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Media Matters: December 13, 2004

13 December 2004, Volume 4, Number 23
Two weeks ago, Natalya Dymytruk, an interpreter for the deaf on the Ukrainian television channel UT-1, launched a mini-uprising among her fellow journalists. During a morning news program, Dymytruk signed on 25 November that she was "disappointed to have to interpret lies," adding that viewers "might not see her in the future." Her colleagues at the station responded by demanding that television coverage of events in Ukraine be unmuzzled.

UT-1 was not alone in providing a selective view of the political drama that unfolded in Ukraine's cities after the disputed 21 November presidential election. In an interview with Ekho Moskvy on 5 December, Oleksandr Rodnyanskyy, a co-owner of the Ukrainian 1+1 TV channel, revealed that his channel had been skewing news coverage in order to survive. "[We did not provide] complete and objective information enabling the viewers to make their own conclusions," he said. "This was a matter of survival for 1+1 TV. The company went through many difficulties in the past. We had to fight a legal battle for our broadcasting license and other issues more than 10 times, and we realized that, in order to survive, we had to come to a compromise. Some of our journalists made their own choice."

In an interview with U.S. National Public Radio's "On the Media" on 3 December, one of those journalists, Fedir Sydoryk, who resigned from 1+1 TV, suggested that most Ukrainian journalists have not followed Dymytruk's example but are instead following the whims of their bosses. "The owners are just seeing where the wind is blowing, and they want to jump on the last car of the train, because if they don't, they'll be left behind," he said. "The journalists are only doing what the ownership is doing, and not the opposite." He explained, "People are just afraid for their jobs. They make good money on television.... The people who are still working at certain channels -- I don't consider them heroes. I consider them chameleons. You know, they change color according to the trees that they're sitting under."

In neighboring Russia, television journalists have not changed sides over the past weeks. If they made a conscious choice at all, then apparently it has been to support the stance toward the Ukrainian election adopted by Russian President Vladimir Putin. President Putin has made no secret of his support for Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, visiting Kyiv before the first round of the presidential election and being the first international leader to congratulate Yanukovych on his "victory" in the 21 November second round. Complementing his efforts, ORT and RTR provided close coverage of Prime Minister Yanukovych's campaign for presidential office. And since challenges have mounted to the election results, coverage of the events in Ukraine by Russian television has increasingly diverged -- in tone and emphasis, if not in substance -- from that provided by other Ukrainian and Western media outlets.

For example, ORT commentator Mikhail Leontev suggested on 23 November that it was Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma's "constitutional duty" to introduce a state of emergency because "because Ukraine is split and because this is effectively a seizure of power." He continued: "One would like to believe [that] the Ukrainian authorities are ready to defend order and, basically, to defend Ukraine since Ukraine will cease to exist in a physical sense. It'll collapse. God forbid, I don't want to be a doomsayer, imagining civil war, but, you know, everything was fine in Iraq too to start with." The next day, RTR predicted -- incorrectly as it turned out -- that "support for candidate Viktor Yanukovych [in Kyiv] could turn out to be just as massive as the protest staged by [Viktor] Yushchenko's supporters."

Both ORT and RTR have paid special attention to level of organization of the Kyiv protests. An ORT correspondent commented on 23 November that "there has been careful organization and I don't think we can talk of a spontaneous action here. It's all been very well organized, of course." The previous day, an RTR report focused on the foreign groups that orchestrated the protests in Kyiv and were financed "through the so-called philanthropists, for example, the Soros Foundation." TV-Tsentr's "Postskriptum" program also noted the opposition's "tight, mostly hidden, connections with the U.S." According to a 4 December report, "by various accounts, the Americans started to prepare for this in 1999-2000.... The line of Washington was such that the election would only be democratic if [opposition presidential candidate Viktor] Yushchenko won."

In a broadcast on 2 December, ORT turned its attention to the suspicious "enthusiasm of Ukraine's Polish and Lithuanian brothers to act as mediators in the postelection conflict." ORT commentator Leontev recalls the events of the 13th and 14th century when parts of Ukraine were under Polish and Lithuanian rule. "The motives of the Poles to [act as mediators in] Ukraine is transparent from Ukrainian history. The Poles have always been very active in Ukraine and today especially so.... They want to appear as the Great Poland, and to do so is possible only on the bones of Ukraine," he opined. In this context, according to Leontev, Russia is merely defending Ukraine and providing assistance to President Kuchma, "the great balancer between Russia and the West."

ORT depicted the Ukrainian Supreme Court's 3 December decision to overturn the results of the second round and call for a repeat as a setback to Ukraine's democratic development. ORT host Vladimir Pozner led a discussion on 5 December that posed the question, "Will Ukrainian Supreme Court's decision overturning the results of the second round and calling for a third round enable the development of democracy in Ukraine, or is this a democratic joke?" The consensus of most of his guests was that the decision was both unjust and undemocratic.

In the meantime, some Ukrainians apparently noticed the spin some Russian media put on events there. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko announced on 30 November that "all foreign correspondents find working in Ukraine pretty difficult these days, but if you take the Russian newsmen, we've been getting alarming information about grave problems they've faced in recent days," he said. "There've been cases of disruption of live coverage," he claimed. "The situation is getting worse day by day, and it can't but alarm us.... The ministry expresses the hope that the Ukrainian authorities won't overlook unlawful acts against correspondents."

Of course, if Kuchma had introduced a state emergency as Leontev advised, then Russian journalists might have little to worry about. (Julie A. Corwin)

Perhaps the closest Serbian equivalent of the Russian oligarchs is Bogoljub Karic, 50, whose media holdings center on the popular BK Television channel and the Mobtel mobile-telephone company. The latter is Serbia's largest, and his share in it is believed to be worth 500 million euros ($663.4 million) alone.

Karic's family comes from Peja in Kosova, where it ran a small manufacturing enterprise and engaged in numerous other activities, including performing as professional musicians. The Karices were one of several talented and ambitious Serbian families from Kosova who made contact with Slobodan Milosevic at the start of his political career in the mid-1980s and developed business empires as part of his extended entourage during the freewheeling years of his reign.

Karic at one point used his international business contacts to persuade Chinese and Russian publishers to put out translations of books by Mira Markovic, Milosevic's wife. Karic served briefly as a member of the Serbian cabinet in the 1990s, but attempts to link him to some of the regime's war crimes have not been proven.

Karic is still going strong four years after Milosevic's ouster in October 2000. The businessman financially supports numerous conservative or nationalist causes but is believed to be primarily motivated by a desire to create the best climate for his extensive business interests, rather than by any specific ideology. He also sponsors the private BK University and the Karic Foundation.

After the 30 December 2003 Serbian parliamentary elections, Karic's name increasingly appeared in the media in a distinctly political context. An RFE/RL correspondent reported from Belgrade on 19 January that among those seen at the offices of Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia during the coalition talks was Karic. The "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" wrote on 24 December that Karic was among those well-heeled individuals who allegedly bought influence in the previous Serbian legislature, which ultimately led to the downfall of the last government as party discipline collapsed because individual legislators had been "bought."

Karic entered politics in his own right later in 2004, when he made an impressive third place showing in the 13 June first round of the Serbian presidential race. He won 18 percent of the vote, even though he himself had expected to do no better than 5 or 6 percent. Karic's newly founded Snaga Srbije movement -- a name by analogy with Forza Italia -- is not itself represented in the parliament yet, but it is an open secret that many legislators from other parties are still under Karic's influence.

Many Serbs say that Karic's main purpose in actively entering politics was not just to consolidate his already considerable influence but to better conduct his feud with Serbian Finance Minister Mladjan Dinkic of the G-17 Plus political party. Dinkic wants Karic's BK Group to pay 35 million euros in an "extra-profit tax" on profits made during Milosevic's tenure from the late 1980s until October 2000.

This past summer, Dinkic accused Karic of using BK Television to foment strikes and spread discontent with the government. Shortly before, during the campaign for the June election, BK Television helped promote Karic's campaign, but was not hysterically partisan. Instead, BK Television relied on subtle editing of news items, sound bites, and video clips to present the boss in a favorable light and cast doubt on the seriousness of his rivals.

Karic probably went into politics to protect and promote his business interests rather than to leave a legacy of public service. But he apparently intends to be a political force to be reckoned with. Might Serbia -- which has seen several parties rise and fall over the past decade and a half -- now be heading for a two-party system centered on reformist and hard-line camps, with Karic's party occupying some sort of kingmaker role? Many think that the results of the June presidential elections point in that direction.

Karic certainly has the money and resources to set up a nationwide party organization for Snaga Srbije if he wants to. But several other examples from postcommunist Europe of wealthy businessmen going into politics suggest that he will find it necessary to make good quickly on his promises to raise the standard of living or be deserted by a disenchanted electorate. (Patrick Moore)

For journalists in former communist countries, the expansion of Western publishing houses into the markets beyond the former Iron Curtain presented both an opportunity and a risk. They believed that the Western investors would introduce new democratic standards of journalistic freedom. At the same time, they feared that Westerners might create media monopolies in the new markets, thus undermining any achievement of media pluralism. So far, the picture is mixed. In some markets, such as Romania, Western companies have been accused of interfering in editorial policy, and in other markets, such as Bulgaria and Macedonia, they have faced criticism for dominating local print media markets.

For German, Swiss, and other Western European publishing houses, the fall of communism also provided opportunity and risks. An overview of the activities of German and Swiss publishing houses in central and southeast Europe suggests that the bigger players in the newspaper markets preferred to minimize their risks by investing in the more stable countries in the region. Meanwhile, the German media concern Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung (WAZ) has made quick inroads by entering markets that other houses considered too risky.

The more conservative, Axel Springer Verlag, which publishes Germany's biggest newspaper, the tabloid "Bild," has concentrated its investments on Hungary, where it now publishes 20 magazines and 10 newspapers, the Czech Republic (eight magazines and one daily), and Poland. Within one year of its foundation, Springer's daily "Fakt" -- a tabloid modeled after the successful "Bild" -- became Poland's biggest newspaper, with a daily circulation of some 500,000 copies.

Gruner + Jahr (G+J), which is part of the German Bertelsmann media-holding giant, originally invested in Russia, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania, Serbia, and Slovakia. But in early 2004, G+J sold its publications in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania, Serbia, and Slovakia to the Swiss publishing house Ringier, saying it planned to concentrate on the magazine markets in Russia and Poland. G+J spokesman Alexander Adler told Germany's "Manager Magazine" in April that G+J needs a solid business environment. "We are doing business only with reliable partners in a reliable economic environment," Adler said.

Ringier's core business is similar to Springer's -- tabloid newspapers such as "Blikk" in Hungary, "Blesk" in the Czech Republic, "Blic" in Serbia, and "Libertatea" in Romania. Ringier also publishes the Bucharest daily "Evenimentul zilei."

In recent weeks, journalists of "Evenimentul zilei" have accused the newspaper's owners of interfering in the daily's editorial policies (see "RFE/RL Media Matters," 11 October 2004). The journalists protested against Ringier's attempts "to tone down the newspaper's critical tone."

Similar protests have been lodged against the foreign owners of another Bucharest daily, "Romania libera," for alleged interference in paper's editorial policies. In September, the staff of "Romania libera" complained that the paper's owner, the German WAZ media group, has been attempting to influence editorial policies and to reduce the daily's criticism of the Romanian government. As a result of the differences, pressure grew on "Romania libera" Editor in Chief Petre Mihail Bacanu to resign.

Some Romanian analysts such as Media Monitor Agency Director Mircea Toma believe that both cases clearly show that the Romanian government is trying to using state-controlled advertising and selective enforcement of tax laws to influence media owners. Whether or not this is true, the clear losers in the "Evenimentul zilei" and "Romania libera" scandals are media freedom in Romania as well as the foreign investors' reputation.

The WAZ group was one of the first to invest in Southeast Europe and not in the more developed countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, or Poland. As of late 2004, WAZ owns five regional dailies in western Hungary; in Bulgaria, it owns 100 percent of the daily "24 Chasa" and 30 percent of the daily "Trud." In Croatia, Montenegro, and Serbia, it owns half of the shares of five newspapers and some special publications. In Macedonia, WAZ's three dailies make up for about 30-32 percent of the newspaper market. In Romania, the Germans own the majority of the dailies "Romania libera" and "National."

Unlike the activities of other media giants in former communist countries, the involvement of the WAZ group in southeastern Europe has in some cases raised concerns that the German media group could create monopolies in the newspaper markets. In Bulgaria, WAZ held the majority of the two national newspapers with the largest circulations, "Trud" and "24 Chasa." But following complaints, it gave up its majority of shares in "Trud." Klossek said a Bulgarian court recently confirmed that WAZ-owned dailies make up for no more than 33.6 percent of the newspaper market.

In Macedonia WAZ has also faced allegations that it is forming a media monopoly. There, WAZ had bought up the three major dailies "Dnevnik," "Utrinski vesnik," and "Vest," which have a total circulation of 120,000 copies. Again, WAZ denies having formed a monopoly, citing a decision by the Macedonian antitrust agency. At the same time, the newly founded daily "Vreme" claims that it has broken into the dominance of WAZ-owned dailies and now ranks second behind the WAZ-owned "Dnevnik."

It remains to be seen whether more journalists will follow their Romanian colleagues and protest against interference in editorial policies by foreign investors. The future will also show whether WAZ and other foreign media in difficult business environments such as Romania can resist economic pressures posed by powerful groups to silence critical journalists. Given the economic strength of the Western media groups involved one might hope that this is possible. (Ulrich Buechsenschuetz)