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Saturday, July 11, 2009
International Toolbox

U.S. journalists shouldn't be silent

By Bruce C. Swaffield

If you have never heard of Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi before, you will definitely know him after reading his story. Yaqub is a reporter based in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan. He was trained by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and has dedicated his life to telling the truth. Currently, his brother is serving a 20-year prison sentence for blasphemy against Islam. Here is what he had to say via e-mail about working for the media in Afghanistan.

Q: Have conditions for the media improved, become worse or stayed the same since the war began?

Due to misunderstandings of the international community, namely the United States on the situation in Afghanistan, the values of democracy, especially freedom of speech, have been getting worse since 2005 in Afghanistan. The field of information is under control of many factions.

All the factions have made a very dangerous circle around freedom of speech. It is very dangerous for a journalist to get out the right and correct information from this hell and to process a balanced story for a newspaper.

Warlords are afraid of freedom of speech because if there is really freedom for the media, then [warlords] would be faced with war crimes tribunals when their crimes are revealed by the media.

The government controls the field of information. [The government] is corrupted and does not want a newspaper to write about the corruption in all stages of the regime.

Mullahs are ideologically against all the values of democracy; they also are the physical enemies of TV.

International troops don’t want the correct facts and figures of civilian casualties to be covered exactly by the media. The position of the Taliban against freedom of information is clear to everyone.

All the factions have come together and made a limitation for the media. Inside, you can talk. But if you, as a journalist, want to cross the circle and write about the facts, then you will be sentenced to death; you will be made to leave the country, [and] you will be killed or at least will be tortured.

A good example is [my brother] journalist Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh. He crossed the border and wanted to use his rights to access the Internet and read about women’s rights. But it was against what mullahs want in Afghanistan. … Now he is suffering his 20 years in prison. This is our situation here!

The Afghan government has two faces for freedom of speech. One face is for the international community, which it wants to show very brightly. But the other is for Afghan people, which is the right face — which is jail, exile, torture . . .

Q: What are some of the issues and struggles that editors and reporters face on a daily basis, or at least on a regular basis?

Even as journalists in Afghanistan, we cannot touch religious issues. If you want to talk about it, the punishment is death. The other one that we cannot talk exactly about is drug trafficking. Our many friends wanted to investigate [it], but they were assassinated. The other main issue, which I call wholly an issue for criminals, is talking about war crimes in Afghanistan. I have been fighting for that since 2003.

I have been receiving hundreds of threats and have been losing everything. Many times I lost my computers and documents, and many times the warlords’ militia directly attacked me and my office. I tried to stop this by moving from one province to another and working sometimes underground. I have survived, but it is very difficult.

But I lost my brother Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh in this field. He was sentenced to death and, in the end, the Supreme Court sentenced him to 20 years in prison. The people who made this decision just wanted to put pressure on me and on my other comrades who are fighting for real freedom of speech. We have not stopped, and I am following stronger than before, because with all the difficulties we, as journalists, now think that we are something stronger than what we had thought at first.

We (Afghan critical and independent journalists) are working inside a hell, but we love it because we love our job and love to be journalists.

Q: Is there anything that we, as journalists in the United States, can do to help? If so, what?

The first thing is we realize any journalist has a strong influence inside their society. Now the U.S. is the biggest supporter of Afghanistan, and when we face a death sentence or are imprisoned, please don’t be silent. Put pressure on your government to talk about it (even single cases) with the Afghan government and resolve that [issue]. We don’t want money or anything else. Please, we just want your truthful and spiritual support.

You have a very long background of democracy. You have suffered what we are suffering now, and you know how to support us in each situation. We are fighting here for what you wanted in your society 300 years ago. So our goals are the same, but we need support.

Without freedom of speech and mind, nothing is possible for a society [to move] towards democracy.

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