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Media Matters: April 12, 2005

12 April 2005, Volume 5, Number 8
By Kathleen Ridolfo

At first glance, the 28 March kidnapping of three Romanian journalists and their Iraqi-American translator in Iraq appeared to be one in a string of kidnappings targeting journalists. But as the circumstances of the abduction came to light, it became clear that there was nothing routine about the incident.

Rather, it appears to have been part of an elaborate scheme allegedly hatched by Syrian-Romanian businessman Omar Hayssam (aka Haytham al-Umar) and his Iraqi-American business partner Muhammad Munaf. Hayssam is currently being investigated on a number of charges related to his business dealings in Romania. He is reportedly one of the top 300 richest businessmen in that country.

It appears possible that the motive for the kidnapping is the enhancement of Hayssam's reputation with the government. Moreover, it could be an attempt to profit from the current security situation and the absence of a rule of law in Iraq. According to Reporters Without Borders, at least 17 journalists have been kidnapped in Iraq since the start of the war in March 2003, and more than 50 journalists have been killed.

But journalists are not the only target of kidnappings. Iraqi citizens -- and often women and children -- have been routinely kidnapped and held for ransom by criminal gangs across the country. Profit is the driver; the gangs operate with impunity because of the lack of security. Police and intelligence agencies are largely occupied by the insurgency, leaving families to negotiate on their own or through the help of tribal or clerical leaders. The perpetrators of these crimes are thought to come from the throngs of criminals released by former President Saddam Hussein under a general amnesty just months before the war (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 25 October 2002).

It remains unclear whether profit might have been a motivator in the kidnapping of the Romanian journalists. Businessman Hayssam had said he was prepared to pay the ransom in the bogus abduction. It is unknown whether the Romanian government was ever approached with a ransom demand.

The deteriorating situation has become so dangerous for journalists (and particularly foreign journalists) that many have spent recent months reporting on events in Iraq from their hotels or secure areas within the fortified Green Zone rather than providing on-the-ground coverage. Other journalists have re-embedded with multinational forces. Italian journalists left Iraq altogether in February at the behest of the Italian Embassy following the abduction of Giuliana Sgrena.

The kidnapped Romanian journalists were Prima television correspondent Marie Jeanne Ion and her cameraman Sorin Miscoci, along with Eduard Ovidiu Ohanesian of "Romanian Libera." Also "kidnapped" was Iraqi-American Muhammad Munaf, a Romania resident (and Hayssam's business partner), who helped facilitate the journalists' travel and interviews in Iraq. Romanian media reports indicated that Munaf also financed part of the trip.

Ion was able to call Romania during the abduction (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 March 2005), while Hayssam told reporters the same day that the kidnappers had called him on 29 March demanding the ransom. Hayssam immediately declared himself the intermediary in the case, and offered to pay the ransom.

Al-Jazeera television also broadcast a videotape of the journalists on 30 March. No demands were made in the videotaped message, and no group claimed responsibility for the kidnappings. The circumstances appeared similar to the abduction of French journalist Florence Aubenas and her translator Husayn Hanun al-Sa'di, who were abducted outside their hotel on 5 January in Baghdad. Her unidentified captors released a videotape of her pleading for help on 1 March (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 7 March 2005). After more than three months in captivity, no demands have been issued for her release.

But Romanian authorities may have been alerted to the scam based on remarks made by Hayssam in a videotaped statement saying that the abductors should negotiate with his father (unidentified) and his brother Samir. Munaf's brother Yusif, a Baghdad resident, was also named as a negotiator. "Don't make waves, call me immediately, tell me what you are doing," he said, in an apparent message to the kidnappers.

The Romanian government has been tight-lipped about the investigation and any evidence it has about Hayssam's involvement in the case, but prosecutors detained Hayssam on 5 April in connection with ongoing investigations that include accusations of money laundering, tax evasion, and the creation of an organized-crime group, Rompres press agency reported the following day. The Bucharest prosecutor's office said in a statement: "There are indications that suggest [Hayssam's] connections with people suspected of having been implicated in the kidnapping of the three Romanian citizens in Iraq." Hayssam's brother was arrested in Baghdad on 6 April and reportedly confessed to his involvement in the abductions. Yusif Manaf was also detained in Baghdad, Antena 1 television reported on 6 April. Romanian presidential spokeswoman Adriana Saftoiu denied to reporters on 6 April that the hostages were freed, but media reports have indicated that they may now be on the grounds of the Romanian Embassy in Baghdad.

By Gulnoza Saidazimova

The Uzbek Prosecutor-General's Office has opened a criminal case against the Uzbek branch of Internews, a U.S.-based media-support group. This makes Internews the latest Western group to come under pressure from the Uzbek authorities. Tashkent expelled the U.S.-based Open Society Institute, which promotes free media and education programs, in 2004.

A spokeswoman for Uzbekistan's prosecutor-general said Internews is being investigated for procedural violations. "There are some kinds of activities which require a license," spokeswoman Svetlana Artikova said. "Internews Network [the official name of the organization's Uzbek branch] carried out its activities without a license, and a criminal case was launched against it. Prosecutors are investigating the case now."

Internews Network started facing pressure from the Uzbek authorities in early 2004, and its activities were suspended in the fall of 2004. Some observers say the case against Internews is based on little more than the deep desire of the government to see Western-funded groups thrown out of the country.

At the time, the Uzbek Justice Ministry said the organization had failed to register its logo and did not inform authorities about its activities outside Tashkent, the number of people sitting on its board, and a change of address. This time, the investigation is focusing on the organization's financial operations.

Catherine Eldridge, who heads Internews in Uzbekistan, told RFE/RL the group has yet to be officially notified about the opening of a criminal case. "We are very concerned. But as far as a criminal case is concerned, we haven't been notified officially that there is a criminal case opened against us," she said. "We can't say anything about it."

Some observers say the case against Internews is based on little more than the deep desire of the government to see Western-funded groups thrown out of the country.

Oleg Panfilov directs the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations and is also the founder of Internews' Russia branch. "I believe the situation with Internews in Uzbekistan is politically motivated," he said. "These accusations about financial violations are ridiculous. As the founder of the Russian branch of Internews, I know very well how this organization and others like it operate in the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] and other countries. All financial operations are conducted very scrupulously."

Internews supports projects to develop independent media. In Uzbekistan, the group provides training and support for several independent television stations.

Galima Bukharbaeva, the director of the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) in Uzbekistan and a former Internews employee, said the group has played a critical role in fighting Tashkent's notoriously oppressive media restrictions.

"The goals of the organization are very good. They train professional journalists. The organization has trained journalists in Uzbekistan and has served as an eye-opener for the Uzbek people. They've engaged in no criminal activity. If [Uzbek authorities] are afraid of strong journalists and organizations which train strong journalists, it is their problem and the problem of the society," Bukharbaeva said.

Internews has been one of the few sources of independent information in Uzbekistan. But Georgia's Rose Revolution sparked fears in Tashkent that a similar "people-power" movement might emerge with the aim of toppling the current regime under President Islam Karimov.

Uzbek authorities began cracking down on foreign organizations and nongovernmental groups. In early 2004, Uzbek authorities expelled the U.S.-based Open Society Institute, which promotes media and education programs. The government also amended Uzbek legislation on receiving foreign grants, prompting the country's civil-society sector to shrink.

Uzbek authorities might have also feared a repetition in their country of the recent events in Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan has the biggest nongovernmental sector of all the Central Asian states, and many local NGOs participated in the March events leading to the ouster of the Bishkek regime.

Panfilov said the rise of popular antigovernment movements in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan have left Uzbek authorities increasingly worried. "I do think the case [against Internews' Uzbek branch] is politically motivated. It must be related to the tense situation in Central Asia -- something that has particularly deepened since the events in Kyrgyzstan," he said. "I think Uzbek authorities are trying to get rid of one more source of [independent] information."

Catherine Eldridge told RFE/RL she hopes Internews won't be shut down. "We've worked in Uzbekistan for nearly 10 years and we hope to continue working to support the development of mass media in Uzbekistan," she said.

Eldridge refused to comment on possible political reasons behind the decision by Uzbek authorities to open a criminal case against her organization. (Shukhrat Babajanov of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)

By Robert Coalson

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Zhukov created something of a media sensation on 30 March when he appeared at a Moscow conference and acknowledged that the spread of HIV/AIDS in Russia has become a threat to the country's security and development. The theme of the conference was public-private initiatives to combat the epidemic and one of the main projects discussed was a $200 million, three-year, public-service campaign by Russian media to raise HIV/AIDS awareness.

Gazprom-Media Chairman Aleksandr Dybal told the conference on 30 March that his company and other media outlets, including REN-TV, Muz-TV, MTV, and the radio stations of Russian Media Group are donating $200 million in cash, airtime, and print space to the effort.

Gazprom-Media controls NTV, NTV-Plus, TNT, Ekho Moskvy, and other media properties and is wholly owned by the state-controlled natural-gas giant Gazprom. Gazprom played key roles in the de facto nationalization of the empires of former oligarchs Vladimir Gusinskii and Mikhail Khodorkovskii.

Russian Media Group is controlled and headed by Kremlin-connected businessman Sergei Arkhipov. He told "The Moscow Times" on 18 March, "I do have friends in the Kremlin," although he denied that he discusses his business with them. In 2004, the company staged a free concert for people who could prove that they had voted in the presidential election, a move that was viewed as part of the Kremlin's effort to boost turnout in an election in which President Vladimir Putin faced minimal competition. The company's plans to turn its flagship station, Russkoye Radio II, to a largely news and information format has been viewed by analysts as part of a Kremlin effort to consolidate its control over the information sphere in the run-up to the 2007 and 2008 Duma and presidential elections, respectively.

Despite Dybal's "announcement" of the public-service effort on the heels of Zhukov's speech, the campaign was actually launched at a 29 November press conference at state-owned RIA-Novosti, to considerable media fanfare in connection with the 1 December World AIDS Day event. At that time, RIA-Novosti was also named as a participant, "Vechernyaya Moskva" reported on 9 December. Interfax reported on 29 November that the newspapers "Komsomolskaya pravda," "Izvestiya," and "Vedomosti" would also participate, but Dybal did not mention them in March.

At that news conference, participants also announced that the "Stop AIDS" campaign would mostly include a new, locally produced series featuring people living with HIV. Dybal did not mention this project at the 30 March conference.

In November, it was announced that "technical and financial" support would be provided by a number of Western foundations, including the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In addition, Dybal said at that time that he expected the state media to join the effort. "You might say that we consider this our patriotic, humanitarian duty," Dybal said, according to "Vechernyaya Moskva." "We have already signed up nearly 30 large companies and, of course, we certainly expect ORT and RTR to join our ranks -- [and we] hope that they will join our project. We are also talking to regional companies, whose support is very important to us." Dybal added that he expected the "active participation" of American actor Richard Gere in the campaign.

The online newspaper reported on 2 December that the "Stop AIDS" campaign will include not only public-service announcements, but also the development of information resources and briefings for journalists.

Zhukov's appearance at the AIDS conference and recent calls by President Putin and other administration officials for businesses to do more to help the country give some reason to believe that "Stop AIDS" might gain some traction now.

By Paul Goble

The latest reorganization of the All-Russian State Television and Radio Company (VGTRK) now being conducted behind the scenes threatens to seriously reduce the amount of broadcasting that regional channels will be able to do in non-Russian languages, a Moscow newspaper reported last month.

In an article entitled, "The Vertical of State Television is Being Reformed in Secret," "Finansovye izvestiya" said on March 16 that the reorganization had already lead to the reduction in programming in Chuvash, Karelian and Mari � despite the fact that the Kremlin has not given final approval to the plan and regional officials have lodged protests.

According to the paper, VGTRK officials are acting to bring their company into line with a 2002 law requiring that it transform itself from a holding company whose "daughter" companies have enjoyed relative independence into a single corporation in which each of the branches are subordinate to a central decision-making and financial center.

Both prior to the adoption of this legislation and in the months since, many media observers have suggested that this Putin-backed effort to re-introduce central control over the media would limit the editorial independence of the various regional and central components that make up the VGTRK.

Few of them, however, anticipated that one of the first and most dramatic consequences of the implementation of this legislation would be a dramatic reduction in the quantity and quality of non-Russian radio and television. But that is just what appears to be happening.

"Finansovye izvestiya" said that the new corporate structure being imposed has already lead to the end of Chuvash-language broadcasting, a six-fold reduction in the amount of non-Russian language TV programming in Karelia, and cuts in Mari broadcasts following an announcement that the staff there is to be reduced by 50 percent.

Journalists in these three regions complained to the Moscow financial paper that VGTRK officials had not provided any explanations for the firings or the cutbacks in broadcasting hours. Instead, the journalists said, the Moscow managers have behaved as if they were carrying out "a secret special operation."

And the Russian Federation's Union of Journalists protested against such actions, seeing them as a prelude to further attacks on the independence of all broadcasting outlets, including those in the Russian language and in Moscow, the Regnum news agency reported.

Local officials have expressed their outrage as well. Mikhail Mikhailovskii, the chairman of the Chuvash State Council, has pointed out that the two-thirds of the population of his republic who speak Chubash "had lost the opportunity to watch broadcasts in their native language." Others have made analogous comments.

And deputies of the parliaments in both Tatarstan and Mari El have denounced the move and called for the preservation of the interrregional radio journal, "Between the Volga and the Urals," the Regnum news agency reported.

Adding to the anger of all involved are reports that these cutbacks in non-Russian language broadcasting are taking place even though there has been no reduction in the amount of money the state has allocated to the VGTRK as a whole, something that one journalist in Stavropol said means that "ever greater sums will remain in Moscow."

Station managers and journalists most immediately affected told the paper that they would use contractors or volunteers to try to restore at least some of the programs that have been cut back. But it is unclear just how far they will be able to go in this direction given that decision-making power is now concentrated in Moscow.

Meanwhile, regional officials are taking other steps. Chuvash President Nikolai Fedorov announced that he will try to organize in his republic its own independent broadcasting operation, but at the present time there is no money in the republic budget for that. He has joined other leaders in sending letters to Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov demanding that the premier look into what the VGTRK people are doing. These leaders are also seeking to have their Duma representatives raise questions about this case and to revise the law if that is what is required.

Because this reorganization reportedly does not yet have President Vladimir Putin's imprimatur and because it is being carried out region by region rather than all at once, they may be able to reverse or at least modify some of what has already taken place. But it is equally possible that the way in which the reorganization is being carried out � region by region, out of the public eye, and with officials denying that the Kremlin has approved � may have just the opposite result and will thus make it even more difficult to block this latest assault on non-Russian languages in the Russian Federation.

In the last line of its report, "Finansovye izvestiya" pledged to continue "to follow the situation." But even the attention of a major central newspaper may not be enough to stop this corporate reorganization and the further centralization and Russianization of that country's media space.