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Media Matters: August 25, 2006

August 25, 2006, Volume 6, Number 13
By Kathleen Ridolfo

Increasingly frequent threats from insurgents and fear of government reprisals may be affecting the performance of journalists in Iraq.

Much as been written about the difficulties faced by Iraqi journalists, who, like their foreign counterparts in Iraq, have increasingly become the target of insurgent groups, political parties, and even government authorities for a myriad of reasons. But there is growing evidence that the security situation, coupled with weak governmental and institutional support for journalists, is impacting how Iraqi journalists report the news.

Insurgents target journalists either as a means of controlling what is being reported, exacting revenge for what a journalist has reported, or as in most cases, out of animosity for the journalist's employer. Much the same can be said for attacks on journalists carried out by militias and political parties. More disturbing is a recent upswing in attacks on journalists from government forces, both in Baghdad and in the Kurdish autonomous region.

Attacked From All Sides

Iraqi journalists today report feeling more under threat than at any other time since the fall of the Hussein regime in 2003. In addition to the dangers that come with navigating the dangerous streets of Baghdad, journalists in the capital say they must also navigate the sensitive political scene, censoring themselves to prevent reprisals.

Fear of beatings or arrests at the hands of police and security forces have left some journalists feeling particularly vulnerable. One Iraqi journalist recently recounted how a police officer stood idly by as others beat him. When the journalist asked the officer why he did not intervene, the officer reportedly responded: "I can't do anything for you. You don't know [who they are]. All I can tell you is that those guys are from the police."

A subsequent government press release on the incident referred to members of the media as "troublemakers."

As in Baghdad, journalists have faced continued arrests this year in the Kurdish region, particularly when covering demonstrations against the regional government. Dozens of journalists were jailed and had their cameras and equipment confiscated while covering demonstrations against the regional government in Halabjah in March, and again in several towns in early August.

Journalists have also faced arrest for reports critical of the regional government or the two main ruling parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Such was the case with the arrest of an Austrian Kurd, Kamal Sayyid Qadir, last year, and in the arrests of two editors working for the independent newspaper "Hawlati," which is highly critical of both parties.

No Independent Voices

In Kirkuk, where tensions between rival ethnic and sectarian groups run high, some journalists have argued that an independent media no longer exists. Rather, journalists operating there are tied to either state-run media, which tends to reflect the position of the Shi'ite alliance; political parties; or Islamist groups present in the city.

The result has been the development of a media that fuels instability rather than providing independent news, analysis, and opinion. Political rivalries for control over the oil-rich city are reflected in the antagonistic and biased reporting of party-run newspapers, radio, and television, which in turn, raises tensions.

Such an atmosphere breeds bad journalism, with journalists working for their own interests. Journalists know that if they cannot provide reports that satisfy the particular demands or political slants of their editors or newspapers, they can easily be replaced by others willing to promote a specific line. In a country where unemployment runs at around 50 percent, it is much easier to tote the party line than to face what could potentially be months of unemployment.

Lack Of Institutional Support

Still, as many journalists point out, the press is far freer today than it was under decades of Ba'athist rule, where the state-run media was the only news provider. This attitude in itself is troubling, as it promotes an acceptance of low ethical and journalistic standards as the norm.

Part of the problem is that Iraq still lacks strong supporting institutions that could act as a counterweight to government pressure. Though journalists unions exist in every part of the country, they are, by and large, considered weak, and remain linked to political parties and agendas. For example, the Baghdad-based Iraqi Journalists Union, established in 1969, continues to act as a bastion of support for the deposed Ba'ath Party.

Iraqi laws related to the press also need to be strengthened. The new constitution calls for freedom of "press, publishing, media, and distribution," but only "as long as it does not violate public order and morality." Such language leaves media outlets vulnerable to the government's interpretation of the law.

Moreover, as IREX's 2006 Media Sustainability Index on Iraq reported earlier this year: "Iraq's political powers do not differentiate between journalistic reporting of facts and viewpoints and the information and opinions themselves, and the fledgling Iraqi legal system does not protect journalists in this context."

Indeed, greater awareness is needed. Contributors to the IREX report noted a general ignorance on the part of politicians over the meaning of media freedom. (Originally published on August 25.)

By Jean-Christophe Peuch

Three people, including an RFE/RL reporter, went on trial today in the Turkmen capital of Ashgabat. The hearings lasted just a few minutes and ended with the judge handing long jail sentences to all three defendants.

The trial of RFE/RL Turkmen correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova, aged 58, and her two codefendants -- human rights activists Annakurban Amanklychev, 35, and Sapardurdy Khajiev, 47 -- opened today at 10 a.m. local time.

The hearings took place behind closed doors at the Azatlyk district court in Ashgabat, where Turkmen dissidents are usually tried. Azatlyk -- which means freedom or liberty -- is also the name of RFE/RL in the Turkmen language.

Tried Without Lawyers

Tajigul Begmedova, who chairs the exiled Turkmen Helsinki Foundation (THF) rights group and is Khajiev's sister-in-law, tells RFE/RL's Turkmen Service the trial was over in no time. "According to the information we got from their lawyers, Sapardurdy Khajiev was sentenced to seven years in a high-security jail," she said. "Annakurban Amanklychev got seven years in a regular prison and Ogulsapar Muradova -- six years, also in a regular prison. They were all charged with possessing ammunition. Ogulsapar [Muradova] denied the charges brought against her, and the presiding judge used that to give her a heavier sentence. Sapardurdy [Khajiev] also denied the charges brought against him."

All three defendants were arrested in mid-June and have spent more than two months incommunicado in a National Security Service pretrial detention center.

THF activist Ammanklychev was mentioned in a June 19 televised address in which National Security Minister Geldymukhammed Ashirmukhammedov claimed to have foiled an alleged foreign-funded plot to destabilize the country.

Conspiracy Theories

Ashirmukhammedov said the purported conspiracy also involved a number of Western diplomats. Yet, none of these allegations ever resurfaced in the run-up to the trial.

Human rights defenders say the arms and ammunitions reportedly found in Amanklychev's car upon his arrest were likely planted by security officials. The also blame authorities for other violations committed during the pretrial detention of the three codefendants.

Talking to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service ahead of today's court hearings, Jean-Francois Julliard, of the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) media watchdog, expressed his concerns.

Rights Groups Worried

"We are really worried about this trial," Julliard said. "We already know that the three people who are being [tried] today will be sentenced to very long prison terms because we know that justice is not independent at all in Turkmenistan. Nobody can access this trial. Nobody can have a look at the prisoners. We don't know in which [physical] condition they are. The trial is closed to the press [and] to diplomats. So we are already sure that this trial and the judgments will not be fair."

What THF Chairwoman Begmedova said after the trial confirmed Juillard's apprehensions. "According to our information, the trial was behind closed doors," Begmedova said. "The court's building was cordoned off by armed soldiers. We also learned that all other pending court cases that were expected to be heard today were suspended. Neither Annakurban [Amanklychev]'s lawyer, nor Ogulsapar [Muradova]'s had been officially notified about the beginning of the trial. The lawyers were not allowed to meet with their clients or to bring them water and food [during their pretrial detention]."

Begmedova further said only Judge Guncha Khajikulieva, State Prosecutor Murad Muratliev, and the defendants were allowed to attend the hearings. "Many people tried to attend today's trial," she said. "But all the streets leading to the court's building were closed. Relatives had arrived at 9 a.m., hoping they would be allowed into the courtroom. But they were not allowed in. They didn't allow anyone in. Even the lawyers were authorized to meet with their clients for just one minute before being kicked out by soldiers."

Begmedova said lawyers would appeal today's verdict.

RSF said on August 23 it was "appalled by the attitude of the Turkmen authorities, who are flouting the basic rules of justice and human rights with impunity." (Originally published on August 25.)

The family of Elina Ersenoyeva, a 26-year-old journalist abducted on August 17 in Grozny, has reported that she was secretly -- and perhaps involuntarily -- married to Shamil Basayev, the radical Chechen separatist who was killed by Russian forces in early July.

Ersenoyeva's disappearance has sparked calls from pressure groups like Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists for Russian and Chechen authorities to secure her release.

A journalist with the "Chechenskoye obshchestvo" (Chechen Society) independent weekly, Ersenoyeva's most recent article focused on prison conditions in Grozny.

Multiple Motives?

Her reporting work, however, may not be behind her sudden abduction by armed men. Press reports suggest Ersenoyeva had been married to Shamil Basayev -- the mastermind behind the Beslan school siege and, until his death, the most wanted man in Russia.

Aaron Rhodes is the executive director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF), which has followed the Ersenoyeva case. "It is clear now that she was married to Shamil Basayev. That's our understanding," Rhodes said. "The point about it is, though, it doesn't make any difference. This person isn't guilty of anything herself. This person doesn't deserve to be treated the way she's been treated. There's no justification for these violations of human rights on the basis of this marriage at all."

History of Harassment

In an open letter last week to Russian and Chechen prosecutors, Rhodes said Ersenoyeva had complained two days before her disappearance that she and her family were being harassed by local security forces loyal to pro-Moscow Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov.

The persecution, she said in a letter to the IHF, was tied to the fact that she had been married to an unnamed rebel fighter who had been killed "over a month ago."

Basayev was killed on July 9. The IHF says it learned on August 24 from its sources in Grozny that Ersenoyeva had in fact been married to Basayev.

Secret Marriage

Taisa Isayeva, who heads the Information Center of the Chechen Council of Nongovernmental Organizations (SNO), told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service that she learned of the secret marriage from the journalist's family -- many of whom themselves learned the news only after her disappearance.

"It's true that she was married to Basayev. She married him a year ago," Isayeva said. "Russian and Chechen special forces the other day invited her relatives in for a discussion, and her relatives found out that Elina was his wife. And Elina's mother found out about it only after Basayev's death. Until then, Elina had managed to keep it a secret. No one -- not her mother, not even her colleagues, even suspected such a thing."

Details of the relationship are unclear. Both Isayeva and the IHF say they believe Ersenoyeva was forced into the marriage and that, in Isayeva's words, she was "being used" by Basayev.

Safety Fears

Ersenoyeva's family and supporters are now worried that her captors may subject her to abuse or a long prison term because of her marriage to Basayev.

Chechnya's Moscow-backed authorities say they have opened an investigation into the disappearance.

Ersenoyeva has not been seen since unidentified armed men in camouflage uniforms abducted her in broad daylight from central Grozny's main street.

The journalist had contacted her mother the night of her abduction, saying her kidnappers had promised to release her. Since then her family has received no word from her. (Originally published on August 25.)