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Media Matters: March 25, 2005

25 March 2005, Volume 5, Number 7
By Jan Maksymiuk

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko told a Council of Europe conference on media policies held in Kyiv earlier this month that his government wants to make the media sector in Ukraine "open, transparent, and competitive."

He did not explain specifically how the government intends to achieve this goal. However, he made an intriguing and cryptic comparison between the media sector under the current government and that under his predecessor, President Leonid Kuchma. The comment itself may serve as a clue to these intentions once the government makes some specific steps toward the media.

According to Yushchenko, in the Kuchma era Ukraine's "information day" was started by a "group" led by former presidential-administration head Viktor Medvedchuk, which "gave instructions about what should be said and how." Yushchenko apparently referred to the infamous practice of "temnyky" -- unsigned prompts sent on a daily basis by the presidential administration to media outlets -- primarily state-run and private television and radio stations -- to tell journalists which events to cover and which points of view on reported events to publicize.

As regards the present day, Yushchenko said the country's media sector is essentially "divided among three families." "We see and understand this problem, and we are ready to find ways to resolve it," he noted. "Time will pass and you'll see that Ukraine's information space will become open and transparent." He did not elaborate.

A similar message about the media sector in Ukraine was sent by Yushchenko somewhat earlier, during a congress in Kyiv on 5 March to set up the Our Ukraine People's Union, a pro-government political party. "[In Ukraine], 288 broadcasting licenses belong to one man, and we know the first and last letters of his name," Yushchenko said. He did not solve this rebus but Ukrainian commentators figured out that he meant Kuchma's son-in-law, Viktor Pinchuk.

"The entire meter [wavelength] band was given to another clan!" Yushchenko said, proposing another riddle, to which Ukrainian journalists gave the answer "Medvedchuk." "In the east, 188 media licenses were given to one company!" Yushchenko continued, and journalists identified this company as Rynat Akhmetov, Eduard Prutnyk, and Hennadiy Vasylyev -- the so-called "Donetsk clan" of Ukrainian oligarchs. "I do not want my kids to be taught by the media formed in this way," Yushchenko added, and this time everybody was at a loss what to think or conjecture.

"We had the National Council [for Television and Radio, NRPTR], which distributed licenses, we had the Prosecutor-General's Office. This means we had more than only one structure to watch that the information sphere was competitive and diverse," Yushchenko concluded his references to the media at the congress. Is he not suggesting that he wants a wide-scale redistribution of media licenses by the NRPTR and/or prosecutors? Media licenses in Ukraine are usually granted by the NRPTR for five-year periods. Of course, if prosecutors find out that some of them were granted unlawfully, they may expire somewhat sooner. What exactly is Yushchenko up to?

That the Yushchenko government is not happy with the current Ukrainian media has been confirmed by a different source. By the end of February, Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, Deputy Prime Ministers Roman Bezsmertnyy and Mykola Tomenko, Justice Minister Roman Zvarych, and Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz signed an open letter to compatriots, politicians, and journalists, asking them to stop waging "information wars" and "discrediting" the current authorities. The letter was reportedly originated by Moroz, Yushchenko's ally in the ruling coalition.

"The Ukrainian reality is now characterized by not only anticipated transformations but also information wars," the letter reads. "Some politicians, perhaps considering themselves to be the main authors of [Yushchenko's] victory in the presidential race, are again trying to introduce intrigues, '[media] raids,' and media killers in political life."

Some Ukrainian commentators have deemed the letter unnecessary and silly, but some have drawn more upsetting conclusions, arguing that Yushchenko's government, like that of Kuchma, does not like media criticism and wants to get rid of it, for now by way of public persuasion and appeal. If this is actually so, then Yushchenko appears to have very quickly forgotten his solemn declaration during the Orange Revolution that he and the media are "on the same side in the battle for freedom."

Deputy Prime Minister Tomenko on 13 March seemed to make an attempt at diluting the unfavorable reaction of Ukrainian journalists to the letter when he called for "professional criticism" of the government in the media.

"When you present commentaries by experts, we want professional criticism," Tomenko said. "Because [you now present] people from the Ukraine's Regions, Communist Party, Social Democratic Party-united parliamentary groups, who voted for a [bad] 2005 budget, but now they tell stories how they have fought for [higher] social standards and how we [allegedly] are not fighting [for those standards]. This is not fair," he said.

"I watch commentaries on national channels by a politician who enjoys just 0.7 percent public trust and who teaches [us] how to live," Tomenko complained in what seemed to be a reference to Medvedchuk. "So I have a question: Perhaps you should also show a different point of view, shouldn't you?"

Taken at face value, Tomenko's admonition is hardly anything more than an appeal for objective journalism. But combined with the above-mentioned, more or less irate official pronouncements regarding the media sector in Ukraine, it can also serve as an indication that the government and the media may now be not exactly on the same side, and perhaps not even in the same battle.

By Ahto Lobjakas

Ministers from the 46 member states of the Council of Europe met in Kyiv on 10-11 March to discuss the media in the 21st century. Much of the debate centered on the rights and role of the media in the fight against terrorism. Clear divisions emerged, with some member states arguing that restrictions are necessary. Others rejected any government involvement in the way journalists cover crises.

The debate polarized conference participants on 10-11 March. Two schools of thought emerged. One school -- led by Russia and Turkey -- was more concerned with the content of coverage that the rights of the media. The other, led most vocally by Sweden, advocated near total media freedom and rejected government interference.

The tensions were evident in the summaries offered by Council of Europe officials. "If the feeling is that the restrictions [placed] by the authorities on the [ability] of the media to report on a terrorist event [are] excessive or [have] been excessive, then there should be the possibility to go to court. And that is exactly why it is necessary to set an appropriate regulatory framework for all these matters, so that the courts also have a foot on which to stand."

Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, a deputy head of the organization, defended media freedoms, but also indicated that restrictions are necessary. She said measures imposed by authorities must not be disproportionate, but added that the media must not accord disproportionate attention or offer a platform to terrorists.

Asked by RFE/RL who has the final say in determining the balance, Boer appealed to the courts and national legislation. "If the feeling is that the restrictions [placed] by the authorities on the [ability] of the media to report on a terrorist event [are] excessive or [have] been excessive, then there should be the possibility to go to court," Boer said. "And that is exactly why it is necessary to set an appropriate regulatory framework for all these matters, so that the courts also have a foot on which to stand."

However, laws clearly differ among the Council of Europe's member states. Turkey's representative, for instance, put the burden of proof squarely on journalists and their "professional ethics." "The basic rules are especially [relevant to the content of] the information," said Tuerkan Sebnem Bilget, a top official at Turkey's Radio and Television Supreme Council. "[It] should be accurate, confirmed, fast, and not provocative. That's the most important part."

Bilget said laws in Turkey allow for strict measures to be taken against media outlets whose coverage of terrorism is seen as faulty, although she said such laws are being relaxed. Earlier, she said a TV or radio station's license could be temporarily revoked, but that more recently fines have become a key instrument.

The Russian representative at the Kyiv conference similarly argued that the media needs to enforce self-regulation in order to prevent terrorists from "moving the battlefield to TV screens." Leonid Nadirov, deputy minister at the Culture and Mass Communications Ministry, said Russian journalists last year signed an "antiterrorism" convention after authorities concluded media coverage of the deadly Moscow theater siege in 2002 had not been conducted "with a full understanding of how to behave in such situations." During the Beslan tragedy last fall, however, he said the convention's ethical rules "ensured the situation was much better" and that, among other things, "footage was carefully selected." Nadirov suggested that other Council of Europe member states initiate similar "training" programs.

Such views were fiercely opposed by veteran BBC reporter Kate Adie, who participated in Kyiv as an expert. She criticized the Russian government for cutting live coverage of the Beslan crisis. She also said the press in the United States is being subjected to the worst political pressure of the past 50 years. Adie argued for as few curbs on coverage as possible.

Her view was strongly defended by Sweden. Kerstin Persdotter, a top official at the country's Foreign Ministry, told RFE/RL that she "believes exactly in what Kate Adie said." Persdotter said only editors can guide reporters' coverage: "The idea [that we object to] is that to show the faces of terrorists and their victims on TV [is wrong], that we have to control this, that we have to conceal some things [in terms of media freedom], that we have to have special journalists whom we trust and we can tell things, that it is right to have curfews, that it is right to stop information [from being spread]. And that's absolutely not [right]."

However, there appears to be widespread acceptance in many of Europe's larger countries that some form of media self-regulation is desirable. The host of the conference, Ukraine, was the focus of an interesting debate. Ministers in the new government last week signed a letter criticizing media outlets in the country for overly critical coverage. One of the signatories to the letter, Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Tomenko, chaired the Kyiv conference. He referred in his speech to the "shadow politics" that he said is being pursued by owners of many TV stations and newspapers in Ukraine.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Tomenko said Ukraine's new government supports press freedoms and is not afraid of criticism. But he said the government is worried by what it sees as a "near monopoly" of ownership of most of Ukraine's media outlets: "Let me be more specific," Tomenko said. "For example, the son-in-law of former President Leonid Kuchma, Viktor Pinchuk, is the owner or co-owner of four national channels, apart from many regional ones."

Tomenko also said that the emotions that ran high during the Orange Revolution should now be tempered. He appeared to suggest that owners of Ukrainian media outlets are to blame for stoking passions. He said the government would like to see them offer reporters social guarantees and the right to refuse specific instructions affecting the coverage of current events.

For such a high-level event focusing on media policy, the conference in Kyiv attracted scant interest. The 46 ministers and hundreds of officials present were observed by a mere dozen or so journalists. This is largely due to the relative lack of power of the Council of Europe. The body deals with human rights and standards of democracy, but is largely powerless to enforce its decisions.

By Kathleen Ridolfo

The targeting of journalists in Iraq has taken a dramatic turn in recent weeks with the release of videotaped messages by kidnapped Italian and French journalists, the subsequent withdrawal of the Italian press corps from Iraq, and the targeting of Iraqis working for U.S.-funded broadcasters. The trend is worrying because it illuminates the effort by insurgents to control the media through a perverse attempt to intimidate the media and influence

In the kidnapping of foreign journalists, the hostage-takers' demands tend to lie in the insistence that troops from the hostage's country be withdrawn. But that is not always the case. For example, the 5 January kidnapping of French national Florence Aubenas, a veteran journalist with the daily "Liberation." Aubenas appeared on a videotaped message this week describing her poor state of physical and psychological health, and pleading with French parliamentarian Didier Julia to help her.

Julia was involved in an unauthorized attempt in September to free two French journalists held captive in Iraq, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot. French authorities accused him at the time of interfering in the government's attempts to free the two men, an attempt that failed and arguably delayed the liberation of the two journalists. Julia has said that he would not take steps to intervene in Aubenas' case, unless formally asked to do so by the French authorities. On 2 March, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin made an unforeseen intervention at the French Assembly and officially requested Julia's help. However, on 3 March Raffarin said he would not support any initiative launched parallel to the French government's attempts to free the hostages, news agencies reported. No demands have been issued for Aubenas' release, and the secretary-general of the French advocacy group Reporters Without Borders (, Robert Menard, said he believed the hostage-takers put Aubenas up to appealing to Julia, AP reported on 1 March.

Meanwhile, French intelligence experts are reportedly studying the video for clues in the kidnapping, along with a second, unreleased video, received last week. AFP reported on 2 March that the reference to Julia in one of the videotapes has raised speculation that Syria may be linked to the kidnappers. Julia reportedly has longstanding ties to Syria. Julia told French TF1 TV channel on 1 March of the kidnappers: "These are people who know me, and probably people I know."

At least two groups have claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena -- who was released on 5 March in Baghdad after being held for a month -- the last being an unknown group identifying itself as Mujahedin Without Borders. The group's banner was seen behind Sgrena in a videotaped message sent to AP Television News on 16 February. In the tape, Sgrena pleads for Italian troops to be withdrawn from Iraq, and asks her partner Pierre Scolari to help free her. "Nobody should come to Iraq. Please help me. Get the government to withdraw its troops. My life depends on it," she said.

The Italian government refused to yield to the kidnappers' demands for a withdrawal, and it is not yet known under what conditions she was released. Italian Agriculture Minister Giovanni Alemanno said it "was very probably" that a ransom was paid. The Italian government did issue a stern warning to journalists in Iraq, prompting all remaining Italian journalists to leave the country on 22 February. One day before that, an Italian embassy official said that fresh threats had been made against four journalists, Reuters reported on 23 February. Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni was kidnapped and killed by his captors in August.

Two Indonesian journalists kidnapped in mid-February were released after about a week in captivity. Their captors said in a videotaped message that the journalists were freed after showing their "goodwill" and because of religious ties -- the hostages were Muslim.

Iraqi journalists and their families are perhaps the most vulnerable targets. Al-Iraqiya television presenter Ra'idah al-Wazzan was found dead in Mosul on 26 February, six days after her abduction. Her 10-year-old son, abducted with her, was released after three days in captivity, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders ( said in a 26 February statement. Al-Wazzan's husband said that his wife had received several death threats before the abduction, with insurgents demanding she quit her job with the U.S.-funded television station. Al-Iraqiya came under mortar attack on 16 February and three technicians were injured, reported on 28 February. Al-Iraqiya producer Jamal Badrani was also targeted in a kidnapping attempt on 14 February, the International Federation of Journalists ( reported on 1 March.

U.S.-funded Alhurra television employee Muhammad Sharif Ali sustained serious injuries after militants attacked his car in Al-Iskandariyah, south of Baghdad, on 25 February. The attack came just weeks after the 9 February assassination of Alhurra correspondent Abd al-Husayn al-Basri outside his home in Al-Basrah. His infant son was also killed in the attack.

Iraqi journalists are taking action to address the unique problems that confront them. Following four days of meetings at the International Federation of Journalists headquarters in Brussels, a group of Iraqi journalists established the Iraqi National Journalists Advisory Panel. The panel brings together more progressive members of an older journalists' syndicate together with leaders of a newer union, and Kurdish journalists, the IFJ announced in a statement posted to its website. "Besides trying to end attacks against journalists, the panel intends to help foster ethical, independent journalism, opposing the political manipulation still endemic to the Iraqi media," the statement added. The federation contends that more than 70 media workers, half of whom were Iraqi, have been killed in Iraq over the past two years.

By Kathleen Ridolfo

Iraqis took to the streets this week in three days of protests against an 11 March article published in Jordan's "Al-Ghadd" newspaper that claimed the family of an alleged Jordanian suicide bomber celebrated their son's "martyrdom" in Iraq.

The article claimed that Ra'id al-Banna was responsible for the 28 February suicide bombing in Al-Hillah that killed more than 130 Iraqis, and contended that Ra'id's father, Mansur al-Banna, "proudly accepted congratulations on the martyrdom of his son" after it was learned that he carried out the attack. Al-Banna later denied those allegations, saying his son was killed in Mosul on 1 March.

The "Al-Ghadd" article also falsely claimed that "most" of the dead in the attack were Americans. In a correction issued on 12 March, the daily retracted the claim. International media reports indicated that the victims were mostly Iraqi Shi'ites.

The incident, however, goes beyond bad journalism and raises wider questions about the responsibility of Arab media in accurately covering the events taking place in Iraq, and the responsibility of those governments in helping to bring stability to their neighbor.

The Arab media influenced the region's discourse on the war in Iraq by largely framing it in the context of "invasion" and "imperialism." Two years later, much of the Arab world has bought into this discourse, propagated over satellite channels such as Al-Jazeera. The broadcasts have no doubt contributed to the influx of foreign fighters to Iraq. One Tunisian insurgent arrested in Iraq said he was prompted to seek "jihad" after watching Al-Jazeera. The most-wanted fugitive in Iraq, Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, is a Jordanian.

Conversely, Arab media outlets have largely failed to accurately report on the discourse inside Iraq, where Iraqis have repeatedly called on neighboring states to keep foreign fighters out of the country and allow Iraqis to build a democratic state. The Iraqi interim government took steps against Al-Jazeera last year, banning the satellite news channel from broadcasting from Iraq. The decision was not enforced, however, and Al-Jazeera broadcast daily reports from Iraq using freelance journalists. By not properly enforcing the ban, the Iraqi government sent a message to media outlets that their reportage, however inaccurate and inflammatory, would not be penalized.

The Iraqi Shi'ite group the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) was quick to condemn the "Al-Ghadd" article in a 12 March statement on its website (, and criticized the Jordanian government, the media, clerics, and civil organizations for not taking "a clear and open stand against these crimes." "The Iraqi people are stunned and perplexed at the indifference of our brethren in Jordan about the bloody massacres that are being perpetrated against the sons of our people." The statement called on the Jordanian government to investigate the matter and to "prevent the exportation of murderers" to Iraq. It also called on the Iraqi interim government to "take the necessary measures against Jordan if the Jordanian government fails to deal seriously with this issue of exporting and honoring murderers of the Iraqi people."

Rather than issue an apology, Jordanian government spokeswoman Asma Khadr called the SCIRI statement "unjustifiable, harmful remarks [against] the Jordanian government and people." The Interior Ministry then summoned the journalist responsible for the article for interrogation on the grounds that he "published alleged news," and Khadr said in a 13 March statement that the journalist could face legal action.

Jordanian King Abdullah II visited the newspaper on 13 March, and spoke about the need for media outlets in the Arab world to take greater responsibility in their reporting. "Journalism should hold its monitoring role as a fourth authority within a responsible freedom and a high professionalism," he said. King Abdullah's statements, however, made no direct reference to the "Al-Ghadd" article. King Abdullah was cited in "Al-Dustur" on 5 March for comments he made expressing dissatisfaction with the Jordanian media. According to the daily, Abdullah "expressed his resentment and disappointment" with the way the Jordanian press covers events.

The incident could have major repercussions on Iraqi-Jordanian relations when a Shi'ite-dominated government takes power this month. While the Jordanian government quietly aided multinational forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom and has played a key role in the reconstruction of Iraq, its citizens, by and large, take a wholly divergent view on the war. But the media is only part of the problem.

Support for deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein runs deep in Jordan for a myriad of reasons. Jordan benefited from relations with Hussein under sanctions, buying oil at subsidized, below-market prices. Hussein also supported the Palestinian cause, reportedly giving money to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers -- an act not lost on Jordan's large Palestinian refugee community. On a trip to Jordan last fall, Jordanians -- from taxi drivers to educated professionals -- expressed support for Hussein while cursing the "American occupation." A mainly Sunni-populated country, Jordan has also expressed concern about a Shi'ite-led government being next door.

"Al-Ghadd" finally published an apology on 15 March, but rather than taking full responsibility for the inaccurate article, instead it blamed international media for the report, saying: "International news agencies and some satellite channels rushed to circulate the report without ascertaining the truth. 'Al-Ghadd,' like other media outlets, made this big mistake. U.S. and Iraqi satellite channels attempted to blow the matter out of proportion and portray the al-Banna funeral as a celebration."

By Roland Eggleston

A senior official of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has denounced authorities in Belarus over their treatment of independent media. The OSCE's special commissioner for the media, Miklos Haraszti, said 11 March that restrictions have effectively shut down many non-state media outlets. His statements accompany the release of a broad assessment of media freedoms in Belarus, where President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has kept a tight hold on power for more than a decade.

OSCE special commissioner Haraszti charges in his report that restrictions on the media have forced many independent outlets to close. He also points out that the authorities' curbs and warnings have exclusively targeted non-state media. Haraszti visited Minsk last month to discuss the media situation with government officials, journalists, parliamentarians, and members of nongovernmental groups. He said his overall impression is that the independent media are under constant pressure from a harsh media law and administrative discrimination.

Haraszti said the strictures have led to the closure of many outlets. "As a result of the combined effect of the severe media law and administrative discrimination measures, the number of independent outlets sank from one year to another from 50 to 18. In 2003, it was 50; and in 2004, it was 18 -- because they had to give up under the pressure of the serious circumstances."

Haraszti said the country's media law gives the Information Ministry virtually unchecked powers over the media. It not only has the power to issue warnings to media outlets, he noted, but also may suspend them for one to three months -- or even close them down permanently.

Haraszti said a three-month suspension carries serious consequences for such a business. In such a case, he added, the halt leads to a failure to fulfill other obligations. That gives authorities the added power of being able to blame the outlet for reneging on its contracts.

Haraszti said the information he received from both official and independent sources in Belarus was that warnings and suspensions from the Information Ministry were mostly used against nonstate and independent newspapers.

He said he was unable to track down a single warning against a government outlet over content. Haraszti sharply criticized Belarus's libel laws, and singled out legislation banning insults against public officials. He noted that Belarus is the only country in the OSCE in which two people are serving prison sentences for insulting the dignity of the head of state.

Haraszti said that in his talks with Information Minister Vladimir Russakevich and a Foreign Ministry official, Valeriy Romashko, he had emphasized the need for a more democratic approach to media freedom. He urged them to accept an OSCE offer to conduct seminars in either Minsk or at OSCE headquarters in Vienna.

Haraszti said that while he was in Belarus, he was told by the authorities that amendments are being prepared to the media law. Yuriy Kulakovskiy -- the chairman of the Belarusian National Assembly's Committee for Human Rights, National Relations and the Media -- told him that those amendments will be presented to the legislature this month.

But Haraszti said he doubts that timetable can be met. He said he has seen no signs of public debate over the proposed amendments. Independent, non-state journalists told him there will be no time for a national discussion if the draft amendments is not made public before it is presented to parliament.

Among his recommendations, Haraszti said the Belarusian government should liberalize the media law with OSCE assistance. He also said it should end the practice of suspending newspapers, liberalize libel laws, and repeal the laws on insults.

He noted that the state media are heavily subsidized by the government. He proposed an alternative approach under which the government could privatize state-owned newspapers and television stations.

Haraszti stressed the need for the state media to offer truly alternative voices. Haraszti's critical report prompted the United States to inform the OSCE permanent council that the Belarusian government is "blatantly disregarding" its commitments in regard to freedom of the media.

The United States has already complained about the imprisonment of two journalists, Valeriy Levonevskiy and Alyaksandr Vasilyev, and said those cases demonstrate the way the government in Minsk seeks to stifle dissent. The European Union has meanwhile suggested that the Belarusian authorities appear to regard a free exchange of ideas through the media as some kind of threat.