The world’s bravest reporters

Australian Broadcasting’s Media Report radio show/podcast has a spectacular report this week on the brave reporters who are building Afghanistan’s own journalism, free speech, and free society despite very real danger. Listen here; read here.

The host, Gerald Tooth, begins with Tolo TV’s 6:30 Report, an investigative show that has “taken on war-lords, drug-lords, paedophile rings, corruption in the Supreme Court, and the country’s difficult relationship with Pakistan.” The show’s star reporter is only 23 and he is fearless. Masood Qiam is the real Gunga Dan. Some excerpts from the interview:

Qiam: You know, in Afghanistan, in the last four years, media progress is good, but we still have a lot of problems in the law, in media law. And in parliament we often come up against MPs, who despite making the law, don’t understand media law…. For example, when an MP slapped our cameraman in parliament, and when we asked him why, he said, ‘It’s my right to slap a cameraman, as an MP’. And this is an example of an MP that doesn’t know the law, or know how to behave with a journalist. Also there are many journalists who don’t know what their rights are when it comes to media law….

The MPs are already scared of Tolo TV cameramen because previously we broadcast footage of MPs falling asleep in parliament, and of another one picking his nose. So we were already unpopular.

That’s almost funny — imagine Tom DeLay slapping a reporter (I’m sure he has) — but, of course, the enemies of democracy in Afghanistan have worse weapons than fists.

But, of course, it is more serious than that. It’s about the essence of the law being formed in Afghanistan:

Qiam: I was called before the Supreme Court to answer a charge of defamation after we did a story revealing corruption within the court. While I was in court, they threatened me, and said if it’s proved that you have defamed the head of the Supreme Court, Maolari Shinwari, you’ll be jailed for two years, and it shocked me. . . .

Later in the interview, he talked about the efforts at intimidation that came as a result of the Supreme Court investigations, including demonstrations against the station:

Qiam: Because the Supreme Court head is the President of the Islamic Scholars’ Council, and that Council is in every part of Afghanistan, working with the mullahs, and when they saw the report about the corruption in the Supreme Court and the weakness of the head of the court, they’re angry, and they start to demonstrate against Tolo TV. And three or four times now the head of the Supreme Court has asked the President, Hamid Karzai, to stop Tolo TV. He thinks we’re against Islam, or we are against our culture, and that’s wrong.

Tooth: And you covered the demonstration?

Qiam: Yes, it’s a reality, and we have to broadcast the reality of what our people think about us, and whatever the problem, they have to know that.

Now there’s transparency. Qiam spoke more about intimidation and fear:

I’m not afraid of anyone, and I think this is necessary to make our society good, and for the progress of democracy and freedom of speech. . . .

There are two types of people in public life in our new democracy. There are those who are ready to be interviewed by us, and we are not afraid of them because they believe in media, and they believe in freedom of speech and they will never threaten us. Then there are people who are not ready to be interviewed by us, who have their fingers in corruption and drugs, and we’re afraid of those people because they’re very dangerous for the people, and also for the journalists. And they are the ones we worry about attacking us when our backs are turned.

This from a man who, Tooth says, has received death threats for every story he has aired. Says Qiam:

Threats against my life are not such a big issue. For 23 years I grew up here. I was here under the Communists and under the Mujahadeen, with the Taliban. For us, life is always full of risks. The most fearful thing for me is not death threats to us; yes, we are afraid of these people to some extent, but most of all as journalists, we’re afraid of the Parliament. In Parliament there are MPs who will limit our activities by issuing laws that will confine us into four walls and will stop us from asking open questions. And when we ask them about their intentions to bring in harsher media laws, they just give vague and evasive answers. So we’re afraid that they are planning to bring in laws that will completely limit our activities. That’s what hurts me, and I think that’s what’s dangerous for Afghanistan.

Let me explain again that threats like slapping and beating are not a real threat. It’s a threat, but not too serious for us. It’s not a serious threat that can stop us from working. But the most serious and frequent threat is to limit our activities by law.

My other fear is that the government starts to ignore our reports and not react to them. Ignoring our reports is the biggest way they can hurt us. This is the threat, this is dangerous for us, this is painful, when your job is not effective, this is dangerous. I think it’s going to be like American democracy, the media is free to say anything, but the government is deaf to them.

Note that last line well.

Tooth next talks to Malalai Joya, a 28-year-old woman and member of Parliament who stood up and told various of her fellow MPs that they were warlords who should be jailed. This is what led to the shoving match with Qiam’s camera crew, above. And then Tooth interviews Shukria Barakzai, 35, another MP and a journalist who started a weekly women’s magazine. Read or listen to it all and hear the raw nerves of journalism’s birth in a nation.