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Media Matters: July 2, 2007


RFE/RL has released a book-length study entitled "Iraqi Insurgent Media: The War Of Images And Ideas." The study documents the media efforts of the Iraqi insurgency and how global jihadists are using those efforts to spread their destructive message. You can download the complete report here:

Armenia Gives First Backing To Bill Targeting Foreign Media

By Jeffrey Donovan
June 29, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Armenia's parliament has passed in the first of two readings a draft law that would impose severe restrictions on foreign broadcast media.

The sole foreign broadcaster now using the public airwaves is U.S. Congress-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).

RFE/RL's Armenian Service Director Hrair Tamrazian says the voting broke down along party lines, with the majority ruling party easily overcoming opposition deputies.

He said that the bill, which included two amendments, one to the law on TV and radio and the other one on taxes, is "about RFE/RL's operation in Armenia." Seventy-nine deputies in the parliament voted for the bill, with 16 against, and one absentention.

If it passes a second reading due on July 2, Armenia's public broadcasting frequencies would be closed to foreign broadcasters.

Public Airwaves Sovereign?

The top U.S. diplomat in Yerevan, Charge d’Affaires Anthony Godfrey, told RFE/RL that he met today with Tigran Torosyan, the speaker of the Armenian parliament, shortly before the vote to express U.S. concerns over the bill.

“This issue was the first issue that I discussed with the chairman of the parliament," Godfrey said. "I talked about our concerns, and our concerns that the effect of this law could be to restrict the broadcasts of and the ability of Radio Liberty to get its broadcasts out to the voters of Armenia. We are very proud of the work that Radio Liberty has done.”

Today's debate in parliament saw ruling party deputies argue that public broadcasting airwaves in a sovereign country should not be open to foreign broadcasters.

RFE/RL's Tamrazian notes that Justice Minister Gevorg Danielian, who presented the bill and is a member of the ruling party, said that there is no country where public radio would broadcast programs of other countries' broadcasters.

Opponents of the bill argued that many countries, including neighboring Georgia and Azerbaijan, do open their public airwaves to foreign media.

Tamrazian says the opposition charges the government with trying to control the media. "The opposition says that RFE/RL is serving the Armenian public and the public interest because this is the only alternative news source that Armenia has after the closure of A1+, which was an independent TV channel which was closed several years ago," he says. "And in fact, Armenia has no independent electronic media, as they say, right now."

International Criticism

The action comes some eight months before Armenia holds presidential elections, in which current President Robert Kocharian cannot run for a third term.

The proposed legislation also would create sharp disincentives for private Armenian radio stations to carry foreign broadcasters' programs.

Under the proposal, private Armenian broadcasters would have to pay more than $200 in taxes each time they retransmit a program produced by a foreign media organization.

That is 70 times more than broadcasters must pay for a locally made program.

The proposal has drawn sharp criticism from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and international media-rights groups.

Asked what leverage Washington might have to persuade Armenian lawmakers to reconsider the bill, U.S. envoy Godfrey said he would not address a hypothetical situation. But he mentioned the U.S. government-funded Millennium Challenge account.

Under that program, Godfrey said Armenia currently qualifies for more than $230 million in U.S. aid. But he said that the program’s board is due to meet again in December to decide whether countries such as Armenia still meet the criteria, which include issues of free media and democracy:

“We said [to Torosyan] if the effect [of the bill] would be to have limits or restrictions on the broadcasts of RFE/RL, then that would certainly not seem to be in line with Armenia’s commitment to improving its democratic institutions," Godfrey said. "The speaker of the parliament said that the effect of the law, or the direct impact of the law, was not intended to restrict RFE/RL. But frankly, we’re studying that still. And we’re not convinced.”

Godfrey added that he had also spoken with Armenian Prime Minister Serge Sarkisian, who he said assured him that the bill would not restrict RFE/RL broadcasts.

According to independent research, from 15 to 18 percent of the Armenian population over 15 years of age listens to RFE/RL's Armenian-language service every week. Respondents rate the radio the first- or second-most popular station along with Armenian public radio.

Tehran's New International TV Station Faces Hurdles

By Farangis Najibullah
June 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Press TV, a 24-hour English-language news channel, says it aims to break the Western hold on the world's broadcast media by presenting an alternative view on global news when it goes on the air on July 2. Experts question the Tehran-based news network's ability to compete with organizations like CNN, the BBC, and the new Al-Jazeera International.

Press TV is Iran's round-the-clock, English-language news channel set to go on the air on July 2.

Network Of Correspondents

On its website, which was launched in January, Press TV says that it aims "to break the global media stranglehold of Western outlets."

Experts question Press TV's capacity to attract many viewers worldwide.

The news network says it has a staff of more than 400, including 26 reporters outside Iran, including in Britain, the United States, and such cities as Jerusalem, Gaza City, and Ramallah.

The Tehran-based channel pledges to broadcast a half-hour news program followed by talk shows and documentaries, some of them live from Damascus, New York, and Washington.

Press TV says it will "specifically focus on the Middle East." It will be joining an already crowded 24-hour English-language news market, which for years has been dominated by the BBC and CNN.

Russia Today, France 24 and, most recently, Al-Jazeera International, have also entered the international English-language news arena in the past year.

Some experts both inside and outside Iran say it is unlikely that Press TV will find a large audience.

Free Of Propaganda?

Isa Saharkhiz is a member of the Association for Press Freedom in Iran. Speaking to RFE/RL from Tehran, Saharkhiz says that in a country where freedom of information is suppressed, it is almost impossible to set up an objective and propaganda-free news outlet.

"When there is censorship and self-censorship, obviously, editors in international news networks -- including the one we are talking about -- are forced to comply with censorship and self-censorship by ignoring some news and exaggerating other unimportant news," he said.

Additionally, some observers argue that because of what they consider the repressive nature of the Iranian regime, a state-run news channel would not be trusted by Westerners as a reliable source of information.

Saharkhiz adds that the probable Islamic dress code for the broadcasters on the Tehran-based news channel might be another obstacle for Press TV to find an audience in the West.

He says Press TV will face a dilemma over the way its broadcasters dress. "If female presenters do not wear headscarves -- in order to appeal to Western audiences -- there will be a backlash in Iran with hard-liners protesting and trying to close the channel down," Saharkhiz says.

News agencies quoted Mohammad Sarfaraz, the head of international services for the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) as saying that Press TV will try "to give a second eye to Western audiences." However, experts question Press TV's capacity to attract many viewers worldwide.

Glimpse Into Iranian Society

Claire Spencer is the head of Middle East programs at the London-based think tank Chatham House.

Spencer says Press TV might find some viewers in the West -- especially those who are interested in views coming out of Iran -- but it will not be a massive audience.

"I think occasionally from the outside people are mystified as to how the Iranian political system works," she said. "And if [Press TV uses] the opportunity to demonstrate the diversity of Iranian society as well as just covering politics, then I think that may be beneficial for those who are unaware of what is going on in Iran in all its senses -- culturally, socially, economically, as well as politically."

Iranian President Ahmadinejad (file photo)

Alireza Nurizadeh, the head of the Center for Arab and Iranian Studies in London, says Iran's other international channels have failed to attract viewers.

"Iran has spent millions of dollars in the past years to set up channels such as Sahar or Al-Alam," he said. "But, unfortunately, these investments have brought no results. The Islamic republic has never succeeded in attracting viewers who want to watch or to hear alternative news."

IRIB, an Iranian state broadcaster, already runs the Arabic-language news channels Al-Alam and Al-Kawthar, as well as the Persian-language Jam-e Jam, which broadcasts to Iranians living abroad.

Getting To Blocked Websites Not As Hard As You Think

A screen shot of a blocked website in Iran

June 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) --A recent report by Freedom House has detailed a "new form of censorship" that has taken hold in CIS states. A particular target of governments' efforts to control what their citizens read is the Internet -- and blocking websites has become common practice in some countries. RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher asked Bruce Scheier, chief technical officer of computer-security company BT Counterpane, about how such blocking works and what can be done to counter it.

RFE/RL: How exactly does someone -- a government official -- block a website?

Bruce Schneier: You would put rules in the firewall. If you're a country, there are a number of [Internet Service Providers (ISPs)] that service that country. And all of those ISPs will be simply told to block those URLs. So if you type in those URLs, they would not go through and you'd get nothing. It's not hard to do.

It's an oft-repeated phrase that the Internet treats censorship as damage, and routes around it. The odds are in favor of the information.

RFE/RL: Okay, I'm sitting at my computer in my flat in Dushanbe or Minsk and I can't access an article because it's been blocked. What do I do?

Scheier: Well, that's the trick. There are many things you can do. These blocks are really just for the people who aren't sophisticated enough to get around them. There are proxy servers you could go to, which basically is someone that will go to that [banned] website for you, so it doesn't look like you're going there. There are anonymizers you can use, which will hide the website you're going to so that the ISPs can't see them, and can't block them. You just type "web-anonymizer tools" -- or "web proxies" into Google and you'll find all sorts of tools to bypass any of these filters.

RFE/RL: If you search for "web proxies," you get a page of results with a list of numerical addresses to choose from, with their location in the world listed next to them. Then what?

Scheier: It depends how they work. Some of them are so easy to use: all they do is get the website they want, and there's no weird user interface. Some require a little bit of configuring, but basically they're ways to get around these firewalls.

RFE/RL: You often hear that a banned website is available as a "mirror site." What exactly does that mean?

Scheier: A mirror site is simply a site that has the same information as the site it's mirroring. A lot of times this is done for efficiency, so a [mirror] site might be a big news site that gets a lot of traffic, and it will just get overloaded. So they might have a mirror site, which has the same information, which just allows more people to access it. Now sometimes the mirror site has the same URL and you don't even know you're using it. Sometimes the mirror site has a different URL, and they're keeping that information [there] because they're afraid they might take it down, or it might get censored.

RFE/RL: Is a mirror site ever put up by a content provider who knows that their original site has been banned by a government, for example? If a website is banned in Belarus, would its creators, for instance, establish a mirror site with a Ukrainian server that isn't banned by Belarus?

Scheier: Sure, that's very common. Especially if you're a politically minded organization and you want your information out there. If you know your URL is being blocked, for whatever reason, you might establish a mirror [site] somewhere else to get around that blocking.

RFE/RL: Some of the governments that regularly censor the Internet are not what you would call very modern. So how did they figure out so quickly how to censor the Internet?

Scheier: There are easy tools you can buy for censorship. There's not a lot of figuring out; there's not a lot of fancy stuff here. These are commercial, off-the-shelf tools. Any ISP can block pieces of the Internet. They might do it for reasons of efficiency; they might not want to carry it [the entire Internet]. If the government says to its ISPs, "Block these URLs," they can block them. And it isn't hard; it isn't subtle. It's easy.

RFE/RL: Say someone wants to bypass their in-country ISP and try to gain access to blocked websites by using an ISP outside their borders. Can they go to a technical-support chat room on the Internet to ask questions and get advice on how to configure their web browser?

Scheier: Honestly, it's way easier than that. Just type "anonymizer tools" into Google and you'll get how-to's. You'll get tutorials; you'll get tools. There's no reason to go into chat rooms and talk to geeks who might speak in a language that's way too [complicated] for you. It's easy to do. It isn't even hard.

RFE/RL: You work for a company that helps people both block and unblock websites. Is the trend moving toward more Internet censorship or less?

Scheier: It's an oft-repeated phrase that the Internet treats censorship as damage, and routes around it. The odds are in favor of the information. Yes, there are a lot of attempts to block - the "Great Firewall" of China is a prime example. And some of these anonymizers are [even] blocked. And it's a constant arms race.

But really, the battle is in favor of information. Because information wants to be out there, wants to be disseminated, and blocking it is a never-ending battle. So, yes, it can be hard. Some of these tools can be blocked. I'm sure some of these tools we're talking about are illegal in some of these countries. But information will get out there.

Getting Past Blocking
A Canadian NGO is developing software to help people living under repressive regimes gain access to the entire Internet. more
Tracking The Censors
A Western NGO is monitoring Internet censorship around the world and can tell you where your site is blocked. more