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Saturday 23 September 2017

A map of Pakistan prepared by the Bolo Bhi advocacy group shows the lack of Internet coverage in FATA.

A Pakistani media watchdog has urged authorities to immediately restore Internet access in the country’s northwestern tribal areas, where millions of residents have been barred from going online for more than a year.

A Pakistani media watchdog has urged authorities to immediately restore Internet access in the country’s northwestern tribal areas, where millions of residents have been barred from going online for more than a year.

In a statement, Bolo Bhi, a nonprofit advocacy group promoting Internet access, said a government suspension of Internet access in June last year has deprived more than 5 million residents of seven tribal districts that form an arch along the country’s western border with Afghanistan and are collectively called the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

“Security is often the reason cited for taking these measures, but the threat is rarely defined clearly,” the September 19 statement noted. “The authorities have not cited any evidence of how the ban of Internet improves security.”

Bolo Bhi, Urdu for “speaking up,” said the Internet access in FATA was suspended after Pakistani and Afghan forces clashed near the Torkham border crossing in FATA’s Khyber tribal district last June.

“Since the introduction of broadband services in FATA in 2005, the government has regularly restricted access to the Internet or blocked it altogether,” the organization said.

Bolo Bhi’s findings suggest that FATA’s North and South Waziristan agencies or tribal districts currently lack any broadband connectivity. In the more northern tribal districts of Khyber, Bajaur, and Kurram, broadband connections are limited to larger towns.

“The bigger problem is that mobile Internet services are unavailable to users in FATA,” it said.

In recent decades, Pakistan has undergone a telecommunications revolution. With the growth of cellular telephone connections, the number of mobile Internet users is expected to grow from the current 43 million. A recent census established that Pakistan’s population now stands at more than 200 million people.

In a sign that Islamabad is relenting, FATA Secretariat, a government organization tasked with overseeing service delivery and development projects in the region, approved the restoration of Internet to Khyber, Bajaur, and Mohmand tribal districts. Internet users in Bajaur reported that they can now access 2G services.

“This is a welcome step and should be extended to the other four agencies of FATA, namely Orakzai, Kurram, North Waziristan, and South Waziristan, immediately,” Bolo Bhi’s statement said.

For more than a decade, FATA has been a central front in the global war on terror. More than 50,000 FATA residents were killed in militant attacks and Pakistani counterterrorism sweeps, which also displaced nearly 3 million residents. While a tenuous peace has returned to FATA, with most of its displaced residents returning to their homes, the region is still being run under an archaic colonial-era law, the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR).

“Inhabitants of FATA are thus denied their fundamental human rights and have no legal or political avenue to challenge their oppression,” the statement said.

Suspected Taliban militants patrol after they reportedly took control of a rural district in Afghanistan's central Ghazni's province in May.

During their rule in the 1990s, Afghanistan’s hard-line Taliban banned photography, television, and the Internet by declaring that taking pictures of living things was forbidden in Islam.

During their rule in the 1990s, Afghanistan’s hard-line Taliban banned photography, television, and the Internet by declaring that taking pictures of living things was forbidden in Islam.

But two decades later, the Taliban are savvy about using modern communication technologies, social media, and smartphone applications to win the war for Afghan hearts and minds through a relentless propaganda campaign.

Tweeting frontline photos, posting attack videos on Facebook, and widely circulating leadership pronouncements and viewpoints are now central to the Taliban’s military and political strategy to recapture power through frontline advances, winning over public opinion, and altering perceptions.

Over the past 15 years, the Taliban propaganda machine has evolved from handwritten shabnamans, or threatening letters delivered at night, and chants on audio cassettes to a robust social media presence, a network of multilingual websites, and an informal android app after a botched attempt to launch a formal one.

An Taliban application for smartphones using the android operating system.
An Taliban application for smartphones using the android operating system.

Majeed Qarar, a writer currently serving as a cultural attaché at the Afghan Embassy in Washington, has followed the Taliban’s online presence for years. He told Radio Free Afghanistan that in addition to propaganda the Taliban are using social media as a recruitment tool.

He says the Taliban are effectively using Facebook to identify and neutralize opponents among the closely knit Pashtun clans of his native Ghazni Province in central Afghanistan.

“They know everyone in our area. They know who is related to whom and where one works,” he said. “They follow that person on Facebook and send messages to ask him to surrender to [their authority] and cooperate with them.”

Kabul-based researcher Hekmatullah Azamy says most Taliban propaganda focuses on provoking emotions to brainwash people.

He says the insurgents increasingly rely on social media to attract Afghans to extremism.

“In areas outside the government control, the Taliban go to mosques to find recruits,” he said. “But in cities where the Taliban cannot approach people face to face, they use social media to either spread their message or find potential recruits.”

During their regime, the Taliban ran only one radio station and two newspapers, but now they have a host of multimedia platforms. Their formal website, Voice Of Jihad, relays insurgent messages in English, Urdu, Arabic, and the two major Afghan languages, Pashto and Dari. Other websites such as the Pashto-language Nun Asia, or Asia Today, serve as Taliban surrogates while claiming to be independent and impartial.

A pro-Taliban account on Twitter
A pro-Taliban account on Twitter

In 2011, Abdul Sattar Mawandi, an administrator for Taliban websites, said their information campaign aimed to win over Afghan hearts and minds.

“Wars today cannot be won without media. (Media) is directed to the heart rather than the body, while the weapon is directed to the body,” he told the Taliban’s Al-Samood magazine. “If the heart is defeated, the battle is won and the body is defeated.”

Azamy says the Taliban have allocated a separate budget for media aimed not only at sharing information about their war efforts but attracting people’s sympathies.

Over the years, the Taliban propaganda efforts have grown. The group has a commission for “media and culture” while two purported Taliban spokespersons appear to be available round-the-clock.

Taliban messages are quickly disseminated online by a network of social media accounts on Twitter and Facebook and a host of groups on smartphone messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Viber, and Telegram. Most journalists working in Afghanistan or covering the country receive insurgent statements directly to their inboxes.

“The Taliban have secret groups on social media. They first discuss issues in these groups and then propagate their messages in a coordinated way [through fake accounts],” Qarar said of how the Taliban choreograph messages. “[Sometimes] they go after a specific targeted [individual] with fake accounts to pressure and campaign [against that person]. The people involved in this effort have an office with computers.”

The Taliban use smartphones to frequently share audio and video messages. Azamy, who has seen some of these videos, describes them as a propaganda tool.

“They show people videos of concerts, especially women at concerts, and tell them, ‘See these videos. There is no Islam in Kabul,’ ” he said, noting that most such videos are not of actual parties in Afghanistan but a thinly veiled effort to instigate hatred against the Afghan government among the country’s conservative population.

Changing Tactics

After the demise of their regime in late 2001, the Taliban centered its propaganda efforts on showing that Afghanistan was occupied by the United States and its allies. But in recent years, when former U.S. President Barack Obama ended major combat operations and withdrew most troops, the Taliban’s propaganda efforts turned their focus to ethical issues.

“They focused on local police and local issues because they were afraid of the effectiveness of [the local police],” Qarar noted. “They focused on criminal cases because they wanted to malign the face of the current political system. [In order to legitimize] their violence, in the absence of claims of foreign occupation, they magnified criminal offenses [by individuals].”

Another pro-Taliban account on Twitter.
Another pro-Taliban account on Twitter.

Critics fear that Kabul is losing the battle for Afghan hearts and minds in the absence of a comprehensive information and media strategy.

Dawlat Waziri, an Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman, acknowledged their vulnerabilities.

“We have been working on this problem. The communications ministry has shut down many of their accounts, but it is an ongoing effort,” he said.

Bureaucratic lethargy often prevents Afghan officials from issuing timely responses to Taliban claims. Unlike the insurgents, government forces cannot publish photos and videos from the battlefield, which limits their ability to contest Taliban claims.

Ahmad Shah Sadat, Afghanistan’s acting communications and information technology minister, says Kabul is trying to control the extremist propaganda over the Internet by recently adopting a new law.

“All organizations have agreed to ban websites and social media accounts in Afghanistan that are active against the state and promote terrorist propaganda,” he said.

So far, the insurgent propaganda campaign appears to be unaffected by government efforts.

Malali Bashir is a correspondent for Radio Free Afghanistan

as/fg

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.

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