says that in 2016 Eurasia continued to be the worst-performing region in the world for press freedom. Not a single country was ranked "free" there.

According to Freedom House, 77 percent of Eurasia's population lives in countries where the press is "not free."

All five former Soviet republics in Central Asia – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – were ranked "not free," along with the Caucasus former Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Elen Aghekyan, a research analyst at Freedom House, says that even in the more democratic states of Eurasia, officials’ attitudes toward the media remain alarming.

Security forces in Armenia brutally assaulted several reporters covering mass antigovernment protests, Aghekyan added.

Russia was also ranked "not free."

One of Russia's last independent media groups, RBC, came under pressure after reporting on apparent corruption involving the family and associates of President Vladimir Putin, the report said.

Three RBC editors were replaced by recruits from the state-owned TASS news agency -- a clear reminder of the pitfalls on reporting about Russia’s ruling elite, Freedom House noted.

Meanwhile, faced with Moscow-controlled outlets that disseminate disinformation and undermine the legitimacy of Ukrainian institutions, the government in Kyiv continued to limit access to numerous Russian outlets and deny entry to dozens of Russian journalists.

Freedom House ranked Ukraine as "partly free," while Ukraine's Russian-occupied Crimea region was ranked "not free."

Belarus, notorious for government crackdowns on dissent, was also ranked "not free."

But Freedom House noted some small improvements in the country’s media environment, netting Belarus a gain of eight points in Freedom House’s table of the Biggest Press Freedom Gains and Declines in 2016.

“Belarus, undoubtedly, in 2016 remained one of the most repressive and restrictive environments for journalists in the world,” Aghekyan said, adding that in authoritarian states like Belarus “very small improvements, or even the lack of violence in a given year in comparison to a history of stronger repression, can sometimes register small [increases]" in their score.

“For Belarus, in particular, the improvement in 2016 was due to the fact that journalists were able to cover the 2016 [parliamentary] election with significantly less interference, and especially not the kind of the violence that we have seen in the past election years,” Aghekyan told RFE/RL.

Most Balkan countries were ranked "partly free." The only exception, Macedonia, was ranked "not free."

In Serbia, Freedom House noted a “sharp decline” in the media environment in 2016.

According to the report, in order to discredit unfriendly media outlets, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic outsourced much of his presidential election campaign to the pro-government tabloid Informer, which published unfounded accusations against critical journalists.

Freedom House welcome “positive developments” in Afghanistan, where the government moved to improve the media environment.

Afghanistan was ranked "partly free," an improvement Aghekyan said was due to recent legal changes that illustrate the government’s more favorable stance on media independence, as well as long-term growth in the diversity of private media.

However, she pointed out that the security situation has continued to deteriorate, further restricting journalists’ ability to operate safely throughout the country.

A Taliban attack that killed seven Tolo TV employees in early 2016 marked the deadliest single assault on journalists in Afghanistan during the past decade.

The ongoing violence has forced hundreds of Afghan journalists to leave the country, an exodus that Freedom House warns could deal a heavy blow to the survival of democracy in Afghanistan.

Similar concerns about increasing threats against media and journalists across the world have been raised this week by the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders in annual reports released ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 3.

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