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Media Matters: March 29, 2006

29 March 2006, Volume 6, Number 5
By Bruce Pannier

Two RFE/RL correspondents working in Turkmenistan disappeared earlier this month. It later emerged that Turkmen authorities detained them. Their detention sparked letters of concern from many international human-rights organizations and eventually the two were released after 10 days in custody. No direct contact with them was possible until March 22, when RFE/RL's Turkmen Service spoke with Meret Khommadov, one of the detained journalists.

Khommadov spoke first about his physical condition, but he indicated that he was under the surveillance of security officials at his home in Turkmenistan.

"Now I feel well," he said. "Very well. But in the village during all these days the [National Security Ministry or MNB] officers or some other security force employees are keeping watch over us."

Khommadov and his colleague, RFE/RL correspondent Jumadurdy Ovezov, were picked up by police on March 7. Khommadov explained what happened to them after they were taken from their homes.

"On March 7 at 8 a.m. we were taken, probably by a police officer, to the police station," he said. "We were waiting for two hours at the police station. Then we were taken to the Hakimlik [the Mary provincial governor's office]. There were a lot of [village elders] there who talked to us. They were shouting, calling us traitors. They were very aggressive toward us. They promised to evict us from the village and not let us live there. Then [the village elders] made accusations against us, using harsh language and sentenced us to 15 days of community service. [My colleague] did not say anything. However, he was also arrested. They put pressure on me, saying that I trained Juma to work for [RFE/RL]. At the meeting, the officers of the security forces continued to put pressure on me -- interrupting my comments and trying to stop me from speaking. They took us to that meeting by force."

The two were put in jail. Khommadov described the conditions inside his cell.

"We were kept in the [southern] town of Mary....," he continued. "There are no conveniences there, only a metal bed without any mattress or sheets. There are cockroaches, lice. You have to stay together with people suffering from tuberculosis and drug abusers. There was no food except one piece of bread and at noon some kind of cereal we ate without any spoon."

'We Signed Some Papers'

Those questioning Khommadov and Ovezov -- who are both 54 years old -- threatened to charge them with being traitors and fomenting religious hatred. Eventually the two correspondents had to sign confessions to obtain their release.

"When they questioned us both in the police station, and the governor's office, they recorded the whole conversation on video," Khommadov said. "They forced us to sign a paper where we had to confess and ask for an early release. That is how I got released."

'Working With Traitors'

But signing the papers was not all they had to do. "We signed some papers that said one thing -- but orally they warned us not to cooperate with [RFE/RL]," he said. "They said the radio was working with bad people who are traitors and they named all the people who cooperated with Radio Liberty, like [former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, who was convicted in 2003 of plotting to kill Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov and has since been jailed, and] drug addicts and people who were traitors during World War II. They said it was not good to [work for RFE/RL]."

Khommadov and Ovezov were released on March 17 and taken back to their home village, but not before receiving a warning. "They told us not to speak out against government policies, saying if we did not follow what they said they would 'smash us' and they wouldn't stop with this and continue dealing with our family members and children in the same way," he said.

"Before that, on February 18, the authorities came to our home and questioned us about all our family members, even about those who died some years ago," Khommadov continued. "I kept silent about that. They summoned me to the police station but I didn't come. And then on February 22 they cut my phone line and continued doing so regularly. When [RFE/RL] tried to call me they cut the line as soon as you said 'hello.'"

Still No Contact

Khommadov said the situation with Ovezov, who suffers from kidney problems, is not good. "Juma complains about pain in his kidneys," he said. "We are under constant surveillance. People are around my house and Juma's house, watching. He cannot leave. At night his son came to me and said his father was ill and asked me to come. Then Juma told me he was sick and he didn't know what to do. He said, 'If I go to the doctor [I'm afraid] he might give me the wrong injection and kill me.'"

Khommadov said the uncomfortable conditions in the cell contributed to Ovezov's current condition. RFE/RL has thus far been unable to contact Ovezov. (RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report. Originally published on March 22)

By Daniel Kimmage

Verbal attacks and tighter restrictions on foreign media, criticism of the World Bank, the expulsion of the UN's refugee agency: the words and actions of the Uzbek government over the past week all suggest a siege mentality is taking hold in Tashkent, and that it is now affecting the country's relationships with some of the world's leading supranational organizations, as well as with the West.

If one phrase could convey how Uzbekistan's leadership now views its relations with the West, it would be "information war." Uzbek President Islam Karimov made that very clear at a news conference on March 20. "Today the nation is under an information attack by many Western countries," he said, an "information unscrupulous that it's impossible to find another word to describe it."

One country in particular is propagating the war but, he said, "I won't name it." Earlier statements by Uzbek officials have put a name on that country, arguing that the unrest in May 2005 in the eastern city of Andijon, in which -- officially -- 187 people died, was the result of a U.S.-funded attempt by foreigners to foment a coup using radical Islamists.

It may have been the United States that Karimov had in mind when he said on March 20 that "the Andijon events and everything that followed revealed who is who and how they plan to carry out their far-reaching geopolitical and geostrategic plans on Uzbek territory."

Faced with a perceived threat to the country's stability and security, Karimov defended the system he has established. "We want to live as all of Europe lives. We want to live like all democratic countries," he said.

But, in remarks apparently addressed to the West, he warned: "Your model of democracy is absolutely inappropriate for us. Your model and your values are absolutely unacceptable because we live in Uzbekistan, where 85 percent of the population is Muslim. These are people who profess Islam. And our values are naturally different from the values that we call Western values."

Karimov did not illuminate the difference between Western values and the values he feels are more appropriate to Uzbekistan.

Weapons In Information War

However, recent actions by Karimov's government do provide some insight into what organizations Uzbekistan believes are engaged in the "information war."

One group are foreign information providers. The government has therefore recently changed the rules of engagement for foreign media. One new rule is that unaccredited Uzbeks cannot engage in "professional activities" for a foreign media outlet. The Foreign Ministry was quick to show that even those with accreditation can easily find it removed: on March 15, it stripped Deutsche Welle correspondent Obid Shabanov of his accreditation for what it termed an untrue story, produced on February 1, about a fatal bus accident.

Tashkent's campaign to convey a true version of events has resulted in a steady drumbeat of stories in officially approved Uzbek media pillorying foreign reporting. For example, -- a young news website produced by, as it says, by a "club of journalists" -- blasted the BBC on March 18. "While employees of the BBC and others like them pretend to be objective and neutral are in fact genuine aggressors in an ideological war," it said. (RFE/RL was forced to close down its office in Uzbekistan in late 2005.)

Another foreign organization to come under fire is the World Bank. In his March 20 press conference, Karimov lambasted the bank for a report that estimated inflation in Uzbekistan at 31 percent and unemployment at 20 percent. Asserting that an International Monetary Fund commission in December 2005 estimated inflation at seven percent, Karimov concluded that the World Bank was not merely wrong, but that it "crossed out these figures in an attempt to discredit Uzbekistan." Days earlier, the World Bank had suspended lending to Uzbekistan.

Even as Karimov was unmasking the World Bank's malign intentions, his government was turning attention to the activities of the United Nations. On the same day, March 20, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced that Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry had shown it the door. Tashkent says the UNHCR has "fully implemented its tasks and there are no evident reasons for its further presence in Uzbekistan"; the UNHCR, while promising to comply, noted that 2,000 Afghan refugees in Uzbekistan depend on its assistance. The UNHCR had angered the Uzbek government by, in 2005, helping to airlift 439 Uzbek refugees from Kyrgyzstan to Romania. U.S.-based Human Rights Watch believes the UNHCR's expulsion may be connected with that.

The U.S. State Department has criticized Uzbekistan's decision to force the UNHCR out of the country. But with the Uzbek government digging ever deeper trenches in its information war, a siege mentality seems to be winning the day. (Originally published on March 22.)

By Daisy Sindelar

It hasn't been a particularly good year for the Belarusian press. Independent newspapers have had to fight to survive as authorities clamped down ahead of the country's presidential elections on March 19.

But some newspapers are flourishing. "Sovetskaya Belorussiya," the main state daily, on March 15 printed a celebratory 330,000 extra copies -- ostensibly to mark the country's Constitution Day.

The newspaper -- and the state -- got a publicity boost from a scandal over the reported printing of a satirical version of "Sovetskaya Belorussiya" poking fun at President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Authorities say the mock paper was a last-ditch attempt by the political opposition to undermine the ruling regime before the presidential vote.

Pavel Yakubovich, the editor in chief of "Sovetskaya Belorussiya," said he had only seen some portions of the fake version of his paper. But in layout and writing style, he said, it bore a striking resemblance to the real thing. The stunt, he suggested to RFE/RL's Belarus Service, could have cost as much as $120,000, and was clearly the work of professional journalists.

"The worst thing is that the articles about Alyaksandr Lukashenka are run with the bylines of real 'Sovetskaya Belorussiya' employees," Yakubovich said. "Of course, we don't employ [profound literary talents like 19th-century Russian novelist Ivan] Turgenev. Still, all our stylistic particularities were definitely taken into account. This, frankly speaking, is the saddest thing. Struggle is struggle, but why does someone have to compromise journalists in such a way?"

Yakubovich was not completely dismissive of the mystery journalists' efforts. Some of the fake issue was rather funny, he said. As an example, he cited one article that suggested that monarchy was the most suitable form of government for Belarus -- and that Lukashenka, by extension, should be recognized as tsar.

Who Done It?

Hardly the most scathing satire, but nonetheless most people appear to believe the fake "Sovetskaya Belorussiya" was devised by the political opposition to chip away at Lukashenka's standing before the March 19 presidential vote.

A reported 65,000 copies of the fake paper were seized on March 14 near Belarus's border with Russia, fresh from a printing house in the Russian city of Smolensk. A presidential spokesperson said the catch was the result of a joint operation by Russia's Federal Security Service and Belarus's Committee for State Security, or KGB. Alyaksey Mikhalevich, deputy head of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front, was found escorting the shipment of mock newspapers into Belarus.

He later told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that his party had nothing to do with the actual printing of the paper. He redirected blame at yet another opposition group -- the unregistered activist group Enough (Khopits).

"I don't deny that I was involved in transporting this newspaper," Mikhalevich said. "I know that these newspapers were made by activists from the civic group Enough." The allegation could not be independently confirmed.

An Old, Dirty Tactic

If it is true, however, it wouldn't be the first time underground groups have used newspaper satire to advance their political agendas. An Italian anarchist group in the mid-1980s was credited with producing a series of satirical versions of communist dailies, ranging from Poland's "Trybuna Ludu" to East Germany's "Neues Deutschland" and "Krasnaya zvezda" in the Soviet Union.

The style and physical appearance of the papers were reportedly nearly exact replicas, prompting speculation they had been funded by wealthy businessmen or intelligence agencies.

More recently, a Romanian satirical newspaper, "Academia Catavencu," published two parody issues of the country's Communist Party newspaper. The mock-up had reprints of actual articles written by important current-day politicians during the communist era. The issues, which were printed during Romania's 2004 presidential and parliamentary-election campaign, were allegedly funded by the then governing Social Democrats.

The mock "Sovetskaya Belorussiya" came out as the main opposition newspaper, "Narodnaya volya," saw its publishing contract summarily canceled by a Russian printing house in Smolensk. Two other Belarusian papers -- "BDG; Delovaya gazeta" and "Tovarishch" had their contracts suspended as well.

"Narodnaya volya" quickly moved to a second Smolensk printer -- the same firm, in fact, that printed the "Sovetskaya Belorussiya" mock-up. Like the satire, the "Narodnaya volya" print run was seized by police as soon as it crossed the border.

No Journalists, No Monitors

Belarusian authorities have also taken steps to bar journalists from neighboring Poland and Ukraine from entering the country. In a press conference following Minsk's refusal to give visas to EU observers, Bogdan Klich, a Polish European Parliament member, on March 15 described the continuing crackdown.

"The administration of President Lukashenka is trying to isolate the country on the eve of the elections, trying to reduce to the lowest possible level the witnesses from the Western world," Klich said. "I mean not only politicians, but also journalists. We collected information about those who were stopped at the border or who were refused to receive visas to enter the territory of that country."

The Vienna-based International Press Institute also said on March 15 it was concerned by what it described as increased pressure on Belarus's independent media. It cited the contract closures in Smolensk, as well as a recent announcement by Lukashenka that a fourth paper, "Zhoda," was to be closed and its managers put in prison for allegedly inciting religious hatred by reprinting controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

"Zhoda" was founded by the Belarusian Social Democratic Party, Hramada, which is headed by Alyaksandr Kazulin, a candidate in the presidential race.

Sowing Fear

The authorities, meanwhile, are pursuing their own press campaigns. The real "Sovetskaya Belorussiya" went from its usual print run of 502,000 copies to a staggering 830,000 copies on Constitution Day -- just four days before the election.

Officials may even be using the nonstate media to achieve their ends. The Belapan independent news agency reported on March 15 that it received an anonymous e-mail warning that Lukashenka had ordered a formidable law-enforcement presence in Minsk on election day to respond to potential public protests and violence.

The message said there would be a total of 10,000 troops, equipped with man-hunting dogs, rubber bullets, and grenades that reportedly release a paralytic gas that causes spontaneous defecation.

The agency didn't go as far as to suggest the mystery message was being used as a deliberate scare tactic. But it did mention that it received a similar e-mail once before -- just ahead of the presidential vote in 2001. (Originally published on March 16.)