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Committed journalists

by Sabine Witt

In brief

Farida Nekzad receiving the media award in Leipzig.

Farida Nekzad receiving the media award in Leipzig.

Afghanistan must cope without ISAF troops next year, but it will still take many years for democracy to firmly take root in the country. That cannot happen without international support. The groundwork has been done, however, and dedicated media professionals are contributing to the task. By Sabine Witt

The mandate of the International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan (ISAF) will expire at the end of this year, so the foreign military presence in Afghanistan will be considerably reduced. International observers warn that civil war may flare up again in a similar way as violence is currently rocking Iraq. Many Afghans are worried about this possibility as well.

The journalist Susanne Koelbl believes it is still possible for the country to develop peacefully, but that this will require continued support from the international community. Koelbl is a foreign correspondent of the news magazine Der Spiegel. She considers it positive that Afghanistan’s first democratic transfer of power took place this year. The tran­sition did not exactly go off without a hitch, since the top candidates disputed the election results for months, and only agreed in September that Ashraf Ghani would become president and his defeated rival, Abdullah Abdullah, would share power as chief executive. Koelbl stresses, however, that most Afghans are proud of the peaceful transfer succeeding and of the strong voter turnout.

The way Koelbl sees it, Afghans need to experience first-hand that citizens’ political engagement makes a difference, but a pluralistic society cannot be established from one day to the next. Koelbl estimates that the process will take 15 to 20 years. People will also need sources of income to satisfy their basic needs. Afghanistan’s long-term stability depends on finding an alternative to the drug economy and smuggling, as traditional livelihoods in agriculture, commerce and textiles production have been destroyed in the war. That is what Koelbl told a group of journalists convened by Engagement Global and Deutsche Jour­nalisten Union, a trade union, in Leipzig in October. Also speaking at the event was Kefa Hamidi, a social scientist who specialises in media and communication matters. In his view, Afghanistan needs international support in order to find its own development path in the forthcoming “decade of transformation”. According to Hamidi, support is needed “to consolidate small democratic gains and to ensure that the newly created political structures in the country become self-sustaining”.

Hamidi sees promising developments in the media. He speaks of a “profound change”. Media laws have been liberalised, and newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet offer a highly diversified and up-to-date landscape today. Hamidi’s PhD thesis at the University of Leipzig dealt with Afghan journalists’ understanding of their role. He says that the ranks of journalists have swelled considerably, and that many women are active in this field. Hamidi adds that journalists’ understanding of their job has changed, with an increasing emphasis on pres­enting information rather than merely engaging in political activism.

Hamidi concedes that problems still exist. Because they are lacking security, many authors exercise self-censorship. Some bold journalists, however, have courage, convictions and a vision for their country, according to the scholar, but they write at great personal risk. Journalists have been murdered. In Hamidi’s assessment, the foundation for democratic and pluralistic journalism has been laid, and long-term success now hinges on the political stabilisation of the country.

Farida Nekzad is an Afghan journalist with courage and convictions. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Wakht News Agency. Women’s rights are an issue particularly close to her heart. She has survived death threats and one kidnapping attempt, and she knows of colleagues whose jobs have cost them their lives. In October, the Media Foundation of Sparkasse Leipzig awarded her the Prize for the Freedom and Future of the Media. Currently, Nekzad is staying in Germany together with her daughter, as guests of the Hamburg Foundation for Politically Persecuted People. However, she intends to resume her work in Afghanistan to ensure that women’s issues are covered. Sabine Witt