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Media Matters: February 27, 2007

Moldova: Broadcast Privatization -- Reform Or Censorship?

By Ryan Kennedy
February 21, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- For the past two months, a controversy has raged in Moldova over the closure of two popular public broadcasters in the capital Chisinau -- the Antena C radio station and the Euro TV channel. Is this a case of reforms needed to ensure the independence of the media, as the government has argued, or is it a blatant attempt to silence critical voices ahead of the May local elections?

The case filed by the staffs of Antena C and Euro TV was due to be heard in court on February 20. But the hearing was postponed for a week after the judge said he had fallen ill.

It's the fourth adjournment in a month for the case, which is coming under increasing scrutiny from the international community. Both the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the U.S. Embassy have released statements criticizing the handling of the closures of the two stations, as well as a second radio broadcaster, BlueStar at 103.5 FM, in the city of Balti.

Among the concerns was fear of the deterioration of the free press in Moldova ahead of local elections in May.

Ambassador Louis O'Neill, head of the OSCE mission to Moldova, said in a January 19 press release that "the broadcasting code adopted by the Moldovan parliament in 2006 provided the country with an excellent opportunity for real progress in creating a free and vibrant broadcasting landscape. It is disappointing to see that this chance may be lost due to missteps in the way the new legislation is being implemented."

And in an interview with RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service and the BBC conducted in Chisinau on February 16, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Colleen Graffy said the closures represent a serious challenge to media freedom.

"We believe that the development of free independent and pluralistic broadcasting media is vital for the establishment of a functioning democracy in the Republic of Moldova, and for its declared goal of European integration," Graffy said. "And therefore, examples such as Antena C and 103.5 FM give us grave concern."

Summary Dismissals

The fight over the broadcasters began on December 14, 2006, when the stations' directors, Antena C's Vasile State and Euro TV's Arcadie Gherasim, were dismissed and new directors were announced.

In response, the staff of the two stations interrupted an extraordinary session of the Chisinau Municipal Council (CMC) and threatened other acts of civil disobedience.

On December 16, Antena C -- which frequently aired reports critical of the government -- went off the air in the middle of a talk show debate about its reorganization, reportedly because of technical issues.

The CMC then opened bidding for Antena C on January 2. After some difficulty in acquiring bids, Dunitru Liuticov was announced as the winning bidder on January 17, offering 1.05 million Moldovan lei (about $80,000) for the station. On January 22 the sale was approved by the CMC, and the station was put back on the air on the 23rd.

Further controversy was sparked when, on February 5, the new director announced the liquidation of all departments and programs, adding that the station would broadcast news and music programs without DJs.

Under the new plan, the focus of the station will be on publicity, employing 40 public relations agents. According to a statement signed on February 7 by 10 media nongovernmental organizations in Moldova, this process would involve firing 25 of its 27 journalists.

U.S. State Department official Graffy said the changes at Antena C would deprive Moldovan audiences of access to a variety of news and information.

"We believe that this presents a serious challenge to freedom of the press in Moldova and to the diversity of opinion and ideas available to the Moldovan public," Graffy said. "The [U.S.] Embassy, together with members of the international community, really deplore this arbitrary manner in which the radio was reorganized and its staff fired."

Compliance with the Law...

The closure of Antena C and the other broadcasters had its roots in Moldova's adoption of a new Audiovisual Code, which came into force on August 18.

The code was a response to recommendations from the Council of Europe that the government construct measures to ensure the freedom of the media and unify media laws. These reforms were to include privatization of most public media outlets and further guarantees of independence for outlets which remained public.

The first draft code generally fit within these goals, but notably absent was any mention of local public media outlets. The Council of Europe noted this absence in their reports on the draft versions of the law, saying that the absence of regulation might result in the liquidation or privatization of local public stations.

This was especially troubling for the authors of the report in areas where there was not a sufficient market to support private stations. They recommended, as one option, "incorporating one or all of these public radio stations into TRM" -- the state-owned national radio-TV broadcaster, TeleRadio Moldova.

In responding to these recommendations, the final version of the Audiovisual Code left the CMC with the option of affiliating Antena C and Euro TV with TRM -- which has also been criticized by the OSCE for not being independent. Alternately, they could pass them into private property, using a public tender. The CMC decided they should be privatized.

Supporters of the decision argue that, in addition to complying with the Audiovisual Code, privatization would resolve what some suggested was a bias in Antena C's coverage of news and information. In particular, they accuse the station of being overly influenced by the former mayor of Chisinau, Serafim Urechean, who is now the head of the Moldova Noastra (Our Moldova) alliance in parliament.

As Antena C's new director, Veaceslav Satnic, stated, "[T]he product that was broadcast was not an objective, equidistant one, and pluralism of opinion was not respected."

In the case of BlueStar, the radio station saw its license revoked by the Council for Audiovisual Coordination (CCA), officially for failing to uphold the new guidelines.

CCA President Cornel Mihalache said the decision to give the frequency to a competitor station, City FM, was based in part on their adherence to a new mandate to produce a large part of their program in the state language.

"Their project represents what BlueStar couldn't provide for 10 years: a real local radio, with a lot of social and economic information. City FM is also ready to respect the language criteria."

BlueStar staff argues that its recent programming did respect the new language guidelines, and has accused the CCA of basing its decision on earlier programming logs, when the station provided a portion of its broadcast in Russian.

Ecaterina Cojocar, the director of BlueStar, says the CCA broke Moldovan law by failing to follow the proper procedure of notifying the station of perceived violations before revoking its license.

"Around 26 people are now without work," she said. "We want to see the projects presented by the competition, to judge if the CCA was correct in its decision. According to the law, we should have been warned first if we were failing to respect the rules. But in the last 10 years, we haven't received a single criticism."

...Or Manipulating Local Elections?

A number of other groups disagreed with the CMC decision. In a commentary, the news agency Info-Prim Neo called the reorganization "the most far-reaching attack on the press and journalists who are inconvenient to the ruling party since 2004" -- the year TRM was liquidated by the Moldovan parliament in a move critics said was an attempt to eliminate government critics.

The commentary accuses the ruling Communist and Christian Democratic coalition of trying to manipulate the outcome of the May 2007 local elections by eliminating some of the few media outlets that were critical of their policies.

In protest to what they labeled "antidemocratic proceedings" against Antena C and Euro TV, two members of the CMC left the Christian Democratic Popular Party.

On February 10, 11 media and human rights NGOs working on the Soros-funded project, "Monitoring of the Audiovisual Code Implementation," came out with their criticism of the implementation of the new Audiovisual Code.

Among their complaints was that the application of the new law to the Chisinau public stations Antena C and Euro TV had deprived the public of the right to information, ignored the community's opinion, and infringed on staff members rights.

It remains to be seen whether the lawsuit brought by Antena C and Euro TV staffers will reverse the fate of the broadcasters.

The plaintiffs hope the lawsuit, brought against the CMC and Chisinau's former interim mayor, Vasile Ursu, will overturn the decision to sell the media institutions and appoint new management.

They have also asked that proper working conditions be restored and that 100,000 Moldovan lei be paid to each claimant to repair moral damages and to develop the stations.

(Ryan Kennedy is a Ph.D candidate and a Fulbright researcher from Ohio State University who recently returned to the United States after living in Moldova.)

CPJ Reports On State Of Media Freedoms

By Andrew Tully

The independent Belarusian paper "Narodnaya volya" must be printed in Russia

WASHINGTON, February 7, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Activists with the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) have given a bleak assessment of the state of the media in most of the former Soviet Union. But they added there are reasons for optimism.

The CPJ on February 5 issued its annual report -- "Attacks On The Press In 2006" -- on the dangers journalists face while to inform the public in much of the world. Two CPJ's researchers gave a presentation at RFE/RL's Washington office on February 6. Nina Ognianova, CPJ program coordinator for Europe and Central Asia, was present, and Kristin Jones, a research associate for Asia, spoke from the committee's headquarters in New York.

Focus On Russia

The largest problem, according to Ognianova, is Russia, where 13 journalists have been killed since Vladimir Putin became president in 2000. What's as chilling as the deaths, she said, is that only three people have been prosecuted in connection with the slayings, and there have been no convictions.

Ognianova said this "culture of impunity" has devastating and wide-ranging consequences.

"This culture of impunity -- this failure to solve these killings, along with the institutional secrecy that's wrapping the official investigations -- has had the intended chilling effect on coverage of sensitive subjects in Russia."

"This culture of impunity -- this failure to solve these killings, along with the institutional secrecy that's wrapping the official investigations -- has had the intended chilling effect on coverage of sensitive subjects in Russia: sensitive subjects such as corruption, such as human rights abuses," Ognianova said. "Impunity, of course, breeds self-censorship and sends the sinister message that murderers can go unpunished and that silencing opponents gangland-style is not only effective, but also acceptable."

Ognianova said the impunity in Russia has had a "domino effect" in its former Soviet neighbors, particularly in Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Turkmenistan.

But impunity isn't the only obstacle journalists face in Russia, Ognianova said. She noted that the central government controls all national broadcasting and is "moving successfully into the print sector."

Yet Ognianova said the CPJ is encouraged by Putin's remarks on February 2 praising investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was gunned down in Moscow in October 2006. Putin said his government will protect journalists in Russia.

More Of The Same In Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan is of special interest to the CPJ, Ognianova said, because its an isolated country. She noted that RFE/RL correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova died in government custody in September.

Ognianova noted that although long-time Turkmen leader Saparmurat Niyazov died in December, his totalitarian policies probably will endure.

"The successor of Niyazov -- [Gurbanguly] Berdymukhammedov -- has also pledged to follow on his predecessor's path, and we're expecting that the censorship of the information and of the media will continue, unfortunately," she said.

Ognianova expressed concern about efforts by European governments to force reporters to identify their confidential sources. She said such cases are occurring mostly in Western Europe -- she mentioned the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany -- as well as in Lithuania.

The Afghanistan-Pakistan Border Area

Asia, meanwhile, faces great challenges as well, according to Jones, who spoke to the Washington forum by teleconference from New York. She expressed concern for journalists' ability to cover the fighting in Afghanistan.

Independent broadcaster ANS was taken off the air in Azerbaijan in November (RFE/RL)

Jones said that in 2006 the CPJ watched conditions "disintegrate" along the Afghan-Pakistani border, where journalists have been trying to cover the resurgent Taliban and their renewed fighting with NATO forces.

"On the Afghanistan side [of the border], journalists saw that they're facing threats from all sides -- from the Taliban, from the drug lords, from the armed forces," Jones said. "On the Pakistan side, journalists in the federally administered tribal areas near the border of Pakistan have been driven out. Foreign journalists...have not been allowed to visit the area in several years. Local journalists have also been driven out. There's been a series of detentions, of abductions and murders."

Jones said eight journalists have been killed in Pakistan since the much-publicized slaying in 2002 of Daniel Pearl of the U.S. newspaper "The Wall Street Journal." She said four of them died near the Afghan border.

China And North Korea

Also of concern is China. Jones said President Hu Jintao has not only managed to impose his will on the country's indigenous reporters and editors, but also has impeded the work of journalists representing foreign media. She said China also has had considerable success in limiting its citizens' access to the Internet.

Jones noted that in 2006, at least 19 journalists were behind bars in China because of their work.

But even worse than China, Jones said, is North Korea, a Stalinist state where essentially there are no journalists to challenge the government of Kim Jong-il.

"North Korea is basically a 'black hole,'" Jones said. "There's very little of any information that comes out of North Korea. All of the media is [producing] state controlled propaganda, and foreign journalists are only rarely allowed to visit, and they under very restricted circumstances. So there's really very little reporting."

Film Festival Features Often-Untold Stories

By Claire Bigg
PRAGUE, February 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The ninth annual One World documentary film festival opens on February 28 in the Czech capital.

From India to Belarus, from Kyrgyzstan to Brazil, the annual festival offers a chance to catch little-seen documentaries on political and social issues across the world.

One such film, "Three Comrades," tells the story of three young men whose lives, like tens of thousands of others in Chechnya, were shattered by the war waged by Moscow on Chechen separatists.

The film shows footage of Grozny in the early 1990s. Three friends -- Ruslan, Ramzan, and Islam -- are seen driving through the streets of the Chechen capital, listening to loud rock music on their car radio.

In voice-over, Islam Bashirov, speaking in the present, remembers that time of his youth. "Fifteen years ago, we never would've believed that this would be our story," he says in Russian. "Ruslan, Ramzan, me. Together we were one."

"Some girls said that after a while I'd get used to it... I got used to it all right, to alcohol, to this."

-- Tatyana, Russian trafficking victim

A few months after that carefree ride through Grozny, the first Chechen war breaks out.

Ruslan is arrested and executed by Russian soldiers. Then Ramzan is killed in an air strike on the city.

Only one, Bashirov, flees Chechnya and survives.

Mankind's "Big Challenges"

The weeklong One World Festival, held annually in the Czech capital since 1999, brings together little-seen documentaries like "Three Comrades" that examine political and social issues across the world.

"The aim of the festival is to bring a more complex picture, understanding, of what's happening on the international arena, of the main issues of our times, the political and social issues, the big challenges of mankind," says Igor Blazevic, the festival director.

"We are trying to get people to re-think what they see on the news every day or to see those things they do not see on the news. We want to make them become active citizens."

One World, which runs in Prague cinemas from February 28 to March 8, will show 123 films from 34 countries.

While the festival hopes to attract a broad audience, One World, Blazevic says, targets mainly young people -- "basically the new generation, those who are looking for their values, for their places in a globalized world, for private or generational answers to what role they are playing in the world today."

The festival explores a series of armed conflicts, both current and past, and the legacies they have left.

One of the documentary films, "A Story of People in War and Peace," tells the story of Vardan Hovhannisian. The camera follows this Armenian journalist as he tries to come to terms with his four years fighting against Azerbaijani troops over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, in the early 1990s.

"The war changed my life. It changed all our lives in Armenia," Hovhannisian says to the camera. "Struggle, suffering, pain. I've enjoyed 12 years of peace. I'm married with two beautiful children. Life is so wonderful, and I don't want to look back. But once, my young son came up to me. He asked me: 'Daddy, have you been a soldier?' And I don't know what to say."

Global Issues, Local Stories

One World puts a human face on a wide range of hot-button topics, from the spread of HIV, to ethnic tensions in Myanmar, ongoing violence between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, the life of Chornobyl victims, child rape in South Africa, or the treatment of prisoners at the U.S. Guantanamo naval base.

Trafficking of women is also high on the festival's agenda this year. In "Fallen Angel," a Russian girl, Tatyana, recalls how she was forced into prostitution in the Netherlands after her boyfriend sold her to a pimp.

"Some girls said that after a while I'd get used to it. 'A week or so, and you'll get used to all that,'" Tatyana says. "I got used to it all right, to alcohol, to this. I wish I could turn back time and that I'd never come to the Netherlands."

After some time, Tatyana found the strength to stand up to the abuse and sought help. But instead of finding salvation, she became entangled in a legal process that left her with vulnerable to a criminal gang with no protection from the Dutch authorities.

Above all others, the main topic this year is political freedom. A number of films are being presented under a special section called "Democracy Report."

Festival director Blazevic says the films on this topic are not limited to countries ruled by authoritarian regimes.

"We have films from countries like Azerbaijan, Belarus, Afghanistan, where people are still striving to achieve democracy," he says. "But we also have films questioning the quality of democracy in countries like the United States, the Czech Republic, and Poland."