By Nonee Walsh.

A concerning picture about the future for free and ethical media in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been painted at the opening of the IAWRT Biennial conference in New Delhi, India, in two powerful keynote addresses by Najiba Ayubi the director of Development and Humanitarian Services for Afghanistan and director-general of Killid media group and Pakistani lawyer Asma Jahangir, a founding member of the Human rights Commission of Pakistan.

Najiba Ayubi is blunt about what is happening in Afghanistan, “it is a disaster – we are losing capacity, it is now growing into a disgrace, more than five women journalist have died this year, and more than 49 dead in the last five years.”

It is not only journalists who leave for work, not knowing if they will return to their home at the end of the day, because of the constant threat of bombing and attacks, but Mrs Ayubi’s assessment is that “journalists have paid a high price for freedom of expression in the last 15 years… and it is very painful to see them now losing”. However there has been media successes, 250 radio stations and 150 TV stations registered, and 2,500 women becoming journalists; but she is saddened that more than 250 women have left the media business in the last decade, and scores have decided to leave Afghanistan for an uncertain future outside their home land, in recent times.

She says laws which guaranteed access to information are now being overridden. For example, recent orders for Police Commanders not to speak to the media has cut off a significant information source for journalists. Media outlets are fast closing down. Najiba Ayubi says some remaining outlets which are partisan to government and political groups are being irresponsible when Afghanistan needs ethical and responsible journalism which gives a voice to people who want lives lived in peace and security.

Asma Jahangir, another women who’s bravery has been tested for many decades (and continues to be tested) took that issue of ethical journalism further, she asked why the media has stopped talking about peace when it is not the means of war which matters but the means to end poverty and illiteracy.

Post 9/11, Asama Jahangir says an obsession with security has effectively banned proper media discussion, and threatened support for a civil society. “When the media does not discuss the security forces, the military, Islamists, militant wings of parties, and terrorists, all that is left to bash is politicians and democratic institutions.” While some politicians should be criticised she says the danger is that such restricted media discussion de-legitimises democracy “it is saying that what is not criticised should be there.”

“Peace is enabling for truth, and freedom of media goes hand in hand with democracy. We must move away from the ideology of states existing for security, they exist for the welfare of the people, the focus should be on people, not borders.”

Addressing the keynote theme ‘Speaking truth to power’ Asma Jahangir challenged journalists, “it is not enough to speak truth to power, they must grope for the truth, they must have analysis.” However she warns that while those who do so will be appreciated, they might be not be supported. Many families have suffered in Pakistan, she said, when those who spoke up were jailed. However, “those who speak out, do not do it for appreciation,” when journalists or ordinary people are enabled to speak up “they do it because they are driven to say what needs to be said.”

That observation was confirmed in a panel about the price which can be paid for reporting the truth, which included Myanmar radio journalist eaint khaing oo, who was jailed in 2008 for reporting on the Nargis Cyclone and Tongam Rina, a journalist who survived a shooting, but returned to reporting after multiple surgical procedures. As the Associate editor of Arunachal Times, she reports on the potential environmental destruction which might result from massive hydroelectricity projects planned in India’s north-east.

Tongam Rina was heartened by the support she received from local and international journalist organisations, and later returned to work, “My job is to tell stories, be a witness. I cannot stop telling stories, I can not be a silent observer.” 

Full conference report available here.

Other media coverage  1. 23.

Below: Najiba Ayubi, Asma Jahangir, eaint khaing oo, Tongam Rina and  panel with Sonia Singh NDTV; conference delegates and sessions; past president Racheal Nakitare congratulates IAWRT India Chapter Head Reena Mohan for her team's work on a successful Biennial.