June 8, 2006, Volume 6, Number 9
PARLIAMENT DEBATES CONTROVERSIAL MEDIA BILLBy Jean-Christophe Peuch
Kazakh lawmakers began debating a controversial, government-sponsored bill on June 7 that critics say aims at further restricting freedom of speech in that Central Asian nation.
The draft bill has sparked an outcry among media advocacy groups, which argue that the proposed changes would make Kazakhstan's legislation one of the most restrictive in Central Asia.
The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) media watchdog this year listed Kazakhstan among the less media-friendly countries in the world. Kazakhstan ranks 119th among 167 nations the group has reviewed and is listed among the countries "where journalists have the toughest time and where government repression...prevent the media from operating freely."
In a statement posted on its website after the June 7 parliamentary vote, the Almaty-based Adil Soz (Right Word) media-rights group lamented that critics of the draft bill could not block it and that the only thing they could achieve was to delay the next parliamentary hearing until October 20.
The group has said it believes that the proposed amendments would represent "a step back to stagnation and totalitarianism."
Adil Soz coordinator Tamara Kaleeva told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that the draft bill, if adopted, would make Kazakhstan's media environment look like that of Turkmenistan -- which ranks 165th in RSF's annual report.
"Ideally, [the government] would like to bring us closer to Turkmenistan, where there are four television channels -- I watch them regularly -- which all praise the 'Rukhnama' and its author [President Saparmurat Niyazov]," she said. "I think this option suits [Culture and Information Minister Ermukhamet] Ertysbaev."
Even if Kaleeva's comments seem exaggerated, it remains that the government says the bill aims at preventing what it describes as "abuses of freedom of speech."
Opposition To Media Bill
In a letter recently sent to parliament, Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov said the draft also seeks to sanitize the media environment in a country where only a small fraction of the 7,000 registered media outlets "have a real influence" on public opinion.
With the exception of government members, few in Kazakhstan support the proposed changes. Sholpan Zhaksybaeva, the managing director of the nongovernmental National Association of Broadcasters, told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that the bill bodes ill for the country's media environment.
"The amendments proposed by Ertysbaev could make things significantly worse [not only] for the broadcasting market, but also -- I am sure -- for the print-media market," Zhaksybaeva said. "It must be noted that those amendments do not [directly] concern the work of journalists. They aim at making the life of media outlets much more difficult by increasing the number of their [legal] obligations."
The draft amendments seek to bar editors of periodicals who have been closed by a court order to work in the same capacity for any other publication. They also oblige each media outlet to have a deposit of tens of thousands of dollars prior to beginning operations.
If adopted, the changes would also introduce a fee for registration applications and increase to six from the current three the number of reasons for denying a media outlet official registration.
Even the official Journalists Union is critical of the draft. The union's chairman, Seitkazy Mataev, on June 7 accused the culture and information minister of relentlessly seeking to muzzle the country's media ever since he was appointed to that post in January. "Every single day, [Ertysbaev] takes his baton and assaults us," he said. "I don't understand why. Probably someone is forcing him to do that."
The controversial bill has further soured relations between Ertysbaev and lawmaker Darigha Nazarbaeva, the eldest daughter of President Nursultan Nazarbaev and the leader of the Asar (All Together) party.
Criticism From President's Daughter
Addressing reporters in Astana on June 6, Nazarbaeva described the draft media bill as undemocratic. "Apparently the president has not made this draft law a priority and we don't understand why [the government is in] such a hurry to have those reactionary amendments brought to the existing media legislation," she said. "We all believe this would represent a great, great step back."
Although Nazarbaeva resigned as chairwoman of the powerful Khabar media group to run for parliament two years ago, she is still believed to control it.
Former presidential adviser Ertysbaev, whom many in Kazakhstan believe remains Nazarbaev's right-hand man, suggested last month that the government take over Khabar. It currently owns 50 percent-plus-one-share of the group. The Congress of Journalists, which is headed by Nazarbaeva, has counterattacked by demanding Ertysbaev's resignation.
Ertysbaev on June 7 implicitly accused the president's daughter of manipulating those who criticize him for advocating changes to the media legislation. "And you, whose orders are you fulfilling when you attack the information minister?" he said. "You wouldn't by any chance be fulfilling the orders of a particular elite group which used to monopolize the overwhelming majority of electronic media in our country? Here is the main obstacle to our efforts to develop freedom of speech and a civilized media environment."
Ertysbaev's comments are likely to add fuel to speculation that the media-bill controversy reflects a deeper factional struggle within the country's ruling elite -- namely between the president and his daughter -- whom many in Kazakhstan believe has greater political ambitions. (Originally published on June 7.)
WAN OFFICIAL SEES LITTLE PRESS-FREEDOM IMPROVEMENTHundreds of media bosses from around the world are currently in Moscow to attend the World Association of Newspapers' (WAN) annual congress. Addressing Russian President Vladimir Putin at the opening conference on June 5, WAN chief Gavin O'Reilly painted a bleak picture of the Russian media. But what does the media landscape look like in other former Soviet countries? RFE/RL correspondent Claire Bigg asked Kajsa Tornroth, WAN's press-freedom director.
RFE/RL: Yesterday [June 5] at the opening of the congress, WAN President Gavin O'Reilly voiced serious concerns over press freedom in Russia. Are there other former Soviet countries that WAN is particularly worried about?
Kajsa Tornroth: Belarus is obviously a country that we are greatly worried about, in particular after the massive clampdown on the independent press following the presidential election in March. Now the latest news is the eviction of a newspaper from the city of Minsk simply because its editor in chief was arrested during the protests. Also in Belarus, foreign journalists have been harassed. There were a few Polish journalists who wanted to enter the country in connection with the 20th anniversary of the Chornobyl accident and who were turned away at the border. Other countries would be Turkmenistan, where there's virtually no free press at all, Uzbekistan with the uprising in Andijon last spring, where the situation was already very worrying before and has become even worse today.
RFE/RL: WAN today [June6] protested the media clampdown in China, Eritrea, and Belarus. What did this protest involve?
Tornroth: This protest was a resolution issued by our board, which comprises editors and publishers from a number of different countries. What we focused on in this resolution was the continued clampdown on the independent press in Belarus and the fact that the situation is definitely not changing for the better and that [Belarusian] President [Alyaksandr] Lukashenka continues to hold the media in an iron grip in order to silence any voice that might be critical of him.
RFE/RL: Over the past few years, three former Soviet countries -- Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan -- have seen popular uprisings that ushered Western-leaning leaders into power. Have you noted positive developments in these countries with regard to press freedom?
Tornroth: Of course there are moments of hope as in Kyrgyzstan last year, but according to our latest report nothing has really changed for the independent press in Kyrgyzstan even if for some months the independent press there voiced hopes that things were actually going to change. In Ukraine, even if there are people who today say that the situation hasn't maybe improved that much, I think that even before the revolution there were media that were doing a fabulous job. So the situation there hasn't improved radically but we don't see Ukraine as a problem area. In Georgia, I would also say there are some improvements, there are small steps, there are some independent publications that have been able to build their editorial policy and their right to freedom of expression. So I definitely think there are positive changes, but quite often, unfortunately, in most of the former Soviet republics it's only individual newspapers that manage, thanks to their devoted staff, to operate quite freely.
RFE/RL: The Internet remains the news platform least subject to censorship and state control. What role can the Internet play in fostering independent, free journalism in this region?
Tornroth: Internet can play a decisive role in fostering a free press and freedom of expression. However, the problem in the former Soviet republics, as in many other places in the world, is that not many people actually have access to the Internet or even if they have access necessarily know how to access the information that would be of interest to them. So I think there is an enormous potential in the Internet, but as it is, it doesn't play a major role. (Originally published on June 6.)
PUTIN COMES UNDER FIRE AT GLOBAL MEDIA CONGRESSBy Claire Bigg
Some 1,700 editors, publishers, and other media leaders from over 100 countries are in Moscow this week to attend the World Association of Newspapers' (WAN) 59th annual congress and the accompanying World Editors Forum.
President Vladimir Putin was clearly pleased to see so many world media leaders gather in his country. WAN's congress was indeed a prime opportunity for him to defend his regime against long-standing accusations that it is bent on muzzling the media.
Addressing the delegates in his opening speech, he delivered a thinly veiled swipe at the Kremlin's detractors. "I was very pleased to hear that, despite attempts to talk you out of this and to frighten you, the press showed responsibility and did not allow itself to be frightened but came to Moscow," Putin said.
Speaking before Putin at the congress, WAN President Gavin O'Reilly lamented the fact that the Russian media is being gradually bought off by financial groups controlled by the Kremlin or loyal to the government. This, O'Reilly said, was responsible for what he described as the "appallingly low" public trust in the Russian media.
"There is still very widespread skepticism," he added, "both inside and outside your country, about whether there exists any real willingness [from the Kremlin] to see the media become a financially strong, influential, and independent participant in Russian society today."
Putin was quick to reject the accusations. "[World Association of Newspapers head] Mr. [Gavin] O'Reilly spoke about the growing role of the state in the [Russian] mass media.," Putin said. "I have different information on this matter. The state's share in the Russian press market is decreasing steadily. It is easy to check." He said that the media law adopted by Russia in 1991 was "one of the most liberal in the world."
WAN members are split over the association's decision to hold its annual congress in Russia. Some say the event will give the Russian government a seal of approval it does not deserve.
Others such as Larry Kilman, WAN's director of communications, argue the congress could help improve Russia's media landscape by giving world media bosses the chance to take up press-freedom concerns directly with Putin.
"Some WAN members said that we shouldn't be going to a country that does not respect press freedom, and that is a legitimate debate. We have an association here that does support press freedom, the Russian Guild of Press Publishers, and they and their members felt that we could do benefit by being here," Kilman said. "I think we demonstrated that today by being able to talk directly to President Putin about the problems of the country. That was our goal." However, not all Russia media watchers agree.
Oleg Panfilov, the director of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, explains to RFE/RL why he has chosen to boycott the WAN congress.
"The fact that I didn't go to this congress is a form of protest, because I consider that congresses devoted to the development of a free and independent press in the world should not be held in a country where there are very serious problems with freedom of expression," Panfilov said. "WAN could hold a congress on Russia's problems, for example, then this would be very important, then President Putin would not come and read his speech about how everything's fine in Russia."
Some critics went even further in voicing their disapproval. Just before the opening ceremony, a group of activists from the radical National Bolshevik Party shouted slogans such as "Putin -- hangman of freedom" and distributed leaflets slamming the lack of freedom of expression in Russia. (Originally published on June 5.)
PROMINENT JOURNALIST RECEIVES PRESS-FREEDOM AWARDBy Golnaz Esfandiari
One of Iran's best-known investigative journalists, Akbar Ganji, was at a Moscow ceremony on June 5 to receive the World Association of Newspapers' (WAN) Golden Pen of Freedom award. Ganji has spent the past six years in jail for articles that implicated senior Iranian officials in the killing of dissident intellectuals in 1998. In presenting the award, the World Association of Newspapers called on Iranian authorities to respect its citizens' right to free expression. Ganji remains outspoken in his defense of human rights and a free press.
Ganji dedicated his award to the casualties of the "series" of killings in 1998 and what he suggests is the subsequent cover-up. "This prize should go to those who on the path of fighting for freedom and human rights were slaughtered during the serial murders," he told attendees of the ceremony.
Authorities have blamed the deaths on rogue elements in the Intelligence Ministry. But Ganji, in articles and in a compilation titled "Dungeon Of Ghosts," has implicated senior Iranian officials. They include former President Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani -- who now chairs the powerful Expediency Council -- and former Intelligence Minister Ali Falahian.
Dedicated To The Victims
Ganji dedicated his prize to the political prisoners who were executed in prisons across Iran in late 1980s and to other victims of human rights abuses.
"This prize belongs to all of those who were tortured and paralyzed merely because they worked in journalism and defended freedom of thought," Ganji said. "The prize should go to all the dissidents who were imprisoned in past years and deprived of their social rights. The prize should belong to all those [critics and independent thinkers] who, because they dare to think differently, have been forced into exile and continue to live while remembering Iran and cannot return to the country."
Ganji also said he accepted the prize on behalf of the groups that are fighting for human rights in Iran.
Punished, Not Silenced
Ganji was sentenced to six years in prison in 2001 on several charges, including threatening Iranian national security and insulting the country's leaders. He was released in March. He spent most of his prison term in solitary confinement while reportedly being pressured to give up his writing and opinions.
Ganji launched a hunger strike in 2005 to demand his release that lasted more than 40 days. While on medical leave last year, he called for a boycott of Iran's presidential elections.
Ganji published a two-volume book from prison in which he challenged the authority of Iran's supreme leader and said real democracy cannot be achieved under the country's current system.
In Moscow on June 5, Ganji said his slogan in fighting oppression and violence is, "Forgive, but never forget." Ganji also urged his audience to remember the conditions that led to the creation of fascism and totalitarianism, and other forms of dictatorship.
More Appearances, Then Back To Iran
After his trip to Moscow, Ganji is scheduled to continue his international travels for appearances in Germany, Italy, and the United States.
In an interview with Radio Farda on June 5, he vowed to return to his homeland, where -- despite his persistent calls for justice and reform in the highest echelons of power -- he does not fear arrest.
"Today more than 1,700 representatives of important newspapers and publications were here. They all gave me a warm welcome," Ganji told Radio Farda. "The ambassadors of different countries, even Islamic countries, also expressed their solidarity. And some of them asked me with humor, 'Why is the Iranian ambassador not present?' There is moral international support for Iranian free thinkers; but at the same time whoever fights for democracy, freedom, and human rights in countries like Iran should know that there are threats and there is a price to pay for democracy. I've been six years and three months in prison, and I'm used to the life there."
Ganji is the second Iranian journalist to have won the Golden Pen of Freedom award. In 1999, Faraj Sarkuhi received the award. Sarkuhi is the former editor of "Adineh" magazine, and now lives in exile in Germany. (Originally published on June 5.)
'PHALLIC' CASE THREATENS INTERNET FREEDOMBy Brian Whitmore
When Russian prosecutors opened a criminal case against journalist Vladimir Rakhmankov for writing a satirical Internet article calling President Vladimir Putin the nation's "phallic symbol," it raised eyebrows.
But a case that began as an odd curiosity in Russia's Ivanovo Oblast is quickly becoming an international cause. Reporters Without Borders has taken up Rakhmankov's case as part of what it calls a campaign to preserve Internet press freedom in Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.
Rakhmankov's article comparing Putin to a phallic symbol wasn't the first time the online journalist has irritated the authorities. In March, he accused Ivanovo Governor Mikhail Men of taking bribes. In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, Rakhmankov said the official response was violent.
"I was invited to the Ivanovo Oblast government press service," Rakhmankov said. "I was met there not by the press secretary or by other employees of the press service, but by a security guard. He didn't say one word. He just started to beat me. He punched me three times in the stomach, then he screamed at me and asked who ordered the article."
Back in 2002, Rakhmankov received another beating, over an article that got a local police chief fired for corruption.
But when Rakhmankov wrote an article in May parodying Putin's appeal to reverse Russia's demographic decline, Ivanovo authorities tried another tactic -- shutting down his website (cursiv.ru), searching his apartment, and confiscating his computers.
Local prosecutors have also charged Rakhmankov with "insulting a representative of the state." He is under house arrest and he could face up to a year of hard labor if found guilty.
The whole matter might have ended there with little outside intervention. But the Paris-based watchdog group Reporters Without Borders saw in Rakhmankov's case an opportunity to make a stand for press freedom in Russia.
Increasingly, free-press advocates see the Internet as the last censorship-free haven in Russia. "The only way to publish independent information in this country is to use the Internet," explained Julien Pain, head of the Internet Freedom Bureau of Reporters Without Borders. "That is why this case is so important. When the Russian authorities have the same control over the Internet as they have over traditional media then I think Russia will be in real trouble."
Last year, Reporters Without Borders published a report identifying 15 so-called "Internet black holes" -- countries where the Internet faces the harshest restrictions. Three former Soviet states made the list -- Belarus, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.
By comparison, the Internet is still relatively free in Russia. But according to Pain, that could be about to change. "Belarus, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan -- all these countries filter the Internet extensively," Pain said. "And so far in Russia the Internet is quite free. And we have to admit, that's because Russian authorities so far haven't dedicated too much effort on controlling the Internet. But this is about to change, and that is why we have to talk about it now."
Russian lawmakers have been discussing ways to control Internet content for years. But even in the absence of legislation, authorities can still use what Reporters Without Borders called a "climate of fear" to intimidate hosting companies and Internet service providers. Rakhmankov's site, for example, was shut down not by the authorities but by the hosting company, which claimed that he had not paid his bills -- even though the site was hosted free of charge.
Speaking on the RFE/RL Russia Service program "Press Time" on May 24, attorney Vladimir Entin, one of the authors of Russia's media law, defended the authorities' prosecution of Rakhmankov. "The head of state is a subject of national pride, in the same way that the flag and the coat of arms and other symbols of the state are, and requires similar respectful relations," Entin said.
But speaking on the same program, Rakhmankov retorted that the president has no special right to be sheltered from insult. He added that if the case must be prosecuted, it should be subject to civil litigation rather than criminal law. "I think that in this case, it is not right to distinguish the head of state from an ordinary citizen," Rakhmankov said. "And I do not agree that the president is a symbol, like the flag or the coat of arms. And insofar as people have their own opinions about where the line is between insults and irony, such a thing needs to be investigated under the provisions in civil law for the defense of one's honor and dignity."
No trial date has yet been set for Rakhmankov's trial. Investigators, meanwhile, have hired a so-called "linguistic expert" to assess the gravity of the insult to Putin. (Originally published on June 2.)