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Media Matters: June 9, 2003


9 June 2003, Volume 3, Number 22
AZERBAIJAN
JOURNALIST ARRESTED AT PARTY MEETING. Elnur Sadiqli, a regional correspondent for the opposition daily "Azadliq," was arrested in Azerbaijan's Dashkesen District on 29 May, the Journalists Trade Union of Azerbaijan reported the same day in a press release. While police officers who detained the journalist gave no explanation for the arrest, press monitors said he had been attending a meeting of the local branch of the Popular Front Party, and was arrested along with two members of the political group. The political activists were released but Sadiqli was held and subsequently tried for "hooliganism" and sentenced to seven days' imprisonment. Editors of "Azadliq" believe the journalist was arrested while carrying out his professional duties. According to colleagues, he was in the area continuing his investigation into local corruption and had earlier published reports describing corruption, police violence, and other unflattering aspects of life in Dashkesen. His reports had led parliamentary deputies to instigate inquiries based on his articles, colleagues report. Sadiqli had previously been expelled from the district several times because of his critical coverage, and had also faced pressure from local government officials while working in the region, the Journalists Trade Union reported. Azer H. Hasret, chairman of the Central Asian and Southern Caucasus Freedom of Expression Network, an association uniting local independent media rights groups, described the case as a "sign of the systematic pressure" placed on some journalists by local authorities. CAF

BELARUS
OSCE OFFICIAL SEEKS EXPLANATION FOR SUSPENSION OF PERIODICALS. Freimut Duve, the OSCE's representative on freedom of the media, has requested that Belarusian Foreign Minister Syarhey Martynau explain the three-month suspension of the "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta" newspaper and its monthly supplement "BDG Dlya sluzhebnogo polzovaniya", Belapan reported on 30 May. The OSCE also quoted Duve's response to the penalties, which came after the Information Ministry accused those publications of defaming President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and publishing court proceedings without the judge's permission. "As OSCE representative on freedom of media, I have frequently stated my position that no special protection should be afforded to public officials, including the president," Duve said, according to a press release on the OSCE website (http://www.osce.org). "Conversely, public officials should learn to exercise a greater level of tolerance to criticism, including from the media, than ordinary citizens." ("RFE/RL Newsline," 2 June)

OPPOSITION PARTIES PROTEST CLAMPDOWN ON NONSTATE PRESS. The leaders of seven opposition parties have issued a statement in support of the independent press in Belarus, Belapan reported on 3 June. The statement says the recent three-month suspension of the publication of "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta" and official warnings issued to other nonstate publications bear witness to the authorities' intention "to finally do away with the surviving islets of freedom" in the country. "The regime is striving to deprive Belarusian society of any opportunity to receive information about alternatives to the current course, which has led this country to deadlock," the statement reads. The document was signed by the Belarusian Popular Front, the Liberal Democratic Party, the Belarusian Women's Party "Hope," the Belarusian Party of Communists, the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (National Assembly), the Belarusian Party of Labor, and the Belarusian Social Democratic Assembly. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 4 June)

AUTHORITIES TIGHTEN SCREWS ON INDEPENDENT PRESS. The Information Ministry has sacked Uladzimir Tselesh, director of the Minsk-based printing house Chyrvonaya Zorka, which printed special issues last week of two independent weeklies that had lent their mastheads to the suspended newspaper "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta," RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported on 5 June. The ministry also suspended the publication of one of those weeklies, "Ekho," and prevented "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta" from publishing its materials under the masthead of yet another periodical. "This is an onslaught," "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta" Editor in Chief Svyatlana Kalinkina told RFE/RL. "I think everybody now realizes that the sacking of the director was intended to intimidate all those printers who could print not only 'Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta' but any other newspaper." The suspended newspaper had succeeded in publishing two issues last week under the mastheads of two independent newspapers, "Salidarnasts" and "Ekho," but failed to appear as planned under the masthead of the "Predprinimatelskaya gazeta," Kalinkina pledged to print the newspaper abroad, most likely in Russia. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 5 and 6 June)

PRISON TERM HALVED FOR JOURNALIST. Belarusian authorities have applied an amnesty law to imprisoned journalist Viktar Ivashkevich and halved his two-year term at a corrective-labor facility in Baranavichy, RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported on 4 June. Ivashkevich has been serving a sentence since 16 December for defaming President Lukashenka. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 5 June)

BOSNIA
RFE/RL BROADCAST RECEIVES OSCE PRIZE. On 3 June, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe awarded first prize in its Bosnian media competition to RFE/RL Sarajevo Bureau Editor Danijela Bozic for her 14 February televised roundtable, the bureau said in a statement. The roundtable dealt with the lack of a unified education system in Bosnia and was rebroadcast by 22 television stations across the country. There were 96 entries in the contest from across Bosnia. Presenting the award to Bozic, OSCE Ambassador to Bosnia Robert Beecroft congratulated her "for the extraordinary quality and professionalism in covering [Bosnian] education reform issues...[and] setting a high journalistic standard for the media." A full English-language transcript and other information about the conference and its participants is available at http://www.regionalanalysis.org/specialreports/specialreports/en/2003/02/ 273824EE-98A8-4585-AC12-42173215D3F4.ASP. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 4 June)

CROATIA
TV COMMISSION ANNOUNCES PRIVATIZATION BIDS. The state Radio and Television Commission announced on 3 June that seven firms have filed bids in the privatization of Croatian Television's third nationwide channel, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. A decision in the matter is expected before the end of 2003. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 4 June)

CZECH REPUBLIC
TELEVISION COUNCIL RE-ELECTS CHAIRMAN. Jan Mrzena was re-elected chairman of the Czech Television Council on 4 June, CTK reported. He received nine votes in the second round of balloting. The council also elected Milan Badal as deputy chairman and re-elected Deputy Chairman Bohumil Fanta. The terms of the chairman and his deputies are two years. The 15 members of the council are elected by the lower house of parliament for six years, with one-third of the council's members replaced every two years. Last month, the lower house elected five new members of the council, most of them considered close to the ruling three-party coalition. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 5 June)

IRAQ
U.S. REPORTEDLY ENFORCING NEW BAN ON INCITEMENT. The U.S.-led administration in Iraq is reportedly cracking down on mosques, enforcing a new ban on incitement to violence, news.com.au reported on 6 June. The new ban prohibits incitement to "armed insurrection," including attacks on coalition forces, and "racial and religious violence," the website reported, citing an unnamed spokesman from the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). "We respect religious sites...but if we hear that there are groups who are using and abusing religious establishments such as mosques to incite religious or ethnic violence, we would consider taking action," the source said. Coalition forces have reportedly detained a number of Iraqi clerics in recent days. However, it is unclear whether those detentions are related to charges of incitement. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 6 June)

KAZAKHSTAN
EDITOR RESIGNS IN WAKE OF COURT ACTION. Ermurat Bapi, editor in chief of the opposition newspaper "SolDat," resigned after the newspaper was ordered to pay a fine of approximately $350,000 for alleged tax evasion in a judicial ruling characterized as "questionable" by the international press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF), according to a 3 June press release. "SolDat" has acquired a reputation for muck-raking coverage of officials and for running opinion pieces by opposition leaders. On 22 May, a tax commission in Almaty ordered "SolDat" to pay the fine on the grounds that it had not paid any sales tax for 10 years, although news media are exempt from paying such taxes under the press law, RSF and local press monitoring groups reported. Bapi has been banned from leaving the capital until a decision is given on the appeal he filed the same day. Bapi announced on 27 May that he was stepping down as editor in chief, explaining that he thereby hoped to save "SolDat" as an independent newspaper. On 28 April, a court in Astana sentenced "SolDat" to pay approximately $13,350 in damages to parliamentarian Yerasyl Abylkassymov and his wife for allegedly libeling the latter in a 14 December 2001 report about management problems at the higher educational institute she runs. The paper has a history of attracting both official and unofficial pressure for its bold coverage, RSF reported, noting an attack on "SolDat's" main office in May 2002 when equipment was destroyed or stolen, and a 2001 conviction and subsequent pardon for "insulting" President Nursultan Nazarbayev. CAF

IMPRISONED JOURNALIST REFUSES TO ASK FOR PARDON. Well-known opposition journalist Sergei Duvanov has refused to ask President Nazarbayev for a pardon, and members of the Kazakh opposition have said he was beaten in prison because of his refusal, "Vremya novostei" reported on 30 May. Duvanov received a 3 1/2-year prison sentence in January on a charge of having raped a minor. The Kazakh opposition is firmly convinced that the charge was politically motivated. Duvanov had for more than 10 years written articles that irritated the government. Prior to his arrest on the rape charge, he was attacked and severely injured by unidentified individuals who repeatedly stabbed him and, according to Duvanov, warned him to stop criticizing the government in print. Both the assault and the arrest caused international concern. Neither the administrators of the prison where Duvanov is incarcerated nor the Interior Ministry has been willing to discuss the alleged beating of the journalist in the penal facility, according to "Vremya novostei." Opposition Senator Zauresh Battalova visited Duvanov in prison and confirmed that he refused to ask for a presidential pardon. Members of the opposition fear that Duvanov's refusal might have put his life in danger. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 2 June)

KYRGYZSTAN
COURT SUPPORTS PRIME MINISTER IN CASE AGAINST NEWSPAPER. A court in Bishkek's Lenin Raion ruled on 3 June in favor of Kyrgyz Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev in a libel case against the independent newspaper "Moya stolitsa-novosti" and the author of the offending article, NGO Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society Deputy Chairman Mikhail Korsunskii, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported the same day. In his article, Korsunskii criticized the workings of the Kyrgyz social-security system, which Tanaev took as an insult to his honor and dignity. The court ordered "Moya stolitsa-novosti " to pay Tanaev 500,000 soms (about $11,900) -- Tanaev had demanded 15 million soms -- and Korsunskii to pay 5,000 soms (about $119). "Moya stolitsa-novosti" Editor Aleksandr Kim said he will appeal the verdict. When the ruling became known, members of the Communist Party in Naryn Oblast held a meeting to condemn the verdict and show support for "Moya stolitsa-novosti," akipress.org reported on 3 June. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 4 June)

POLAND
PUBLIC TELEVISION, RADIO GET NEW SUPERVISORY BOARDS. The National Radio and Television Broadcasting Council (KRRiT) on 5 June elected 16 members of the supervisory boards of Polish Television and Polish Radio, local media reported. The treasury minister is to designate the two remaining members of the boards. According to Polish Television, all the KRRiT members, whether associated with the left or the right wing, were pleased with the election results. "We acknowledged that regarding public television, it is necessary to give new people and circles an opportunity," KRRiT Chairwoman Danuta Waniek said. "In my view, there has been a breakthrough. There has been a party depoliticization in public television," KRRiT member Jaroslaw Sellin commented. Polish Radio and Polish Television have often been criticized by right-wing politicians for favoring the left-wing government in their news policies. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 6 June)

RUSSIA
MOSCOW AUTHORITIES TO START PULLING THE PLUG ON TVS. Aleksandr Makhonov, general director of Mostelekom, announced on 2 June that TVS will gradually be disconnected from its cable network "district by district" because of the decision of the TV station's shareholders not to pay its $8 million debt, Russian media reported. Mostelekom is a monopoly operator of the television cable network that was created nine years ago by the Moscow city government, and all "rules of the game are dictated to it by the Moscow city government," "Vremya MN" wrote the next day. In an interview with "Kommersant-Daily" on 3 June, Yevgenii Kiselev, TVS editor in chief, accused "the representatives of Moscow authorities of conducting themselves like bandits and racketeers" and said that as "monopolists," they are demanding "exorbitant prices" for their services. According to Kiselev, members of Media-Sotsium -- a noncommercial partnership that participated in the tender for TV-6's broadcasting license including former Prime Minister Yevgenii Primakov, Russian Union of Industrialists head Arkadii Volskii, and TVS Chairman Oleg Kiselev -- sent a letter to Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov last week asking to discuss the issue. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 3 June)

CHUBAIS DEPARTS FROM TVS. Unified Energy Systems head Anatolii Chubais announced on 5 June that he has decided to sell his shares in TVS because his views on the channel's future differ from those of other shareholders, Interfax reported. Chubais said he plans to sell the shares to TVS Chairman Oleg Kiselev and Neft head Igor Linshits, "Vremya novostei" reported the next day. The daily concluded that Chubais' departure signifies the victory of Russian Aluminum head Oleg Deripaska and financier Aleksandr Mamut. Last April, a group of TVS shareholders led by Deripaska offered Chubais $10 million for a 45 percent package of shares. Chubais was supposed to reach a decision by 23 May but the deadline slipped by without an announcement from him. On 4 June, Media Minister Mikhail Lesin met with Chubais and Deripaska and reportedly told them that a decision had to be made, warning that the ministry would not tolerate a "blank screen" on the frequency, "Vremya novostei" reported on 5 June. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 6 June)

ANTI-AMERICAN BOOKS AMONG RUSSIA'S BEST-SELLERS. Andrei Sherbak-Zhukov of the literary weekly "Knizhnoe obozrenie" wrote in "Argumenty i fakty," No. 23, that books with patriotic and anti-American themes are currently dominating book sales in Russia. The latest nonfiction best-seller list compiled by "Knizhnoe obozrenie" is headed by "Wrath of Ork," which was written by Maksim Kalashnikov and Yurii Krupnov and feeds on Cold War animosity between the United States and the Soviet Union. Kalashnikov is also the author of one of Russia's best-sellers last year, "Broken Sword of Empire," which glorifies Soviet militarism. Andrei Parshev's "Why Is America on the Offensive," which attempts to prove that the United States seeks to place all of the world's oil under its control, is third on the list. In seventh place is "Why People Hate America," by Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 6 June)

CENTRAL ELECTION COMMISSION WANTS �COLD SHOWERS� FOR �BLACK PR.� At a meeting at the Press Ministry in Moscow on 27 May, Aleksandr Veshnyakov, chair of the Central Election Commission, said that media who engage in smear tactics against rivals should be given a "cold shower," the Glasnost Defense Fund (GDF) reported in its weekly digest of 2 June. On 11 June, the State Duma is set to review amendments to the media law which would restrict the press during elections. Veshyakov acknowledged that local election commissions were often "politically engaged" and under the thumb of governors and other local politicians who also controlled local media. If the new legislation passes, officials will have the power to suspend media outlets if they are found in violation of the law, say press experts. Regional officials attending the meeting said political opponents often use smear tactics in retaliation to government officials who use their power of office and sway over the media to discredit their rivals. Others said the existing media law did not provide enough guidance on how to behave during elections. According to a recent article in "Izvestia" cited by GDF, the Press Ministry does not share the views of the Central Election Commission on the amendments to the law, saying it will be too difficult to distinguish between "unlawful agitation" for a politician and "objective coverage of the electoral process" -- a distinction that, like erotica versus pornography, journalists say, is in the eye of the beholder. Veshnyakov advocated suspension of publications that use smear tactics, saying "the norm will not be applied on a mass basis but if someone gets too outrageous, and when that happens, those media outlets need to be given a cold shower." Meanwhile, the leadership of the Yabloko party has asked the Prosecutor-General's Office and the Central Election Commission to investigate cases of so-called "dirty public relations" directed against it, Yabloko State Duma Deputy Vladimir Lukin told Ekho Moskvy on 29 May. Lukin said neither his party nor the Communist Party is behind posters that recently appeared in Moscow depicting Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinskii and Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov with the slogan, "We're Together." According to Lukin, the posters were apparently financed by a "third party." (See "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 May) CAF

SIBERIAN NEWSPAPER EDITOR CONVICTED OF ANTI-SEMITISM AND RELEASED. A Novosibirsk city court on 29 May convicted "Russkaya Sibir" Editor Igor Kolodezenko of inciting interethnic and religious hatred and sentenced him to three years in jail, RIA-Novosti reported. The court then immediately released him under an amnesty adopted earlier by the State Duma. According to utro.ru, Kolodezenko is also the coordinator of the National Power Party of Russia for Novosibirsk Oblast. The case against him was launched in 2000 and concerns an article published on the eve of the 1999 gubernatorial elections that was reportedly ordered by rivals of incumbent Governor Viktor Tolokonskii, according to "Kommersant-Daily" on 30 May. "I do not plan to abandon the people and will direct an appeal to a higher court," Kolodezenko commented after the verdict. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 30 May)

SERBIA
COURT BLOCKS DISTRIBUTION OF TABLOID WEEKLY. The Belgrade District Court banned the distribution of the tabloid weekly "Svedok" on 3 June because it contained a purported interview with the alleged criminal "Zemun clan" leader Milorad Lukovic-Ulemek "Legija," who is wanted in connection with the 12 March assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, dpa reported (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 28 March and 9 May 2003). The court statement said that "publishing an interview with the main suspect in the assassination of a premier is considered an attempt to disturb the public, undermine a police investigation, and shows an absolute lack of professional ethics." In the interview, which first appeared in a controversial Macedonian tabloid also called "Svedok," Legija allegedly said he was "following orders" in acting against Djindjic and that the government's crackdown is simply a battle between two factions for "control over the Mafia." The Macedonian "Svedok" plans to publish the second installment of the interview in its next issue. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 4 June)

PRESS GROUP QUESTIONS APPOINTMENT TO BROADCAST COUNCIL. In a press release dated 28 May, the Association of Independent Electronic Media (ANEM) protested what they characterized as another unauthorized appointment to Serbia's Broadcast Agency Council. The appointment of the council's Kosovo representative, Goran Radenovic, has violated the provisions of the government's Broadcast Act, the group said. The earlier appointments of Nenad Cekic and Vladimir Cvetkovic to the council on 11 April, ANEM said, means that one-third of the nine-member council has now been appointed in contravention of the act. Radenovic's estranged wife told reporters that her husband had lied about his credentials for the council, since he was not a resident of Kosovo, had status as a refugee working in Podgorica, and does not have a law degree, Radio B92 reported on 9 June. The Broadcast Act requires that the Kosovo representative live and work in Kosovo. ANEM has said that these appointments call into question the credibility of the Serbian government's media watchdog, which is charged with drafting a strategy for the development of broadcasting, issuing frequency licenses, and monitoring the work of the electronic media. Snjezana Milivojevic, a council member respected by the independent media community, moved to postpone the election of a chairman until the status of the illegitimately appointed councilor was resolved. She resigned from the council over the issue last week, ANEM reported on 7 June. The government drafted the broadcast bill last year in collaboration with industry consultants, specifying that the state could nominate four members of the nine-member council, rather than two members of a 15-member council as originally envisaged. There have been repeated delays in the appointment of the council. In April, Ian Willem Blankert, the European Commission delegate to Serbia and Montenegro, expressed concern about the procedure for appointments. "From the outset, there could be reasons to call into question the legitimacy of a body charged with extremely important and responsible duties," ANEM quoted him as saying in an article published on its website on 22 April. CAF

TELEVISION STATION TO PRESS CHARGES AGAINST POLITICIAN Goran Karadzic, director of Apolo Television in Novi Sad, said on 2 June that his station will file charges against Cacak Mayor Velimir Ilic and his New Serbia party in conjunction with a recent incident in which Apolo journalist Vladimir Jesic claims that Ilic physically assaulted him, the private Beta news agency reported. Karadzic also called on Serbian media not to report on Ilic and his activities. Jesic claims that Ilic kicked him and swore at him during an interview after Jesic asked the mayor about his brother's business dealings. Ilic argues that the alleged incident was "staged." ("RFE/RL Newsline," 3 June)

TAJIKISTAN
INTERNATIONAL JOURNALISTS' GROUP ASKS GOVERNMENT TO STOP BLOCKING OPPOSITION WEBSITE. The international journalists' association Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has appealed to the Tajik government to stop blocking the Tajikistan.Times.ru website, Asia-Plus Blitz reported on 4 June. The website, devoted primarily to critical items on the political situation in Tajikistan, was started up at the beginning of March by opposition journalist Dodojon Atovulloev, editor of the Tajik opposition publication "Charogi ruz," who lives in exile in Moscow. It has been inaccessible to Internet users in Tajikistan since 24 April. The appeal was contained in a letter sent by RSF Secretary-General Robert Menard to Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov. Menard called attention to repeated harassment of Atovulloev by the Tajik authorities because of his critical writings. According to Asia-Plus, Atovulloev told foreign journalists on 2 June that he thought the site had been blocked because of an article about the upcoming referendum on constitutional amendments, scheduled for 22 June. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 5 June)

TURKMENISTAN
OUTSPOKEN ACTIVIST PUT UNDER SURVEILLANCE. Natalya Shabunts, chairwoman of Civic Dignity, a nongovernmental organization, is being watched closely by the Turkmen authorities after speaking out at a meeting with Martti Ahtisaari, the Central Asian envoy for the OSCE chairman-in-office, centrasia.ru reported citing a 28 May statement from the Russian human rights group Memorial. Shabunts said on 27 May that she found three cars evidently belonging to security police outside her home and that four plain-clothes policemen emerged from the cars to block her progress to attend a reception for Ahtisaari. She returned home and the policemen remained for four more hours, according to Shabunts. A day earlier she had made critical remarks about NGOs who faced "problems of physical survival" at a meeting held in Ashgabat between local NGOs and Ahtisaari. Shabunts also blasted recent government moves to introduce exit visas, calling them "nationalistic" and said civil-society activists now feel as if they were "residents of a grand reservation." CAF

UZBEK JOURNALIST CHARGED WITH HOMOSEXUALITY. Uzbek journalist Ruslan Sharipov has been charged with homosexuality, Human Rights Watch reported on 29 May. According to centralasia.ru, this is the first known case of an arrest for homosexuality in independent Uzbekistan. Sexual relations between men are still a crime under the Criminal Code and are punishable by up to three years in prison. Sharipov was arrested on 26 May on Tashkent's main square and has been held since then in the city's main pretrial detention center. Sharipov freely admits his sexual orientation, although he denies having had relations with two youths who are the main witnesses against him. Members of international and local human rights organizations reportedly have been able to visit the detained journalist, and he is being allowed to choose his own defense lawyer. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 2 June)

END NOTE
U.S. EASES RESTRICTIONS ON MEDIA OWNERSHIP

By Mark Baker

For years, media companies in the United States have been prohibited from owning both a television station and a newspaper in the same city. There were also restrictions on how many radio and television stations in a single city that one company could own. The restrictions, adopted piecemeal over the past six decades, were intended to encourage competition and to prevent companies from buying up media outlets and exerting unfair influence over public opinion.

Now many of those restrictions look to be a thing of the past. The body in charge of regulating the media in the United States, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) ruled 2 June to ease restrictions on media ownership. The vote on the five-man FCC board was 3-2, with the three votes in favor coming from President George W. Bush's Republican Party. The dissenting votes came from the two Democrats on the commission.

According to the changes, companies operating in the largest American cities will now be allowed to own both broadcasting outlets and newspapers. In medium-sized cities, some restrictions would apply, but cross-ownership of media in principle would be permitted. Restrictions on cross-ownership would continue in smaller cities having three or fewer television stations. In addition, the rules for cross-ownership of television and radio stations have been relaxed. Companies are also allowed to own up to three television stations in large cities. Previously, they were limited to two.

Supporters of the changes, including the Bush administration and many media corporations, had argued that the restrictions were outdated because of rapid advances in technology. They said developments in cable and satellite delivery systems and the Internet had given consumers access to hundreds of television channels, and that limitations on broadcast media no longer made sense.

Critics, including civil rights and education groups, said they feared any easing of the rules would prompt even greater consolidation of media ownership and would make it harder for diverse opinions to be heard. They point out that a handful of companies already control much of cable and satellite broadcasting. Many critics also say they fear the changes could lead to increasingly bland and homogenized television programming -- in much the same way as a 1996 decision easing restrictions on radio ownership led to bland nationwide radio formats.

Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause, a government watchdog that represents about 200,000 members across the United States, told RFE/RL that the earlier decision on radio ownership led to less local programming and less diversity on air: "If you look back into the past, what we have found is that you have less local programming and less of the things people want to have happening in terms of diversity and access to good information. We opposed the rule changes and found that we were joined by a tremendous variety of groups," says Pingree.

Pingree rejects the contention that developments in satellite technology and the Internet are enough to ensure free and diverse media. "If you look at even the Internet sites that are most popular, many of them are owned by the same corporations that own the television stations, the newspapers, and many other corporate interests as well. We've been concerned that while there are more access points, there's actually more consolidation and less diversity."

The agency's chairman, Michael K. Powell, justified the ruling by saying the previous restrictions were legally unenforceable. He said the FCC ruling strikes a careful balance between public and private interests. The ruling is not expected to generate changes right away. Reports say the decision is unpopular with many lawmakers from both major parties and that ownership changes at the local level may yet be contested in the courts.

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