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A Month In The Media

Rumors of Putin's affair with Alina Kabayeva got "Moskovsky korrespondent" into hot water (AFP) The battle for media freedoms is waged daily, where governments resort to a variety of methods to undermine the independent press. But while reports of beatings or even the murders of journalists often reach the outside world, other less-sensational tactics are commonly employed at the state and local levels. The following examples, culled from the month of April, 2008, shed some light on some of these tactics -- from pressure from tax authorities, to intimidation of family members, to character assassination.


A week after publishing an article claiming that Russian President Vladimir Putin had divorced his wife and was planning to marry a young, former Olympic gymnast, the tabloid "Moskovsky korrespondent" was closed down by its owner. "Large costs" and "differences with the editorial staff over its concept" are the stated reasons for the closure, but Putin's irritation with the April 11 article was clear in the days that followed the scandal. In an effort seen as a means of curbing the yellow press, the Russian State Duma is currently considering legislation that would expand the number of reasons for which a publication may be shut down for defamation.


Jane Armstrong, a correspondent for Canada's "The Globe And Mail," was detained by Russia's Federal Security Service at her hotel in Grozny early on April 17, interrogated for several hours, fined 300,000 rubles ($12,710), and ordered to leave Chechnya immediately. Armstrong had authorization to travel to Chechnya from the Russian Foreign Ministry, had met earlier in Grozny with Chechen Culture Minister Dikalu Muzakayev and traveled to the southern Shatoi Raion to gather material for an article on Chechen customs, folklore, and history.


Valery Shchukin, a journalist and human rights advocate, was accompanying the latest print run of the independent Belarusian newspaper "Vitsebsky kuryer" on April 24, when he encountered harassment. Upon his return from Russia -- where the newspaper was printed due to a local, state-owned printer's refusal to do so -- Shchukin was stopped by police, who confiscated the print run. Shchukin suffered chest pains in the course of the incident and was hospitalized for high blood pressure. Financial problems had prevented the publication of the newspaper in recent months, putting the paper at risk of losing its license if it did not publish within a year and forcing it to turn to the Russian printing house.


Pending a court hearing stemming from a lawsuit filed by a former regional prosecutor, Moldova's influential opposition newspaper "Jurnal de Chisinau" found its bank accounts frozen. Former Donduseni district prosecutor Ion Neagu has accused the 30,000-circulation paper of damaging his reputation with the publication of two reports in 2003. Newspaper lawyer Vitalie Nagacevschi has characterized the lawsuit as "proof of the death throes of the communist regime, and is aimed at abolishing the opposition press."


Azerbaijani opposition journalist Aqil Xalil in early April filed a defamation lawsuit against four pro-government television stations that reported that attacks against Xalil had been carried by his "homosexual partner." The attacks on Xalil involved a stabbing by unknown assailants in March and an assault in late February. Xalil has claimed he was subjected to physical and psychological pressure by the authorities while undergoing questioning in relation to the attacks, and he has consistently accused security officers of complicity.


The independent television station GALA encountered numerous obstacles after angering the Armenian authorities by airing comments made by a key opposition figure. The Gyumri-based station fell afoul of both the local and central governments in late 2007 after providing airtime to Levon Ter-Petrossian, who eventually finished second in the country's February 19 presidential election. The station was subsequently raided and fined for tax evasion and other alleged violations, and in a separate move was accused by Gyumri's mayoral office of illegally using the city's television tower. The station was able to raise some 27 million drams ($88,000) for paying off fines imposed for tax evasion, but its broadcasts were suspended temporarily after being ordered to vacate and remove its equipment from the city's old television tower.


Following its criticism of the government of Republika Srpska, the magazine "Patriot" was recently forced to close its doors. Editor in Chief Slobodan Vaskovic says the authorities employed a number of pressure tactics that contributed to the magazine's demise, including attacks and threats made against him and his family members, monitoring his telephone calls, and discouraging companies from advertising with "Patriot." Vaskovic heads to court in May to argue his case in a defamation lawsuit filed by Republika Srpska's prime minister and says that, "if nothing changes, the only solution for my family and me will be to leave the country."

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