Accessibility links

(Un)Civil Societies Report: July 13, 2006

July 13, 2006, Volume 7, Number 12
OSCE MEDIA ENVOY DISCUSSES REGION'S CHALLENGES. PRAGUE, July 7, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Media freedom in Central Asia has long been a thorny problem for Western organizations dealing with the region. The post-Soviet administrations there have proven resistant to allowing the sort of freedoms that would allow for criticism of government policies or officials. That presents a number of challenges for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) representative on freedom of the media. That post is held by Hungarian writer, journalist, and human rights defender Miklos Haraszti.

Haraszti says the media situation in Central Asia is characterized by numerous print and Internet outlets. But, he adds, control over television and other broadcast media remains concentrated in a few hands.

"It is basically a slope of pluralism which is higher in the case of the print press, but a bit lower in the case of the broadcast media," Haraszti says. "Pluralism is quite confined in the whole region to the print media and actually toward the Internet, [and among] the different media types that the Internet is hosting. But in the broadcast field -- even in countries where there are privately owned broadcast media, [and] even in countries where there is a kind of a readiness for a transformation of state-owned media into public-service media to be found -- the actual content of broadcast media is quite monopolized and not really covering the whole of political life in a fair and objective fashion."

Haraszti says he sees a discernable trend among Central Asian governments to tighten legislation to keep media outlets silent -- especially independent media outlets that question state policy or official conduct.

"We observe a sadly growing trend of administrative discrimination vis-a-vis the fragile and economically weak independent print media -- different types of new regulations, registration and re-registration regimes, accreditation problems -- all of them in the form of a seemingly objective regulatory framework," Haraszti says. "But, in fact, [such measures] somehow always [are] hitting at the independent press and almost never at the official, state-owned press -- which is a form of discrimination."

Haraszti says that all five Central Asian republics -- all of them OSCE members -- inherited a Soviet mentality with respect to the media. He says that, as a result, it will be some time before anyone can expect media laws in the region to conform to those in Western democracies.

But Haraszti says that-- in keeping with his OSCE mandate -- his office alerts Central Asian authorities to regulations that contradict those in other parts of the OSCE.

"We have set medium-range goals for media democratization, which we always do," Haraszti says. "So these are decriminalization of all types of punitive laws that penalize speech offenses in a criminal way, criminalize them. We ask all participating states to put all of those offenses into the domain of civil law."

Such laws have silenced or jailed journalists in several Central Asian states.

Haraszti says there have been times when it was necessary to stage what he terms an "intervention." He mentions Kazakhstan, where the government complained of too many media outlets and introduced amendments that simply made it more difficult for media and journalists.

"They introduced these amendments, and now these amendments are actually making fines higher," Haraszti says. "They reintroduce registration, [or rather] they introduce re-registration, at any given occasion when business data -- like the office address -- has changed in a given outlet. And fees are introduced for registration. And a very important and actually very restrictive provision, [or] draft provision, is that the persons who have worked for any media outlet that has earlier been closed by a court ruling cannot apply to be editors with newly registered media, cannot register a media [outlet]. And that, I think, is something that probably constitutionally is a questionable requirement because it puts another punishment on top of what the courts at that time have ruled."

Haraszti expressed hope that Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev might veto the draft law. But earlier this week, Nazarbaev signed the media amendments into law despite objections from rights groups inside and outside Kazakhstan.

Haraszti indicates there are some countries with which the OSCE's level of cooperation is still not good.

"I still couldn't visit Uzbekistan," Haraszti says. "Otherwise, I was able to visit all other four countries in the region. And I hope very much that the level of cooperation with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan will improve in the future."

Haraszti says that an annual OSCE-sponsored event dedicated to the region's journalists might provide a possible avenue for improving ties with Central Asian states.

"We will be having a Central Asian Media gathering in October in Bishkek, in Kyrgyzstan, where we will be discussing the sustainability of media -- both privatized and new media start-ups," Haraszti says. "[We will discuss] how to make them compatible with the market [and] how to help their freedom by sane policy of the publisher and of the editor on the market. And we are having a first day of deliberations and a second day of training for the participants. This will be in October in Bishkek. Last year...we had participants from all five [Central Asian states], which was a very happy circumstance, and we hope to repeat it this year."

Haraszti also says he hopes to be making another tour through the region soon. (Bruce Pannier)

GANJI THREATENS TO ORGANIZE MASS HUNGER STRIKE. PRAGUE, July 3, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Dissident journalist Akbar Ganji has threatened to organize a hunger-strike "movement" in several Western cities if the government does not release three Iranian political prisoners as soon as possible and unconditionally. The most prominent of the three is noted scholar and author Ramin Jahanbegloo, who is accused of working with the United States to bring down Iran's Islamic regime through a nonviolent revolution. Former reformist legislator and the head of the alumni association of Iran's main reformist student group, Ali Akbar Moussavi Khoeini, and bus-driver union leader Mansoor Osanloo are the others.

Ganji reiterated his call for Iranian officials to release Ramin Jahanbegloo, Mansoor Osanloo, and Ali Akbar Moussavi Khoeini during an interview with Radio Farda on June 30 while he was in Germany.

Ganji said that Osanloo and Moussavi Khoeini represent Iran's intellectual, workers', and student movements whose members, he says, have been under pressure.

He said they should be freed and he has called on all freedom-loving Iranians and human rights defenders to join him.

"We've called on the regime to free these three prisoners immediately," he said. "If they will not be freed soon, I have planned with some friends a hunger strike against the Iranian regime in England, in France, in Germany, in the U.S. and across the world to bring the world's attention to the vast human rights violations in the Islamic Republic of Iran."

Ganji -- one of Iran's most prominent investigative journalists -- was freed in March after spending more than five years in prison because of his critical articles.

During his jail term he remained defiant and on at least two occasions he went on a long hunger strike to protest his conditions.

Ganji has been on a European tour for the last month and has condemned human rights abuses in Iran wherever he speaks.

"Iran's Islamic regime is continuing its political repression and human rights violations like before," he said. "One of the tools for political repression are arbitrary and illegal arrests. They arrest people because of their opinions and because of dissent."

Ganji noted that many human rights activists and intellectuals have called for the release of Jahanbegloo, Moussavi Khoeini, and Osanloo.

He added that since Iranian authorities have not paid attention to these calls, a general hunger strike seems to be the only way to press for their release.

In recent weeks several separate statements have been issued by activists and intellectuals in protest of the detentions of the three men.

In the case of Jahanbegloo, personalities such as Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Literature Prize winner J. M. Coetzee, acclaimed Italian writer Umberto Eco, and prominent historian and author Timothy Garton Ash have joined the call for his release.

Jahanbegloo is a well-known philosopher who has published several books in French, English, and Persian on issues as ranging as intellectual thought in Iran and Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi and his nonviolent resistance.

He has been detained since April 27 without access to a lawyer.

Iranian Intelligence Minister Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejeie said on July 2 that Jahanbegloo is one of the people who was arrested "in line with the U.S. effort to instigate a velvet [or] soft revolution in Iran."

Some of Jahanbegloo's colleagues and friends have expressed concern that he could be under pressure to make forced confessions. This method has been used -- though largely unsuccessfully -- by Iran in the past to discredit critics.

There is also growing concern about Moussavi Khoeini, who was arrested in Tehran during a June 12 women's rights gathering.

Seventy men and women were arrested for attending the protest against legal gender discrimination. All have been freed except for Moussavi Khoeini.

Former legislator Fatemeh Haghighatjoo tells RFE/RL that Moussavi Khoeini's case is being reviewed by the hard-line revolutionary court.

"This is a matter of concern because it is possible that they will bring new charges against him such as espionage or toppling the regime," he said. "During his term in the parliament he worked hard for the closure of secret and illegal prisons; he also defended the rights of political prisoners. These are among issues that can lead to new cases against him especially because he has been a defender of student rights and also the rights of women and workers."

Human rights activists are also worried about the fate Osanloo, the president of the Syndicate of Workers of the Tehran Bus Company.

He has been in jail since last December on unspecified charges. He reportedly helped organize demonstrations against bus drivers' work conditions.

On June 30, the student website reported that student leader Abdollah Momeni welcomes Ganji's call for the release of Osanloo and other prisoners.

Momeni is quoted as saying that Ganji's resistance while imprisoned provides a lesson for all Iranians who are longing for a change.

"I think students and those close to the students have the capacity to express their readiness for a protest," he added.

Iran's most prominent living poet, Simin Behbahani, has also expressed support for Ganji's initiative. Behbahani told Radio Farda that any action that would lead to the release of Iran's political prisoners is "necessary." (By Golnaz Esfandiari. Radio Farda correspondent Nazi Azima contributed to this report.)

RELIGIOUS LEADERS FOCUS ON VIOLENCE, ENVIRONMENT. MOSCOW, July 5, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Religious leaders from around the world have gathered in Moscow condemned the use of religion to justify terrorism and violence and urged political leaders to be more environmentally responsible.

The declaration, which came at the end of a World Religious Summit organized by the Russian Orthodox Church, will be delivered to leaders of the Group of Eight (G8) most industrialized nations when they meet in Saint Petersburg in mid-July.

However, unlike international human rights campaigners who on July 4 issued a series of recommendations to the upcoming G8 summit, the religious figures said their intention was not to influence the G8's political agenda.

The three-day World Religious Summit sought to highlight the importance of religion in tackling terrorism and armed conflicts, and in protecting moral values -- or, as Metropolitan Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church put it, to make the "voice of religion" heard.

Russia's chief mufti, Ravil Gainutdin, told journalists that politicians need to pay more heed to the opinions of religious leaders, warning that if they fail to do so "mistakes are made and then society ends up turning to religious leaders."

In the three-page declaration to be sent to the G8 summit, the religious leaders, who came from 49 countries, said they condemned "terrorism and extremism in any forms as well as attempts to justify it by religion," adding that they regretted "the actions of pseudo-religious groups and movements that are ruining the freedom and health of people as well as the moral climate in society."

Metropolitan Kirill, one of the leading figures in the Russian Orthodox Church, said "under no circumstances should religion be used to sustain, let alone inspire, anything that goes against religious moral laws, including violence, blood, terrorism, bombings and military actions. I think that this appeal, if it is met, will really help reduce the degree of conflicts, including military conflicts."

Jewish and Muslim leaders called on Israelis and Palestinians to end hostilities and Metropolitan Kirill said religious leaders had sought to defuse violence in war-torn Chechnya, a predominantly Muslim republic, by warning against interreligious hatred.

Religious representatives also stressed that religion had played a key role in launching the ecological movement in the 1960s and urged world leaders to be more environmentally responsible.

Energy security issues will take center stage at the Saint Petersburg G8 summit, reflecting Russia's role as a key energy supplier.

German Protestant leader Bishop Wolfgang Huber said he hoped environmental protection would also have a place on the G8 summit's agenda.

He welcomed the debate among the religious leaders about the environment, saying "it was absolutely necessary that at this point in time the contribution of religions to ecological awareness, to the wise use of resources, should be emphasized. I think that includes a message for the G8 summit because not only energy security but also the way in which we use energy in all our societies has to be taken into account."

Despite its desire to stress positions that religious leaders hold in common, the summit reflected some tensions.

Pope Benedict XVI was not invited due to the ongoing conflict between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, which accuses the Catholics of proselytizing in Russia. This long-standing rivalry continues to block a papal visit to Russia.

The Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, was also conspicuously absent, reflecting Russia's fears of antagonizing China. (Claire Bigg)

MEDIA FOCUS ON NIYAZOV DISTRACTS FROM REAL PROBLEMS. PRAGUE, July 1, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has been called outlandish, eccentric, insane, ruthless, and described as a tyrannical dictator. But the international media's comic portrayals of Niyazov distract attention from many of the very serious problems the country is facing, observers say.

Turkmen citizens have no chance to enjoy ballet, opera, a philharmonic orchestra, or a circus because Niyazov -- also known as Turkmenbashi the Great or the "Father of All Turkmen" -- has banned them, saying they contradict Turkmen national values.

Niyazov has also ordered the dismissal of several thousand health-care workers and replaced them with military conscripts, while also closing down many rural hospitals.

Turkmen children only go to school until the ninth grade ever since the government reduced public education -- making it impossible for them to study at foreign universities.

Only adherents to Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodoxy are free to worship in Turkmenistan, as those who follow any other religion or religious sect usually face harsh repression, with some churches having been bulldozed.

And Turkmens are constantly forced to better their knowledge of the nation's history and present by learning phrases from "Rukhnama," Niyazov's book on spirituality and proper behavior, which is compulsory study in schools.

Many Turkmen citizens live in poverty since Niyazov cancelled or cut payments to a large portion of the country's pensioners and cancelled maternity and sick-leave payments for others in February.

If Turkmens criticize the government or work for foreign media outlets, they are likely to be persecuted and can be internally exiled, evicted from their homes, or forcibly put in psychiatric hospitals while their personal property is confiscated.

This is the dire but realistic picture of Turkmenistan, according to exiled Turkmen dissidents and international human rights groups.

Many of them say the Western media, however, does not give an adequate picture of the country because they are too busy reporting about Niyazov's cult of personality or his strange behavior and comments, such as his criticism of gold-capped teeth, long hair and beards, and female television anchors' use of make-up -- or his decision to ban the use of tobacco.

But focusing on such things creates a distorted picture of life in Turkmenistan and takes attention away from the real difficult issues that Turkmens are facing, says Eric Freedman of the journalism school at Michigan State University.

"It's obvious that he does a lot of strange things. Some of them [are] building an ice palace in the desert, renaming the days of the weeks and the months of the year, building the world's largest mosque [or] his putting up giant posters [of himself] all over the country," Freedman says.

"Those kinds of things draw attention to him as a person and they obviously have a public-policy implication," Freedman continues. "But the press doesn't tend to look at those kinds of public-policy issues. It's easier to put attention on things that are a little strange. There are some problems with that, I think, because you as a reader in the West get a distorted picture."

Farid Tukhbatullin, an exiled human rights activist and head of the Vienna-based nongovernmental group Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, tells RFE/RL that the media portrays Niyazov as a "clown dictator" and his decrees as whims and eccentricity. He says foreign media seem to forget that nearly 5 million people have to live a "tragic life" under Niyazov's rule.

Tukhbatullin believes it is because ordinary people in the West are not interested in getting to know more about Turkmenistan, noting that since he arrived in Europe, "I learned that people know practically nothing -- not only about Turkmenistan -- but also about other former Soviet republics.

"Unfortunately, the foreign press only portrays Turkmenistan as a country with a president who has a screw loose," he adds. "Journalists and perhaps their readers are not interested in having an in-depth knowledge about Turkmenistan. They are probably satisfied with reading about [Niyazov's] odd remarks and behavior over coffee, at their leisure."

Michigan University's Freedman recently conducted research on several Western media outlets' coverage of Turkmenistan, and noted that personality-driven media coverage of other leaders is rare.

"If the situation were reversed and it were foreign media covering events in the U.S. when Bill Clinton was president, it would be as if most stories about U.S. trade or military included references that Bill Clinton was not faithful to his wife, or had smoked marijuana...or had this 'Slick Willie' kind of image," he says. "And if you put it that way, you realize how ridiculous it would be for the foreign press to do that about the United States. So why wouldn't it be equally ridiculous for the Western press to do that about another country?"

Freedman says Western media coverage gets more serious when prominent international groups, like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, or the World Health Organization take interest in certain events in the country.

Allison Gill, head of Human Rights Watch's Moscow office, tells RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that the media should stop making fun of Turkmenbashi and pay more attention to his regime's disastrous human rights record.

"There is absolutely not enough attention to the human rights situation in Turkmenistan," Gill says. "Many people have forgotten about Turkmenistan or consider that the president is somewhat funny in his building of [his own] statues and his creating a cult of personality to himself. But there is nothing funny about what is happening in Turkmenistan. It is an incredibly serious and dire human rights situation that demands the attention of the world community."

Freedman, however, says that the odd and the bizarre about Turkmenbashi are likely to continue dominating media coverage as they attract a greater audience. (Gulnoza Saidazimova)