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Media Matters: November 14, 2003


14 November 2003, Volume 3, Number 43
BELARUS
THE INFORMATION BLOCKADE IN BELARUS...
By Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

The closures of several dozen newspapers and NGOs with independent news services in Belarus over the last few years has compelled the opposition in Belarus, as well as their foreign supporters and the public at large, to focus more intently than ever on how to break the information blockade imposed by the authoritarian administration of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Prior to Lukashenka's overwhelming victory in a manipulated election in 2001, there was hope that a "development model" might be devised to inch along the professionalization of Belarusian journalists and to promote technical training in print and electronic media that would someday help establish a private media sector that was free of state interference. Now, with the expulsion in August of the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), the lead U.S.-supported media-training program in the country; the loss of accreditation for the Minsk bureau chief of Russia's NTV; and other negative developments recently, supporters of independent media are taking a fresh look at what it might yet be possible to do in Belarus under very difficult conditions.

Mikhail Doroshevich is a Belarusian expert on media in Belarus who works as a consultant to a variety of Internet and media projects in Belarus and Russia. He founded e-belarus.org, a Minsk-based news site that covers developments in information-communications technology in Belarus. While not exaggerating its transformational powers, he and others have put a certain faith in the Internet -- even with government control of Internet service providers (ISPs) -- because web-based media are what active and reform-minded people can operate themselves to break through the information barriers established by the government.

Doroshevich and his colleagues have put the figure for Belarusian Internet users at 800,000-900,000, some 70 percent of whom use dial-up access primarily for business and personal email. They cannot linger to web surf because their connections are poor and expensive. Half a million visitors last year flocked to http://www.tut.by, mainly to check their mail, but few regularly read online newspapers, preferring digests in their mailboxes. Several opposition news sites such as charter97.org have significant followings and serve as sources for print and broadcast journalists. The State Security Committee, still known as the KGB in Belarus, evidently prefers to leave these sites running as an intelligence-gathering tool and a cost-saving measure for themselves.

As for radio, most people listen to FM stations as an alternative to state television. Few people own shortwave radio receivers, which cost $50-$70 at city markets. Not only has "video killed the radio star," but the kind of entrepreneurial and technically minded intellectual who was willing to twiddle his shortwave dial during the night back in the Cold War era has been transformed into the Internet geek looking for a fast connection.

"People who are prepared to listen to shortwave radio stations prefer the Internet," Dorosevich says, and he welcomes stations that add Internet content to their programming. He believes that local cable-television stations have overlooked the opportunities presented by offering both cable television and cable Internet connections. This is an area with considerable prospects of disseminating nongovernmental information.

...AND WAYS TO BREAK THROUGH IT.
Ambassador Mark Palmer, former U.S. envoy to Hungary, has published a book entitled "Breaking The Real Axis Of Evil: How To Oust The World's Last Dictatorships By 2025 (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., New York and Oxford, 2003). Palmer points out that Russian President Vladimir Putin's crackdown on the Russian media this year also hurt the 10 million-strong Belarusian audience, 80 percent to 90 percent of whom watch Russian television.

He believes that direct intervention could work to end Lukashenka's news blackout. "Western democracies should purchase airtime on Russian 'independent' television for Belarus-oriented programming (run by Belarusians working in Russia) and also give Russian independent journalists a chance to broadcast on Russian television once again," he wrote last year, before such opportunities even for Russian journalists covering Russia shrank considerably.

"For Putin to go on television and call upon Belarusians to hold genuine elections and rid themselves of Lukashenka would finish the dictator," Palmer writes, expressing a political truism that is a highly unlikely scenario. So far, Putin has used what limited airtime he is willing to devote to Lukashenka and Belarus to talk about the terms for the Russia-Belarus Union, not to endorse Lukashenka's overthrow.

Both Russians and Belarusians -- even those who oppose the Belarusian president -- would likely be uncomfortable with the idea of Russia having such an influential say in a neighbor's elections. And Western democracy advocates will be unlikely to do anything as crude as directly purchasing airtime on Russian television, especially given existing regulations and political sensitivities.

Still, Western governments and private donors could support media-production companies and NGOs in a variety of ways to promote balanced coverage and provide independent voices for Belarusians by taking advantage of the opportunities offered by Russian television and local Belarusian cable television even as it is now -- before the door slams shut completely.

Keenly aware of the explosive potential of Russian television, especially during election campaigns, Lukashenka has been moving this year to replace Russian channels with domestic ones. A new, national second channel called ONT (Public National Television) now reaches 98 percent of Belarusian territory, as does Belarusian State Television. RTR, Russia's state television channel, reaches 76 percent-82 percent, and Russia's NTV, which has the most political reporting on Belarus, reaches 44 percent, says Doroshevich.

Lukashenka has used a variety of means to chip away at this audience. The Belarusian government has expelled NTV's local bureau chief in the past and has also wrangled over programming and advertising rights. In 2001, Minsk even shut off Russian broadcasting altogether for a few days, and always holds the threat of pulling the plug over the heads of Russian television producers.

On 28 October, Savik Shuster, host of NTV's "Freedom of Speech" program, attempted to convene a discussion group for a television debate. He had to clear a list of potential participants with the Lukashenka administration -- which barred 21 out of 27 suggested candidates, mainly independent journalists, NGO representatives, and political figures.

What there is of ORT -- Russia's public television channel -- that still has any cutting edge these days is put off until the late hours, Doroshevich says. For example, Vladimir Pozner's relatively hard-hitting talk shown is at 11:00 p.m. While foreigners recall Pozner as a smooth Soviet propagandist, he has reinvented himself over the last decade as a thoughtful, moderate commentator and is widely popular both in Russia and Belarus.

RTR is therefore now the only Russian channel that Belarusians see in its entirety. And RTR is not a channel where they will see criticism of Belarus or balanced coverage of topics such as the war in Chechnya or the arrest of former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii. Most nights, RTR features various stately appearances by Putin stressing the helpful role of the federal center -- whether it is rescuing trapped miners or merging remote oblasts. Both Russian television and the Belarusian authorities seem happy to leave RTR with its large market share in Belarus.

Russian television stations have been burned many times in the past covering Lukashenka's controversial speeches. "Novoye vremya" has written about a syndrome whereby Russian television stations run some unflattering coverage of Lukashenka -- a feat often accomplished merely by letting him talk. Then the president lashes out at Russian television's alleged "information war" against Belarus, and television managers scurry to provide "balance" -- in the process, achieving Lukashenka's original goal of making sure he remains at the center of television coverage. This syndrome can even compel producers to follow a policy of not covering Lukashenka -- or any topic related to Belarus -- at all simply to avoid trouble.

ONT is now replacing ORT's regular program schedule, although ORT's evening news show and many of its entertainment programs can still be seen, Doroshevich says. Others in Minsk note that Belarusian State Television selects all the programming shown by the ORT-Belarusian State Television joint venture, so any critical coverage of Belarus that might have occasionally surfaced in the past is now excluded. ONT might bear the name "public," but it is a corporation controlled by the Information Ministry (51 percent), Belarusbank (29 percent), and a company called Fabrika informatsionykh tekhnologiy (20 percent).

That leaves NTV and TV-Tsentr -- controlled by the Moscow city government -- to watch. Yet viewers complain that they cannot see NTV everywhere, and now audience numbers could decline further because NTV recently changed its reception code. Pirated satellite-receiver cards, which are used by most viewers to receive NTV's signal, will no long work. These viewers will now have to pay for subscriptions, and this could prove too expensive.

Meanwhile, local governments are essentially subsidizing cable television for viewers out of city budgets. MTIN Company, owned by the Minsk City Executive Committee, charges just 50 Belarusian rubles (less than $0.01) per month for its basic package, although they have begun to charge for additional programs like the Discovery Channel after a free two-month trial period, delobelarus.com reports. The Russian channel Kultura was recently replaced by the Belarusian channel Lad, which notes in its mission statement that it eschews any aggressive or violent programming and aims for a family audience.

Although these programs are now in the hands of Belarusians, the language of broadcast is often Russian. Belarusian State Television does have news and other programs in Belarusian, but it is just the shell of the Belarusian language without meaningful content, under heavy ideological control. The "Belarusification" of national television viewing has only led to further promotion of "Lukashism," say opposition leaders who would like to see domestic programming free of Russian domination.

Lukashenka has shown himself willing to resort to the most exaggerated doomsday imagery to fight Western influence, claiming that the West supports projects like IREX and independent television broadcasting to soften up "enemies" that it will then bomb, citing NATO's 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia. A recent article in "Respublika" spoke about U.S. democracy programs as "penetrating" society and running "networks" that spread the "virus" of democracy in an "information war."

With that kind of hostile response and other difficulties in running media programs to promote a "business model" in the harsh Belarusian climate, hopes have focused on local cable television stations. These so-called nongovernmental stations are only nominally separate from the state. Their licenses and frequencies are assigned and controlled by local soviets, which can also own the stations or subsidize them. Under these circumstances, such stations are not going to carry any radical opposition news.

But they will develop local stories of the "news-you-can-use" type to try to build up an audience that is mainly interested in consumer issues, in the hope that someday they can build on this support and provide more challenging fare.

Both opposition leaders and media-watchers say there is hardly any chance these companies will follow local opposition candidates in the run-up to the 2004 parliamentary elections. If that were the case, they would face far more severe repression, as popular newspapers that are now closed have discovered. Right now, cable stations are in flux. They have been ordered to re-register along with all media outlets and other nongovernmental entities, and they are also waiting to see how a new draft law on cable television turns out. To date, they have functioned without one under various local decrees.

Like the media law, the cable law is apparently being drafted in secret with little opportunity for effective input by stakeholders, although industry publications have attempted to monitor the issue. According to "Belarus and Business" (http://www.delobelarus.com) in its October 2003 issue, the work of cable operators is "hampered by both local authorities and those who, for advertising and commercial reasons, want viewers to watch only three channels" -- BT, ONT, and another channel soon to appear called Spadchyna (Heritage).

If national Russian broadcasting loses access to the Belarusian audience and is displaced by Belarusian national programming, the public will likely turn to cable for diversity. So far, thanks to cable, viewers in Minsk -- if they can afford satellite receivers and subscription fees -- can watch EuroNews, some Polish and Baltic programs with Russian subtitles, and Ukrainian television, a source of news where the lessons of the opposition and election campaigns have not been lost on Belarus. A chief obstacle to the development of local cable stations is the regulation that local authorities must approve the lists of channels and programs they rebroadcast. Cable operators are not going to go overboard if they want to keep their licenses.

That means less-wealthy people will continue to rely on print media. Unfortunately, most foundations dislike newspapers because they soak up huge costs in labor, production, and distribution, and cost-conscious donors would rather reach wider audiences through cable television -- even if the content is thinner -- than to help the more radical content of newspapers reach far smaller audiences.

A 2001 study of the content of the cable show "Rakurs" done by the NGO Internews found that stories keeping local viewers tuned in included news of fake champagne sales in Borisov; high telephone bills in Brest; and non-potable drinking water in Baranovichi. There was even a program on state pressure against NGOs in Minsk. Today, cable stations gravitate toward entertainment programming. Although they cover local social-justice issues if they seem to be approved by the authorities, they will not stray into national politics. A recent Russian opinion poll found that most active reform-minded Russian citizens prefer newspapers and radio to television, a trend very likely matched in Belarus. Clearly, bland television is reinforcing the passivity of an uninvolved citizenry, indicating an urgent need to devise assistance programs tailored both to the nongovernmental sector's need for an information infrastructure and to the general public's need to be better informed.

Catherine A. Fitzpatrick is a freelancer writer living in New York City specializing in the former Soviet Union. She is the editor of "RFE/RL [Un]Civil Societies."

UKRAINE
NGO ISSUES 'EARLY WARNING' ON UKRAINE
By Roman Kupchinsky

"State intimidation, state obstruction and influence peddling as a means of personal economic gain continue to pull the strings that control many of Ukraine's news media." This statement is part of a report released in October by the U.S.-based NGO Freedom House entitled "Under Assault: Ukraine's News Media And The 2004 Presidential Election" (http://www.freedomhouse.org).

The Freedom House report describes persistent violations of press freedom in Ukraine since 1994, when Leonid Kuchma began his first term as president. Already at that time, national television was widely harassed by the government, and it appears that in the ensuing years, the president's allies have actually expanded on these practices.

One of the more alarming and indicative methods of state interference in the work of the media is the use of secret instructions, or "temnyky," from the presidential administration that tell journalists how to cover particular controversial issues. The use of temnyky was revealed during a parliamentary committee hearing in late 2002. At that hearing, Andriy Shevchenko, head of the Independent Trade Union of Journalists, described the practice in detail. "In fact, television news coverage in Ukraine is made by remote control," Shevchenko said, according to "Ukrayinska pravda." "Someone else -- not journalists -- edits news programs, shoots and disseminates video, writes texts, and selects comments from governors that are subsequently sent to all channels." At the same December 2002 hearing, UNIAN news agency Editor in Chief Oleksandr Kharchenko described a similar process in the "taming" of national wire services, a process that he said was consciously intended by the administration to limit the range of points of view appearing in the Ukrainian media.

According to Freedom House and other observers, the practice of issuing temnyky has not abated since it was exposed, and as the October 2004 presidential election approaches, pressure on the media to take a pro-presidential, pro-Kuchma stance seems to be increasing. Earlier this month, for instance, the opposition Our Ukraine party -- which is headed by Viktor Yushchenko, who is widely viewed as a leading contender in the upcoming presidential ballot -- was prevented from holding a forum of democratic forces in the eastern Ukraine city of Donetsk by mobs of anti-Yushchenko demonstrators. According to media reports, the city was also festooned with billboards depicting Yushchenko giving a fascist salute.

Media coverage of the Donetsk events strictly followed the line laid out by government spokespeople, who blamed Our Ukraine for provoking the mobs. Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych commented on the Donetsk events that Our Ukraine forgot to "measure the temperature" in the city before it went to hold a congress there. It was later reported that the local administration in Donetsk had received a secret instruction from the presidential administration on how to prevent Our Ukraine from holding such this event, and a purported text of the instruction was posted at http://www.pravda.com.ua.

The Freedom House report makes a strong and compelling connection between presidential-administration efforts to control the media and the fate of next year's election. "The level of current trust in the media (particularly television) is simply so low that the vast majority of the electorate does not believe it can rely on the media for professional and truthful election coverage," the report asserts.

The only media that seem still to enjoy a modicum of relative freedom are Internet-based outlets. However, recent government actions seem to be aimed at rectifying this lapse (see article below).

The elections in the South Caucasus states this year show convincingly the problems caused by unfair, unfree elections held under conditions of strict governmental control of information. Wide sections of society in Armenia and Azerbaijan view the governments of those countries as illegitimate, and widespread violence continues in Georgia in the wake of the 2 November parliamentary elections there. Ukraine seems set to follow suit -- using an illegitimate process to bring to power an unpopular government without a mandate that will be problematic for Western governments, to say the least, and that could provoke instability and violence.

"Official interference in the operations of Ukraine's news media makes it unlikely that an open contest of ideas and opinions will take place when voters go to the polls next year," Freedom House Executive Director Jennifer Windsor was quoted as saying by the organization's website. "This report should be regarded as an early warning to Ukrainian society and the international community."

Roman Kupchinsky is editor of "RFE/RL Organized Crime and Terrorism Watch."

UKRAINIAN AUTHORITIES TIGHTEN THEIR GRIP ON THE INTERNET
By Taras Kuzio

The Ukrainian government is making moves to take control of the local Internet in the run-up to the country's October 2004 presidential elections.

First, the government is attempting to seize control of the "ua" domain, which has been managed by the private company Hostmaster since 2001. Prior to that, the "ua" domain was managed by Ukrainian Internet enthusiasts. A 27 October press release from the French NGO Reporters Without Borders warned of attempts by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) to take control of Internet operations in the country.

On 22 July, the government issued a directive entitled "On The Administration Of The 'Ua' Domain." The same day, the government filed suit against Hostmaster to wrest control over the "ua" domain. After winning a positive court ruling over the summer, the government appealed to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the international organization in control of assigning domains, to approve the transfer of control over "ua." ICANN has not yet responded to this request.

When the government began its campaign to wrest control of the "ua" domain from Hostmaster, company Director Boris Mostovoi was reported in "The Moscow Times" as saying, "This is an extremely incompetent and clumsy move by the authorities that shows their low level of professionalism and blatant disregard for legislation."

If the "ua" domain finally passes from Hostmaster, it will almost certainly end up being managed by a new organization controlled by the SBU -- the Ukrainian Space Information Center. This new body ostensibly aims to unite the government and private ISPs, with each side controlling 50 percent of the organization. However, not all Internet providers have yet agreed to join the Ukrainian Space Information Center.

The SBU's involvement naturally has analysts concerned because it -- like the Interior Ministry -- has increasingly resumed its Soviet-era role of monitoring the political opposition. The role of these agencies has traditionally been to protect those in power, and analysts argue that placing the Ukrainian Internet in the SBU's hands is tantamount to handing it over to the executive branch.

Second, the SBU, backed by the government, is attempting strengthen its ability to monitor and control Internet traffic. These efforts seem to be following along the lines of similar legislation adopted in Russia in 1995 and 1998 that created the System for Operational-Investigative Activities (SORM) that has since permitted the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) to monitor the Internet. Under the laws, all ISPs must install SORM equipment that enables the FSB to monitor email and Internet traffic.

On 17 July, the Ukrainian State Telecommunications Committee requested that all telecoms and ISPs install similar equipment to monitor Internet traffic. This request, however, has not been implemented because the legislation requiring compliance has not yet been adopted by parliament.

The government submitted a bill to parliament in July entitled "On Activity In The Field Of Information Technology." According to the bill, its goal is to "ensure the legal regulation of the national component of global information systems, including the Internet." The bill has been condemned by opposition deputies, who suggested it should be renamed the law "On The Struggle Against Internet Media." The parliamentary Freedom of Speech and Information Committee, headed by opposition Our Ukraine member Mykola Tomenko, rejected the government's bill as an assault on media freedoms and an infringement of existing Ukrainian laws guaranteeing freedom of speech.

The Ukrainian Internet Association, which unites six Kyiv-based ISPs, condemned what it described as illegal government attempts to monitor Internet traffic. It demanded that "infringements of the [Universal] Declaration of Human Rights" be immediately halted.

The government's latest efforts are occurring against the background of preparations for what appears to the country's most-contested presidential election ever. The authorities already control most electronic and print-media outlets through the financial control of the state and pro-presidential oligarchs and through administration-issued "temnyky," which journalists obey out of fear of losing their jobs.

The Internet remains one of the last bastions of media freedom in Ukraine, and it has grown fivefold since 1999. In 2001-02, during the height of the so-called Kuchmagate crisis, Internet use grew by 30 percent-40 percent, with an average monthly growth of 5 percent-10 percent. A 2002 brams.com survey funded by the NGO Ukrainian Information Community Fund predicted that Internet use will increase by 50 percent-100 percent this year.

Estimates put the number of Internet users in Ukraine at up to 10 percent of the population. Government statistics usually underestimate Internet usage, which is not surprising in a country where as much as one-half of all economic activity remains in the shadows. A March survey by the private pollster GfK-USM found 3.1 million "active Internet users," about 6.4 percent of the population. The same survey also found that 9 percent of Ukrainians (4.32 million people) have access to the Internet. A July poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) similarly found that 3.2 million Ukrainians use the Internet. Among the urban population, the figure is about 9 percent-15 percent.

Among urban Internet users, the largest numbers can be found in western and central Ukraine (16 percent-17 percent), where civil society is the most well developed, and the opposition is strongest. In eastern Ukraine, where there is greater public apathy, Internet usage is only 6 percent-9 percent. This is somewhat surprising, as eastern Ukraine is generally wealthier than the western regions.

The Internet is used most frequently by young people, who also tend to sympathize with the opposition. The KIIS poll found that the highest number of users comes from the 18-29 age group (23 percent). This compares to only 7 percent and 1 percent, respectively, for those aged 30-49 and over 60.

The differences in Internet usage by age group will, in turn, be reflected in the political domain. The Communists, whose typical members are pensioners, have few Internet users among their supporters, while Viktor Yushchenko's center-right Our Ukraine and the populist Yulia Tymoshenko bloc boast the largest number of web-savvy backers.

The authorities first began to try to take control of the "ua" domain in 2001 after the Internet received a popularity boost during the Kuchmagate crisis, which was sparked by the murder of popular Internet journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. The Internet went on to play a major role in the March 2002 parliamentary election campaigns and, based on its popularity, seems set to play an even more important role in the October 2004 presidential poll. Unless the SBU has its way, that is.

Taras Kuzio is a resident fellow at the Centre for Russian and East European Studies and adjunct professor of political science at the University of Toronto.

IN BRIEF
KAZAKHSTAN.
Kazakhstan's state KazMunaiGaz oil-and-gas firm has announced plans to set up a new holding company that would include the minor radio station and newspapers that the group already controls. But its centerpiece will be a new television channel that would rebroadcast programming from Russia's national NTV network, which is controlled by energy giant Gazprom.

Before this happens, KazMunaiGaz will have to get a state broadcasting license, and it will also have to brace for strong opposition from Darigha Nazarbaeva, President Nursultan Nazarbaev's eldest daughter, who controls the powerful Khabar media group.

"Almost all the media that belong to Darigha Nazarbaeva's group are talking a lot about [KazMunaiGaz's plan]," said Oleg Katsev, director of the NGO Internews Kazakhstan. "In articles, in newspapers and programs, they criticize KazMunaiGaz. They write that it's not good for national security and so on."

Currently, the country's most popular television channel is Nazarbaeva's ORT Kazakhstan, which rebroadcasts programming from Russia's ORT network. Nazarbaeva is clearly considered that the arrival of NTV's popular program lineup may steal a considerable percentage of her viewers and revenues. She appears to have a number of parliamentarians on her side.

However, some parliamentarians are concerned that the new media group might boost the influence and authority of Kazakhstan's energy magnates. "Today all media outlets are controlled by rich people or the government," said Deputy Serikbolsyn Abdildin, leader of the Kazakh Communist Party. "The media outlets protect the interests of those who are in power, while rich people finance those media outlets. That is why I suspect that any move in this sector is intended to reach one single goal: how to fool ordinary citizens."

Other deputies fear that such a group will increase Russia's influence in Kazakhstan.

KazMunaiGaz President Uzakbai Karabalin last month reportedly wrote a letter to a top Nazarbaev aid saying that the new media holding will aim at shoring up support for government policies, Agence France Presse reported. Such a step might be intended to soften government resistance ahead of parliamentary elections next year.

Internews Kazakhstan's Oleg Katsev said the creation of a new media holding would be a plus for the local market. "I guess the appearance of a new strong and powerful media player in Kazakhstan maybe will help others to create their own networks. Now the media holding controlled by Darigha Nazarbaeva tries to create a monopoly on our market. It's not good for the society. So the appearance of any competitor is good for media development," he said.

Nevertheless, Katsev notes that the new media holding will also be closely connected to President Nazerbaev. One of his sons-in-law, Timur Kulibaev, is deputy president of KazMunaiGaz. (Antoine Blua)

ROMANIA.
"Academia Catavencu" is a Romanian satirical weekly. Although it is modeled on France's "Le Canard Enchene," the Balkan offspring has some unique, locally specific features, as its name suggests. Catavencu was one of the main characters in satirical playwright Ion Luca Caragiale's classic "The Lost Letter" -- a character who is a corrupt, vile, and demagogic politician as far from any "academic" preoccupations as one could possibly imagine.

The weekly, however, is also engaged in an extremely serious business. It runs the best and longest-functioning Romanian media monitoring agency, the Media Monitoring Agency-Academia Catavencu (MMA-AC).

In late October, an international "certificate of merit" awarded by the Vienna-based South-East Europe Media Organization (SEEMO) seemed to have unwittingly made Caragiale's point -- namely that humor can be a deadly serious affair and that serious matters always carry with them humorous aspects. The certificate went to the state-controlled Romanian Broadcasting Corporation (SRR) "for its contribution toward promoting independent public broadcasting in Romania and in southeastern Europe," particularly lauding "the efforts in recent years by Dragos Seuleanu, its president director-general," according to a SEEMO communique on 28 October. The award was presented to Seuleanu the next day by Jonathan Fritz, director of the International Press Institute, with which SEEMO is affiliated.

The announcement triggered almost instantaneous protest from MMA-AC. The day the announcement was made, the media watchdog issued a press release saying that "there are few arguments to substantiate the independence of the SRR in Romania -- or of Mr. Seuleanu's activity -- or to support such a decision." The opposite is actually the case, according to the MMA-AC.

The MMA-AC called SEEMO's decision to issue the certificate "venturesome" and said it was "made without consulting independent observers from Romania."

Seuleanu -- whom many Romanians regard as a political appointee of the ruling Social Democratic Party -- is a "highly controversial" personality, as is his activity, which MMA-AC says is harming "the independence of the public radio corporation." The MMA-AC communique goes on to emphasize that in the three years since Seuleanu's appointment as SRR president director-general, he has been "influencing and controlling the editorial policy of the station."

As an example, the MMA-AC quoted a journalist working in SRR's news department who recently stated in an interview with the daily "Evenimentul zilei" that "the atmosphere at Radio Romania [has] seriously deteriorated" and that "this degraded environment of suspicion, tension. and fear is one of the 'accomplishments' of the present management." Seuleanu himself, according to journalist Rodica Madosa, often "exclusively" takes charge of the 7 a.m. newscasts, whose "topics are dictated by Mr. Seuleanu."

As a result of the controversial award, journalist Mircea Toma, who heads the MMA-AC, announced that he is resigning from SEEMO's board of directors.

Wherever he might be, Caragiale, who died in 1912, must have felt vindicated. After all, he is considered to have greatly influenced Eugene Ionesco -- the classic author of the theater of the absurd. (Michael Shafir)

RUSSIA.
Russia's Constitutional Court on 30 October struck down a controversial provision of the law on guaranteeing the rights of voters that regulates media coverage of election campaigns, Russian media reported.

"In and of itself, a positive or a negative opinion about a candidate is not campaigning and cannot serve as the cause for a journalist to be held accountable," Constitutional Court Chairman Valerii Zorkin said while reading the court's decision.

The ruling came in response to several cases filed by journalists and State Duma deputies of all factions except Unity-Unified Russia complaining that the draconian wording of the law meant that journalists could write virtually nothing about election campaigns without risking being censured by election officials. Several points in Article 48 of the law bar journalists from disseminating any information that reflects positively or negatively on candidates.

Although the law has been criticized by Media Minister Mikhail Lesin, it has been supported by Central Election Commission Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov and members of the presidential administration. President Vladimir Putin signed it into law in June.

The court ruled that the law is far too broad and vaguely written, opening the door to its arbitrary enforcement and violating the principle of equality before the law. It wrote that "the personal opinions of journalists and their comments, as well as expressions of preference for one candidate or another" cannot be considered campaigning. Neither can journalists be barred from disseminating information about candidates beyond the narrow sphere of their political activities and positions.

Under the ruling, only journalistic materials that can be shown to be consciously intended to secure support for a particular candidate can be considered illegal campaigning. The court ruled that all cases that have already been heard under the nullified portions of the law be reconsidered and the court's clarified standards applied to them.

Media Minister Mikhail Lesin hailed the court's ruling as "practically optimal." "The ruling precisely establishes the priority of the constitutional principles of freedom of speech," he told strana.ru.

The official campaigning period for the 7 December elections began on 7 November. (Robert Coalson)

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