9 February 2005, Volume 5, Number 4
MIXED MESSAGE: PRESIDENT PUTIN, RUSSIAN STATE TELEVISION, AND IRAQ'S ELECTIONSBy Daniel Kimmage
In their round-ups of official worldwide reaction to Iraq's 30 January elections, "The New York Times" and "The Washington Post" grouped Russian President Vladimir Putin with French President Jacque Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in the "past critics of the Iraq war turned guarded optimists" column. As "The New York Times" put it on 1 February, "In Russia, a vehement opponent of the war, President Vladimir V. Putin said the elections had been held in conditions he called 'very complicated, to put it mildly,' adding: 'At the same time, it is a step in the right direction. It is a positive event.'"
Putin's remarks came at a cabinet meeting on 31 January. According to the official transcript on the Kremlin's website (http://www.kremlin.ru), he said, "The conditions under which elections were held in Iraq were, to put it mildly, very complicated, of course. Nonetheless, this is a step in the right direction. It is a positive event. I ask you in the future to plan the work of all our [government] agencies in such a way that our efforts are directed toward normalizing the situation in Iraq and around it and to defend our interests in this country. We have what to do there." The Russian president felt that this point was important enough to merit repetition, as he delivered a nearly identical message at a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas the same day, even adding that the elections were "a historic event for the Iraqi people."
Though Putin's remarks fit in nicely with comments by Chirac and Schroeder, Russian viewers who caught their president's assessment of the Iraqi elections on state-run television networks ORT and RTR may have been somewhat taken aback. For coverage of Iraq's elections the preceding day on Russia's two most widely viewed networks had not depicted anything remotely resembling a "positive event," let alone a "historic event for the Iraqi people."
On election day, 30 January, ORT informed viewers that elections in Iraq were taking place "under conditions tantamount to a military operation" and that "despite the unprecedented security measures, terrorists in Baghdad and other cities are setting off bombs and shooting up polling stations." Iraq correspondent Georgii Kaptelin enumerated a long list of violent attacks across Iraq, noting that six schools had been blown up in Mosul, where the elections were "on the verge of failure." Turnout, Kaptelin said, "remains low, primarily because people are afraid to go vote." He added, "In the morning, we visited one of the polling stations, and we saw that there were many more journalists than people ready to vote."
RTR painted an even more dismal picture, introducing its update from Iraq with the observation that "explosions are going off all over the country and the victims can already be counted in the dozens." Correspondent Aleksandr Minakov began his report by saying that "the election news resembles communiques from the front." Queried by the anchor about predictions of low turnout, Minakov replied: "That's definitely true. Turnout really is low. It's a little higher in Kurdistan. In Baghdad, it depends. At the biggest polling stations, which are under extremely heavy guard by U.S. soldiers and Iraqi police, there are a few more people. But in the outskirts, where U.S. soldiers can't physically provide full-fledged security, there are many fewer people. And in some cities, for example, in Samarra and Al-Ramadi, the situation is absolutely critical. Almost no one has come to polling stations there."
RTR's weekly analytical program "Vesti Nedeli" provided an overview of the Iraqi elections on the evening of 30 January. Discussing initial turnout figures, correspondent Aleksandr Minakov said: "The organization of the elections was very far from international standards because, for the first time in international practice, they took place without the participation of international observers. That's how it was under Saddam Hussein, so I wouldn't be surprised if tomorrow the Iraqi Election Commission announces that turnout was 90 percent." "Vesti Nedeli" anchor Sergei Brilev then turned viewers over to correspondent Aleksandr Verstakov for a report that would explain "why they are already calling today's elections a catastrophe."
RTR's weekly analytical program delved into the catastrophe and found a farce. Anchor Andrei Baturin said: "The initial evaluations are that the elections were a failure and the whole election campaign was a farce. But the election organizers are stubbornly talking about a success, even though only a day ago, voters didn't know who they would be voting for. Most voters didn't even know that they were electing a parliament, and not a president." Baturin turned to correspondent Georgii Kaptelin for a live report from Baghdad. Kaptelin explained: "By this evening, it was entirely clear that the post-Saddam elections were a total failure. The final act in this farce was the crash of a British C-130 transport plane outside Baghdad. There's no information about how many people were on board and who shot down the plane, but it put the final touch on the show called 'free elections in Iraq.'"
The remainder of Kaptelin's report focused on terror attacks and futile U.S. efforts to provide security for voters who, nonetheless, "remained entirely defenseless." He interviewed an angry Iraqi: "Tell me, why should I go to these so-called elections? Everybody knows what the Americans are up to. They want to keep Iraq for themselves and put their quislings in power. They should be the ones voting." Kaptelin explained that since the Americans would guard the vote counting, turnout would surely top 50 percent, especially without international observers to monitor the process. Sunnis didn't vote at all, and their exclusion from the political process "has, for all practical purposes, set off a civil war." Kaptelin summed up: "All of the Baghdad residents we spoke with agreed on one thing -- it's necessary to create a government that people trust. But this can't be done in conditions of total lawlessness, fear, and violence. These are the factors that doomed Iraq's first post-Saddam elections."
By now, it should be clear that President Putin did not base his remarks about "a positive event" and "a step in the right direction" on reporting by Russian state-controlled television. Which begs the question: How to explain the gulf between coverage on ORT and RTR and Putin's assessment?
Significant disagreements have broken out over what exactly is happening in Russia under Putin, but one policy initiative that has evoked little dispute either in Russia or abroad is the effort to do away with oligarch-controlled networks like Vladimir Gusinskii's NTV and establish a television environment that conveys a more controlled and coordinated message on key issues. The Iraqi elections provided fodder for a variety of approaches, and the relentless focus on the negative has all the earmarks of an editorial decision. The message is clear: the elections were a bloody farce.
Against this backdrop, Putin's surprisingly upbeat assessment manages to mean one thing abroad and another at home. To the international community, which is unlikely to pay much attention to how Russian television covered Iraq's elections, Putin's statement puts him on a par with other European leaders and conveys an unexpected acknowledgment of a success for U.S. policy in Iraq, a fitting gesture in light of Putin's upcoming summit with U.S. President George W. Bush.
To the Russian audience reeling from the catastrophic reports on state television, Putin's remarks about progress in Iraq and the need to defend Russian interests there are not intended to convey that state television got the story wrong. Rather, they suggest that the president is wisely indulging the Americans in their insistence that the democratic experiment in Iraq was a success, and that he may even salvage something for Russia from what was, as ORT and RTR hammered home to their viewers, in fact a miserable debacle.
FROM CENSORSHIP TO CONTENT FILTERINGBy Julie A. Corwin
Last month, the management of a poetry website based in Russia (http://www.stihi.ru) instructed authors to observe certain political censorship requirements, REN-TV reported on 26 January. Authors were forbidden to write about the war in Chechnya or the ongoing protests over the reform of social benefits. They were admonished not to criticize President Vladimir Putin, the government, members of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, or the pro-Putin youth movement Moving Together. Poet Vladislav Sergeev predicted that no one would publish on the site anymore because of the restrictions.
Stihi.ru project manager Dmitrii Kravchuk told REN-TV that "since the [subjects are] rather sensitive, it is easier to limit publications of such works than to try and guess what the president may or may not like." Kravchuk added that politicians have been speaking about the lack of control on the web for a long time. "We wanted to take preemptive steps before the issue of state and legal regulation is raised and certain conclusions are drawn," he said. Less than a week later, in response to the "negative reaction from the literary community," the directive to authors on the poetry website was taken down, "Russkii zhurnal" reported on 31 January.
Kravchuk is correct that politicians have been discussing the lack of control on the Internet for a long time. Last summer, State Duma Deputy Vladimir Tarachev (Unified Russia) and Federation Council members Lyudmila Narusova and Dmitrii Mezentsev revealed that they were members of a two separate working groups drafting regulations for the Internet (see "RFE/RL Media Matters," 16 July 2004).
More recently, discussion of actual legislation has died down but not calls for controls over Internet content. In an article on politcom.ru on 31 January, analyst Mikhail Sergeev argues that policymakers have substituted the more sophisticated term "content filtering" for the unpleasant word "censorship." In December, Federal Press and Mass Communications Agency Director Mikhail Seslavinskii, speaking at a press conference devoted to the 10th anniversary of runet.ru, declared that the Internet has become a basic information resource. However, he added, it had become "polluted," "Izvestiya nauki" reported on 27 January. Therefore, Seslavinskii said, the government should support the "creation of special programs for limiting access to sites that undermine moral values."
Speaking at a conference on "Information Security in Russia in a Global Information Society" on 26 January, Seslavinskii's deputy, Andrei Romanchenko, called for the introduction of content filters on certain segments of the Internet. Romanchenko said that a government policy on filtering would provide society and individual citizens a "defense against harmful and illegal content." He added that content filters are a programming capability for maintaining the "personal hygiene" of the Internet.
So far, the ministers with real possibilities of regulating the Internet, Information Technologies and Communications Minister Leonid Reiman and Culture and Mass Communications Minister Aleksandr Sokolov, have spoken out against new legislation or establishing any special kind of Internet regime. In December, however, Sokolov called the Internet a "multiheaded hydra" and advised that the Internet was spinning "out of control" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 December 2004). But he added that it is too early to formulate a state policy regarding the Internet and banning certain content from the Internet is not practical. "Anyone who wants to can move from one domain to another, crossing borders, without even leaving their apartment," he explained.
Reiman, by contrast, seems not to even consider regulating the Internet desirable, even if it were possible. In an online interview with gazeta.ru and its readers on 2 February, Reiman said that he opposes the introduction of content filters. "The Internet is developing well, and our task [is to see] that this continues," Reiman said. He added that any legal issues stemming from incorrect information spread on the web are already covered by the law on the mass media: "This is not a technical issue but a legal one," he concluded. Of course, Reiman's enthusiasm may have been tailored for gazeta.ru's web-savvy audience, but speaking at a meeting of the Federation Council's Information Policy Committee on 2 November, Reiman expressed the same sentiments. He said that there is no need for a law on the Internet.
According to "Novye izvestiya" on 3 November, members of the commission's working group for developing legislation on the Internet agreed for the most part with Reiman. "Trying to create a separate law on the Internet is like trying to create a law regulating the solar system," Federation Council representative from Chelyabinsk Yevgenii Yeliseev said. "This is obvious to any sane person who understands what the Internet is." However, the daily reported, some senators believe that the new version of the law on mass media should contain specific articles on the Internet, while other senators support the development of a special code for users and providers, the norms of which would put in order information flows on the Internet.
Obstacles to filtering Internet content exist not only from a legal point of view, but from the technical side as well. For example, some experts question whether even content filters deployed on a national basis could really do the job. Igor Ashmanov, general director of Ashmanov and Partners, which specializes in developing programs to combat spam, told gazeta.ru on 26 January that certain large companies have been using filters for years to prevent employees from accessing certain websites. But implementing such a system for the entire Russian Internet, as has been done in China, would be impossible. All Internet service providers (ISPs) would have to route their traffic to a single server. And if state officials tried to implement such a program, private ISPs would drag the responsible government agency through the courts. Even Romanchenko admitted that content filters do not always work. He noted that banned sites inevitably slip through and for the filtering programs to work, "their databases have to be updated continuously."
Meanwhile, Internet users in Belarus have been advised that it is easy to bypass blocks on certain Russian gay and lesbian websites that were instituted in January by that country's state-controlled telecommunications monopoly, Beltelekam. According to korrespondent.net on 2 February, users can simply use a proxy server or an "anonymizer," a third-party website that would retrieve material from the blocked sites. Should Russian legislators ever decide to follow in the footsteps of Belarus, Russian Internet users will not have to go far to seek advice on how to bypass government controls.
A ROMANIAN MEDIA SCANDAL IN THE CONTEXT OF DEMOCRATIC DEVELOPMENTBy Michael Shafir
That one scandal after another would rock Romania's media establishment following the changeover in presidential administrations in December 2004 was not entirely unpredictable. The former ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) had tried, and partially succeeded, in creating an information monopoly. It was only natural that the new presidential administration would strive to break up this monopoly, particularly with regard to the national radio and television media outlets. It was also not surprising the journalists who lacked the courage to speak up against censorship and manipulation of news at the Romanian Broadcasting Society (SRR) radio and at Romanian Television (TVR) under the previous administration would take the opportunity to do so now. Those who had tried to protest earlier often suffered professional and administrative sanctions. And these struggles between the journalists and their minders were not only political, but also personal.
On the surface, the current clashes may appear to be nothing more than the usual tug-of-war over valuable media assets that accompanies any regime changeover. But the "Nicolau scandal" raises a series of questions about the future direction of Romanian democracy. Is Romanian society capable of a transforming itself from a clannish structure where relationships are "informal and personal," as the eminent social scientist Max Weber defined them, into a structure characterized by formal rules and the impersonal implementation of those rules? In other words, will democracy in Romania be "established" slowly, or, alternatively, will the Romanian society continue to linger somewhere between a post-autocratic -- yet still personalized -- state hierarchy or a "decorative democracy" where rules are formulated primarily for the consumption of international audience and the small portion of the population that actually obeys them?
This short essay, of course, cannot provide a final answer to these questions, but the most recent media scandal suggests that the current generation of Romanian politicians, like their 19th- and 20th-century predecessors, are so far resisting following the more formal rules required for an established democracy. Take, for instance, the latest incident, in which President Traian Basescu on 3 February went public to defend his personal reputation after TVR President Valentin Nicolau alleged that the presidential administration was trying to remove him from this job. On 2 February, the majority of Romanian dailies carried most of the text an e-mail written by journalist Radu Calin Cristea addressed to presidential adviser Claudiu Saftoiu, in which Cristea told Saftoiu that after serious consideration, he decided he lacks the managerial skills needed to be TVR president. (Cristea is a former member of RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service.)
Responding to the apparent news that the presidential administration is interviewing replacements, TVR broadcast reports protesting the alleged attempt to remove Nicolau from his job. In retaliation for the "denigration campaign" aimed at "eroding [his] credibility," Basescu ordered that the direct telephone lines to TVR from his office and from the government be cut. Basescu revealed that Nicolau earlier tried to pay "courtesy calls" at the presidential administration without being formally requested to do so. He said that "insofar as I am concerned," Nicolau "can stay in his formaldehyde bottle as long as he wishes" but he will never allow Nicolau to set foot inside the presidential Cotroceni Palace again. He noted that Nicolau, who is known to have close links to the PSD, has suddenly "become a great champion of press freedom" but forgot his "obligation to check the veracity of the story."
On 3 February, Cristea confirmed having sent Saftoiu the e-mail, but denied that Saftoiu had offered him Nicolau's job. He also denied that he had forwarded the e-mail to the AM Press agency himself. Either his own e-mail account, or that of the presidential office, Cristea said, had obviously been tampered with. His message, the journalist said, was a follow-up to a conversation they had at dinner a few days earlier, during which Saftoiu sounded him out about a possible job if the parliament were to reject the TVR annual report. Such a rejection would trigger Nicolau's automatic dismissal.
The known facts in the case warrant two comments. The first is that officials from neither side of the Romanian political spectrum, from the Justice and Truth alliance or the opposition PSD, apparently feel bounded by formal rules. Center-right pro-government publications, such as the daily "Romania libera," are correct when they point out that President Basescu and his staff broke no formal rules by putting out "feelers" to other journalists regarding a position at TVR. But if parliament -- rather than the presidential administration -- is genuinely supervising the activity of the TVR and SRR and has the power to appoint and dismiss its leadership, why is the presidential administration seeking to fill a position over which it has no formal authority?
Against the background of the long saga of PSD muzzling public media and controlling it via various appointees during the government of former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, the "Nicolau affair" is mere child's play. But it is child's play that should be stopped before the adults in the ruling Justice and Truth alliance embrace that self-serving arrogance that is so characteristic of their political rivals. It would also be better for Romanian society if the chief of state reveals attempts by high officials to pay "courtesy calls" not only when he gets angry with them as happened in Nicolau's case. That Basescu made public Nicolau's ridiculous attempts to convince the new powers that be of his good intentions is fine. Yet somehow one doubts that Nicolau is alone in this attempt.
OLIVER STONE'S 'ALEXANDER' STIRS UP CONTROVERSYBy Golnaz Esfandiari
American director Oliver Stone's latest movie, "Alexander," has been met with negative reviews from critics in the United States and Europe. The three-hour-long epic, which cost an estimated $150 million to make, purports to show the life of Alexander the Great, who in less than a decade conquered much of the ancient world. But some complain the movie is riddled with historical inaccuracies. The epic has also stirred controversy by portraying Alexander's bisexuality.
While a group of Greek lawyers wanted to take legal action against the movie because they were upset about suggestions in the film that Alexander was bisexual, campaigners for homosexual rights criticized Stone for not making Alexander openly gay.
Zoroastrian communities in the United States and Parsis in India got upset for different reasons. They noticed that in promos for the movie, the winged Zoroastrian symbol of Farohar or Fravahar was used in the background.
Zoroastrians know Alexander as "the Accursed" because during his conquest of the Persian Empire he burned Zoroastrian holy texts and scriptures.
Kaveh Farrokh is an expert on the history and linguistics of Persia, particularly in the pre-Islamic era. "One of the reasons we don't know many aspects of Zoroastrian teachings is that people wrongly blamed it on the Arab invasion of the 7th century. In reality, we have to go back and look at Alexander's invasion, which was extremely destructive, and many of the 'magis,' the Zoroastrians priests, were killed," Farrokh said.
Maneck Bhujwala, a Zoroastrian priest based in the United States, told RFE/RL in an e-mail that Zubin Mehta, an internationally renowned conductor of classical music and a member of India's Parsi community, was able to talk directly with Stone and was able to get an agreement from Stone to stop the commercial.
Since the release of the movie, some historians have expressed surprise and regret that some key events of the time, such as Alexander's burning of the city of Persepolis, are overlooked.
There are different historical accounts about the arson. Some say Alexander instigated it in revenge for the destruction caused by Persians in Greece in the 5th century BC. Other say Alexander did it while he was drunk, on the encouragement of a woman.
Professor Robin Lane Fox, one of the world's top experts on Hellenic studies and author of a book on Alexander the Great, advised Stone on the movie. He said the epic drama has a "strong reference to history" and that including all the facts would have made the movie very long.
However, some experts say there are historical mistakes in the movie.
Farrokh said the portrayals of Persians and Greeks in the film are inaccurate. As an example, he mentions the battle of Gaugamela where Alexander the Great and his troops defeated the Persian army.
"Greek forces are typically shown very organized, disciplined, and so on, and what's very disturbing is when the so-called Persians are shown confronting the Greeks, you see them turbaned. Turbans are not even a Persian item, and flies are seen circling their heads at one point. Their armies are totally disorganized. What is not known is that the Persians actually had uniforms. They marched in discipline, and music was actually used -- trumpets and so on -- to allow them to march in disciplined rank," Farrokh said.
Farrokh believes Persian women are also inaccurately portrayed in the film.
In the movie, Alexander marries an Iranian woman, Roxanna, played by Rosario Dawson, who is black. Farrokh said having a black actress playing the role of Roxanna is like having Lucy Liu, an Asian American actress, portraying Queen Victoria of Britain. "Roxanna itself is derived from old Iranian 'rokh-shwan' -- 'rokh' means profile, 'shwan' means shiny-faced or of fair complexion. The face mask that Roxanna wears is totally inaccurate," Farrokh said.
Some Iranians living in the United States staged protests against the movie, which they consider to be one-sided. But Mehdi Zokayi, editor in chief of an Iranian magazine in Los Angeles, says the protests were ineffective.
"I think the protests were very dispersed and didn't last long. Some people, some media, wrote letters, e-mails and decided to show their protests. But since their actions was not correlated, it didn't draw any attention. Some boycotted the movie, but I think many went to see the movie out of curiosity," Zokayi said.
"Alexander" was first released in the United States in late 2004, where it earned a disappointing $34 million at the box office. It has been doing better since its foreign release earlier this month, earning some $90 million so far.
In Iran, where most Western movies are banned, there is little chance that "Alexander the Great" will be shown in movie theaters.