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Media Matters: January 10, 2005

10 January 2005, Volume 5, Number 2
By Robert Coalson

As 2004 began, it was already taken for granted by Russia watchers that the Kremlin had established its control over the mass media, especially the national broadcast media. By the end of the year, opposition figures were focusing primarily on the state's efforts to solidify and exploit that control in its purported effort to bolster its authoritarian control over the country. According to a commentary in "Vedomosti" on 30 December, after securing -- with the help of the cowed media -- an impressive reelection in March, President Vladimir Putin "began to 'reboot' the entire system of the executive branch," beginning with the replacement of the government of former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and ending the year with the abolition of the direct election of regional governors.

Union of Rightist Forces political council member Boris Nemtsov, who is also a member of Committee-2008, told Ekho Moskvy on 13 December that there is de facto censorship on Russian television. "There are absolutely forbidden subjects on Russian television," Nemtsov said. "They are alternative views on Ukraine, Chechnya, and the situation in the armed forces; corruption in the highest echelons of power; the false, nontransparent budget; and [former Yukos CEO Mikhail] Khodorkovskii." He added that the media also does not discuss topics such as the spread of AIDS. "Moreover, the list keeps on growing," Nemtsov said. "Pretty soon, they are likely to be included in the law on state secrets. This is the logic of an authoritarian, lying regime. The Kremlin people cannot understand one simple thing: one cannot hold out on lies for long."

The major change in Russia's media environment in 2005 is a new mass media law, a development that Culture and Mass Communications Minister Aleksandr Sokolov promised at a 16 December cabinet meeting. "Novaya gazeta," No. 93, reported that its correspondents have been unable to secure a draft revision that is less than 18 months old or to find anyone within the ministry or in the media sector who can authoritatively say who is working on the new law.

The paper, however, cited some illuminating remarks by Yurii Golik, head of the ministry's legal department. "The present law was written in a different era and it has been changed 15 or 16 times," Golik said. "There it reminds one of a quilt.... However, strange as it might seem, it is alive and working. Freedom of speech is greater even than journalists themselves need. Do you think that workers and people on the street really do not have enough? It is needed only by those who have selected it as their occupation -- prattlers. I don't hear anything but sobs and chest beating."

Golik went so far as to suggest that journalists be made civil servants. "Now journalists depend on their employers, but surely they work for society!" he said. "We support deputies, law enforcement agents, and jurists. Maybe we need to support journalists as well?" In the same article, the newspaper quoted Deputy Culture and Mass Communications Minister Leonid Nadirov as saying cryptically that the drafting of a new media law has been delayed because of "changes that have occurred recently," including "government reforms and the monetization of [in-kind social] benefits."

The secrecy with which the bill is apparently being drafted has already provoked alarm. "Novaya gazeta" noted that the highly controversial law on the monetization of social benefits was introduced to the legislature and quickly pushed through with minimal discussion. The vast pro-Kremlin majority in the Duma, which has already reshaped Duma procedures sufficiently to prevent any delays on the part of opposition figures, means that the Kremlin could introduce a new media law rapidly and with minimal fuss.

Mikhail Yurev, former Duma deputy speaker and president of the Kremlin-connected Yevrofinans company that has made considerable inroads in the media sector over the last couple of years (see "RFE/RL Media Matters," 23 April 2004), told that the recent events in Ukraine will spark "counterrevolution" in Russia. "It is not for me to decide," he said, "but I think that in the near future changes will take place not only in the electronic media but throughout the entire ideological sphere and it will not even stop there." He hinted coyly that TV-Tsentr, which is controlled by the Moscow government, is "a difficult case" and that "there are a lot of questions about RTR."

"Some people have to be removed from the field," Yurev said. "With some of them it will be possible just to have a couple of talks, which, incidentally, was extremely widespread during the era of [U.S. Senator Joseph] McCarthy. Some will understand everything of their own accord."

He concluded bluntly by saying: "I have spoken with [deputy presidential-administration head Vladislav] Surkov many times. His viewpoint is no different from mine: State ideology absolutely must be effective. The greatest defect of the Soviet type of television was that it was not very effective."

Speaking to Interfax on 5 January, Federation Council International Relations Committee Chairman Mikhail Margelov also noted the importance of the Ukraine events for Russia. He said that Moscow failed to achieve its aims in Russia "not because we did not have enough strength but because we were poorly prepared." Saying that diplomats work "with a scalpel," Margelov argued that "nongovernmental an alliance with the press can form a sledgehammer in addition to the scalpel."

Surkov remains the Kremlin's point man on ideological and political issues and all the evidence indicates that he is not satisfied with the current level of state domination of the Russian media. In a rare, but revealing interview with "Komsomolskaya pravda" in September, Surkov made it clear that he believes "war has been declared on Russia" by outside forces whose "goal is the destruction of our country." He added that these unnamed enemies are aided by "fifth columnists" in the form of liberal politicians and journalists. The "bottom line" of Putin's program is the "mobilization of the country in the fight against terrorism," Surkov said. "We should all realize that the enemy is at the gates. We need vigilance, solidarity, and the unification of citizens' and the state's efforts."

It seems evident that in 2005, the Kremlin intends to use the tools that it honed in 2003 and 2004, including especially the state media. By the end of the year, we could be -- like Yurev -- talking about an ideological sector in Russia, rather than a media sector.

By Michael Shafir

More than 30 journalists from the daily "Evenimentul zilei" resigned on 5 January to protest their Swiss publisher's purported plans to revamp editorial policies and transform the daily into a tabloid. Five of their colleagues had already quit the paper, which is among Romania's most popular dailies.

The Ringier Group purchased "Evenimentul zilei" from the German magazine and newspaper publisher Gruner + Jahr (a subsidiary of media giant Bertelsmann) in late 2003 and took over ownership on 1 January 2004. The previous owners reportedly refrained from interfering in editorial policies, and former Editor in Chief Cornel Nistorescu publicly expressed the hope that Ringier would act similarly. It was not to be. In October, Nistorescu resigned after an "amiable understanding" stipulating that he would continue to write twice-weekly articles (see "RFE/RL Media Matters," 11 October 2004).

There was speculation at the time that Ringier's intention might be to change the paper's critical stance toward the then ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD). The owners denied the existence of any such plans, as they denied plans attributed to them to transform "Evenimentul zilei" into a tabloid. It would make little commercial sense, they said, to have two Ringier-owned publications compete with each another. (The tabloid "Libertatea" is also owned by Ringier.)

The new editor in chief, Dan Cristian Turturica, took the owners' pledge at face value. In the election campaign ahead of the parliamentary and presidential elections of November-December, "Evenimentul zilei" continued to be on the front lines among the few remaining media outlets critical of the ruling Social Democrats, and such coverage arguably contributed to the defeat of its leader, former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, by Justice and Truth alliance candidate Traian Basescu. It also contributed to the less-than-impressive performance of the Social Democrats at the polls by printing on the eve of the elections a series of transcripts purportedly stemming from Social Democratic leadership meetings and suggesting high-level corruption, interference in the justice system, and attempts at silencing the media.

On 23 December, Turturica was notified by Ringier's management in Bucharest that he would be "transferred" for a 60-day period to the Moldavian town of Bacau (a Social Democratic stronghold), ostensibly to explore the possibility of launching a local subsidiary paper there. The move appeared timed to trigger as little attention as possible, with most Romanians preparing traditional holiday celebrations. In his place, Ringier appointed journalist Razvan Ionescu, whose professional credentials were immediately questioned by colleagues. Ionescu is a former editor in chief of the television review "TV-Mania" and of the daily "Jurnalul national," and he was executive director of the sports publication "Gazeta sporturilor."

The resulting situation was awkward, as there appeared to be concurrent editors in chief: Turturica, who had not been dismissed, and Ionescu. But Ionescu's appointment triggered protests within the cohesive "Evenimentul zilei" team, and the next issues were brought out by a small group of little-known journalists or journalists working for the sports and entertainment section who were now writing political analysis. Ionescu also threatened to discipline colleagues who refused the marching orders.

The protests went unpublished in the daily but were reported by other independent newspapers, including "Ziua" and "Romania libera." Following a protest by some "Evenimentul zilei" journalists and readers in front of the Swiss Embassy in Bucharest, the Ringier Group claimed in a statement that the changes at "Evenimentul zilei" were aimed at overcoming "management shortcomings" and at "positioning 'Evenimentul zilei' on the first spot among Romania's reference-dailies [sic]." The management said those objectives were agreed upon when Turturica became editor in chief and that the related agreement stipulated they should be met by the end of 2004. "Unfortunately," Ringier said, the goals went unaccomplished and, as a result, management decided to "downscale" Turturica's position at the company due to "irreconcilable differences over management style."

In his final editorial, published on 24 December, Turturica rejected the accusations against him. He wrote that revenue generated from advertising rose during his tenure despite the government's having deprived the daily of "hundreds of thousands of euros" by channeling advertising to less critical newspapers. He also wrote that circulation had risen despite the departure from the newspaper of its most prestigious journalist, Cornel Nistorescu, "the man who became the embodiment of its brand." Indeed, many readers asked the new management to cancel their subscriptions after the changes were imposed.

The nature of the changes was quickly demonstrated on 30 December, when, for the first time since he had joined the daily, journalist Traian Ungureanu was denied permission to publish an article. The article disputed reasons presented by the Ringier Group for the changes. It was "courtesy hosted" by the daily "Romania libera," and ended with the sentence: "I specify that this is the last article I will publish in the daily 'Evenimentul zilei' -- in its version without journalists."

Five prominent columnists from the daily promptly resigned after Ionescu's appointment; dozens of others followed their example once it turned out in negotiations that Ringier would neither pledge in writing that the newspaper's editorial line would be maintained nor revoke Turturica's demotion. The former editor in chief said he would join them as soon as the stipulations of his contract ran out in two months' time. The journalists announced their intention to establish an independent new daily, based on the example of "Le Monde." According to that prestigious French daily's charter and in order to preempt any attempt to influence editorial policies, ownership by any single entity must not exceed 5 percent.

The sad moral of the story was summed up by Mircea Mihaies, a University of Timisoara professor of English literature and the editor in chief of the monthly "Orizont": "It is strange to see Western companies behaving in Romania in a manner reminiscent of socialist-era methods. Above all, it is most grave that trust in Western values is vanishing.... Ringier...has done an enormous disservice to the idea of Europe toward which Romanians move with such enthusiasm. I myself have heard many saying, 'If this is Europe, they'd better leave us alone.'"

Why the Social Democrats might want to silence critical voices is clear. Why Ringier might oblige is unclear -- particularly now that the Social Democrats are no longer in a position to simply do as they wish in Romania.

By Golnaz Esfandiari

Under the hard-line Taliban regime there were only a few newspapers in Afghanistan -- and they were controlled by the state. The only radio station, Radio Shariat, broadcast mostly religious programs. Television was banned.

Three years after the Taliban's fall, all that has changed. More than 250 publications are now registered with the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture. There are also 42 radio stations and eight private television stations.

Experts applaud these developments, saying a healthy media is essential to Afghanistan's political and economic development. Because of the high illiteracy rate, radio is the main source of news for most Afghans. In major cities such as Kabul, television is also finding its place in daily lives.

Yet Afghan journalists are still not considered entirely free. They face pressure from conservatives and intimidation and violence from warlords and militias in regions still not under the full control of the central government.

Siamak Herawi, a media specialist in the communications office of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, told RFE/RL: "I think the media are free by all means, but sometimes there is self-censorship because of problems that arise from Afghanistan's current conditions. For example, a number of journalists fear that if they tell the truth, they will possibly be threatened. And in most of the regions, the central government doesn't have 100 percent control yet, so journalists fear that local authorities will harass them."

But there are also reports that suggest government pressure on journalists. In December, Abdul Hamid Mobarez, former deputy minister of information and culture, resigned in protest over what he called the ministry's "censorship of the media." Sayyed Makhdum Rahin, newly reappointed minister of information and culture, denies those accusations.

Herawi, former editor in chief of the state-run "Anis" daily newspaper, also denies reports of government pressure on the media. "There is no [state] censorship at all," Herawi said. "The critical view you currently see in state media is unprecedented in history. I myself was the chief editor of 'Anis' until four or five months ago. I used to harshly criticize the government but there was no reaction."

Because of the high illiteracy rate, radio is the main source of news for most Afghans. In major cities such as Kabul, television is also finding its place in daily lives.

Still, media workers in Afghanistan face a number of problems -- from a lack of training and equipment to intimidation, threats and harassment. And many journalists reportedly choose not to cover politics or Islamic issues simply out of fear.

Vincent Brossel covers the region for Reporters Without Borders in Paris. "The worst enemies remain the conservatives who are either with the government or with the opposition, especially the Taliban. [The enemies are] the religious conservatives who do not tolerate the assertion of pluralistic news and information," Brossel told RFE/RL. "So we've had some decisions by the Supreme Court -- which is controlled by conservatives -- against cable television and against women who sang on the radio. But there is also pressure from the warlords, from former mujahadins, drug traffickers; they cannot stand the media criticizing the way they manage the country."

Brossel said that threats and intimidation are part of the daily work of Afghan journalists -- especially in the provinces. "In the south of the country, near Khost or Kandahar, in places where the Taliban is active, journalists are caught between two fires -- the fire from the Taliban as it is very difficult to cover the activities of the Taliban in the country. [The journalists] are also facing fire from militias, warlords who are being paid by the government and the Americans to fight the Taliban," Brossel said. "So we had many cases of local commanders who were making threats against the journalists with their guns and Kalashnikovs."

Yet there are also cases of progress. Karzai's recently appointed cabinet does not include some influential warlords who were reportedly behind several cases of threats against journalists. And the media had been under considerable pressure in the northern city of Herat until Karzai sacked its governor, Ismail Khan, a few months ago.

Adela Kabiri, a journalist in Herat, said conditions for journalists in Herat has now improved. "Until these new developments in the country a few months ago, journalists in Herat were facing problems and had to censor their reports," Kabiri said. "Otherwise, if they commented on the realities as they are, they would face problems. But now, in my opinion, there are no limitations on journalists."

In October, Afghanistan held its first direct presidential elections. Parliamentary elections are scheduled in May. It is still not clear if Afghan journalists and other media workers will be able to freely cover the elections throughout the country.

Brossel of Reporters Without Borders said the future of the media in Afghanistan will depend on several factors. "I think as long as the international community keeps a careful eye on developments in Afghanistan, it will go in the right direction," he said. "What is very positive is that now the media is created, managed and financed by Afghans. And also, disarmament [of militias] should be accelerated and there should be an assertion of the central government's authority all over the country so that the journalists can work freely."

Meanwhile, experts hope the government takes a higher profile in promoting media. Human Rights Watch has urged Karzai to make a public statement in favor of the freedom of the press.