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Media Matters: November 30, 2005

30 November 2005, Volume 5, Number 19
By Liz Fuller

Among the improvements registered in the 2005 Azerbaijani parliamentary campaign in comparison to previous elections over the past decade, the International Election Observation Mission noted in its preliminary assessment the allocation to opposition candidates of more free airtime on state-controlled media.

But that improved access to free airtime was not complemented either by increased objectivity on the part of the state-controlled media in their coverage of the opposition, or by a reduction in the enormous quantitative discrepancy between the coverage afforded to the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan (New Azerbaijan) party as compared to the opposition.

The revised election law stipulated that only parties or blocs that nominated more than 60 candidates could qualify for free airtime. Those that did were each to receive a total of 4 1/2 hours of free exposure -- parceled out into 90 minute allotments on state television, state radio, and the new Public Television channel, which began broadcasting in late August.

Only four parties or blocs met that criteria: Yeni Azerbaycan, the Azadliq and Yeni Siyaset opposition election blocs, and the opposition Liberal Party. In line with a 10 September ruling by the Central Election Commission (MSK), each of the four parties/blocs was allowed a daily "slot" six times weekly, Mondays through Saturdays.

That commitment was, by and large, honored, although MSK secretary Vidadi Maxmudov claimed in late September that state television and Public Television were offering selected candidates additional unpaid airtime. The sole major infraction registered was the suspension by State Television of live election broadcasting, both paid and unpaid, by Azadliq on 17 October -- the evening of former parliament speaker Rasul Quliyev's abortive attempt to return to Azerbaijan from exile to participate in the election as an Azadliq candidate. That ban was lifted on 20 October after international organizations protested, according to on 21 October.

In addition, all candidates were entitled to purchase airtime on State Television, Public Television, or on private television channels. But the Central Election Commission (MSK) set limits on both the amount of free and paid airtime state television and Public Television could broadcast per week: 135 minutes per week free airtime and 270 minutes paid airtime, and not more than 45 minutes paid airtime on any given day.

Each registered candidate was entitled to 1 million manats ($217.72) from the state budget to cover the costs of his/her media campaign, but just one minute of paid television advertising cost between $420-$850 on the private television station ANS, between $295-$590 on Azerbaijan TV, and between $420-$640 on the privately owned Space TV, according to on 9 September, citing

Public Television General Director Ismail Omarov announced on 5 September that his channel's rates were to be set lower than those on private channels, but he did not say what the tariff would be. The maximum a candidate could spend on campaign advertising was 412.5 million manats ($88,000), MSK spokesman Azer Sariyev told of 26 August.

But paradoxically, in trying to treat all candidates equally, some television channels ended up inadvertently infringing on the legal limit on the maximum amount of election-related programming that could be aired each week, reported on 27 October. The National Television and Radio Council had to caution state television that it was violating the election law by broadcasting between two and three hours of paid election-related programming per night.

Such efforts to provide all eligible candidates with the maximum airtime to which they were entitled, and which they could afford, are laudable. But they may have had a possibly unintended negative effect: even the most politically engaged viewers are likely to lose interest after several weeks of election-related programming. That is not, however, to deny the importance of maximum coverage -- given that the electronic media, rather than newspapers, continue to be the primary source of information for most of Azerbaijan's population.

That public reliance on television for information renders all the more crucial the need for objectivity and balance. A Code of Conduct for media coverage of elections prepared by the Council of Europe and intended to promote those qualities was adopted in July, but monitoring of some 40-50 media outlets -- both electronic and print -- during the election campaign showed that, as in previous elections, several television channels continued to give disproportionately extensive and almost exclusively favorable coverage to candidates from the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan party, while their coverage of opposition parties tended to be cursory and largely negative.

That monitoring identified Azerbaijan State Television as the main offender, followed Lider and Space television, both of which are privately owned, reportedly by persons close to the ruling elite. Public Television proved to be less tendentious and more objective than either of those latter three channels, but was still far from entirely free of bias.

By Jean-Christophe Peuch

Azerbaijan's law-enforcement agencies claim they have made progress in an investigation into an alleged coup attempt involving a string of former cabinet ministers. In a joint statement released on 1 November, the Prosecutor-General's Office, the Interior Ministry, and the National Security Ministry said they had collected evidence showing more former government officials were plotting with the opposition to overthrow President Ilham Aliyev's government ahead of the 6 November parliamentary elections. Also on 1 November, some of the alleged plotters confessed to their purported crimes on AzTV, Azerbaijan's State Television.

Prime-time television featured on 1 November four of the alleged plotters. They included former Finance Minister Fikrat Yusifov; Fikrat Sadyqov, the former head of Azerbaijan's state-controlled Azerkimya petrochemical company; former Health Minister Ali Insanov; and former presidential administration official Akif Muradverdiyev.

Yusifov was arrested on 16 October, hours before the expected return to Azerbaijan of exiled opposition leader Rasul Quliyev. Azerbaijan's law-enforcement agencies say Yusifov's initial confessions made possible all subsequent arrests.

Authorities say some 13 former cabinet ministers, government officials, business executives, and police officers have been detained in the past two weeks on charges that include preparation of a coup, illegal possession of weapons, embezzlement, and corruption.

Rights campaigners and independent media, however, say the number of detainees is much higher.

The "Ekho" daily newspaper last week reported that some 30 people had been arrested since 16 October.

Fikrat Huseynli, who introduced himself as a member of a committee to protect the rights of the detainees, said 1 November in Baku that, according to his own estimates, up to 70 government officials have been either arrested or sacked in recent days.

Confessing on state television, Yusifov said the alleged plot had been maturing for years. Answering questions from an invisible prosecuting judge, the former finance minister said Quliyev first contacted him from his self-exile four years ago.

"In June 2001 -- I was then preparing my Ph.D. at St. Petersburg University of Finance and Economy -- Quliyev phoned me from the United States and told me that he was planning to return to Azerbaijan soon. He told me that, for him to do so, he needed to settle a number of problems, first and foremost, organizational problems," Yusifov said.

A former parliament speaker and a one-time ally of late President Heidar Aliyev, Quliyev has been living in exile since 1996. He is wanted in Azerbaijan on embezzlement charges that he denies.

Quliyev, who chairs the opposition Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (ADP), has been registered as a candidate in the upcoming legislative election. However, Azerbaijani authorities have threatened to arrest him as soon as he enters the country.

On 17 October, Quliyev was detained in Ukraine while reportedly flying to Baku from London. A Simferopol court eventually ordered his release, saying there was insufficient ground to extradite him to Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijani authorities claim the alleged plot they foiled last month envisioned that ADP activists take control of the Baku international airport upon Quliyev's return. Then, according to the authorities, they would march on the city center to overthrow the government.

Quliyev has described government claims that he was planning to seize power forcibly as "fairy tales."

But on 1 November, Yusifov assured television viewers that the government's claims are true. Asked by the prosecuting judge why he believed Quliyev had chosen him to organize his return to Azerbaijan, he said: "He probably thought that I would agree to solve the financial problems linked to his coming to power and conduct things with precision. This is probably why he banked on. At the same time, he probably knew he could entrust me with other tasks connected to his coming to power. [Again], this is probably why he banked on me."

In a joint statement released late on 1 November, the Prosecutor-General's Office, the Interior Ministry, and the National Security Ministry said Yusifov had confessed to receiving more than $300,000 from Quliyev to organize the alleged coup. According to Sadyqov, the money was primarily meant to finance street protests.

The statement said it was former Health Minister Ali Insanov who gave Yusifov the money. Insanov is one of the government officials who was sacked and arrested in recent days.

Yusifov said on 1 November other secret funds went through Sadyqov, the former head of the petrochemical company Azerkimya. According to Yusifov, those funds went to Eldar Salayev, a former president of Azerbaijan's Academy of Sciences. The 72-year-old Salayev, who is a relative of Quliyev, has been charged with being part of the alleged plot.

"All in all, up until the very last day -- that is 16 October -- Sadyqov released some $50,000 and, upon Quliyev's request, gave this money to Eldar Salayev who lives [on the same street]," Yusifov said.

Whether Yusifov's televised confessions were obtained under duress was not immediately clear. He said during the broadcast that he was speaking on his own free will, but that could not be independently confirmed.

ADP leader Quliyev, who went back to London after his release from Ukrainian custody, has said that he will return to Baku to take part in the 6 November elections.

But most of Azerbaijan's political analysts have been questioning whether he will do so. (RFE/RL Azerbaijani Service contributed to this report.)

By Jan Maksymiuk

Belposhta, Belarus's state postal service, recently decided to exclude three private periodicals from its subscription catalogue for the first half of 2006. Belposhta is a monopoly, which disseminates the country's press through subscription. The move seems to be a repressive measure intended to marginalize the remainder of opposition-minded press in Belarus ahead of the 2006 presidential election.

The targeted periodicals are the daily "Narodnaya volya" and the weeklies "Salidarnasts" and "Zhoda." "Narodnaya volya" has a print run of 27,000 copies, "Salidarnasts" 5,400, and "Zhoda" 3,000. Belposhta explained the move against the newspapers in three similar notifications saying that, "Each economic entity has the right to be guided by economic expediency in its commercial activities."

Apart from this explanation sent to "Narodnaya volya," Belposhta also charged that the daily failed to notify it about a change of the printer.

The newspapers' editors were bemused by the decision, to say the least. "It is unclear how this concerned the distributor, as the schedule of publication did not change and the volume remained the same," "Narodnaya volya" Editor in Chief Svyatlana Kalinkina commented. "Narodnaya volya" has filed a suit against Belposhta over the subscription stoppage. "Salidarnasts" Editor in Chief Alyaksandr Starykevich said that nonstate media in Belarus are now entering "an era of the Internet and samizdat."

Both Kalinkina and Starykevich concur that it will be extremely difficult for them to organize an independent distribution network for their periodicals. "Narodnaya volya," "Salidarnasts," and "Zhoda" have long struggled to remain afloat in an unwelcoming media environment. Both domestic and foreign human rights activists have accused the Belarusian authorities of trying to liquidate or gag the independent media.

"Narodnaya volya," as the largest of the three periodicals, was a special target for the authorities in the past two years. The daily was initially plagued with libel suits -- since March 2004, "Narodnaya volya" has received fines of some $90,000 in four separate libel cases.

In a country where the official monthly wage is around $200, such exorbitant damages were apparently intended to ruin the newspaper economically. However, each time the daily was able to collect the money for damages among its sponsors and readers and remain afloat.

In April, Zhanna Litvina, chairwoman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, predicted that the Belarusian authorities were seeking "a total cleansing of the information sector" in the country. Yelena Raubetskaya, chairwoman for the Fund for the Development of Regional Press, was even bleaker in her prognosis. She said that libel suits against independent media would be followed by the removal of major nonstate publications from state-run print shops and state-controlled press-distribution networks. "I am absolutely sure that by 2006, the nongovernmental press that writes about politics will no longer exist," Raubetskaya added.

Raubetskaya's prediction has unfortunately proved true. In September, Belsayuzdruk, Belarus's state monopoly that runs a nationwide network of kiosks and newsstands, terminated a contract for the distribution of "Narodnaya volya" after a court froze the newspaper's bank account and seized newsprint demanding payment of libel damages.

The same day, the Minsk-based printing plant Chyrvonaya zorka annulled its contract for printing the daily. "Narodnaya volya" -- like nearly a dozen other Belarusian independent periodicals, including "Salidarnasts" and "Zhoda" -- was forced to find a printer in Smolensk, a Russian provincial capital near the Belarusian border.

Apart from restricting distribution and applying economic pressure, the authorities employ other, more indirect, tactics against the independent press. In May President Alyaksandr Lukashenka issued a decree limiting the use of the words "national" and "Belarusian" in the names of organizations. Private media outlets were not allowed to use both of these words in their names.

The presidential decree in particular compelled many newspaper to reregister in August and September: "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta" (Belarusian Business Newspaper) as "BDG; Delovaya gazeta," "Natsionalnaya ekonomicheskaya gazeta" (National Economic Newspaper) as "Ekonomicheskaya gazeta," "Belorusskii rynok" (Belarusian Market) as "Belorussy i rynok" (Belarusians and the Market); and "Belorusskaya gazeta" as "Belgazeta."

Many Belarusian commentators said that the reregistation was primarily intended to confuse and disorient the readers of independent periodicals and make it difficult for them to find their preferred publications on newsstands or in subscription catalogues.

This year, the Belarusian authorities also set a precedent by de facto nationalizing a private periodical. The situation occurred in May, during a Polish-Belarusian diplomatic row over the new leadership of the Union of Poles in Belarus (SPB), which was supported by Warsaw but not recognized by Minsk.

Warsaw was forced to suspend the sponsoring of the SPB weekly "Glos znad Niemna" (Voice From Over The Niemen River) after a state printing plant in Belarus refused to publish materials prepared by its editorial staff and published several fake issues of the weekly with articles reflecting only official Minsk's stance on the SPB standoff. "It is a de facto nationalization of an independent publication," Andrzej Poczobut, a ethnic Polish journalist in Belarus, told RFE/RL. "If you ask my opinion about who's behind this, I'm sure it is the [Belarusian] KGB."

Alyaksandr Milinkevich, the Belarusian opposition's choice to challenge Lukashenka in the 2006 presidential election, believes that the official distribution restrictions against "Narodnaya volya," "Salidarnasts," and "Zhoda" testify to the Belarusian regime's growing uncertainty about how Belarusians will behave during the ballot. "The authorities' move looks surprising at first glance, as there are almost no independent newspapers left in the Belarusian news industry," Milinkevich said. "This means that the authorities are seriously afraid of the forthcoming presidential election and are seeking to deprive our people of the opportunity to hear an alternative point of view."

But this move also leaves him and his election staff with a thorny dilemma about how, if at all, the opposition will manage to present an alternative point of view to the electorate in the presidential campaign.

By Golnaz Esfandiari

Iranian investigative journalist Akbar Ganji has been awarded the 2006 Golden Pen of Freedom. That's the annual press freedom prize of the Paris-based World Association of Newspapers, which represents 18,000 newspapers around the world. Ganji has been jailed for the past five years in Iran because of his critical articles and investigations into the murders of political dissidents and intellectuals.

The World Association of Newspapers says Akbar Ganji's fight for freedom of expression in Iran is being "watched around the globe." And it calls Ganji's resistance to repression and his refusal to be silenced "an inspiration to journalists everywhere." "Even if I have to spend the rest of my life in prison, I will not change my views."

Larry Killman is the director of communications for the World Association of Newspapers. "He is a very courageous journalist that refuses to be silenced despite his imprisonment," Killman says. "Every time he goes on hunger strikes to make his point, every time he is released from prison to hospital, he continues to speak out at great personal risk. And the World Association of Newspapers felt a journalist of this caliber should be honored for his bravery, and that's why he received the Golden Pen of Freedom."

Ganji's wife, Massumeh Shafii, tells RFE/RL that the award proves that her husband's work is recognized and appreciated despite efforts by the authorities in Iran to silence him.

Shafii says Ganji is still unaware that he has won the Golden Pen award. "If the news [about the award] is published in our newspapers, then Ganji will probably find out about that, unless those newspapers are not given to him. [The award] will improve his morale and make him more resilient. It shows that others outside have not forgotten him."

Ganji -- Iran's most prominent journalist -- was sentenced to six years in prison in 2001 on several charges, including threatening Iran's national security and insulting the country's leaders.

He is best-known for having implicated several Iranian officials -- including former President Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and former Intelligence Minister Ali Falahian -- in the killing of four intellectuals and political dissidents in 1998.

Ganji has also published a two-part book from prison in which he challenges the authority of Iran's supreme leader and says that real democracy cannot be achieved under the country's current system.

In May, after a previous hunger strike, Ganji was granted prison leave for medical treatment. During his temporary release, he said that his time in prison had made him even more determined to push for democratic change in Iran. He also called for a boycott of the 17 June presidential election.

Upon return to prison, Ganji resumed his hunger strike for two months. He reportedly lost 25 kilograms and was hospitalized.

He ended his hunger strike on 3 September. But, according to his wife, his health remains poor. "His physical conditions is not good, but he is in excellent spirits. He faces tight food and medication restrictions, and this increases our concern," she says. "Today, it has been more than 70 days that Ganji has been in solitary confinement and I have been given permission to visit him only twice. Ganji has not seen his children for more than 80 days."

Shafii says Ganji has been under pressure while in jail to renounce his writings and opinions. In May, however, Ganji said that "even if I have to spend the rest of my life in prison, I will not change my views."

The World Association of Newspapers has awarded the Golden Pen annually since 1961 to journalists who defend and promote press freedom. Past winners include Ruslan Sharipov from Uzbekistan and Mahjoub Mohamed Salih of Sudan.

Ganji is the second Iranian journalist to be awarded the Golden Pen of Freedom. In 1999, Faraj Sarkuhi received the award. He is the former editor of "Adineh" magazine who now lives in exile in Germany.