Sami Mahdi: Revolutionizing TV News in Afghanistan

Washington, November 13, 2012

I offer my sincere gratitude to the International Center for Journalists for finding me worthy of the Knight International Journalism Award.

I come from a land that was home to Mawlana Jalaludeen Balkhi – the 13th-century poet known as “Rumi.” He was famous as a model of tolerance. Today, in Afghanistan, tolerance is being shattered. Individuals – especially women – are not recognized as equals.

But Afghanistan also has seen change. A decade ago, no free press existed. Listening to music, watching videos and publishing photos were major crimes. I remember when the only source of news was international radio broadcasts, and you could not hear them in areas controlled by the Taliban. Now, there are hundreds of radio stations, dozens of television channels and thousands of publications that produce news for the Afghan people.

In the last decade, a new generation of Afghan journalists has emerged. This generation challenges traditional leaders, corrupt officials, drug dealers, disagreeable traditions, violence and terrorism. We do this at great risk. Dozens of Afghan journalists have been murdered, injured or forced to stop working. My station, 1TV, regularly receives threatening messages warning us to stop bringing awareness to our people.

In Afghanistan, journalists face a challenge that may be even greater than war: changing the way people think—especially about women. While Afghanistan’s laws consider violence against women and children a crime, many people continue to view women as second-class citizens.

Afghanistan is one of the worst places for women and mothers. I will give you one example: Mariam was three when her father was charged with murder. To stop further bloodshed, the village elders offered to marry Mariam to the three-year-old son of the victim. For the next seven years, Mariam did not see her mother and father. She was told they were dead. At age ten, she was raped by a relative. Soon after, she was finally married to her 10-year-old fiancée.

At 15, Mariam ran away. She has been living in a shelter in Kabul for the past year. Mariam appeared on “The Mask.”

When I decided to produce “The Mask” for 1TV, I often was asked if victims would participate in the show. It was a good question. It took us over a year to find our first guest. One year later, we have broadcast 23 episodes. Now, the victims contact us to appear on the show. More than half of the viewers are men, our target audience.

After getting the news about the Knight International Journalism Award, I was invited to speak at the Ministry of Culture and the parliament. This told me the award is not just for me. It’s for all Afghan journalists, who work in a very difficult environment.

Independent media have achieved so much in recent years. But we journalists are unsure if we can maintain this level of freedom of expression after 2014, when the international troops leave. Will a free press become a victim of violence or political deal making? I hope this award will help our news media continue to operate freely and engage in investigative journalism, which works for justice and tolerance. Honestly, I am concerned about the future. The loss of a free press in Afghanistan is not just a problem for us, it’s a problem for the international community.

I did not make this journey without encouragement and support. I would like to express my deepest gratitude to Mr. Fahim Hashimi, President of 1TV, who invested in freedom of expression so that Afghanistan can become a better country for all its people. I thank my dear friend and colleague Dr. Mostafa Mahmoud and all my colleagues – especially Farid Ahmad, who is here this evening. Their hard work and support have ensured the success of these programs and enabled us to take a step closer to our common goals.

I am extremely grateful to my kind mother and father, who taught me how to love people. And finally I would like to sincerely thank my dear wife, Seemeen Mahdi, who is here with us tonight, for always supporting my work.

Once again, I thank you and the International Center for Journalists for awarding me this prestigious honor.