8 June 2005, Volume 5, Number 11
PRESS COUNCIL UNDER FIREBy Liz Fuller
Since its foundation in March 2003, Azerbaijan's Press Council has sought to defend journalists against official harassment, to establish more cordial and constructive working relations between journalists and the authorities, and to crack down on those journalists who compromise professional standards by resorting to blackmail. At the Second Congress of Journalists in April 2004, delegates on the whole positively assessed the Press Council's achievements during the first year of its existence (see "RFE/RL Media Matters," 4 June 2004). But 13 months later, some delegates to the Third Congress of Journalists, which took place in Baku on 21 May, criticized the Press Council for allegedly failing to stand up for human rights in general and for journalists in particular. They also charged that the reelection of Aflatun Amashev as council chairman was rigged, an allegation that Amashev dismissed as "absurd."
Among the measures promoted by the Press Council in its campaign to raise standards is the issuing of special certificates to those journalists whose work meets the highest moral and professional standards, and to media outlets that are meticulous in their compliance with labor laws. At the first presentation of such certificates, which took place in April 2004, Amashev explained that the purpose of that exercise was to crack down on media outlets and individual journalists who engage in blackmail, for example by warning prominent officials or businessmen that they have unearthed information compromising them and that they will publish that information unless bribed to do otherwise. Turan quoted Amashev on 2 April 2004 as estimating that of the 30,000-60,000 people in Azerbaijan who claim to be journalists, only some 3,000 actually are: the others, he said, are simply blackmailers.
A further innovation introduced by the Press Council was the use of special blue overjackets, prominently marked with the word "PRESS," to be issued to interested media outlets for their journalists to wear when covering demonstrations in the hope of avoiding police violence. However, on the first occasion that innovation was tested, during the opposition rally in Baku on 21 May for which the municipal authorities withheld permission, Farid Teymurkhanli, a journalist for the daily "Ayna/Zerkalo," was hit on the head by a truncheon-wielding police officer and suffered a severe concussion.
Speaking at the 21 May journalists' congress, Rauf Mirkadyrov, who also writes for "Ayna/Zerkalo," criticized the Press Council for what he termed its failure to promote freedom of speech, defend human rights, and strengthen the role of the media. Mirkadyrov went on to criticize the renewed composition of the Press Council as being incapable of fulfilling those tasks; he said some of its members are total unknowns, and he accused others of themselves engaging in blackmail. Finally, Mirkadyrov criticized Amashev personally for allegedly not taking a strong enough stance over the murder in early March of Elmar Huseinov, editor of the opposition journal "Monitor." Police and security officials have designated that killing an act of terrorism and named several suspects, but made no arrests.
From the published accounts of the Journalists' Congress and of the activities of the Press Council in recent months, it is difficult to conclude whether and to what degree the criticisms of Mirkadyrov and his colleagues are justified, or whether they may perhaps reflect a widespread dislike or distrust of Amashev personally and of his priorities. Amashev was quoted on 26 April by zerkalo.az as announcing his intention to run for a further term as Press Council chairman on the grounds that "I want to finish the work I have started," meaning the establishing of an institution of self-regulation for the press. In an interview published on 26 May by echo-az.com, Amashev rejected as "a monstrous injustice" the allegations that his reelection was rigged.
Asked why the Press Council focuses so insistently on blackmail by journalists, Amashev concurred that it should not have to do so, given that the most important challenges currently facing the Azerbaijani press are to raise journalists' standards, secure its independence from state structures, strengthen their economic position, ensure that the advertising market is transparent, and try to reduce the number of libel suits brought against media outlets. But since the recourse to blackmail tarnishes the image of the journalists as a whole, Amashev argued, the Press Council will continue its efforts to eradicate that practice.
He also said the council has reached agreement with the minister of labor and social security on drafting an employment contract for journalists that all media outlets will be encouraged to use, and that it also plans to draft and adopt measures to protect journalists' authorship rights.
JOURNALISTS TEMPTED TO FIGHT FIRE WITH FIREBy Antoine Blua
Murder is the leading cause of job-related deaths among journalists worldwide, and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has identified the Philippines as the most "murderous country," followed by Iraq. Despairing of getting protection from security forces, some Filipino reporters have decided to arm themselves.
Joel Egco is the president of a newly formed group promoting responsible gun ownership among local journalists, the Association of Responsible Media.
He told Reuters that the event was the first in a series of activities aimed at helping the media protect themselves from attackers who have already gunned down five Filipino journalists this year. "The violence is getting worse and yes, the government is not doing enough and the justice system is very slow," he said. "Now they know that we are preparing ourselves. 'Mediamen' in the Philippines are shooting it out with our attackers."
But Inday Espina-Varona, president of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), disagrees with journalists carrying weapons. She says that the only answer to stop the violence is to bring to justice the people responsible for all attacks on journalists. "I am not going to stop any journalists who thinks he ought to carry arms as long as he goes through the legal process. What the NUJP can do is to consistently reach out to them and tell them that this is not the answer," Espina-Varona said.
Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York, agrees. "Journalists are covering the news as observers on the sidelines," she said. "Any time that they carry a gun they run the risk of being misunderstood -- who are they? They should be neutral observers but they've got to have the working conditions to be able their jobs."
Jean-Francois Julliard, from the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, says few journalists are carrying weapons around the world.
In Iraq, however, foreign journalists are protected by armed security in hotels or residential compounds they are staying in. Many media companies that can afford it also hire armed guards to secure their staff while traveling. "The situation at the moment in Iraq is particular, with extreme violence targeting journalists too," Julliard said. "So there is no other solution than hiring security companies at least to ensure their protection in buildings and transports."
In 2003, CNN television said it had taken the unprecedented step of hiring armed security for its war correspondents after "specific factions in Iraq" reportedly targeted its reporters.
News of the network's policy leaked out after a CNN team came under fire at an Iraqi checkpoint. A security guard accompanying the crew reportedly returned fire with a machine gun. Julliard says the incident created a dangerous precedent. "We feared that people in Iraq think: 'When I see a vehicle with 'press' written on it, it can be an armed vehicle.' It would exposes all journalists to violence," he said.
Cooper from the Committee to Protect Journalist notes that some journalists decide not to travel with armed guards to maintain their neutrality and their perception that they are just observers. "If [journalists] have gone there to report on the news, they're neutral observers," she said. "That said, Iraq is a very dangerous place. So it's a very difficult question that journalists have to analyze and make their own decision about."
Pablo Hernandez, a Filipino tabloid columnist known for his hard-hitting commentaries on smugglers and crooked cops, says he has decided to carry a weapon after facing a similar dilemma. "I did not want to ask for a permit to carry [guns] because I believed that the pen is mightier than the gun," he said. "But with what's happening now, journalists are being killed like helpless chickens."
Last month, Hernandez traded shots with two men on a motorcycle after he and a friend noticed their car was being followed in the capital, Manila.
AUTHORITIES TRY TO CONTROL REPORTING ON CRISISBy Valentinas Mite
Uzbek state-controlled media presents only the official version of the recent violence in Andijon and other parts of eastern Uzbekistan.
Here is how the host of State TV Channel 1's "Tahlilnoma" analytical weekly described the situation on 17 May: "Undoubtedly, events in Andijon will be analyzed from different angles, conclusions will be made, and lessons learned. However, what is very clear is that some people with 'black wills' will not become an obstacle for the great caravan of our country moving towards its bright future."
Andrei Babitskii, a correspondent from RFE/RL's Russian Service, is one of the few foreign journalists in Andijon. He says Uzbek state media gives almost no information on the situation in the region.
"Practically, they give no information at all," he said. "During the two days they broadcast [Uzbek President Islam] Karimov's statement, where he gave his own version of the events, which very much differs from what happened in reality. Yesterday [16 May], local TV broadcast information saying that everything is in order in Andijon, that people hate extremists, and life gets back to normal. In short, the usual Soviet-type propaganda."
Babitskii says it would be completely impossible for Uzbek citizens to understand what is going on in eastern Uzbekistan if they followed only the official media coverage. And he says the difficulty of getting information from any non-state media is even greater for those who live in Andijon itself.
There, local newspapers have been stopped from publishing and the popular radio station Didor has been taken off the air. Babitskii says that the town is also cut off from the Internet.
Several journalists were in Andijon when violence broke out on 13 May. The violence saw an armed group attack a prison to free hundreds of prisoners. After a crowd of several thousand people later gathered around a seized building in the city center to demonstrate against the government, an uncertain number of people were killed in firing by security forces. Tashkent says 30 were killed but witnesses and human rights groups put the number at over 500. Additional violence has been reported over the past few days in other parts of eastern Uzbekistan near the Kyrgyz border, with mixed reports of fatalities.
Journalists in the region, most of whom worked for foreign organizations, have been told to leave zones of unrest for security reasons.
International media organizations and human rights groups are concerned that there have been human rights violations in Andijon and elsewhere in eastern Uzbekistan and have protested the restrictions imposed on the media. Diana Orlova of the Vienna-based International Press Institute told RFE/RL today that the Uzbek media is strongly controlled by the government and unable to report events independently.
"Journalists and media are controlled by the government," she said. "There's a lot of self-censorship. The journalists are afraid to write about critical issues. There is only a limited list of subjects on which the journalists are allowed to write freely. And what they can really write about is the harvest, a play that was recently put up. But they can't write about political events."
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists says in recent press release that the authorities maintain a virtual blockade on news coverage of civil unrest in Uzbekistan. It says the authorities prevent journalists from reporting on violent clashes between protesters and security forces in Andijon, the main city in the impoverished Ferghana Valley.
Those journalists who do not agree with the official version of events are harassed and intimidated. Nozir Zokir, a correspondent from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service in the country, says his fixed telephone line is being cut as well as his mobile phone.
"Now my home and mobile phones were cut off [on 14 May]," Zokir said. " Yesterday [15 May], in order to know the reason we went to the Uzdunrobita telephone company with a group of people consisting of our neighbors and human rights activists. There were some people on duty. They told us that their boss ordered them to cut off the following numbers and they can't reconnect them. We recorded what they said."
Nadira Hidoyatova, an opposition activist, says authorities are doing everything to cut people from foreign news sources, too. "The first thing that is violated now is our right to get information. It is not only the case that the local press does not reports [on the events] but Russian TV [channels] are turned off. Such Internet sites as centrasia.ru, fergana.ru are also being switched off," Hidoyatova said.
Access to Russian and foreign television news channels transmitted via cable has been cut. Satellite channels are still accessible to those with satellite dishes.
(RFE/RL's Uzbek and Russian services and correspondent Don Hill contributed to this story.)
KREMLIN SEEKS TO BROADEN MEDIA'S LIABILITY FOR MISTAKESBy Claire Bigg
The State Duma approved on 20 May in its first reading a package of amendments aimed at penalizing media outlets for reprinting or rebroadcasting erroneous news reports during electoral campaigns. Experts voice concern over the Kremlin-initiated bill, saying that passing it into law could force some news outlets to close down.
Under the draft legislation, news organizations can be prosecuted even if they republish or rebroadcast a report in good faith and were unaware of its errors.
Andrei Richter is the director of the Media Law and Policy Institute in Moscow. He says such a law would considerably extend news organization's liability for incorrect information.
"People whose interests were violated [by the report] used to take action against the person who first published the erroneous information. Those who retransmitted this information only had to publish a correction if this was required by the plaintiffs. Now, everyone is responsible: those who first published such information, and those who reprinted it not knowing, or even suspecting, this information was incorrect," Richter said. "Of course, this will have negative effects. Journalists from a traditional, average media outlet are simply unable to check the veracity of information on events that took place in Novosibirsk, Paris, or in rural regions."
A Duma spokesperson, however, told RFE/RL that the text of the draft law was not final and that the parliament was open to suggestions and objections from journalists.
Richter says such a law does not exist in other countries, where -- like in Russia -- legislation on mass media protects journalists from prosecution if they can prove they were unaware that the information they used was untrue. However, the Russian Civil Code stipulates that news organizations can bear legal responsibility if a court rules that they acted in bad faith and deliberately published an erroneous report.
Richter says journalists will be hard pressed to comply with the legislation even if it comes into force.
"Of course, this will have negative effects. Journalists from a traditional, average media outlet are simply unable to check the veracity of information on events that took place in Novosibirsk, Paris, or in rural regions. In practice, editorial offices will have to write only about what happens in their field of vision," Richter said.
This is particularly true for low-budget or regional news outlets, which lack the funds to double-check all reports. Richter says the Kremlin's motive in proposing the amendments was to prevent media outlets from abusing their immunity when they redistribute wrong information.
But the existing legislation, he contends, provides enough tools to curb this type of abuse.
Anna Volodina is a lawyer at the Glasnost Defense Foundation, which monitors media rights abuses in Russia. She says new organizations could face heavy fines or even closure if the draft legislation becomes law.
"The biggest sanction faced by news organizations for violating the law on election and referendums is either a relatively important fine or the suspension of its activities," Volodina said.
However, she says, the legislation, would not provide a sufficient basis for putting journalists behind bars for libel unless the charge is combined with another serious offence.
(Alik Gilmullin of RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service contributed to this report)
FORMER FEMALE TV PRESENTER SHOT DEAD IN KABULBy Golnaz Esfandiari
A female Afghan television presenter, Shaima Rezayee, was shot dead on 18 May in her home in Kabul's Char Gala District. The 24-year-old Rezayee had until March presented a popular music program on the privately owned television station Tolu TV. The show was criticized by conservatives as anti-Islamic and immoral.
Rezayee told Reuters in February that she had many fans, but she added that some Afghans were unhappy with her work and that she wore Western-style clothing. "Whenever I go out, some people say some [bad] things," she said. "But there are more who praise me. Especially my family -- and a lot of young people in this country encourage me."
The police chief of the Afghan capital has told Western news agencies that Rezayee was shot, but that it is unclear who perpetrated the killing and whether it was related to her work. According to unconfirmed reports from Kabul, two of her brothers who were home at the time of the killing have been arrested.
Said Soleiman Ashna, a news presenter at Tolu TV, says Rezayee's death has saddened her fans and former colleagues.
"We are all sad and feel sorry for the death of our colleague," Ashna said. "Shaima Rezayee was one of our best colleagues. She used to present an entertainment program. Yesterday we [heard] the news that she is dead, but we still don't know if she was killed or committed suicide. She became famous in a very short time. We have very good memories of her."
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has expressed "shock" at the killing and called for a thorough and independent investigation into Rezayee's death. The French media watchdog says Rezayee was fired from Tolu TV after she was personally criticized by conservatives for her on-screen behavior.
TV Tolu Director Saad Mohseni denies the report. He told RFE/RL that Rezayee decided to leave the station because the work schedule did not suit her. "The conditions were such that she could not work full time; therefore, she wanted to work several hours, several days and both sides agreed that she should leave Tolu," he said. "It happened three or four months ago."
Mohseni says it is very unlikely that Rezayee was killed because of her former job. "As far as we know she had never been threatened," he said. "There are other people in Tolu who are being threatened every day because of their work, because of the way they present the news. There are people who are not happy about it [the way news is presented] -- especially about our news and documentary programs. But we are not aware that Shaima Rezayee had received threats. We have to wait for the police investigation to be finalized then we can comment."
Mohseni says several other young girls present Western, Indian, and Persian music videos on the program called "Hop" that Shaima used to moderate. The program is similar to that of the international music channel MTV.
Several conservative clerics had voiced concern that "Hop" and similar programs corrupt young Afghans by promoting anti-Islamic values. But Tolu managers reject the arguments and say there is nothing anti-Islamic about the programs.
It is not clear when the results of the police investigation into Shaima Rezayee's killing will be made public.
(RFE/RL's Afghan Service correspondent Sultan Sarwar contributed to this report.)