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Media Matters: April 21, 2006

21 April 2006, Volume 6, Number 6
By Daisy Sindelar

The period leading up to the Belarusian presidential election in March saw a full-scale crackdown on the country's independent press. Newspapers were stripped of their publication and distribution rights; journalists and editors were harassed. For Belarusians looking for news about the political opposition, the result was an information blackout. But even incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka's colossal win -- with more than 80 percent of the vote -- was not enough to relax the government's assault on the press. "Nasha Niva," Belarus's oldest nonstate newspaper, is now facing closure.

"Nasha Niva," which first appeared 100 years ago in Lithuania, began its anniversary year with trouble on the horizon.

First, the weekly paper was dropped from state subscription catalogues. It's a common tactic by the Belarusian authorities -- one which effectively blocks a paper's access to distribution. Now authorities are threatening to close the paper's offices in Minsk.

Andrey Dynko, the editor in chief of "Nasha Niva," tells RFE/RL's Belarus Service he has appealed to the Lithuanian Embassy in Minsk to help secure United Nations protection for the historic Belarusian-language newspaper as a part of Belarus's cultural heritage.

"We said that we're preparing an appeal to the Lithuanian president and prime minister with a request that they apply to the [UN cultural agency] UNESCO to include 'Nasha Niva' on its Representative List of the Nonmaterial Cultural Heritage of Humanity," Dynko says. "We were met with understanding on the part of the Lithuanian diplomats, and they will help us with this request."

"Nasha Niva" last week received a letter from city officials saying the paper's presence in the Belarusian capital was no longer "appropriate."

The reason -- Dynko's 10-day "administrative arrest." The "Nasha Niva" editor was charged with using foul language after being detained near the street protests that followed Lukashenka's reelection to a third term in office.

The Minsk government has refused to explain why Dynko's arrest necessitates the paper's expulsion from the city.

One group watching the situation carefully is the French-based press watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF). RSF has accused the Belarusian government of "very serious" attacks on press freedom during the presidential election campaign and the days following the vote.

RSF's news editor, Jean-Francois Julliard, criticized the move against "Nasha Niva" as just the latest in a series of bully tactics aimed at shutting down the nonstate press: "We condemn this decision, because it's a new way to threaten a newspaper, to stop its activities. It's a new way to shut down an independent voice. We are always concerned by the situation of press freedom in Belarus."

Many observers said the press crackdown ahead of the March presidential vote was aimed at ensuring an easy reelection for Lukashenka.

But even with his third term in office secure, Lukashenka still appears determined to silence his few remaining public critics -- including "Nasha Niva," which may have irked the government with its independent and pro-nationalist stance.

Julliard says Lukashenka's reelection will make the situation even more difficult for independent journalists in Belarus: "The situation was very, very bad during and before the election. But the situation now means that President Lukashenka is completely intolerant to any criticism -- and not only during electoral campaign. I think he does not want to read any criticism in his newspapers in his country."

"Nasha Niva," which was established in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius in November 1906, has always published in the Belarusian language. This is a deeply political distinction in a country where Russian is the language of the ruling elite.

It was originally typeset in both Latin and Cyrillic lettering, to accommodate Belarusian Catholic and Orthodox communities, which used different scripts.

The paper's description as a 100-year-old publication is somewhat misleading. "Nasha Niva" has been published for a total of just 24 years -- from 1906-1915 and from 1991-present. Still, its history as the country's first Belarusian newspaper has given it special status -- particularly among those hoping to preserve a distinct cultural identity in Belarus.

Journalist and political analyst Alyaksandr Fyaduta writes for "Nasha Niva." He tells RFE/RL's Belarus Service that the paper is representative of the social changes beginning to appear in Belarus. "'Nasha Niva' is not just a newspaper of that segment of society that speaks and thinks in Belarusian. "Nasha Niva" is the central newspaper of that segment of society that not only refuses to live in the corporate state that is being built [in Belarus] but also has a chance to live in a changed country," Fyaduta says. "What is taking place is actually an attempt at gagging the voice of the Belarusian youth, of those who were staying in the tent camp [on October Square] in Minsk."

For now, "Nasha Niva" will continue to publish in Belarus, using money from its supporters to maintain its website and continue its print distribution by any means possible.

But if conditions become even more difficult, "Nasha Niva" may be forced to return to its original home, Vilnius, in order to continue printing.

(RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this report. Originally published on April 19.)

By Gulnoza Saidazimova

Turkmen novelist Rahim Esenov went to New York to receive a major award highlighting literary freedom around the globe. The fact that 79-year-old Esenov was be on hand to accept the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award is remarkable in itself. Turkmen authorities banned him from leaving the country following his arrest in 2004 over his historical novel "The Crowned Wanderer" (also translated as "The Hallowed Wanderer").

But last week, he was allowed an exit visa amid pressure from international rights groups and the assistance of the U.S. Embassy in Turkmenistan.

The protagonist of Esenov's novel is Bayram Khan, a medieval poet, philosopher, and army general who is said to have defended the future Turkmenistan against the forces of disintegration.

But the country's authoritarian president, Saparmurat Niyazov, publicly denounced the novel as "historically inaccurate" and banned it in 1997 after the author refused to redact it to Niyazov's liking.

Esenov was detained in 2004 for trying to smuggle copies of his book into the country and charged with trying to foster "social, ethnic, and religious hatred." In 2005, he was forced to sign a pledge not to leave the country and made to check in with local police every week.

Esenov is a former correspondent for "Pravda" in Soviet Turkmenistan and a minister of culture under the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic. He has authored more than 20 books in a life that he says revolves around his writing. "Undoubtedly, the purpose and the meaning of my life are journalism and writing," he says.

Esenov remained active after Turkmenistan gained independence from the USSR in 1991, including writing for RFE/RL's Turkmen Service. He says that neither his reporting work nor his historical writings met with official approval.

Esenov's "The Crowned Wanderer" (Ventsenosniy skitalets) is set in the 16th-century Mogul Empire . It centers around the life of Bayram Khan, a warrior and man of letters who fights to save the Turkmen nation from fragmentation.

"What's so special about Bayram Khan? He considered religious tolerance his major goal," Esenov says about his protagonist. "For him, it didn't matter whether it was a Christian church, a Muslim mosque, or a Jewish synagogue. In his view, all people belonged to one God and should have believed in one, single god. He [himself] was exactly this kind of person."

Esenov has suffered at the hands of Turkmen authorities ever since President Niyazov denounced and then banned the novel. In February 2004, after Esenov suffered a stroke, he was forcibly removed from his hospital bed and thrown in detention. As the international outcry gathered force, Turkmen authorities released him -- but not before confiscating and destroying 800 copies of "The Crowned Wanderer," a move that Esenov described as an act of "vandalism."

Authorities also sought to punish Esenov for failing to report telephone conversations with a staunch critic of Niyazov's who now lives in exile, former Foreign Minister Avdy Kuliyev. Esenov subsequently ignored an order to cease his work for RFE/RL, and he remained under surveillance.

This week's trip abroad marks Esenov's first since the official campaign against him began.

The PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award honors international literary figures who have been persecuted or imprisoned for exercising or defending the right to freedom of expression. This year's prize is being awarded jointly to Esenov and to Mohammed Benchicou, an Algerian writer.

Freedom to Write Program Director Larry Siems announced the awards on April 1, and praised both recipients for refusing to let their governments control their countries' histories.

Esenov told RFE/RL that his constant faith in good over evil is what fuels his activities in the face of official pressure. "I am an optimist by nature. I believe in goodness in every human being," he says. "I do. I believe that despite all obstacles, good will always beat evil. This [belief] gives me strength and support." (Originally published on April 18.)

By Claire Bigg

Some 1,500 protesters rallied in central Moscow on April 16 to protest the Kremlin's clampdown on independent media, particularly television, and to call for greater media freedom.

The demonstration marked the fifth anniversary of Gazprom's takeover of the independent NTV television network.

Protesters waved Russian flags and brandished banners with slogans such as "Kremlin, get away from TV," "Censorship today, dictatorship tomorrow," and "Channel One, stop lying."

The rally was attended by a number of prominent Russian journalists, including former NTV journalists who lost their jobs or deserted the channel after it was taken over by the state-controlled gas giant Gazprom.

Viktor Shenderovich, a former NTV presenter best-known for his axed satirical puppet show "Kukly" (Dolls), told the crowd of protesters that the authorities had proven "incapable of ruling a democratic country." The state control of television, he said, is preventing the emergence of a strong opposition and an independent justice system. (Editor's note: Shenderovich runs shows on RFE/RL as well as the Ekho Moskvy radio station.)

"Present today are those who somehow symbolize what has happened to the press in Russia over the past five years, those who disappeared from broadcast," Shenderovich said on the sidelines of the protest. "A country in which press freedom disappears starts living very badly after a while."

Famous protesters at the rally included Sergei Dorenko, a sharp-tongued anchorman who was fired from the ORT television channel in 2000, and Olga Romanova, a former presenter at REN-TV who was taken off the air in November.

NTV's former general director, Yevgeny Kiselyov, was also present at the rally. He voiced little hope that the current leadership would relax its grip on the media.

"Unless the political situation in the country changes, unless the authorities change or -- which I have little hope will happen -- suddenly wake up and change their course, little is likely to change on television. As for the reforms needed by television, I think the government must sell its shares in major television channels and retain only one channel."

Gazprom took control of NTV, then Russia's only privately owned nationwide broadcaster, on April 14, 2001. Gazprom said the takeover was an attempt to recover multimillion-dollar debts owed by the channel's parent company, Media-MOST, which is owned by media mogul Vladimir Gusinsky.

Press-freedom advocates -- including former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev -- condemned the move as a Kremlin-led campaign to rein in the last television channel critical of the Kremlin and the war in Chechnya. NTV has considerably toned down its criticism since the takeover.

Gazprom has now taken control of Media-MOST's key assets - the newspaper "Sevodnya," the magazine "Itogi," and Ekho Moskvy radio.

In June 2005, Gazprom acquired control of the leading independent daily "Izvestia" from Interros, a vast holding company belonging to oligarch Vladimir Potanin. (Originally published on April 17.)