CHRIS ALLEN: Afghanistan Journal — Another Group Of Journalists Killed; Another Note Of Condolences

In January 2016. I sent off an email to an acquaintance of mine, Saad Mohseni, one of three brothers who own Tolo-TV in Kabul, Afghanistan. Tolo is the most-watched television station in the country. It creates its own information and entertainment programs and has a vast dubbing operation to give Dari soundtracks to Western programs.

It also has a large and aggressive newsroom. And in 2016, seven Tolo journalists were riding in a van when it was broadsided by a suicide driver in a car bomb. All seven were killed.

At the time, I sent Saad, who manages the station for his brothers, a note expressing my deep condolences. I’ve done it twice since then.

The latest was April 30, when journalists were again the target of terrorist bombers. The killers deliberately attacked the journalists and rescue workers by setting off a device during morning rush, and then as rescue workers and journalists congregated on the scene, detonated another. Eight journalists were killed immediately, and one died later of his injuries. In an unrelated attack, a reporter was shot to death in Kandahar the same day.

One of the reporters killed in Kabul was a Tolo reporter. Another was Shah Marai, chief photographer in Afghanistan for Agence France Presse.

Afghanistan has a free press clause in its constitution, and the journalists and journalism teachers I know there say the government abides by it. There are multiple threats to the media in Afghanistan, but the government is not one of them. There is very little persecution or even harassment of journalists by the government. However, greater threats come from beyond the government.

And no matter how legitimate the government is, it is nonetheless weak; Afghanistan is dominated more by warlords than by any orderly federal or local system of governance.

In addition, the Taliban still control huge swatches of the country. Reuters reports about 43 percent of the country’s districts are either controlled by the Taliban or are being contested. The threats to journalists come from the Taliban presence and the warlords as well as other terrorist groups operating there. Physical threats, actual assaults and even assassinations have resulted from media stories about people who would prefer their names and their work be kept out of the media.

In fact two of the watchdog groups that track press freedom around the world rate Afghanistan poorly. Reporters sans Frontier rates Afghanistan as 118th out of 180 countries and says the press is not free. Freedom House rates Afghanistan as partly-free, but right on the cusp of not free.

If the threat is not from the government, then where?

A look at last month’s attack is revealing. A branch of the Islamic State claimed responsibility. The Taliban have been known to exact revenge, as it did in the Tolo attack back in January 2016. Tolo had recently done a story critical of the Taliban’s techniques, and it paid with seven lives.

There was a vice president under Hamid Karzai who journalists there knew to be quite hostile if his name ever appeared in the news. He had been known to send thugs to break the kneecaps of any reporter foolish enough to use his name in any context — good or bad.

The other sad fact of Afghan media is the matter of money. There is simply not enough of it to support an independent press. Many media are owned by religious groups, political parties, and even warlords. Afghanistan’s literacy rate is less than 40 percent overall, making newspapers generally useless except among the more elite. Television is expensive to make, transmit and receive. That leaves radio, cheap and ubiquitous, to deliver the news, especially in rural areas.

So although Afghanistan’s constitution guarantees a free press, the real challenge is putting that into practice.

There is so much more that stands in the way of press freedom than a simple phrase. Censorship is not only a threat from government; it  often comes in the form of outside threats, economic hardship, and the influence of ownership and money.

Afghanistan is a petri dish of that statement. Anyone who places his or her own self-interests above those of the country hate and fear the light a free press shines on them.

That includes oligarchs, dictators, monarchs, terrorists and warlords. Cockroaches hate light. The tendency among almost all political leaders is toward less information. Resisting encroachment on freedom of expression is a constant battle just about everywhere. Some countries are more successful than others. Afghan media are fighting that good fight even though the fight has been costly.

But this one truth remains — a country cannot be truly free, cannot truly provide opportunities for all its people, and cannot guarantee free, open and informed elections — if the press is not free.

And I fear that in six, or 12 or 18 months, I will be sending yet another note to Saad Mohseni once again expressing my condolences.

RON SCHALOW: Of Belts, Bush, Socks And Glass

“Is it your contention, Orv, that the sock cartel is behind this taking off your shoes nonsense at the airport? I think you’re on to something.”

“What?” screeches Orville. “No! I never said a word, about anything. I just want to sit here quietly and enjoy my drink.”

“Good luck with that,” says Stanley. “So, that wasn’t you? Huh. I suppose it could have been another ugly guy. Imagine what he goes through every morning, when the mirror sneaks up on him. Oh, you would …”

“Go shout at some parked cars, you @$$hat, or drink your Coke in silence. You’re no goddamn prize hog, either, you stupid defeatocrat.”

Stan ignores Orv’s outburst. “Now that you mention it, it makes sense though, doesn’t it? Who wants a bunch of strangers to see you strolling along in a pair of ratty old socks? I sure wouldn’t. If I ever go anywhere, I’m buying new socks. You know how the media would spin it, if I wore old socks. And some slip-ons. Laces might be an invite to get the taser. Can you see any other reason, Orv? I imagine the ordeal would be tough on your nylons?”

“Perhaps, the threat of terrorism, you traitorous America hater!”

“No, I think you are right about the socks. Our president lied about 9/11 dozens of times and we get all weak-kneed when one moron tries to set his shoes on fire? Puleeze. It’s the socks — and perhaps Johnson & Johnson. Everyone has to buy a new bottle of shampoo — and whatever else is banned — at Hector International Airport. I take the train so that I can keep my hair looking lustrous — and my boots on. I suppose you would need a vat of Turtle Wax. Is that still a thing?”

“Did you just smear George W. Bush, you terrorist coddling @^&*$$%? He is a good God-fearing man.”

“You didn’t know, Orv? That’s surprising. It was right in the 9/11 Commission Report. They managed to publish a few worthwhile historical facts. Not a word about socks. Or God.”

“I didn’t read it,” growls Orville. “What a waste of time and money. It was sneak attack, and that’s all there’s to it. What could Bush have done? Are you one of those weird truther guys?”

“Attackzzz. Four of them. I don’t think Georgie boy could conspire his way out a walk-in closet — with a neon exit sign above the door. You know, we spend a zillion dollars to defend against terrorism, but cops are getting executed while they sit in their squad cars. One of the last ones was writing out a ticket, and some @$$hole walks up to the driver side window and kills him. George was probably painting pictures of his toes at the time. No socks in the tub.”

“Wait, what?”

“Who knows what the poor man was painting, but why don’t police cars have bullet-proof glass — and Coke on tap? We have the technology. Don’t expect George to lie your way out of this one. All of his cars have it, plus armor, all the way around.”

“Bullet-proof glass is very expensive,” explains Orv.

“I don’t care.”

Orville’s face is getting redder. “Don’t care? You tyranny loving idiot! You have to care!”

“George told the Commission that nobody told him that sock-wearing terrorists were in the country. Did he think they wouldn’t read his daily reports? Fargo cops were wearing helmets that wouldn’t wouldn’t stop a bullet from rifle, and I don’t care how much they cost.”

“Where was the city supposed to get the money, you lib#@&% socialist?”

“Not from Trump, that’s for sure. A private bank stepped up with the cash, to pay a bill that belonged to the citizens. The UK has more land than should fit on that little island. I’m beginning to doubt the maps. Downtown Abbey took up half of the country. Do they have school buses over there, Orv? Did you notice any during the war?”

“I was in Vietnam, you screwball. So were you. I assume they have school buses in England. Why wouldn’t they, Stan?” Orv asks, as his voice rises.

“I didn’t see George during our war. Did you? But if he had known about al-Qaeda cells in the United States, he would have done something, he said. Maybe he would have gone to his hobby campaign ranch to clear some brush. Unusual hobby. George is one funny dude. Our hats weren’t of much use, were they, those metal ones?”

“Quit besmirching GW!”

“I don’t know how Al-Qaeda does it, but most of our school buses don’t have seat belts. Astronauts aren’t strapped in as well as toddlers going to the grocery store, but as soon as they hit the age for kindergarten, we just toss them in a cargo container and send them off like scrap metal. It’s criminal. Six little kids died just this last week, when the bus flipped.”

“Accidents happen.”

“One of the genius news announcers on the WDAY radio said we don’t KNOW if the lack of seat belts made any difference in the outcome. Sure, our kids are durable. They can take a good bouncing around the inside of a rolling bus. I don’t KNOW if WDAY Pokemon dude can dress himself in the morning. I’ll need proof. Then, he wondered how we would be able to make sure the kids stayed buckled in. Figure it out! We can remotely keep felons from leaving their yards, but this is an unsolvable problem, for crissakes? Tell me why we don’t have seat belts on school buses, Orv? Is this Obama’s fault?”

“It’s expensive.”

“I don’t care,” shouts Stan. “Let the jamokes pay. The ones using this country like an ATM. At least the bus driver over in Moorhead stopped — before losing it. Even FOX News reported that there were terrorist cells in this country, and they’re usually as reliable as an inebriated goat. Good gawd. England is smaller than North Dakota. Where did all of the Royals live? The aristocrats needed elbow room for jousting. I do get startled when I walk by a mirror. Even if I don’t look.”

“All of you lazy dopey hippies think that somebody else will pay for these things. Why don’t you pass the hat among your Marxist buddies; then buy some safe cop car and school buses. You’re all like children. I’m not paying any more taxes, if that’s where you pea brain is headed.”

“I didn’t know we had a choice whether to pay, but I suppose I could use that steel hat I got from somebody. It’s dented up, but I don’t think anyone will mind. Boy, those little guys were mad at us. I don’t know who instigated the hostilities, but we, I assume, bombed the $#%&@!$ out of that humid, bug-infested place. Were you there when that @$$hole of a sneaky croc pulled Dusty under the water? Maybe we could do fewer of those futile excursions and spend the extra loot on useful things.”

“Not going to happen, you naive sushi-eating nut case. The politicians, and their bosses decide that stuff, and terrorism scares the #&*%%$ out of people; not buses and cop cars. It’s good for business. Grow up!”

“Did you know that Denmark gets all of its electricity from wind power?”

“No,” says Orv. “and I don’t care. What’s your point, Moonbat?”

“We should be able to figure out how to get bulletproof glass and seat belts. Damn Danes, with their fancy socks.”

# # #

“He (President George W. Bush) said that if his advisers had told him there was a (terrorist) cell in the United States, they would have moved to take care of it.” —GEORGE BUSH TO 9/11 COMMISSION

Aug. 6, 2001 Presidential Daily Brief
Al0-Qaeda members — including some who are U.S. citizens — have resided in or traveled to the U.S. for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks.

“Intelligence officials tell FOX NEWS they have information that in the past two months hundreds of bin Laden’s operatives have left his training camps in Afghanistan and elsewhere to various locations around the globe, including the U.S.”  — RITA COSBY FOX NEWS DECEMBER 28, 1999

Aug. 6, 2001 Presidential Daily Brief
Nevertheless, FBI information since (1998) that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.

TOM COYNE: Back In Circulation — The Need To Listen

As a broadcasting instructor, I teach a studio class that offers tips on how to become a better interviewer. Some of the advice is just good common sense. If you’re using a hand held microphone, don’t ever give the mic to your guest because you might not get it back. Avoid asking questions that might only elicit “yes” or “no” responses. And “leading” questions might help you get the answer you’re looking for, but will hurt your credibility later with those who think you’re supporting some kind of agenda.

But I’ve always believed that there is one tip that should stand at the top of the list. BE A GOOD LISTENER.

Many years ago, I was a rookie broadcaster at KXMD-TV in Williston, N.D. To say we were working with a “skeleton crew” was putting it mildly. One morning, our News Director/News Anchor/Cameraperson/Noon Show Host called in sick. Suddenly, the guy who was Sports Director/Sports Anchor/Weathercaster/Commercial Reader/Field Photographer had just inherited four more jobs. That guy was me.

I had less than two hours to prepare for an interview with a local author scheduled to appear on our Noon Show. I recall getting a biographical sheet and a brief synopsis on the book. That was helpful, but remember, I also had several other duties just bestowed upon me. So I scrambled to compile a list of reasonably appropriate questions I could use to fill a 10-minute interview.

Needless to say, it didn’t go well. The biggest mistake I made that day was failing to listen. I was so worried about “dead air.” That’s the phrase broadcasters use to describe those awkwardly long moments of silence between questions. When I played back the tape, I found the guest frequently saying, “Well, as I said before…” It seems I had been so busy talking, that I hadn’t noticed my rapid-fire questions had already been answered earlier.

Today, we have Google, Wikipedia and endless other sources to help us be better prepared in those situations. Improved technology also has allowed us to access greater information within seconds. But getting it fast seldom assures getting it right. Too much information often requires sorting out fact from opinion. And when push comes to shove, we tend to gravitate toward places we feel most comfortable. This applies to all of us.

This past week, there were a couple of tragic stories that made headlines. In France, a group of terrorists needed only minutes to take the lives of 129 innocent victims and injure hundreds more. In Minneapolis, a black man was shot and killed by a white police officer, evoking strong emotions from the community but leaving many questions about how and why the incident occurred.

Let’s start with Paris. Shock, sadness, anger, outrage. These are words we’ve used all too frequently in recent months, both here and abroad. Trying to understand how human beings can be so unhappy with life in this world that they’re willing to end their own lives while taking others who are given no choice in the decision seems incomprehensible.

Thankfully, the majority of the world abhors these actions. But when the enemy’s origins are unclear, they use encrypted technology to communicate, and they don’t mind dying  — and keeping it from happening again is challenging.

Which makes listening and sharing ideas, vital. Vigorous debate and discussion should be welcomed. But with social media today, it never seems to get that far. Try posting a liberal take on a conservative website. Or vice versa.  Within minutes, the responses become personal and nasty. So the natural tendency is to go where it’s safe. Or just not post at all.

Even more scary is that many sites become breeding grounds for racism, sexism and general hatred. Post where one knows others are likely to agree and posters become more bold, particularly when they’re able to hide behind anonymous or false representations. In the case of the terrorism in France, I’ve seen appalling demands to exterminate specific countries or religious factions as a quick solution. It’s become too easy to find a forum for our expression now,
so everybody wants to be heard. But few want to listen.

In the Jamar Clark controversy, I’m reminded of a phase from the old Simon and Garfunkel song, “The Boxer.” The line, “Still, a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest,” never rang more true than in this tragic case.

What we do know is this: Minneapolis police were called to the scene of a domestic dispute on the north side of town early last Sunday. The 911 call involved an injured woman needing assistance. Emergency medical personnel on the scene requested police presence when a crowd gathered and a man was interfering with their attempt to transfer her into an ambulance. That 24-year old, an unarmed black man, was subsequently shot by an officer and later, died.  In the days that have followed, the lines have become drawn.

On one side, is a group of angry citizens distrustful of police and authorities in general. They have marched in the cold, blocked a freeway for a few hours and more recently, set up a base camp by the Police Department’s 4th Precinct and demanded answers about how Jamar Clark died and why.

On the other side, are the law enforcement officials and their supporters. They are equally angry and distrustful of Black Lives Matter, the group initiating the marches and protests they see as disruptive and at times, violent. Their contention is that the officers, already in harm’s way, were just doing their job and defended themselves when confronted with a life-threatening situation.

If ever a dispute called for patience and understanding it is this one. Understand that this part of the city has one of the highest rates of poverty and homelessness.  That people of color have had reasons to distrust authority, based on turmoil in other parts of the country. But to also understand that police officers have felt under siege recently, often times without just cause. That they are men and women doing a dangerous job with an honest goal “to protect and serve.”

The facts in this case have played out slowly. Clark had at least 10 arrests and two felonies on his record. There is debate over whether he was disruptive or attempting to ask a question and whether he was handcuffed when he was shot.  Federal authorities were called in by the mayor to investigate, and there are eyewitnesses and videos. The officers have been identified as Mark Ringgenberg and Justin Schwarze. Police records show no disciplinary actions directed at Ringgenberg while Schwarze has been the subject of one case that remains under investigation. Both have been police officers for seven years.

What bothers me most about this case is that too many lives and too many reputations are at stake to NOT wait until all the facts are presented. Yet minds have been made up. Allegations have been levied. Less than a week after the shooting, the national president of the NAACP has been called in, white supremacists have made threats, and vigils are mushrooming in size.

If the move of Minneapolis to the forefront of this nationally growing debate brings more voices for reason and compromise, maybe this will ultimately be the beginning of greater understanding for both sides. But for now, I’m afraid that too many people are talking. It’s time we do more listening.