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Media Matters: May 25, 2006

May 25, 2006, Volume 6, Number 8
By Paul Goble

Komi Republic's only independent Russian-language newspaper announced on May 8 that it was suspending operations, the victim of both direct moves by local officials against it and of governmental pressure against those business groups that had supported the paper in the past.

In a message to readers, Sergei Sorokin, the editor in chief of "Zyryanskaya zhizn," explained in detail how he and his colleagues had been forced to take this step and why they had decided that it was better to close down than to sell out, either financially or editorially.

The immediate cause for this action, he wrote, was "banal -- there were no funds for putting out the paper." But the reasons for that, he continued, were anything but ordinary. They reflected the ways in which the Komi government, following the current all-Russian pattern, "no longer wants to listen to bitter truths about itself."

And because of that, he continued, the authorities in the northern and oil-rich areas, "do everything possible to shut the mouth of anyone who attempts to express them."

To that end, the authorities have denied accreditation to reporters from this weekly and regularly have accused it of "nationalism." But more seriously and more effectively, those in power have made it clear to the business community that supporting the paper was not in their interests if they wished to continue to operate in Komi.

Two years ago, when the paper began to appear, those businesses that provided it with capital and advertising did so with the understanding that an independent newspaper was one of the best ways to promote "the values of a democratic society." But now, Sorokin said, "these values have ever more fallen in price both in the country and the republic."

And those political parties and democratic groups that do exist and continue to support democratic principles are not in a position to fill the shortfall left by the withdrawal of business support because they simply do not have the requisite financial means, Sorokin pointed out.

But as it has done throughout its existence -- and all issues are available on its website -- the paper used its last issue to reaffirm its own commitment to these values by featuring readers' reactions to U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's suggestion in Vilnius the week before that Moscow is moving away from democracy.

The comments of 13 different readers, ranging from government officials to businessmen to lawyers and journalists, represent precisely the diversity of opinion required for the development and functioning of a dynamic, open, and liberal society. Among the most intriguing of these comments are the following:

Valery Kozlov, chairman of the Komi capital's city council, said that democracy will return but "the main question is when." If Russia does not turn back to democracy, he said, the country will remain a raw-materials supplier to the world and its success will be "based only on high world prices."

Vladimir Revako, identified as a lawyer, argued that "in the next few years, Russia will not be able to return to that type of democracy" Cheney was talking about because of "difficult economic and social conditions."

Sergei Serditov, the head of the Northern Peoples Bank, said that "under current Russian political conditions, [democracy] will not return," largely because it is easier for the current rulers in Moscow to run things with the system of administration they have established than if there were a democratic one.

Aleksandr Shulga, president of a transportation company, said that Cheney had asked the wrong question. What he should have focused on, Shulga suggested, is "will the U.S. return to democracy."

And Vladimir Sumarokov, the editor of "Tribuna," another Komi paper, suggested that five years from now, Russia might begin to move in a democratic tradition and then "we will return, but not for very long."

Beyond any doubt, the closure of newspapers like "Zyryanskaya zhizn," will make changing the direction of Russia more difficult. But the commitment of its staff who now will have to look for other work to continue to insist on freedom of the press rather than to sell out to the government or to corporate interests does provide a basis for hope.

As editor Sorokin concluded his message to his readers this week, neither he nor they are willing to copy those publications which simply repeat what the government wants them to say. And the paper's course, he said, "if at some point in the future the paper is able to reappear, will remain just what it has been up to now." (Originally published on May 9.)

(Paul Goble is the former publisher of "RFE/RL Newsline" and a longtime Soviet nationalities expert with the U.S. government. He is currently a research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia.)

By Golnaz Esfandiari

Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate, lawyer, and rights activist Shirin Ebadi is touring the United States to promote her new book, "Iran Awakening: A Memoir Of Revolution And Hope." Publication has been blocked at home in Iran. In the book, she recounts her life and her struggles as a human-rights defender -- particularly for Iranian women, children, and political prisoners.

Ebadi told an audience at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) this month that her book is an introduction to Iranian society. "Once a journalist asked me how I would describe Iran in one sentence," she said. "I answered, 'Iran is a land of contradictions.' After the [1979] revolution, many discriminatory laws against women were introduced -- including one according to which the life of a woman is worth half the life of a man."

Ebadi noted that women comprise about 65 percent of Iran's university enrollment and often face discrimination.

In her book, Ebadi recounts how at the age of 23 she became one of Iran's first female judges. She also recalls how she was later forced to resign because women were deemed incompetent to serve as judges under Iranian law.

Despite being sidelined, Ebadi stayed in Iran and became a defense attorney. She later founded a group called the Society in Defense of Children's Rights.

In 2003, Ebadi became the first Iranian and the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Her book provides an overview of seminal events in Iran's turbulent history through the eyes of an outspoken rights advocate -- but also of a woman whose outlook has been shaped by recent Iranian history.

"This book includes my memories from when I was born until the time I received the Nobel Peace Prize," Ebadi said. "I've looked at events that took place in Iran during this time from my perspective and how they influenced my life."

"The written word [is] the most powerful tool we have to protect ourselves from the tyrants of the day," she said.

Some of the events covered in her book include the CIA-orchestrated coup that toppled Iranian leader Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. She also describes the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the subsequent murder of Iranian intellectuals and dissidents by Intelligence Ministry agents.

Ebadi writes about the headscarf, which after the revolution became compulsory for women. She describes that many women -- including Ebadi herself -- couldn't get used to it.

Ebadi also writes humorously about a female friend who is driving her car when she realizes she has forgotten her headscarf. Ebadi says her friend told her how she "yanked [her] skirt all the way up and pulled it over [her] hair" to keep other motorists from noticing.

Ebadi argues that then -- as now -- "a sizable number of Iranian women would have gone bareheaded if given the freedom to choose."

The book also includes sad and painful personal memories. Ebadi writes about the execution of thousands of political prisoners in Iran in 1988 -- including her young brother-in-law, Fuad.

Ebadi says that Fuad's death increased her obstinacy toward the authorities. Warned not to discuss Fuad's death with anyone, she says she talked "night and day" about his execution to anyone who would listen -- "in taxis, at the corner shop, [or] in line for bread." She talks about "approach[ing] perfect strangers and tell[ing] them about this sweet boy who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for selling newspapers, and then executed."

Ebadi also recalls the long and bloody 1980-88 war with Iraq that took such a heavy toll on both countries. The winners, she concludes, were "the arms dealers."

"I witnessed eight years of war with Iraq," Ebadi said. "[Iraq's leader] Saddam Hussein destroyed 15 of our cities. Saddam used chemical weapons against Iranians, and also against Iraqi Kurds. And, during that time, Saddam was a close friend of the United States, and [Iraq] would get arms from the United States."

In California on May 16, Ebadi turned her attention to the current tension between the United States and Iran. She encouraged officials in Washington and Tehran to put their differences behind them and think about the future. "I've tried to remain unbiased," Ebadi said. "Therefore in my book I've also written about the mistakes of the Iranian government and people -- I mean the [1979] hostage taking [at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran], which was a big and shameful mistake. It also harmed Iran and, no matter how you look at it, it was an incorrect act."

Ebadi went on to encourage direct talks between Iranian and U.S. leaders, legislators, and also U.S. and Iranian civil-society groups. "There is no dispute between the people of Iran and the United States, even though the governments fight against each other," Ebadi said. "The problems should finally be resolved and it should be done through official, open, and direct talks."

Ebadi warned against any military strike on Iran, and cautioned that democracy cannot be brought to her country through force. "Despite my criticism of Iran's ruling system, a military strike on Iran or the bombing of Iran would not solve our problems," she said. "Iranians love their country, and they will not allow it to turn into another Iraq."

Ebadi expressed hope for democratic change in Iran to an audience in Washington on May 10. She's an "optimist on democracy," she said, because she's "optimistic regarding the people of Iran and confident that they will push for change."

Ebadi's new book has been published in the United States and translated into several languages -- including French and German. Ironically, one of Iran's most famous voices will have a more difficult time being heard at home, where censors have blocked the publication of the book. (Originally published on May 22.)

(Radio Farda contributed to this report.)

By Gulnoza Saidazimova

Uzbek media continue to suffer at the hands of one of Central Asia's most repressive administrations, that of Uzbek President Islam Karimov. Nosir Zokirov, a former RFE/RL correspondent, recently completed a six-month jail sentence for what rights groups say were fabricated charges. His plight echoes that of many other journalists who reported on the bloody government crackdown in the eastern city of Andijon in May 2005.

Zokirov was an eight-year veteran with RFE/RL's Uzbek Service when a rebel uprising triggered the chain of events that led to the massacre by authorities of hundreds of demonstrators on Andijon's main square.

He'd been filing reports from the nearby city of Namangan, in the fertile and densely populated Ferghana Valley. He is convinced that his work led to intimidation and harassment at the hands of official and semi-official institutions. State-controlled media smeared Zokirov professionally and privately, and even targeted members of his family. He was summoned to the local police station over his reporting, and had his telephone service inexplicably cut off on several occasions.

A former stage actor, Zokirov began working as a journalist after Uzbekistan held its first post-Soviet presidential election in December 1991. Zokirov said he was inspired by ideals of independence and the prospect of a democratic future for his country.

He also said he was inspired by the example set by his late father. "I was an actor by profession, but my late father, Jo'ra Zokiriy, was a journalist," Zokirov said. "He launched the first newspaper in Turkmenistan's Tashovuz region."

But Nosir Zokirov's work with RFE/RL soon put him in jeopardy: In late 1993, a journalist with opposition sympathies was imprisoned after Karimov reined in dissent. Several prominent opposition leaders were forced to flee the country. Soon, Zokirov, too, was jailed.

"I started working for Radio Ozodlik, [RFE/RL's] Uzbek Service, in September 1993," he said. "On November 27, 1993, I was imprisoned for 2 1/2 years on charges of drug abuse and keeping a grenade at home. But I was released a year later because of pressure from the international community, support from colleagues, and also through God's will."

The official campaign against independent media and foreign journalists intensified after the bloodshed in Andijon. After RFE/RL's Uzbek Service broadcast an interview Zokirov conducted with local poet Khaidarali Komilov, who was critical of the government's actions, Zokirov was summoned to court in Namangan.

When he went to trial on August 26, he had no access to defense counsel nor any opportunity to cross-examine witnesses. He was quickly convicted and dispatched to prison for insulting an Uzbek security officer.

Zokirov was released on February 26, having served his full six-month sentence. He lamented the lack of access to news and information during his incarceration. But he also said he feared for the safety of colleagues and family members.

Many colleagues fled the country in the wake of Andijon -- some have blamed intimidation, threats, and harassment. Uzbek authorities subsequently denied RFE/RL accreditation, shutting down its bureau in the capital.

Some of Zokirov's five sons have been the target of unflattering articles in the local press or called to answer to the police for their political activities. Zokirov said he is determined to continue working as a journalist to help safeguard his children's future.

"I'm over 50; not much is left [for me] to live," he said. "Kids read books. I think of them, of my children. I hope they and [other] people will eventually understand what I was doing and why. The people already see who is doing what."

While he no longer files reports from his corner of Uzbekistan to RFE/RL, Zokirov continues to be a conduit for information. Many of his countrymen come to him to recount their own experiences, he said. And when they and others ask for the latest news, the 53-year-old grandfather of three tells them. (Originally published on May 9.)