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Media Matters: September 15, 2006

September 15, 2006, Volume 6, Number 14
International rights organizations have expressed outrage at news that RFE/RL's Turkmen Service correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova died in custody. They blame Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov's government for what they say appears to be an extrajudiciary execution and call upon the international community to press Ashgabat to shed light on the journalist's death.

Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said it was "shocked" by reports of Muradova's death. In a statement issued on September 14, the group urged the international community -- "especially the European countries, the United States, and Russia" -- to demand that Turkmen authorities explain the circumstances of Muradova's death.

The same day, RSF organized a protest rally outside the Turkmen Embassy in Paris. Some 30 group members and journalists briefly entered the embassy, demanding to see the ambassador. French police removed them without violence; it was unclear whether the Turkmen envoy met with any of the protesters.

Protest In Paris

Talking to RFE/RL from Paris ahead of the demonstration, the RSF's Elsa Vidal said the group has called for a protest meeting in the French capital. "We have decided to demonstrate outside Turkmenistan's Embassy in Paris so that this murder will not be left unpunished and at least we [do not remain] silent," she said.

Muradova's children say security officials notified them of their mother's death on September 14. It is still unclear when she died, however.

Signs Of Violence

Family members were eventually permitted to see Muradova's body. They were subsequently quoted by the exiled Turkmen Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (THF) as saying the corpse had marks on the neck and a "large wound" on the forehead.

Security officials have claimed that Muradova died of natural causes. But THF Chairwoman Tajigul Begmedova said there is no doubt in her mind that Muradova was killed.

"We're confronted with the active political assassination of Ogulsapar Muradova, an RFE/RL journalist and a former human rights activist," she said. "We have all reasons to say that [she] died of a violent death after being tortured and offended."

Aaron Rhodes, the executive director of the Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF), also said he believes Muradova died violently.

Trumped-Up Charges?

"It appears that she has been summarily executed by the authorities, which she certainly doesn't deserve, and nobody does," he said.

In a statement issued on September 14, the New York-based Committee to Protest Journalists said the Turkmen authorities' "secretive conduct, combined with unofficial account of wounds found on [Muradova's] body, raise suspicions of foul play."

In London, Amnesty International said it was "concerned at allegations that [Muradova] was subjected to torture and ill treatment in detention."

Mysterious Detention

Muradova was arrested in mid-June with several human rights activists and her three adult children without explanation.

Her children were later released. But the journalist and two co-defendants -- THF activists Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khajiev -- were sentenced on August 25 to up to seven years in jail on charges of illegally possessing ammunition, charges that rights groups say were fabricated.

Rhodes says his and other organizations have had serious concerns about the detentions and the trial.

Seeking An Explanation

"IHF and quite a few other human rights groups have appealed to the Turkmen authorities about this case beginning on July 17," he said. "We have been worried about the status of these prisoners who [were] detained without explanation and eventually sentenced in a kind of a show trial which does not meet international standards of due process and to which no member of the international community was allowed to access to observe. The trial lasted something like 10 minutes and does not satisfy anyone that there was a serious examination of guilt or innocence before the law."

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) today called upon Turkmen authorities to shed light on Muradova's death.

Miklos Haraszti, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that he was "quite shaken" and "very sad" by news of the journalist's death.

"[On September 14] I contacted the [Turkmen] authorities and asked them to handle this death in a transparent way in providing information about all the circumstances surrounding [Muradova's] death," Haraszti said.

Haraszti also said he regretted that Muradova did not have time to appeal the court decision that sentenced her to jail. (Originally published on September 15.)

RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Andrei Shary spoke with Azer Mursaliyev, a journalist with the business daily "Kommersant." The paper was recently purchased by metals magnate Alisher Usmanov, who is believed to have close ties to the Kremlin. Mursaliyev recently attended Usmanov's first meeting with "Kommersant" journalists.

RFE/RL: What impression has Usmanov made on you?

Azer Mursaliyev: Perfectly normal. Of course, he is a relatively well-known man. So, if it had been some completely unknown person, something completely unexpected, then we could speak about impressions. But this was completely expected, completely normal.

RFE/RL: From what he told you, can you draw any conclusions about the future development or reform of "Kommersant"?

Mursaliyev: Reforms at the paper have already been under way for just over a year. As far as I understand, this path of reform and the things which Mr. Usmanov discussed didn't raise any objections. Moreover, he announced his position -- that he doesn't intend to interfere with editorial policy. So we can conclude that we'll conduct reforms within the framework of our existing plan. At the end of September, we'll begin publishing in color and, most likely, there will be some changes to the design.

RFE/RL: But the format of the paper won't be changed?

Mursaliyev: No. Although there were discussions and arguments about the fact that there's a growing trend in the market toward reduced-format newspapers. But -- luckily, in my opinion -- the conservative point of view won the day at "Kommersant." Our format will remain the same.

RFE/RL: Some media have been quoting a statement by Usmanov that the purchase of "Kommersant" is his company's first step toward creating a major media holding company. Did he discuss this in more detail?

Mursaliyev: No, there was no detailed discussion. But he doesn't intend to stop with this purchase. This is a new kind of business for him. He wants to develop it, but at the same time he promised that any media acquisitions will somehow complement or be in the same niche with "Kommersant," and that they will be subsidiary projects of "Kommersant" and not the other way around.

RFE/RL: There was another statement that drew attention. Usmanov said that he doesn't intend to infringe upon freedom of speech, but that he does intend to support the Kremlin's policies and that he supports the Kremlin's policies. Isn't this a contradiction?

Mursaliyev: No. The contradiction arose because the quotation isn't accurate. As far as I remember, the exact quotation was something like, as a citizen he supports the policies of the Kremlin, but that he doesn't plan to interfere in editorial matters. The criticism to be found in the paper's editorial content is, in his opinion, fully justified. The newspaper has the right to be critical.

RFE/RL: How did the editorial team react to the change of ownership?

Mursaliyev: This isn't the first time that the Kommersant publishing house has changed hands. As the old saying goes -- fear a little, worry a little, expect a little. The Kommersant publishing house is going through its third or fourth ownership change. So I think a certain immunity has developed. The team does not see anything extraordinary in this.

RFE/RL: After your meeting with Usmanov, do you have more confidence that "Kommersant" will remain a leader among the quality Russian press? Or is your level of confidence the same or less?

Mursaliyev: Of course, we want "Kommersant" to remain a leader in the future. This depends not so much on the owners as on the editorial team. (Originally published on September 14.)

The publishing house of one of Russia's leading business dailies, "Kommersant," has been sold to Alisher Usmanov, a metals magnate with close ties to the Kremlin.

Usmanov, who is reportedly worth $2.6 billion, has denied allegations that he bought the publishing house at the behest of the authorities. "This is my personal deal, my personal investment," he told the "Kommersant" daily.

Georgian entrepreneur Badri Patarkatsishvili, who purchased the newspaper from billionaire Boris Berezovsky only in February, says there "is no political subtext" behind the sale.

But his assurances have done little to soothe the concerns of "Kommersant" journalists and others concerned about the state of Russian media.

They see the deal -- reportedly worth around $300 million -- as an attempt by the Kremlin to tighten its control over mass media ahead of parliamentary elections in 2007 and presidential election in 2008.

Independent Line

Business daily "Kommersant" is widely respected for its independent analysis and has often been critical of the Kremlin. The general director of the Kommersant publishing house, Demyan Kudryavtsev, has said that Usmanov does not intend to interfere in editorial policy.

Some media watchers have doubts, though. Oleg Panfilov, the head of the Moscow-based media watchdog Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, says: "I distrust such people [Usmanov], who a year before the parliamentary and presidential elections are buying media outlets. I don't think that it is just a simple [deal]. I also think that the Kremlin is concerned that to this point several newspapers are still not under its control."

Others have expressed concern at the role of Gazprom. Usmanov is a senior manager at Gazprom, which itself has $700 million worth of media assets. Gazprom, however, told the Interfax news agency on August 31 that it is not interested in buying the publishing group.

Freedom In Print

With the state controlling the three main television networks in Russia, newspapers are seen by some as one of the last bastions of media freedom in Russia.

In Putin's first term in office between 2000 and 2004, the state seized control of several national television channels. In 2001, Gazprom took control of NTV, then Russia's only privately owned nationwide broadcaster.

So does this mean that these small-circulation, but often influential, newspapers are next on the Kremlin's hit list?

Yury Fedorov, an associate fellow at the U.K.-based Chatham House, says that the Kremlin's first task was to tackle mass media. Now it is turning its attention to publications that target political elites.

"It's really very important for the Kremlin today on the eve of the coming presidential and parliamentary -- especially presidential elections -- to control fully not only TV channels that are normally designed to influence the masses of population but also to control elite-orientated mass media," Fedorov says.

But despite this, speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service, "Kommersant" Editor in Chief Vladimir Borodulin plays down the implications of the deal. He says that there is a political aspect to all newspaper ownership.

"We have been living under such circumstances in which the "Kommersant' publishing house has been in the process of being sold for more than half a year," Borodulin says. "And despite who the buyer was to be -- either Alisher Usmanov, or somebody else, there was always the presumption that this guy would come to the publishing house with some political mission. Actually there is such a presumption about any new owner." (Originally published on September 1.)

By Luke Allnutt

Often criticized as a gangsters' paradise and Soviet theme park, Transdniester is on a charm offensive -- at least in cyberspace. Take a look at one of a handful of new English-language websites showcasing the breakaway state and you'll get the impression of a forward-thinking young democracy.

If the country's young people aren't break dancing, a reader is led to believe, they'll be blogging or attending an environmental demonstration -- all while enthusing about Transdniester's drive for independence. is one such site. With savvy writing and a slick design, the site aims to challenge popular notions of Transdniester as dreary, corrupt, and run by a repressive regime funded by arms and people trafficking.

The websites quote a number of Westerners marveling at Tiraspol's new football stadium or saying Transdniester is the French Riviera compared to Moldova proper.

Irishman Des Grant is one of those quoted on He says he first came to Transdniester in the early 1990s as part of a humanitarian aid mission, and has been visiting ever since.

"It's an absolutely beautiful country. The people there have a spirit that you don't really get in many Eastern European countries," Grant says. "I've visited probably 20, over 30 countries in the world, in fact, and I have to say that this place really sparkles. There is a warmth and an energy in that small place. If I was to compare it with anywhere in Western Europe it would have to be Switzerland."

'Tiraspol Times'

Grant is also the founder of the "Tiraspol Times," an online newspaper that professes to be "committed to the truth."

Grant says his intention is to help the free press in Transdniester. But at least one journalist has questioned the methods of the "Tiraspol Times," whose content is largely dedicated to effusive praise of the government or endorsing independence.

Tom de Waal, a London-based journalist and author, was outraged to see an article under his name appear on the "Tiraspol Times" website.

The article, which the site says was "adapted" by a journalist named Michael Garner, appears to support Transdniester's claim to independence.

"I've certainly never been to Pridnestrovie, Transdniester, or Moldova, and I am certainly not arguing, as is written under my name, that Pridnestrovie has a better case for independence than Kosovo," de Waal says.

De Waal says that the publication grafted material onto an article he had earlier written about parallels between Kosovo and Georgia's breakaway territory of Abkhazia. He said he had never heard of Michael Garner, and did not even know his byline had appeared on the "Tiraspol Times."

Confronted with this information, website founder Grant said he had no knowledge an error had been made, but that it would be rectified if it proved to be the case.

Mysterious Think Tank

It isn't just young European hipsters that Transdniester is targeting in its image campaign, but also the more serious-minded foreign-policy community.

An August report in the U.K.-based "Economist" magazine looked into a group called the International Council for Democratic Institutions and State Sovereignty.

The council is credited with producing a report in support of Transdniestrian independence. But journalist Edward Lucas, who wrote the original "Economist" story about the organization, says he could find little information about the think tank.

"What's really remarkable is that nobody's been able to produce any credible proof or verifiable proof that they have any existence," Lucas says.

All but one of the alleged authors of the report have since denied involvement in the study. The case has provoked suspicions among Western officials like Louis O'Neill, the head of the OSCE Mission to Moldova.

"It even quoted my former colleague at the [U.S.] State Department, who, of course, was never consulted, never said the things he was said to say and generally was distorted," O'Neill says.

So who is behind the sudden crop of polished promotional websites? And who is responsible for the report by the International Council for Democratic Institutions and State Sovereignty?

And where, Lucas asks, is the money coming from? "I think that the extreme conspiracy theory that the entire thing is run from Tiraspol is quite hard to sustain. I think it's much more likely that it's a mixture of some money from Tiraspol, which might either be government money, money from Mr. [Vladimir] Antyufeyev's State Security Committee, or possibly from one of the wealthy trading companies there," Lucas says.

No doubt, tracking the money is likely to be tough. Grant is vague about the funding of the "Tiraspol Times." In a telephone interview, he says the publication receives no funding whatsoever. But later, in e-mail correspondence, he says the website is funded by unnamed "directors."

Despite the images of cloudless days and young people dancing in the streets, Transdniester may well have to do a little more to shake off its dubious reputation in the West. (RFE/RL correspondent Eugen Tomiuc contributed to this report. Originally published on September 15.)