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Media Matters: August 4, 2005

4 August 2005, Volume 5, Number 14
Russia's Foreign Ministry has announced it will not renew the accreditation of reporters working for the U.S. ABC television network. A ministry statement made public on 2 August said the decision was in retaliation for ABC's airing of an interview with radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev. The ABC interview was broadcast in the United States and not meant for Russian audiences. But it caused an uproar in Moscow.

Shamil Basaev is Russia's most-wanted terrorist, with a $10 million bounty on his head. He has claimed credit for some of the worst terrorist acts in recent Russian history, including the 2002 Moscow theater takeover and last year's Beslan school hostage taking that ended in the killing of more than 330 people, most of them children.

The Russian authorities were quick to voice their anger with ABC. On 2 August, the Foreign Ministry announced it would not renew the accreditation of journalists working for the station in Russia, once the documents expire.

The ministry said the move was a direct consequence of ABC's interview with Basaev. It said the interview aided "the propaganda of terrorism" and contained direct calls for violence against Russian citizens.

ABC expressed shock. The network late on 2 August issued a statement saying it regretted Moscow's action but that it could not allow any government to prevent it from reporting the news "fully and accurately."

U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey, speaking in Washington on 2 August, said the United States government condemned actions claimed by Basaev in the strongest possible terms.

"We certainly believe that the actions taken by certain terrorist groups in Chechnya, certainly the actions taken at the school in Beslan and some of the other terrorist activities that have gone on, are absolutely deplorable," Casey said. "We condemned them at the time. We continue to condemn them. We believe that those kinds of attacks on innocents, whether they occur at Chechnya, whether they occur anywhere else in the world are simply unacceptable. They are not a legitimate form of political expression."

But at the same time, Casey said the United States does not believe censoring or punishing the media is legitimate. "I don't think, if in fact, ABC is to somehow be banned from reporting in Russia that that would be a positive statement about freedom of expression," he said.

When ABC aired the interview on 28 July, Ted Koppel, the host of the "Nightline" program, emphasized that "broadcasting an interview with someone does not imply any sort of approval of that person or his actions."

Koppel noted that ABC had broadcast interviews with thieves, murderers, dictators, and even child molesters -- always putting the conversation in the proper context. That, he said, is a reporter's job. The network also offered the Russian Embassy in Washington time on its program, to air its point of view.

Rohan Jayasekera, who works for the British-based Index on Censorship, a monitoring organization that deals with issues of media and government censorship, told RFE/RL that the Russian Foreign Ministry's decision to revoke the accreditation of ABC journalists is a radical step, but it follows an established Kremlin pattern.

"There have been broadcasts by television companies in Britain of interviews with Chechen separatists that have resulted in complaints by the Russian government directly to the Foreign Office and also complaints to broadcasting authorities, complaining about the use of the material," Jayasekera said. "Russia has been determined for some years to use all possible means to silence the broadcast of the views of Chechen separatists, not only in Russia, but internationally as well."

Those complaints have all been politely turned down, with the explanation that in a democratic society, the government cannot influence the work of independent media.

Jayasekera noted the British government has learned from its own mistakes. Faced with its own battle with terrorism, it tried a form of internal media censorship in the 1980s, in the midst of deadly bombings by the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

British television was told to stop airing interviews with members of the IRA and other similar groups. Specifically, a ban was imposed on broadcasting the voice of their representatives. Then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously declared it was time to starve terrorists of the "oxygen of publicity on which they depend."

But as Jayasekera recalled, the policy was discredited and eventually repealed. "This was challenged in various ways by the British media. It made the exercise completely pointless at the end of the run of the system," Jayasekera said. "Actors were being used to overdub the voices of the actual IRA figures themselves. The end result of it was that it was ridiculed around the world for its pointlessness and lack of effect. And so that experience has influenced broadcasters, particularly in Britain, but also further across in Europe."

Ultimately, decisions on whether to give a terrorist airtime should be based on professional criteria, Jayasekera said. "There's a journalistic decision to be made, a professional decision to be made, as to whether the audience will learn something new about the motivations of an individual, of an organization, especially when the actions of that individual, individuals, or organization have a serious or possibly dangerous effect on their lives. At that point, it becomes a matter of public interest. And [broadcasters] have a duty to report this," Jayasekera said.

The interview with Basaev was conducted by veteran Russian war correspondent Andrei Babitskii. Babitskii, who is an RFE/RL staffer, was not on assignment for RFE/RL at the time. In the interview, Babitskii repeatedly pressed Basaev for an explanation of his actions, including the seizure of children as hostages. In response, Basaev accepted the label "terrorist." But he justified his actions by saying he saw no other way to stop Russian atrocities in Chechnya.

By Jeremy Bransten

Russia's Savior channel (Spas, in Russian) began broadcasting on 28 July. Initially, only owners of satellite dishes who subscribe to NTV-Plus will be able to watch the programming. But station managers hope to expand to cable and eventually terrestrial broadcasts.

The Soyuz channel in the Sverdlovsk Oblast city of Pervouralsk began broadcasting Orthodox programming at the start of this year. But Savior is the first channel aiming to go nationwide.

The Russian Orthodox Church has long campaigned for its own channel, especially after the military launched its own defense-themed, patriotic TV network, called Star, earlier this year. Patriarch Aleksii II is on record as saying the soul of the country must be nurtured by television programs free of commerce and politics.

It appears he will get his wish -- but only partly. Despite its spiritual mission, the Orthodox channel is a commercial venture, financed with private funds. It will even include commercials, station General Director Aleksandr Batanov told RFE/RL.

"For example, I have on my desk a bottle of Holy Source mineral water [a popular Russian brand that is a joint venture between the Orthodox Church and a commercial company]," Batanov said. "It would probably be the right decision for them to turn to our advertising department. Or let's say, [we would be a good partner for] products that are marketed, above all, as domestic goods. I think there are enough Russian producers to whom we can offer advertising time or offer program sponsorships. For now, we will follow this path."

Batanov said interest on the part of businesspeople who describe themselves as Orthodox believers has been strong. "These are businesspeople who position themselves as people of faith, people who are Orthodox," Batanov said. "We have held talks with them and they have shown interest in becoming advertisers or sponsors of programs on our channel. We have done the math and we have an idea of how it's going to work out."

Commercials, of course, are only a small -- albeit important -- part of the equation. Station managers say religious programs will make up 40 percent of airtime. The other 60 percent will be taken up by general-interest films, documentaries, and talk shows -- all domestic productions of suitable moral content.

Despite assertions that the station will be financed by "Orthodox entrepreneurs" and not the state, journalist Sergei Varshavchik, who has followed the story for the daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta," told RFE/RL that Savior's plans appear to align perfectly with the Kremlin's.

For years, President Vladimir Putin has spoken of the need to inculcate a new sense of patriotism in Russia's youth. He has fostered close relations with both the military and the Orthodox Church, and often mentions the need to support Russian values and enterprise. Putin may be inspired by Russia's tsarist past, specifically the slogan "Autocracy, Orthodoxy, and National Spirit," which was coined in the early 19th century during the reign of Nicholas I.

Varshavchik said it is hard to believe that the timing of the Savior channel's launch is pure coincidence. "This all falls under a larger education program that you could call 'Patriotic Education, Orthodoxy, National Spirit,'" he said. "You'll notice that all these channels are not opposition channels, they are not public channels. This is not public television, which has been much discussed. These are all channels approved by the Kremlin."

Varshavchik said the Russian Federation is a country of many faiths, even if Orthodoxy is dominant. He wonders if a channel focusing on all religions, rather than one, might not be more suitable.

"We have a secular and multi-confessional country," he said. "So [if we were going to be fair] we should really have a Muslim channel, a Buddhist one, a Baptist one, a Jewish one, et cetera. Or, we could have a general religion channel to influence this or that."

That, however, does not seem to be a sentiment shared by many Russians, as an informal poll of public opinion conducted by RFE/RL's Russian Service on the streets of Nizhnii Novgorod found this week.

"I think this is needed because many people are forgetting moral values," one young woman said. "People need to be reminded to strive not only for material values but for moral and spiritual ones as well."

"I'm not especially religious," one man said. "But in principle, I'm not opposed. Maybe someone needs it and it will be in demand. I'll have a look and see. If it's quality material, then why not?"

That's something the Kremlin, and prospective advertisers, will be only too glad to hear.

By Valentinas Mite

Some 200 Ukrainian journalists have joined forces in asking President Viktor Yushchenko to formally apologize for what they say was rude behavior during a recent news conference. The Ukrainian president was angered when a reporter pressed him to address reports about his son's lavish lifestyle. Analysts say it is not the first row between Yushchenko and the press -- but it may be the latest sign the president's political honeymoon is coming to an end.

Last year's Orange Revolution elevated President Yushchenko to near-hero status, prompting many Ukrainians to joke that the only difference between God and their new president was that God didn't think he was Yushchenko.

Since then, however, a scandal over his son's spending habits and the probing of a newly freed media have forced Yushchenko on the defensive.

The president's son, Andriy, is a university student in Kyiv majoring in international relations. But he appears to have expensive tastes. He drives a new BMW and has been reported to lead a "playboy" existence.

Ukrainian media have given the story constant coverage -- even asking the president for an explanation at a 25 July press conference. But President Yushchenko angrily dismissed the questions, accusing one correspondent of subjecting his children to unfair scrutiny.

"Andriy is just a citizen like you. He wants a private life," Yushchenko said. "You try revealing your private life [to other people]. He is not a public politician. My friends, if you want to strike out at someone, strike out at me. Don't attack wives or children. You should be above that."

But the reporter, from the "Ukrainian pravda" newspaper, probed further, asking where Andriy Yushchenko worked that enabled him to afford his BMW M6 sports car -- valued at $120,000 -- and other luxury items like a $30,000 platinum Vertu mobile phone.

President Yushchenko responded by calling on the correspondent to "act like a polite journalist and not like a hit man." He went on to say his son had a job that allowed him to lease his BMW -- and that the phone had been a gift from a friend.

"He has a job at a consulting company, and he also does some other things there -- honest things, which I have encouraged him to do for a long time," Yushchenko said. "It's not a lot of money, but it is enough to lease a car and hire an extra security guard [not provided by the state]."

Now 200 Ukrainian journalists have published an open letter demanding an apology from the president for what they say was an arrogant retort to a reasonable journalistic question.

Stuart Hensel of the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit said the appeal was justified, as Yushchenko is developing a pattern of rude behavior with the press.

"Unfortunately, it is symptomatic of the way in which he has dealt with the press in the past," Hensel said. "He has received criticism for some of his previous press conferences, and specifically this one dealing with his justice minister, where he was very dismissive of allegations made by the press about members of his entourage. And he invited some comparisons to the previous regime [of former President Leonid Kuchma]. I think there is some disappointment, certainly, from the members of the liberal press in Ukraine."

Valeriy Ivanov, the head of the nongovernmental Ukrainian Press Academy, also signed the letter. He told RFE/RL the letter was about more than Yushchenko's coarse words at the news conference.

"The president just simply refused to provide information about the behavior of one of his family members, and this behavior concerns huge sums of money," Ivanov said. "In fact, it was about hidden forms of corruption. In addition to that, he behaved rudely toward the journalist."

He said Yushchenko was breaking the promises he made during the Orange Revolution to respect the free press.

So does this mark the end of warm ties between the president and the media?

Ivanov said such a period, in fact, never existed. He said the new Ukrainian government has from the start tried to impose some control over the press.

"Putting it frankly, it isn't the first problem between a journalist and the new authorities," Ivanov said. "Journalists have many claims against local authorities. [Local authorities] have sought to sack those journalists who worked before the Orange Revolution. Attempts have been made by the authorities to control Internet media."

Andriy Bychenko, the head of the sociological office of the Razumkov Center for Economic and Political Studies, said this latest conflict was different because those journalists who once supported the president are now assailing him.

"If you look more closely, you will see that it is unpleasant for the president -- that this topic was raised and developed by the same journalists who strongly supported him just a short time ago," Bychenko said. "For a long time, 'Ukrainian pravda' and 'Zerkalo tyzhnia' -- whose journalists were among those who signed the petition to the president -- were almost the only media outlets, together with Channel 5, which presented Yushchenko's and the opposition's point of view."

Bychenko said the scandal clearly showed that Ukrainian media was not doing the government's bidding -- and that while Yushchenko might love the limelight, he has little idea how to deal with an independent press.

By Ruzanna Khachatrian

Armenia's leading independent television station, which was controversially pulled off the air three years ago, neared a complete halt of its activities on 20 July as it was forced to begin vacating its government-owned premises in Yerevan.

The once popular A1+ channel removed its equipment from two rooms in a building belonging to the National Academy of Sciences and has until 23 July to vacate the rest of its editorial offices which it has leased for over 10 years. The eviction followed A1+'s defeat in a court battle with the Academy of Sciences, which wants its property back, citing the need to accommodate the staff of two research institutes that were relocated from another building in the city center last year.

A1+ has tried unsuccessfully to get compensation for $32,000 that it claims to have invested in the premises. Its owner and chief executive, Mesrop Movsesian, believes that the eviction was initiated by the authorities with the aim of finally closing his company.

According to Movsesian, the president of the academy, Fadey Sargsian, earlier pledged to allow A1+ to continue to occupy some of the premises until it finds new office space. "I was told at the academy that the government is now forcing them to have the building vacated this week," he told RFE/RL. "Today I sent a letter to the prime minister asking for his intervention."

"What surprises me is that there are also other organizations based in this building and none of them has been told to immediately leave the offices," he said.

Movsesian also claimed that it is extremely difficult to find new office space for his staff that still produce programs for regional TV stations in addition to publishing a popular news website and a weekly newspaper. "Few people want to deal with us today, fearing A1+'s name," he said. "Those who want to, charge too much. We just can't afford their rent."

A1+ was the only TV channel that regularly aired criticism of President Robert Kocharian and his government. It lost its broadcasting license in April 2002 after a disputed tender that was granted to a newly created pro-government company. The move was condemned by local and international media groups as a serious blow to press freedom in Armenia.

The Council of Europe has repeatedly urged the authorities in Yerevan to lift the de facto ban on A1+. But the authorities have only promised to change the mechanism for the formation of a regulatory body, currently appointed by Kocharian, that hand outs broadcasting frequencies.

Their relevant draft amendments to the Armenian Constitution were criticized as cosmetic by the country's leading media associations in mid-July. They said in a joint statement that the National Commission on Television and Radio would not become independent and unbiased as a result.