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Media Matters: February 24, 2005

24 February 2005, Volume 5, Number 5
By Jeremy Bransten

This week Russia launched a patriotic, defense-themed television station whose goal is to imbue Russians with renewed love for their motherland. Initially, the channel will only be available in Moscow, but by May it is due to begin operations nationwide, thanks to transmitters lent by the Defense Ministry.

Russia's Defense Ministry promises that patriots who are sick of the debased sex and violence shown on most commercial Russian television will have a respite with the launch of Zvezda, or "Star" -- the country's first military-patriotic channel.

Zvezda officially debuted in the Moscow region on 20 February in time for the traditional Red Army Day celebrated on 23 February.

For years, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov had talked of establishing what he called a "military-patriotic" television channel. Both he and President Vladimir Putin frequently stress the need to restore patriotic values in a country whose moral values have gone astray.

The station's director, Sergei Savushkin, says Zvezda's programming is designed for broad appeal, including movies, concerts, documentaries, news and cartoons for children -- most of them from the archives of the Defense Ministry and the state film archive.

Savushkin says the programs will be more positive and socially oriented than what is currently shown on other Russian channels. Advertising will be for reserved for Russian products only.

While few critics dispute the fact that many of the programs aired on Russian commercial stations are indeed lowbrow Western castoffs, with little redeeming value, there is skepticism about the new station's prospects and questions about its financing.

Viktor Baranets is a former press secretary at the Defense Ministry and a current military observer for the "Komsomolskaya pravda" newspaper. He told RFE/RL that conditions in the Russian armed forces have made most midlevel officers and soldiers so bitter and cynical that they are not going to be swayed by any artful TV programming.

"I do not believe you can raise patriots in a country where the government stands against the people," Baranets said. "You cannot force the army to get into bed with a depraved regime. Officers write to me and say, 'We do not want to defend thieving oligarchs, deputies, and ministers who are stuffing themselves.' An army that hates its country will never fall prey to even the most ingenious brainwashing."

Baranets has questions about the new station's target audience. He says it is so disparate that it makes it nearly impossible to design programs with universal appeal.

"They're trying to cross a hedgehog with a motorcycle. On the one hand, they are counting on the current teenage generation -- boys and girls who are still in school and are studying to be future university students," Baranets said. "On the other hand, they are also counting on soldiers and veterans. But these are very different audiences. And they think they'll be able to cater to each audience with some patriotic production and in this way, to foster love for the army."

Another problem Baranets foresees with content is where to get it. Until a production studio is set up that churns out modern "patriotic" programs, the station will have to rely on Soviet-era fare. And that, he said, is not likely to inspire people to love their government.

"With what are they going to inculcate patriotism?" he asked. "Look, 99 percent of our patriotic movies date back to Soviet times. You have to understand that when you look at these movies, they don't elicit a feeling of patriotism. They awaken a feeling of nostalgic hatred aimed at the current regime because you think about the former regime, which took care of the army. And this one does not."

Reporter Anna Kachkaeva analyzes television trends for RFE/RL's Russian Service in Moscow. She said she is worried about the station's murky finances. Zvezda's director said the station is a commercial project with no government involvement. But he also acknowledged that Zvezda's equipment, transmitters and license belong to the Defense Ministry's Central Television and Radio Studio.

Some reports quote unnamed government officials who say Defense Ministry money earmarked for "patriotic education" will be used to fund the station. Others say it will rely on advertising.

"The company that is going to be broadcasting it is structured as a joint-stock company, although they say it will be 100-percent government-owned," Kachkaeva said. "But there will be shareholders, and it means that at least 51 percent, even if it belongs to the government, will be in the hands of certain investors who will be investing in the project. Who are they? How will it be done, what is the company's charter and how are the shares distributed? No one knows, because none of us has seen any documentation."

If the station is to go national by May, as announced, scores of local frequencies will have to be acquired. If public money is going to be used, Kachkaeva said, the terms of such a deal should be made public.

"If it is a commercial enterprise, then they should take part in a tender, win frequencies, invest money in developing the broadcasting network and not ask for anything from the state," she said. "If it is a state enterprise, then it is perfectly clear that we should understand where the funds came from."

Despite the doubts, if Zvezda's launch is deemed a success, the Russian Orthodox Church may be next in line to apply for a television channel. Senior church clerics have already proposed the idea, and Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Aleksii II says the soul of the nation must be nurtured by programs free of commerce and politics.

By Robert Coalson

Journalists in Bryansk Oblast in recent weeks have raised the charge that the oblast administration is conducting a "purge" of newspaper editors whose political views conflict with those of Governor Nikolai Denin.

Denin, a member of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, was elected in December after a local court disqualified popular Communist incumbent Yurii Lodkin. According to the Bryansk news agency Gorod-24 on 16 February, the editors of all the oblast's state-supported raion-level newspapers were ordered to appear before the administration's Press Committee on 15-17 February for an evaluation because of "the switch to new working conditions."

Gorod-24, however, reported that the crisis began last month when the editors of six of the papers were summarily asked to submit their resignations, which they refused to do. Instead, they turned to the oblast legislature, President Vladimir Putin, and Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Alvaro Gil-Robles for support.

Although the journalists assert that the purported purge is being conducted for political reasons, oblast officials counter that they are merely trying to clean up the region's budget and to bring local legislation into conformity with federal law. They argue that the recently adopted law converting most in-kind benefits to cash payments bars local governments from providing direct financial aid to newspapers and printing houses, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 16 February. However, Bryansk Oblast so far appears to be the only region in Russia that has interpreted the law in this way.

Seasoned Media Player

The situation in Bryansk, however, is complicated and demonstrates the noxious effects of state subsidies to the media, as well as of the unhealthy intersection of journalism and power that is typical of provincial Russia. Former Governor Lodkin was a journalist himself in the Soviet era and he understood the usefulness of maintaining close control over the local media. During his two terms in office, Lodkin placed trusted people in charge of all the raionki, as the raion-level newspapers are called, Gorod-24 reported. Many of them were, and are, members of the Communist Party.

The journalists who are now threatened by the new administration seem genuinely surprised that they have not been able to find a way to get along with Denin. "Just recently, the Bryansk Oblast governor [Lodkin] personally awarded me a certificate of honor for professionalism," "Mayak" Editor in Chief Nikolai Pozhalenkov told REN-TV on 16 February. "Also, I have a letter of thanks from the Russian president. I and [two other editors] acted as the president's proxies in Chechnya. And, all of a sudden, the situation has taken a turn like this. I don't understand." Former Governor Lodkin was a journalist himself in the Soviet era and he understood the usefulness of maintaining close control over the local media.

"Kommersant-Daily" reported that the oblast provided 23 million rubles ($767,000) in subsidies to the papers in 2004 alone. "Under Lodkin, each editor had a personal Volga [automobile] and their pay was on the level of a deputy head of a raion," an unidentified source within the Denin administration told the daily. According to "Kommersant-Daily," all of the raion newspapers "wrote extremely negatively" about Denin during the 2003 State Duma elections and during the 2004 gubernatorial campaign and they all "actively supported" Lodkin.

This was not enough, however, to prevent a local court from striking Lodkin from the ballot in November 2004 in response to allegations from People's Party candidate Aleksandr Zhdanov that Lodkin violated electioneering laws. Lodkin's supporters charged at the time that the courts were being manipulated to pave the way for Denin.

Now Denin has named Anatolii Terebunov as acting deputy governor responsible for media and raion affairs. Terebunov was previously the editor of the opposition paper "Bryanskii perekrestok," which supported Denin during the election. In November 2002, a Unified Russia press release proudly listed Terebunov as one of the Bryansk journalists invited to participate in the party's national conference of regional media and to attend "celebrations" in Moscow in honor of the anniversary of the founding of Unified Russia, Regnum reported on 29 November 2002. Gorod-24 reported on 16 February that prior to his stint at "Bryanskii perekrestok," Terebunov was editor of the raion newspaper "Mglinskie vesti."

Political Motives

Terebunov and Denin have not bothered to hide the political motives behind their pressure on the raionki. Denin called the papers "liars" at a 21 January press conference, Gorod-24 reported, while Terebunov told "Kommersant-Daily" that, "in December of last year the opinion foisted by the press diverged from the choice of the people. He added that now the administration intends "to cauterize them, no matter how much they moan."

"Kommersant-Daily" reported that none of the six editors who have been asked to resign appeared before the Press Committee on 15 February, all of them claiming to be ill. Moreover, they have announced that they will launch a hunger strike if the administration continues its efforts to remove them, maintaining that they were all confirmed to new five-year appointments last year by Lodkin's administration.

By Julie A. Corwin

This month, new information emerged about how Belarusian journalist Veranika Charkasava spent the last few months of her life: She was investigating Belarusian arms shipments to Iraq. Despite this new information, Belarusian investigators continue to have only one suspect in her murder, her 15-year-old son Anton Filomonov. He fled to Moscow this month to avoid being detained in a closed psychiatric facility.

Last October, Charkasava was stabbed to death in her apartment (see "RFE/RL Media Matters," 10 January 2005). The police concluded a personal quarrel was the cause, while her colleagues suspected that she was killed because of her professional activities. A group on Belarusian independent journalists has been conducting its own investigation of her murder, and they recently revealed that Charkasava spent the last month of her life researching Belarus's alleged weapons sales to the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, specifically Infobank's financing of military contracts with Iraq, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported on 8 February.

In August 2004, the United States directly accused Infobank of trading weapons, freezing its U.S. bank accounts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 August 2004). Pavel Sheremet, a journalist at ORT, told reporters in Moscow on 8 February that Charkasava had developed good sources at Infobank over the past couple of years and decided to conduct her own investigation. Charkasava had one source in particular who was filling her in on the "secrets of Belarusian-Iraqi cooperation," according to "Russkii kurer" on 2 February. Charkasava had gathered information about Infobank's alleged role in laundering money for weapons sales to Iraq. According to "Russkii kurer," all photos of a trip to Baghdad that Charaksava took two years ago at the invitation of Infobank have disappeared from her apartment.

Despite the independent journalists' findings, the police continue to insist that a domestic dispute was behind Charkasava's slaying. Initially, their chief suspects were Charkasava's father and her son. Investigators have subsequently focused on the son.

On 31 January, Charkasava's mother, Diana Charkasava, sent a letter to Belarus's Prosecutor-General Pyotr Miklashevich, complaining about the toll the police investigation has taken on her family. She wrote: "For more than two months we have been living under these claims. We are not criminals -- we are victims. Our health is being undermined. It's bad enough that this child should lose his mother, now he is being destroyed morally."

Relatives say that the pressure of being a suspect and being questioned by police for periods as long as five hours straight caused Anton a nervous breakdown. According to Dziyana Charkasava, Anton, who lived with his grandparents before his mother's death, had no psychological problems before the murder, "Gazeta" reported on 7 February.

The day after Charkasava's letter was sent, the investigators from the prosecutor's office showed up at Anton's school to take him for a psychiatric evaluation at a closed facility. Anton managed to call his grandparents, who quickly arrived at the school to defend their grandson, according to RFE/RL's Moscow bureau. Charkasava told "Gazeta" that one of the deputy prosecutors asked her if she "[wasn't] afraid to be in the same apartment as a murderer." After that incident, Anton's father, Dmitrii Filimonov, a journalist for "Izvestiya," had him whisked away to Moscow. His grandparents feared that at any moment investigators could try again to take him away, and according to "Russkii kurer," "no one doubts that the authorities have the necessary levers to obtain the 'needed' [psychiatric] diagnosis."

Filimonov told "Izvestiya" on 9 February that he "is afraid that the Belarusian intelligence service may try to kidnap Anton in Moscow, but still he is safer here than in Minsk." He concluded that "if they had any real evidence against Anton, they would have arrested him long ago." According to Filimonov, investigators took all of Anton's clothes that were worn on the day of the murder and were unable to find any trace of blood. They also took his fingerprints, his computer as well as other potential physical evidence.

According to Sheremet, the chief investigator in Charkasava's case, Uladzimir Chumachenka, also investigated the disappearance of his former colleague, ORT cameraman Dzmitry Zavadski, "Izvestiya" reported. Chumachenka suspected Zavadski's wife of organizing his disappearance and spent several months asking her insinuating questions. Eventually, four spetsnaz officers were arrested for abducting and murdering Zavadski.

Of course, Zavadski had the advantage of working for a major Russian state television channel. Charkasava, on the other hand, worked for a series of independent publications, most recently, the trade union newspaper, "Solidarnost." Her family, therefore, must rely on Mr. Chumachenka and her colleagues for justice.

By Ulrich Buechsenschuetz

The Albanian-language media in Macedonia suffered a serious setback when two newspapers -- the weekly "Lobi" and the daily "Koha ditore" -- recently announced that they must suspend publication, at least temporarily. As a result, only one Albanian-language daily, "Fakti," remains.

In a 3 February press release, the Macedonian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights asked why the state permits this to happen after having signed not only a number of international human rights conventions, but also the 2001 Ohrid peace accord providing for greater rights for ethnic minorities. Since 2001, the human rights watchdog wrote, the number of Albanian-language periodicals has fallen from four to just one in January 2005. In addition to "Fakti," there is only one Albanian-language TV station with a national license and a small number of local radio and TV stations of "very low quality," according to the Helsinki Committee. There is no radio station broadcasting in Albanian throughout the country.

The committee argued that the closure of two Albanian-language periodicals seriously limits the access of the Albanian population to information, especially ahead of the important local elections in March (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 4 and 11 February 2005). This is especially true for many Albanian women, who often do not speak Macedonian. Moreover, the "information blockade" facilitates the spread of disinformation among the Albanian population via the rumor mill. The whole situation adds up to a serious breach of human rights, the Helsinki Committee wrote.

But the big controversy ensued when the committee indirectly accused the governing ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI) of being responsible for the problems of "Lobi" and "Koha ditore:" "If one keeps in mind that both periodicals that suspended their publication in January 2005...were critical of the representatives of the Albanian component in the government... the signal is clear: whoever dares to speak out against those who are in power will be destroyed," the press release said.

The Helsinki Report thus repeated allegations made by "Lobi" itself in January. Iso Rusi, who is the owner and editor in chief of "Lobi," had warned that the print edition of "Lobi" might close down, adding, however, that he hopes that the weekly's Internet edition will continue to appear. Rusi said his newspaper faces massive financial problems because no state-owned company advertises in "Lobi," allegedly because of "Lobi's" critical coverage of the BDI.

In the 7 February Internet edition of "Lobi," Rusi endorsed the Helsinki Committee's assessment, at the same time leveling a number of additional accusations against the BDI. Rusi blamed the BDI for the demise of the Albanian-language daily "Flaka." "Flaka" was part of the Nova Makedonija publishing house, which folded in late 2003 (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 31 October 2003 and 12 March 2004). In addition, Rusi argued, the BDI failed to replace the old system of state subsidies for the media with a more modern one, which would especially help the minority-language publications.

BDI spokeswoman Ermira Mehmeti slammed those allegations as "ridiculous," adding that her party has never exerted any pressure on the media.

Interestingly, Nebi Murseli, the editor in chief of "Koha ditore," told "Utrinski vesnik" on 7 February that his publication could not appear for technical reasons. But Murseli, too, said that big Macedonian companies never place ads in the Albanian-language media. Murseli said he was not consulted by the Helsinki Committee prior to the publication of their critical press release. He also denied having problems with the BDI. "We are not in opposition to the BDI," Murseli said. "On the contrary, we have good relations with the party leaders."

Daut Dauti, who is an ethnic Albanian member of the Helsinki Committee's board, also criticized the press release. In an open letter published in "Dnevnik" on 8 February, Dauti distanced himself from the statement, saying he opposes the remarks about the BDI. Dauti said the "destruction" of "Lobi" and "Koha ditore" cannot be ascribed to the government's behavior, but rather to economic factors. Against this background, Dauti recalled the demise of other minority publications such as "Flaka" or the Turkish-language daily "Birlik," which also belonged to the Nova Makedonija publishing house.

The absence of "Lobi" and "Koha ditore" from the newsstands clearly affects media diversity, regardless of whether they suspended publication for political or economic reasons. The field is now left open to "Fakti," which is said to be closely affiliated with the opposition Democratic Party of the Albanians (PDSH).