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Media Matters: June 29, 2006

June 29, 2006, Volume 6, Number 10
By Victor Yasmann

Russia's RIA Novosti announced on June 15 that by the end of the year it will launch a satellite-television channel that will broadcast to the Middle East and North Africa. In doing so, the state-run news agency joined the growing list of countries vying to gain a media influence in the region.

There are currently three major 24-hour satellite-television news channels in the Arab world: Qatar's Al-Jazeera, the Dubai-based Al-Arabiyah, and the U.S.-funded Alhurra. In addition, more than 10 percent of the more than 200 free channels available via satellite are devoted to news, according to the "International Herald Tribune" on June 20.

Those channels will soon be joined by new, state-funded satellite television entries from France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and now, Russia.

Financial Support

In an interview with the "Financial Times" of 15 June, a RIA Novosti source said that the news outlet's new Arabic-language service will be an independent project comparable in expenditure to Russia Today, the international English-language news network RIA Novosti launched last year. "The Arabic service will cost $35 million, while whole Russia Today costs $30 million," he said.

According to the pro-Kremlin website, the goal of the new channel is "to reassert Russia's political influence in the Middle East and to confront international mass media that have a critical position toward the Russian Federation."

RIA Novosti's project will be headed by the former Moscow bureau chief of Al-Jazeera, Akram Khuzam. Khuzam, who had headed the bureau since it was launched in 1996, was fired in September -- reportedly after running afoul of Russia's Muslim community.

Al-Jazeera Director Wadah Khanfar, whose station's policies have often been criticized by the United States, said that his station welcomes the appearance of a Russian channel, "Izvestia" reported on June 20. "Russia can present her opinion on the air," Khanfar said, "and viewers will only gain from that."

Nikolai Shepelev, the chief of the international department of Rossia television's news program "Vesti," told that the main task of Russia's Arabic-language television channel will be to provide not only news, but a window into the mentality of the Russian people.

The topics will be addressed through a prism of traditional Islam so that "ordinary citizens of a Muslim state can understand nuances of life in the Russian Federation," Shepelev said.

Counter To U.S.

Shepelev does not conceal against whom he believes the Russian state news agency's maneuverings in the Arab world are directed. "The closer we are to [the Arab world], the stronger our positions in the region will be. Understandably, U.S. [positions] will be weaker," he told

Russia has sought to downplay U.S. concerns over Russia's recent dealings in the Middle East, which include weapons sales to Syria and Iran, Gazprom's efforts to create a "gas cartel" with Algeria and Iran, and contacts with and loans provided to the Palestinian Authority's Hamas government.

In June, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Saltanov said that Moscow "has no goal to compete with the United States for influence in the region."

However, Rossia's Shepelev told that Saltanov was merely attempting to mollify Washington. "Let them think that we are friends and partners," Shepelev said, noting that RIA Novosti is readying plans for a Spanish-language television channel intended for Latin American and Spanish audiences.

For its part, commented that Moscow's ultimate aim is to restore powerful, Soviet-style foreign propaganda machinery, including foreign broadcasting. (Originally published on June 21.)

By Golnaz Esfandiari

Journalists and media groups in Afghanistan are warning of the consequences of new government guidelines that impose numerous restrictions on the coverage of certain subjects, including foreign-troop presence and terrorist attacks.

A directive distributed to media representatives on June 18 instructs them to avoid issues that demoralize the public. It also says there should be no interviews or broadcasting of videos or photographs with "terrorist commanders."

Journalists who have seen the directive say it has no official stamp or signature. But sources claim it was shown to media representatives at the National Security Directorate on June 12 and distributed a week later with a warning against "publishing or copying" its contents.

The document contains at least 20 recommendations for the Afghan media -- including a ban on reports that "weaken public morale" or otherwise harm "the national interests." Media are also instructed not to air or publish reports that "show weakness of our country's armed forces."

The directive also forbids criticism of the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan -- including the U.S.-led coalition and NATO forces -- and bans interviews that run counter to the country's foreign policy.

Media are ordered not to lead their news with stories of antigovernment activities, including suicide attacks.

The document also says that mujahedin, who fought the Soviet occupation, should not be called "warlords" and Afghan technocrats who have returned from exile should not be described as "Westernized."

'Two Options'

The orders are regarded by many Afghan journalists as an intrusion on freedoms enshrined in the two-year-old constitution and the subsequent media law.

Fahim Dashty, a prominent journalist and the editor in chief of "Kabul Weekly," tells RFE/RL that the government's new guidelines leave the country's independent media with little choice.

"In the meeting that was held almost a week before the distribution of the orders, I told security officials who were present that the guidelines give us two options -- either we should close our media, because following them would neutralize our media, or we should continue our work as it is now and you can do whatever you want," Dashty says.

The Afghan Constitution gives "every Afghan" the right to print or publish without prior official approval if they act under the law. It also states that any "directives relating to...mass media will be regulated by the law."

Legislator Ahmed Behzad, a former correspondent with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, says he thinks the government overstepped its authority with the directive. "This was probably the first action to restrict freedom of speech and media in Afghanistan," Behzad says. "Afghanistan's constitution clearly guarantees the freedom of the media. So far we have not had official press censorship, which is banned under the constitution and the press law. Unfortunately, this directive violates the constitution."

Troubling Times

The head of Afghanistan's Independent Journalist Association, Rahimullah Samander, claims the government's move is aimed at restricting independent media. Such news outlets have flourished since the fall of the Taliban regime some four years ago.

Samander notes that some media reports have been critical of the administration and security forces, especially in dealing with the country's deteriorating security situation.

The directive comes amid some of the worst violence the country has seen since the U.S.-led invasion to oust the Taliban in late 2001, and just weeks after rioting erupted in the capital following a deadly traffic accident involving a U.S. military vehicle.

Samander thinks the timing is no coincidence. But he says many of his colleagues feel the government's move threatens the future of press freedom and democracy in Afghanistan.

"[Authorities] want the press and other media to be at their service -- they want them to cover only their positive actions and keep secret their weaknesses and shortcomings," Samander says. "This is against democratic principles. Also, people expect journalists [to do their job], and journalists have a commitment to citizens."

President Defends Directive

The move has been strongly condemned by international rights groups -- including the U.S.-based Committee To Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch, and Paris-Based Reporters Without Borders.

But on June 22, Afghan President Hamid Karzai brushed off such criticism. He said the government is merely trying to prevent the media from "legitimizing terrorism."

Karzai's office said in a statement that the government has simply asked local media to refrain from "glorifying terrorism or giving terrorists a platform."

The guidelines don't include penalties for media outlets that ignore the directive.

On June 22, Bakhtar news agency quoted Karzai's embattled culture minister, Seyed Makhdum Rahin, as saying that the document has no legal bearing and that journalists should not be concerned.

Dashty is among those journalists who hope that authorities refrain from strict enforcement of the directive. "The government in many cases makes hasty decisions, [then] it becomes frustrated again, and [then] it somehow gives up on its decision," Dashty says. "This is another one of those cases. Currently, I don't think the government is really pressing for the orders to be followed. The majority of journalists believe the orders should not be followed, but it is still not clear what the consequences will be."

In its condemnation of the Afghan government's perceived "censorship," Human Rights Watch warned on June 22 that Afghan journalists feel intimidated by the directive and fear an adverse effect on reporting. (Originally published on June 27.)

By Valentinas Mite

The human rights watchdog Amnesty International on June 27 presented two Russian human rights activists/journalists with an award for their work in Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus. The Journalism Under Threat prize was awarded during a ceremony in London to Stanislav Dmitriyevsky and Oksana Chelysheva, both representing the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society.

The two head the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, a nongovernmental organization that disseminates information about the human rights situation in Chechnya and legally defends the interests of victims of the Chechen war.

High-Pressure Work

Dmitriyevsky told RFE/RL that although the organization continues its work despite pressure from the authorities. "We are producing news items about the human rights situation in the Chechen Republic," Dmitriyevsky said. "We produce them almost on a daily basis. In the near future we plan to resume publication of the newspaper 'Pravozashita' ['Rights Protection']."

The Russian-Chechen Friendship Society is based in Nizhny Novgorod and has branch offices in Chechnya (Grozny) and the neighboring republic of Ingushetia (Nazran). Since its founding in 2000 it has become a source of criticism against human rights violations in Chechnya and surrounding areas.

Dimitriyevsky, who is also the editor in chief of "Pravozashita," attracted the attention of authorities last September when the newspaper published an appeal for peace by the leader of Chechnya's separatist leader at the time, Aslan Maskhadov, and by his representative, Akhmed Zakayev.

For publishing the appeals, Dimitriyevsky was charged by prosecutors in Nizhny Novgorod with "inciting hatred or enmity on the basis of ethnicity and religion."

The Russian-Chechen Friendship Society was not shut down, but the fallout resulted in the suspension of the publication of "Pravozachita" and state tax authorities continue to investigate the organization for possible financial violations.

And Dimitriyevsky and Chelysheva have encountered other problems resulting from their work -- including several anonymous death threats.

Chelysheva said sometimes defending human rights in Chechnya seems like an impossible mission in Russia. But she also said the importance of the NGO's work provides her with ample motivation to carry on.

"You go to Chechnya and meet just another powerless human being who needs help and it is difficult to stop helping," Chelysheva said. "Yes, I want to rest. We are all human; we need normal life; we need positive impressions -- but so far we cannot afford them."

Chelysheva said she receives encouragement from telephone calls and letters from throughout Russia in which people express their thanks for the work carried out by the organization.

Neil Durkin, a spokesman for Amnesty International in London, told RFE/RL that Dmitriyevsky and Chelysheva were awarded the Journalism Under Threat prize because of their courage.

"Stanislav and Oksana have been presented with this award from Amnesty because we consider that their work for the Russian-Chechen [Friendship Society] information agency, which of course they run, to be particularly important and dangerous work in effect now in modern-day Russia," Durkin said.

Ambitious Award

Noting that Dmitriyevsky and Chelysheva have received death threats because of their work, Durkin expresses hope that the award might provide some sort of support and cover for them as they work to bring attention to the human right situation in Chechnya.

"Amnesty International believes that these two people's lives are actually at risk," Durkin said. "If we can present an award to journalists and it gives them an extra degree of safety and public recognition, then that is indeed what we are trying to do."

Durkin said the reward is not about money and involves no financial benefit. Rather, he said, it is a tribute to activists and journalists working in dangerous places throughout the world.

Last year, the award was presented to Guatemalan journalist Marielos Monzon for her reporting on the human rights situation in Guatemala.

(RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report. Originally published on June 27.)