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Media Matters: November 24, 2006

November 24, 2006, Volume 6, Number 16
Ulugbek Khaidarov, an independent Uzbek journalist and rights campaigner recently released from custody, has said he will continue reporting. Speaking to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service from his home in Jizzakh, the 43-year-old journalist said first he needs to recover physically.

Khaidarov returned home on November 8 after two months in custody -- a time he described as "hell." He had been sentenced to a six-year prison term for extortion. He denies the charges.

He said his first priority is to recover from the abuse he suffered. "Now I have to recover seriously. I feel changes have occurred to my organism. I cannot talk about that now. First I need to recover. Then it will be clear. But I have to say that I cannot live not working as a journalist," Khaidarov said.

Khaidarov was arrested in Jizzakh on September 14. Seconds before, he said, a woman he had met on the street slipped an envelope containing $400 into his pocket.

He said that after his arrest he was moved successively to four detention facilities. First he was sent to a pretrial jail in Jizzakh, then transferred to the southern city of Khavas, then to a prison in Tashkent, the capital.

On October 5, Khaidarov was sentenced after a trial that Western rights groups condemned as a "parody of justice." He was then transferred to the Nawaiy prison colony.

He said living conditions in all those facilities were particularly harsh. "I got very thin. Within a short period of time I lost probably some 12 kilograms. In jail we had to do compulsory exercises from 5 a.m. until 10 p.m.," Khaidarov said. "Maybe it's because of this, because my organism was not used to those conditions, I now feel pain in my bones and head."

Conditions worsened after he was moved to Tashkent and then to Nawaiy. There, Khaidarov said, he endured a form of torture that consists of having a prisoner march through two ranks of prison guards who beat the prisoners with truncheons or iron bars. This exercise is named after the Russian word for "breaking."

The journalist said he was physically and psychologically harassed, both during the investigation and after his trial. His wife, Munira Khaidarova, was allowed to see her husband in prison on September 23. Three days later, Khaidarov's sister Nortoji shared her concern with RFE/RL's Uzbek Service.

"[The prison guards] hardly gave [Munira] five minutes. They kept rushing her. She told us she found [Ulugbek] in bad shape. She says he didn't seem to be in his right mind. His eyes were unfocused. His mouth was twisted," she said. "He had lost a great deal of weight. He didn't seem to know what he was saying. He kept repeating: 'I know nothing, I know nothing,' and 'everything's alright, everything's alright.'"

On November 7, the appeals chamber of the Jizzakh city court cleared Khaidarov of all charges and ordered his release. He was set free the following day.

The Paris-based press-freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders on November 8 welcomed Khaidarov's "unexpected release." But the group said many Uzbek journalists remain in custody, including Khaidarov's friend Jamshid Karimov.

Karimov, who is the nephew of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, disappeared in Jizzakh on September 12. He is believed to have been arrested by the Uzbek secret police and sent to a psychiatric hospital.

Khaidarov's liberation coincided with talks Uzbek Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov had in Brussels this week with European Union officials. The EU is due to decide on November 13 whether to extend the sanctions imposed on Uzbekistan following last year's military crackdown in Andijon.

Some rights campaigners have suggested Kaidarov's release is linked to the upcoming EU decision. Others -- that it is a consequence of the visit German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier made in Uzbekistan earlier this month. (Originally published on November 11.)

By Jeremy Bransten

The international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is holding a 24-hour campaign that it calls a "Demonstration Against Internet Censorship."

A growing number of countries censor their citizens' access to the web. Among the worst offenders are 13 countries that RSF labels "enemies of the Internet." They are: Saudi Arabia, Belarus, Myanmar, China, North Korea, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Uzbekistan, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam.

The Internet opened a world of information for hundreds of millions of people across the globe. And it used to be that it didn't matter where you lived or who you were. The Internet had no frontiers.

But governments soon devised ways to put the borders back up -- and limit access to information. In recent years, censorship methods have become increasingly sophisticated.

"There are many ways to prevent free information from circulating on the Internet," says Julien Pain, head of RSF's Internet Freedom Desk. "The most common one is to just block access to the domain name, to the website. But there are more sophisticated ways of censoring the Internet. For example, in Uzbekistan, the authorities have set up mirror websites, which look like the [offending] websites, but which are actually websites that are edited by people close to the authorities. So they are fake websites."

Being censored -- and not even realizing it -- is one of the most worrying developments on the Internet. "In China, when you don't access a website because it's censored, it's never said explicitly," Pain explains. "You try to connect to the website and you get a message saying the connection failed or there was a connection timeout -- as if the problem were a technical problem. So that's what's happening in China and that's what's happening in most countries that censor the Internet. It's not done explicitly."

RSF hopes its current campaign will help turn back the tide of censorship. "During [the next] 24 hours, we'll ask Internet users from all over the world to come to our website," Pain explains. "And on our website, we'll have different actions that can be taken by Internet users. So, for example they'll be able to vote on an interactive map that we've set up. And they'll be able to vote against censorship in several countries. For example, they can vote against censorship in China, in Iran.... All the votes will be counted and at the end of the 24 hours, we hope that 20, 30, or 50,000 people will have voted against censorship."

But what about people who don't have access to the RSF website, precisely because they live in countries like China or Turkmenistan -- where it is blocked? The NGO has a temporary solution, that it hopes will keep it one step ahead of the censors.

"There are two sites," Pain says. "For people living in democracies, where the Internet is not censored, you just have to go to the RSF website. It's If you live in China or in Iran, or in another country where the RSF website is not accessible, then you should go to another [site.] It's:"

What's equally worrying, says Pain, is that some international software companies and search-engine hosts -- eager to increase their profits -- are cooperating with governments that limit their people's access to the web.

Last year, Yahoo provided information that helped Chinese state security officials convict a Chinese journalist of posting information on a foreign website. Through RSF's website, people will also be able to leave voice messages for the founder of Yahoo -- to register their displeasure.

Pain says he hopes ordinary people's voices will have an impact. "I think it's very important, because if Yahoo feels that its image is badly damaged by this campaign, maybe it will realize that it has to change its position and behave differently in China," Pain says. "That's what we hope, because private companies don't like their image to be ruined this way. So I think at some point they'll maybe prefer to behave ethically than being attacked and attacked by NGOs like ours."

He also believes today's campaign will strengthen RSF's voice when it lobbies governments that censor the Internet. "The first thing is then when we meet governments and diplomats now, we'll be able to say: Internet censorship is not only an issue for us, Reporters Without Borders," he explains. "It's an issue for 20, 30 or 50,000 people, who voted against censorship on our website during these 24 hours. This means that it gives us weight for our lobbying activity. When you do lobbying, it's important to say that you have people behind you, backing what you're doing." (Originally published on November 7.)

By Golnaz Esfandiari

Writers and publishers in Iran complain that new guidelines on censorship are preventing them from issuing new books. They say Iran's Culture Ministry is dragging its feet or blocking new titles, and even demanding that previously published books be resubmitted for approval.

The tight grip of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's administration marks a notable departure from its predecessor.

Fierce critics of authorities' campaign to rein in authors and publishers warn that the moves could destroy Iran's book industry. Dozens of authors and publishers say they have been waiting months for their new books, novels, or political essays to be published.

Farkhondeh Hajizadeh, an Iranian writer and an award-winning publisher, tells RFE/RL that the licensing process for new titles has become "a monster." Over the past year, she claims, many of her books have gone unpublished.

"It would be better for you to ask how many of my books have been given a license these days," Hajizadeh says when asked about the number of books she has seen held up by censors. "In the past, none of our books were granted permission without modifications. It seems the publishing industry is being devastated, or independent publishers cannot exist anymore. We specialize in art and literature -- that's exactly the area that's problematic for [officials], not physics and chemistry. Our books have been either banned, or they have faced censorship after a year, or they remain suspended."

The publication and distribution of books in the Islamic republic have always required permits from the Culture Ministry. Such permits were granted following scrutiny by officials who might also demand the removal of materials deemed anti-Islamic, immoral, or politically unacceptable.

Restrictions were eased under reformist President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) -- particularly under his first culture minister, Attaollah Mohajerani. Mohajerani was eventually forced out amid heavy criticism from conservatives.

When President Ahmadinejad took office in 2005, he appointed a former editor of the hard-line daily "Kayhan" as his minister of culture. Minister Hossein Saffar Harandi -- a former member of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps -- has vowed to purge the country's cultural scene of "unhealthy products" and revive the values of Islamic revolution.

Saffar Harandi dismisses the notion that Iran's publishing industry faces a crisis and notes that new titles increased by 10,000 in the Iranian year ending on March 20, 2005.

Ahmadinejad has also said that his government supports books and reading. But critics say independent authors and writers whose views are not in line with the government's are facing de facto bans.

Author Hajizadeh says that publishers previously could foresee which books were likely to face official obstacles. But she says that is no longer the case.

"There was a time when one could predict that [a certain] book would not get a permit or that they would ask for some parts of it to be removed," Hajizadeh says. "But now, you see that even books by professors, or books related to religion, or books that do not oppose anyone or don't include anything erotic or political -- even very ordinary books -- cannot obtain a permit."

A Tehran-based publisher who asks not to be named tells RFE/RL that those who are now in charge of censoring books lack general knowledge and expertise.

Hajizadeh describes the current situation as hopeless. "We have always faced censorship, but before one could go and discuss it logically," Hajizadeh says. "The situation is such that one sometimes becomes desperate. For example, they have sent a book by Samad Behrangi to the Culture Ministry, [and] in one of the copies it says that 'two years ago the situation was better than now.' [Officials] have said that [such a passage] should be removed. And there is no way to explain to them that the meaning of 'two years ago' is 'two years ago, 40 years ago,' when Behrangi was still alive."

Censors are reportedly blocking the publication of a book by a giant of Iranian literature, novelist Sadegh Hedayat.

Renowned Iranian novelist Mahmud Dolatabadi said in late October that publishers should respond to the pressure by asking to be excused from publishing. He said writers should withhold their works, rather than seek publication.

Fellow novelist Ali Ashraf Darvishian says that he and many others have decided not to submit their books to the Culture Ministry for review.

"I can name the titles of 4,000 books that are currently awaiting permits," Darvishian says. "Some of the writers and poets publish their books outside Iran or on websites. This has put a lot of pressure on the publishing industry; some [publishers] are facing bankruptcy or have gone bankrupt. Many booksellers have changed jobs."

Journalist Emadeddin Baghi recently complained in an open letter to Culture Minister Saffar Harandi that about six of his books have been banned. Most of them deal with human rights issues, such as the situation inside Iranian prisons or the death penalty.

Baghi tells Radio Farda that he thinks the ban is retaliation for his investigation into dissident killings in the 1990s, or his association with dissident Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri.

"They have prepared a list of writers whose books should not be published -- some because they are laical and [officials] believe their books could lead to the propagation of secularism, some because of their antiestablishment stances," Baghi says. "The truth is that I'm neither known as being laical nor have I taken antiestablishment stances. The main cause of sensitivity could be over the issue of chain killings of intellectuals, which was covered in the press; I wrote the first article about it. Another reason could be my old ties with Ayatollah Montazeri."

The publishing restrictions have coincided with what writers charge is a government crackdown on freedom of speech in Iran. Iran's writers association said earlier this week that censorship has reached a new peak in Iran. The association warned that that Iran's cultural community will not remain silent.

Darvishian says intellectuals should protest the restrictions. "I think that if the protests become more widespread in the form of a gathering or letters with many signatures, then I think there would be some results," he says. "Because a country cannot continue its life without art, without writers and poets and poetry."

(Radio Farda correspondents Bahman Bastani and Mossadegh Katouzian contributed to this report. Originally published on October 31.)

Christopher Walker is the director of studies at the U.S.-based Freedom House. On the sidelines of the Prague Energy Forum, organized by RFE/RL in partnership with the Warsaw-based Institute for Eastern Studies, Walker spoke to RFE/RL correspondent Claire Bigg about Russia's backsliding democracy and the erosion of media freedoms.

RFE/RL: Freedom House in September issued its annual "Worst Of The Worst" report, a list of the world's most dictatorial nations. What has been the trend with regard to human rights in the former Soviet Union in past years?

Christopher Walker: All in all, in recent years the trend has been very negative. This has been in part, I think, a response to developments in countries such as Ukraine and Georgia, but we've seen what one could describe as an intensification of control of both state and nonstate institutions in most of the countries of the former Soviet Union. So, both in the evaluation you cite, but also in our annual survey of press freedom around the world. This has also been notable for its decline, and for the authorities' particular focus on the media sector, which has been very negative and troubling.

RFE/RL: You also have a series of other reports, including "Freedom In The World," "Nations In Transit," and "Freedom Of The Press." What is the methodology for compiling such reports?

Walker: It's a little bit different between the different projects, but as a basic proposition, we use expert analysts who do the evaluations for these countries. We also use expert review committees, which also function as peer review for what we produce. This review is done by evaluating the narratives and the material we produce; we also gather the experts together in person to do the reviews which are then released once a year. This is true of the global surveys; the "Freedom In The World" findings will be released in January this year, and "Freedom Of The Press" is usually released on World Press Freedom Day, at the end of April or early May.

RFE/RL: Last week, Freedom House released a statement condemning Russia for cracking down on human rights organizations and activists drawing attention to abuses in Chechnya. This followed the murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya on October 7. Is this a sign that freedom of speech is declining in Russia?

Walker: I don't think there's any question about it. These are really the most recent episodes in what has been a systematic and ongoing effort to control the media in Russia. The effort to control national broadcast media started already three or four years ago, such that today in Russia there really is no independent voice that reaches the wider country at all. The Russian authorities also set their sights last year on REN-TV, just to kind of complete the effort on the broadcast side.

What they've done recently which is particularly troubling is they've taken a closer look at the print media, and there have been some ownership takeovers in just the last few months which are very troubling, the most recent of which was "Kommersant." One can presume that this is being done in advance of the 2007-08 elections, and it really is bad news for the independent media in the country.

The murder of Anna Politkovskaya is really a brutal and tragic part of this larger effort to control the media, which almost seems to have spun out of control. There really is not a meaningful piece of the information sector that is able to talk about political issues in a consequential way, and this is a very serious and negative development in Russia.

RFE/RL: This statement also called on the United States to be more vocal in condemning actions by the Russian government restricting freedom of speech and association. Do you feel that the United States and other Western countries are being too soft on Russia?

Walker: I think the intensification of autocratic politics and repression in Russia really deserves consistent and vocal responses from the democratic community, including North America, the European Union, and beyond. Silence could be interpreted as acceptance or acquiescence, and therefore it's critical to keep a vocal and consistent voice on these issues.

RFE/RL: Do you think Western criticism has the power to improve the situation in Russia?

Walker: It's a very difficult question today. I think that one of the dimensions of contemporary Russia, and this may apply to some other countries, is that the energy wealth they have in some ways provides them with a cushion, in a number of respects. This cushion has relevance both for their ability to pay less attention to outside actors who have less leverage on Russia, generally speaking, and it also provides a cushion for them internally to find new and innovative ways to co-opt and repress. And this is a real problem. It's a multifaceted challenge which has emerged with the spike in oil prices, and it's tough to gauge. But that said, it doesn't obviate the need for all of the democratic community to stay very focused and vocal on these issues. That should happen irrespective of some of these other variables. (Originally published on October 25.)

By Andrew Tully

Turkmenistan remains among the six countries with the worst records on press freedom, according to the Worldwide Press Freedom Index published on October 24 by the international advocacy group Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

RSF said the worst offenders remain the same as in the past four years. The index also shows that while press freedoms have improved over the past year in the former communist states of Eastern Europe, the situation is no better than it was in the former Soviet states.

At the same time, however, countries with reputations for a free press, including the United States, are suffering a decline in press freedoms.

Of the 168 countries surveyed, the index found that the press were least free -- beginning with the worst – in North Korea, Turkmenistan, Eritrea, Cuba, Burma, and China.

Lucie Morillon from RSF's Washington office says citizens in these countries have access to virtually no independent news. And, she says, those who try to provide it face imprisonment or worse.

Morillon highlighted the death in custody of an RFE/RL correspondent in Turkmenistan, Ogulsapar Muradova, as a demonstration that the country's leader, President Sapamurat Niyazov, "is willing to use extreme violence against those who dare to criticize him."

The index rates all the former Soviet states, as a group, as the worst in Europe. Morillon noted that Belarus ranks in 151st place and that Russia fares little better at 147th.

"Russia basically suffers from a lack of democracy and continues slowly but steadily to dismantle the free media, with industrial groups close to [President] Vladimir Putin buying up nearly all independent media outlets," Morillon notes. She highlights the passage of a law discouraging nongovernmental organizations, and the killing of journalists with "total impunity."

Morillon points to the killing of in July 2004 of Paul Klebnikov, the editor of the Russian edition of the U.S. business magazine "Forbes," and the slaying of Anna Politkovskaya earlier this month, though Politkovskaya's death came too late to be reflected in the 2006 report.

On a more optimistic note, the report cites improvement in Eastern Europe, particularly in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The report said many of the improvements in this region can be traced to membership -- or the hope of membership -- of the European Union.

The group's rankings do not address the quality of journalism in a country, Morillon says, but only whether journalists face intimidation or worse either by the government or other forces in society.

Morillon says the quality of journalism is high in the United States, as it is in many other parts of the world. But she emphasizes that even U.S. journalists need to be careful.

She says the United States has dropped nine places in RSF's rankings, to 53rd, because "relations between the media and the Bush administration sharply deteriorated after the president's use of the pretext of national security to regard as suspicious any journalists who question his war on terrorism" and because of concerns about "increasing attacks on the confidentiality of sources. Some federal courts are more and more subpoenaing journalists and are trying to get the [identities of] sources of journalists."

In the first Worldwide Press Freedom Index, issued in 2002, the United States ranked 17th.

The United States is not the only Western country that has a strong journalistic tradition and yet is a place where news people have to be careful. Morillon notes that Denmark dropped from joint first place to 19th place because of the controversy over the publications of unflattering cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad.

The issue in Denmark is not the government in Copenhagen, but threats from individuals. "This index is not only about how authorities are cracking down on the media," Morillon says. "It's also about how journalists can work every day, can do their work of informing the people. And even if it's a country that is very observant of civil liberties, journalists [in Denmark] have to have police protection due to threats against them because of their work. And these journalists have received threats, serious threats, that have endangered their ability to write whatever they want, as they used to do."

RSF says the index is based on answers to 50 questions from 130 of its correspondents around the world, 14 organizations that advocate freedom of expression, as well as journalists, researchers, legal experts, and human rights activists. (Originally published on October 24.)