20 January 2004, Volume 4, Number 1
KUCHMA AND THE MEDIA LOOKING TO 2004 'WITH FEAR'By Jan Maksymiuk
In her annual report to the Verkhovna Rada in April 2003, Ombudswoman Nina Karpachova told lawmakers that journalism remains among the most dangerous professions in Ukraine, with 36 media employees having been killed over the past decade. Sadly, 2003 added three more names to this grim statistic: Volodymyr Yefremov, Volodymyr Kucheryav, and Volodymyr Karachevtsev. Yefremov died in a suspicious car crash; Kucheryav was reportedly shot to death by a close acquaintance and business partner; and Karachevtsev was found hanged in his home. All three deaths have left many unanswered questions.
Another Ukrainian-born journalist -- Reuters camera operator Taras Protsyuk -- was killed in Baghdad in April 2003 when the hotel where he was staying was shelled by a U.S. tank.
The Mass Information Institute (IMI), a Kyiv-based NGO studying Ukraine's media, reported recently some statistical data relating to violations of the freedom of speech in the country in 2003 (http://www.imi.org.ua). According to the IMI, 42 Ukrainian journalists were attacked or intimidated otherwise in 2003 (the relevant figure in 2002 was 23). Moreover, 38 Ukrainian media outlets told the IMI that they or their employees were subject to political, economic, or "indirect" pressure by authorities last year (30 media outlets complained about this in 2002). "Indirect pressure -- something that is very difficult to prove unambiguously [in court] -- remains the primary method for putting into the yoke those very few [media outlets] that have not yet stood under the banner of the party of power," the IMI concluded. "Numerous reports from the provinces testify to the fact that it is problematic [for the media] not only to support the opposition...but also to avoid working for the official authorities."
As before, defamation suits against media outlets and journalists, with demands of high financial compensations "for libel, inflicting moral and material harm or damage to business reputation" of claimants, were a fairly common occurrence in Ukraine (46 suits in 2003, compared to 38 in 2002). "The only positive fact was that none of the defamation suits [in 2003] has led, as it happened earlier, to the closure of a media outlet," the IMI commented.
The use of "temnyky" (the word means "themes of the week" in Ukrainian journalistic lingo) is one of the most alarming methods of state interference in the media sphere in Ukraine. Temnyky are unsigned secret instructions that are regularly sent by the presidential administration to major state-controlled and private media outlets (primarily television and radio channels) to tell journalists on what issues they are to report during a particular week and in what manner.
The temnyky issue became public in the second half of 2002, when Verkhovna Rada Freedom of Speech and Information Committee Chairman Mykola Tomenko revealed their existence and they became a subject of parliamentary debate. "In fact, television news coverage in Ukraine is made by remote control," journalist Andriy Shevchenko told the Verkhovna Rada in December 2002. "Someone else, not journalists, edits news programs, shoots and disseminates videos, writes texts, and selects comments by governors, which are subsequently sent to all channels. Let us admit honestly: instead of news coverage, Ukraine gets lies. Because every half-truth is a lie, and there should be no illusions about that."
According to a report released by the U.S.-based NGO Freedom House in October 2003 on the media situation in Ukraine in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, the practice of issuing temnyky has not abated since it was exposed. An indirect confirmation of this practice was a week-long study of news programs on Ukraine's five major television channels -- UT-1, 1+1, Inter, STB, and New Channel -- conducted in November by the Ukrainian NGO Academy of Ukrainian Press (AUP). The AUP confirmed "a tendency among leading television channels to present a single agenda for daily news broadcasts and a highly similar interpretation of political events," Interfax reported on 5 December 2003.
The case of slain Internet journalist Heorhiy Gongadze is an important litmus test for the Ukrainian authorities' intention to deal fairly with grave allegations implicating former and present top-ranking Ukrainian officials, including President Leonid Kuchma. The Gongadze case certainly appears to have been a political murder carried out to stifle one of the government's fiercest critics in the media. Gongadze's headless corpse was found near Kyiv in November 2000. The same month, Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz made public a tape allegedly made by former presidential bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko in Kuchma's office, on which the Ukrainian president appears to urge some state officials to get rid of Gongadze. No apparent progress has been made in unraveling the mystery of this murder.
In September, former Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun announced that his colleagues have concluded their investigations of several high-profile criminal cases, including the Gongadze murder. Piskun said prosecutors have placed three suspects in the Gongadze case on a search list, but declined to reveal their names. Within months, Kuchma fired Piskun, charging him with misusing budgetary funds and taking advantage of his position for personal gain. The new prosecutor-general, Hennadiy Vasilyev, said Piskun's announcement was unfounded. Investigators, Vasilyev said, have not solved the Gongadze case and have no suspects.
The state-controlled media in Ukraine -- primarily Ukrainian Television and Ukrainian Radio -- play a dominant role in terms of propagandistic influence on the public. Thus, the situation closely resembles the one in Belarus. However, in contrast to Belarus, Ukraine also has a significant private-media market, which includes not only newspapers, but also influential television and radio channels. As a result, it is possible to say that there is some pluralism in the media sphere in Ukraine.
This pluralism, however, does not mean that the Ukrainian public is well served in terms of the objectivity and impartiality of reporting. Many studies of the Ukrainian media have found that media outlets are extremely partisan in their reporting, particularly during election campaigns, and routinely provide positive coverage of political allies of media owners while simultaneously smearing their opponents.
There have been no essential changes in the ownership of major media outlets in Ukraine last year. Most influential private radio, television channels, and newspapers are owned or controlled by oligarchs and oligarchic clans supporting the government and/or Kuchma. Such a situation certainly handicaps the Ukrainian opposition -- Our Ukraine, the Socialist Party, and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc -- in this year's presidential campaign, as none of these three forces is known to wield influence with any significant television or radio station.
On the other hand, a presidential candidate or candidates from the party of power will likely enjoy massive support not only from the state-controlled Ukrainian Television and Ukrainian Radio, but also from the oligarchic television channels: STB, New Channel, ICTV (controlled by Kuchma's son-in-law, Viktor Pinchuk); Inter, TET, Enter (Viktor Medvedchuk, Hryhoriy Surkis); 1+1 (Oleksandr Volkov).
No one should expect that there will be equal conditions for all presidential candidates to transmit their electoral message to voters. "I'm looking to next year with fear. Everybody agrees that the  election will be the scariest and dirtiest ever," Kuchma told journalists in December 2003. There is not the slightest doubt that the Ukrainian media will make an enormous contribution to substantiating Kuchma's apprehension.
Jan Maksymiuk is an RFE/RL analyst and editor of "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report."
IN THE GRIP OF A STIFLING SYSTEMBy A. William Samii
Since the spring of 2000, the Iranian government has used a variety of pretexts to close approximately 100 publications. The parliament launched an unsuccessful effort in January to change the press law, with amendments that would remove both the current geographic restrictions on the distribution of publications and a requirement that subject matter be limited to a specific topic.
A previous attempt to amend the press law, in August 2000, was quashed. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned at the time in a letter that was read aloud to the parliament, "Should the enemies of Islam, the revolution, and the Islamic system take over or infiltrate the press, a great danger would threaten the security, unity, and the faith of the people and, therefore, I cannot allow myself and other officials to keep quiet in respect of this crucial issue." Khamenei went on to say in his letter, "The current [press] law, to a degree, has been able to prevent the appearance of this great calamity, and [therefore], its [amendment] and similar actions that have been anticipated by the parliamentary committee are not legitimate and not in the interest of the country or the system."
The supreme leader is empowered to overrule any other state official. If predictions of voter apathy are borne out, it seems increasingly likely (as of December 2003) that a conservative majority will recapture the legislature in the February parliamentary election. There is little chance that the press law will be reversed any time in the foreseeable future.
In October, however, the legislature did pass a law that limited the duration of "temporary" press closures. In some cases these temporary closures have lasted several years, making them permanent for all intents and purposes. The intent of the legislation is to limit temporary closures to a maximum of 10 days for newspapers, four weeks for weeklies and biweeklies, two months for monthlies, and three months for other publications. Once that period expires, the ban cannot be renewed.
Another development related to the way press courts operated. The Tehran Province Justice Administration announced on 9 October 2003 that press court verdicts would be issued by three judges after they obtain the jury's opinion. Iranian Journalists Guild director Rajabali Mazrui described this as a positive development, and Muslim Journalists Society chairman Amir Mohebbian said that this would restore journalists' trust, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 14 October 2003.
Restoration of journalists' trust in the government will be difficult, in light of events that took place during the 7 August 2003 press festival. Some reporters refused to accept their awards, while others presented their prizes to the families of imprisoned colleagues. Bahman Ahmadi-Amoui, who won an award for investigative reporting, did not accept his prize; instead he objected to state radio and television correspondents receiving awards while nothing was said about Akbar Ganji, Abbas Abdi, and others who are in jail, "Yas-i No" reported on 10 August 2003. Mohammad Heidari turned down his prize for political reporting and said, "Journalists are free in the country if they write something that has no relation to the interests of the powerful people." Heidari also voiced his objection to the death of Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, who was beaten to death in Evin prison.
There is no private radio or television broadcasting in Iran. A state agency, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB, a.k.a. Voice and Vision of the Islamic Republic), is responsible for all broadcast programs originating in the country. IRIB's director is Ali Larijani, a conservative appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Under Larijani's guidance, and especially during the presidency of Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, IRIB has earned a reputation for political bias and inaccuracy in its coverage of both domestic and foreign affairs. This has engendered criticism from pro-reform Iranians.
For example, several Iranian commentators criticized IRIB's coverage of Operation Iraqi Freedom. A Tehran University professor warned in early April 2003 that IRIB's biased reporting could be harmful to Iran's national interests and expressed the hope that no Iranian official would believe this reporting. "Reports such as 'America is being defeated,' 'all their plans have failed,' 'America has been bogged down on the battlefield,' 'the Iraqis have been successful,' and suchlike, which one can deduce from the news reports and analyses of the Voice and Vision, are unreal," the professor said. One parliamentarian complained in April 2003 that IRIB analyses of the war depicted events in such a way that viewers were likely to believe that the Iraqi regime would win, while another parliamentarian said that IRIB's coverage was so biased that it violated Iran's stated policy of neutrality.
IRIB is no better at covering domestic news. It imposed a news blackout during the July 2003 demonstrations in Tehran. The reformist daily "Mardom Salari" said in June 2003 that IRIB did not report on unrest and rioting in Tehran that month until 10 days after it had ended, and the report that was broadcast tried to connect the riots with satellite-television channels based outside the country and with the U.S. leadership. Moreover, IRIB merely showed "pictures of broken windows and thrown stones on the ground," while it "forgot about the universities and students." On the program, a citizen complained that his telephone cable was disconnected -- but there was no mention of the violent and bloody attack at Allameh Tabatabai University.
The IRIB Supervisory Board, which monitors state radio and television, criticized on 27 October 2003 what it described as a failure by IRIB to behave impartially, as well as lobbying for a political party. This went against IRIB's role as the "national media," the board announced, and it called on IRIB Director Ali Larijani to ensure impartiality in coverage of legal or real entities, particularly parliamentarians.
State television has six channels in Tehran. Channels 1 and 2 offer news and entertainment; Channel 3 offers sports and entertainment; Channel 4 has cultural programming; Channel 5 offers Tehran-oriented programs; and Channel 6 is news.
There are seven national radio stations -- Network One, Farhang (Culture), Koran, Educational, Sports, Youth, and Payam (an FM station heard mostly in Tehran that has traffic reports, short news items, and music). Provincial broadcasters are more popular than the national stations, however, according to a November 2002 survey of 13,600 radio listeners in 31 cities by the VVIR Center for Radio Program Research, Study, and Evaluation. Listeners said that the quality of the signal, as well as the specific topics on the air, generally determined their listening choices.
As of approximately one year ago, more than 20 radio stations not affiliated with the Iranian government broadcast in Persian for an Iranian audience. This number has fallen because a number of these stations were based in Iraq and affiliated with the Baghdad-backed Mujahedin-i Khalq organization, and since the ouster of President Saddam Hussein they are rarely heard. Other stations included the Voice of the Iranian Communist Party (still broadcasting but subject to jamming) and many that were linked with Kurdish groups, such as the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan's Voice of the People of Kurdistan (still available), the Kurdistan Democratic Party's Voice of Iraqi Kurdistan (still available), Radio Komala (still broadcasting but subject to jamming), and Voice of Kurdistan Toilers (no longer available).
Other Persian-language exile stations are the Worker-Communist Party of Iran's Radio International, the Voice of Southern Azerbaijan, and Radio Barabari (Radio Equality), which claims to be on the side of workers, women, the unemployed, and national minorities.
The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), China Radio International, Deutsche Welle, Kol Yisrael (Voice of Israel), NHK Radio Japan, Radio Farda, Radio France International, Voice of America, and Voice of Russia all broadcast in Persian to Iran.
Iran also is the target of religious broadcasting, and currently Christian programming is "completely organized by the evangelical branch of Protestant Christianity" (Biener). Trans World Radio and Adventist World Radio transmit in Persian. A Bahai station, Radio Payam-i Doost (Radio Message from a Friend), began short-wave broadcasts to Iran in May 2001.
In 1994, the Interior Ministry declared satellite dishes illegal. At the time, hard-line figures said that satellite dishes were like U.S. flags and the programs they receive were part of a cultural war. A law banning satellite dishes went into effect in 1995. In October 2001, reformist parliamentarians called for an end to the ban on receiving satellite television, but the government blamed satellite-television broadcasts for riots that month and resumed confiscation of private satellite dishes.
Discussions on eliminating the satellite ban started again in November 2002, and were soon followed yet again by dish confiscations. The legislature ratified portions of a bill that would legalize private ownership of satellite receiving equipment in December 2002. The Guardians Council, which must approve all legislation on constitutional and Islamic grounds, rejected legislation in January 2003 authorizing private ownership of satellite receiving equipment.
Given the boring and biased nature of domestic programming, Iranians continue to ignore such restrictions and tune in to Persian-language satellite broadcasts. Some of the stations available to them are: Appadana (http://www.appadana.com), Azadi TV (http://www.azaditv.com), Channel One TV (http://www.channelonetv.com), IPN TV (http://www.ipntv.com), Iran TV Network (http://www.irantvnetwork.com), IRTV (http://www.irtv.com), Jaam-e-Jam (http://www.jaamejam.com), Melli TV (http://www.mellitv.com), NITV (http://www.nitv.tv), Pars TV Network (http://www.parstvnetwork.com), Rang-a-Rang (http://www.rang-a-rang.com), and Tapesh TV (http://www.tapeshtv.com). All of these stations are based in the Los Angeles area, with the exception of Rang-a-Rang, which is based near Washington, D.C.
The Communist Workers Party of Iran intends to establish a satellite television channel, an anonymous "source close to the leadership of the Communist Workers Party of Iraq" said in the 1 December 2003 issue of the Kurdish weekly "Jamawar." The Iranian and Iraqi parties reportedly will share airtime. According to an announcement on the party website (http://www.wpiran.org/english.htm), broadcasts will commence in January 2004.
Voice of America (VOA) launched a nightly Persian-language television program called "News and Views" in July. VOA also produces a weekly news magazine called "Next Chapter" and a 90-minute discussion show called "Roundtable With You." According to a November 2003 U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) press release that cited a nationwide telephone survey of 1,000 people, these programs reach 12 percent of Iranians over the age of 18.
The Iranian exile stations offer a mixture of news and entertainment, and the extent of their political involvement varies. According to Purdue University Professor Yahya Kamalipur, NITV and Azadi TV are pro-monarchist, while Tapesh and Iran TV are more commercial, "Entekhab" reported on 4 and 5 November 2003. Kamalipur said that the satellite broadcasts emphasize entertainment over education, although there are some useful shows. The channels also expend a lot of energy insulting each other, Kamalipur said. "It seems that the Iranian satellite channels spend half of their time selling Iranian carpets," he added.
The broadcasters claim to be very influential. California State University, Los Angeles, Professor Afshin Matin-Asgari is less sanguine. He told PBS "Newshour" on 19 June 2003 that a "very small percentage of the population, mostly upper-class households in Tehran, maybe a few other cities," could afford access to satellite television. "Most people don't see satellite television," Matin-Asgari concluded.
Whatever the extent of the satellite stations' influence, the regime clearly fears them. Recognizing the futility of merely banning satellite-receiving equipment, Tehran turned to jamming satellite broadcasts. In April 2003, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps transmitted powerful jamming signals from its bases in Tehran, which prompted complaints from President Khatami and reformist members of parliament. The jamming took a more forceful tack in July, when broadcasts from VOA-TV and other Persian-language stations were the target of signals originating in Cuba. Tehran and Havana denied any involvement in the jamming of the satellite broadcasts.
Telecommunications Company of Iran (TCI) Information Affairs Director Mohammad Sadri said in the 20 June 2003 issue of "Entekhab" newspaper that about 1.7 million Iranians use the Internet. He estimated, furthermore, that there would be 5 million Internet users in the country by March 2004 and this number would reach 15 million in five years.
In light of the restrictions placed on the press and the limitations of broadcast media, the Internet has become an increasingly popular source of information for Iranians. Tehran reacted to this development with concern: in January, the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution created a special committee to identify problematic websites. In May 2003, a government spokesman said the state telecommunications company had started blocking access to "immoral" sites -- including chat rooms, through which Iranian men and women get acquainted, as well as political sites.
Also in May, the judiciary announced the creation of a special unit to deal with Internet-related issues and the prosecutor-general said that the judiciary is drawing up a bill to investigate Internet offenses. One month later, a judiciary spokesman said the absence of government-imposed filtering would put off potential Internet users.
The judiciary spokesman listed more than 20 matters that would likely be filtered, including "the dissemination of blasphemous items; insulting Islam and Islamic sanctities; opposing the constitution and publishing any item that might undermine the independence and the territorial integrity of the country; insulting the leader [Ayatollah Khamenei] and the sources of emulation [leading clerics]; [distorting] the values of the Islamic revolution and the principles of the political thought of Imam Khomeini; undermining national unity and solidarity; creating pessimism and hopelessness among the people regarding the legitimacy and effectiveness of the [Islamic] system; providing publicity for illegal groups and political parties...propagating prostitution and forbidden acts; publishing pictures and photographs that are contrary to public morality; providing publicity for smoking cigarettes and the taking of narcotics; making false accusations against any of the officials or ordinary members of the society; insulting individuals or organizations; and creating any unidentified radio or television network and program without the supervision of the Voice and Vision Organization [radio and television]."
Iranians reacted angrily to the blocking of websites, particularly personal publication websites known as weblogs. In July 2003, the Ministry of Post, Telegraph, and Telephone announced that the weblogs were blocked due to a private company's mistake. Students at Amir Kabir University threatened to take legal action against President Khatami's cabinet for blocking Iranians' access to their website. In late August, 40 reformist parliamentarians called for Post, Telegraph, and Telephone Minister Ahmad Motamedi to answer their questions about website filtering. They noted that although the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution had approved filtering by the ministry, the filtering was being enforced selectively and for factional reasons.
Website filtering continued as of late November 2003. A committee formed by the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution occasionally provides internet content providers (ICPs) with a list of sites that should be filtered, and an anonymous ICP manager said in the 25 November 2003 issue of the newspaper "Farhang-i Ashti" that this list is logical because it focuses on pornographic sites and those that are anti-regime. A compact disc distributed to ICPs by the Data Processing Company of Iran (http://www.dpi.net.ir), however, listed thousands of websites, even "ordinary and useful" ones such as Google. If all these sites were filtered, the manager said, "it would have been more feasible to shut down everything."
The manager of Azad Net Medium ICP, Kasra Hedayat, said that the Post, Telegraph, and Telephone Ministry prepares the list of sites that will be filtered. Hedayat said, "The policy of filtering was appropriate in most cases, but in certain cases, it extended to shutting down social and political sites, and after some time, they were forced to reopen them." He also said that some Internet Service Providers and ICPs do not filter any sites and do not face any legal restrictions, and this attracts consumers who see this as improved service.
Iran consistently rates poorly in international surveys dealing with media issues. The Freedom House survey released on 18 December 2003, for example, placed Iran in the "Not Free" category. On a scale of 1-7, with 7 being the least free rating, Iran earned scores of 6 for political rights and 6 for civil liberties in the 1 January 2003-31 November 2003 timeframe.
Iran finished in the bottom 10 (160th place out of 166 countries) in the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) world press freedom ranking that was released in October 2003. RSF said in its January 2002 "Annual Report," "With 18 journalists behind bars, Iran is the biggest jail for journalists in the Middle East." Although that number had dropped to 10 by the 2003 "Annual Report," RSF noted, "Iran remained the biggest prison for journalists in the Middle East."
These assessments are not encouraging for advocates of free expression, unless one takes the view that there is room for improvement.
A. William Samii is an RFE/RL analyst and editor of "RFE/RL Iran Report.
Geneive Abdo, "Media and Information: The case of Iran," "Social Research," Vol. 70, No. 3 (Fall 2003).
Geneive Abdo and Duncan Campbell, "Wistful Iranians feed on a satellite beam of nostalgia," "The Guardian," 16 August 2000.
Steven Barraclough, "Satellite Television in Iran: Prohibition, Imitation, and Reform," "Middle Eastern Studies," Vol. 37, No. 3 (July 2001).
Hansjoerg Biener, "The Arrival of Radio Farda: International Broadcasting to Iran at a Crossroads," "MERIA Journal," Vol. 7, No. 1 (March 2003).
Michael Dobbs, "Iranian Exiles Sow Change Via Satellite," "The Washington Post," 26 June 2003.
Nazila Fathi, "Opposition TV Stations Stir Up Unrest in Fundamentalist Iran," "The New York Times," 25 October 2001.
Nazila Fathi, " TV Stations Based in U.S. Rally Protesters in Iran," "The New York Times," 22 June 2003.
Freedom House, "Freedom in the World 2004," 18 December 2003 (http://www.freedomhouse.org/research/survey2004.htm).
Michael Lewis, "The Satellite Subversives," "The New York Times," 24 February 2002.
Babak Rahimi, "Cyberdissent: The Internet in Revolutionary Iran," "MERIA Journal," Vol. 7, No. 3 (September 2003).
Reporters Without Borders, Second World Press Freedom Ranking, October 2003 (http://www.rsf.fr/article.php3?id_article=8247).
Reporters Without Borders, "Annual Report," January 2002 (http://www.rsf.fr/article.php3?id_article=1438).
Reporters Without Borders, "Annual Report," January 2003 (http://www.rsf.fr/article.php3?id_article=6688).
A.W. Samii, "Sisyphus' Newsstand: The Iranian Press Under Khatami," "MERIA Journal," Vol. 5, No. 3 (September 2001).
A.W. Samii, "The Contemporary Iranian News Media, 1998-1999," "MERIA Journal," Vol. 3, No. 4 (December 1999).
MUSA MURADOV: STAYING ALIVE IN GROZNYBy Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Musa Muradov, the editor in chief of "Groznenskii rabochii," a Russian-language newspaper in Chechnya, is a determined individual. He has kept his paper, founded in 1917, alive through two wars. Equally surprisingly, he is still alive himself -- as are his paper's previous editors -- no small feat for a paper covering one of the world's most dangerous journalism assignments, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which honored Muradov in November 2003 with its annual "International Press Freedom Award."
One of Muradov's reporters, however, was killed in crossfire in Grozny in 1996. For a while, Muradov had to flee to Moscow because of threats, and he now divides his time between Grozny, where he oversees the publication of the paper, and Moscow, where he also works as an analyst for "Kommersant-Daily."
Although "Groznenskii rabochii" tries to walk a line between pro-Russian forces and various Chechen groups, Muradov says the paper has inevitably left some people unhappy. In 1999, the paper's editorial offices were bombed, although editors believe that incident was just an accident of war. In 2001, Muradov found that one faction had put up a poster announcing that he had been sentenced to death by a Shari'a court. When "Groznenskii rabochii" writes about the infamous sweeps, known as "zachistiki," by Russian federal troops of Chechen villages, the authorities can become irritated and allege the paper is a mouthpiece for Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, who is now in armed opposition. Muradov denies any links to Maskhadov.
In the end, the exigencies of war and politics were not what forced Muradov out of business for a time last year, but a lack of funding. His operation was interrupted in 2002 when a grant from George Soros' Open Society Foundation ran out. However, he was able to renew publication last March with support from the U.S.-funded National Endowment for Democracy.
Although some reconstruction has begun in Grozny, it is still not possible to print "Groznenskii rabochii" there, so the job is done in neighboring Daghestan or Ingushetia and copies are brought by air to Grozny. Muradov told "RFE/RL Media Matters" that his paper's fate remains very much in the hands of the government. In 2003, all Russian publications were forced to re-register themselves with the Media Ministry. Publications must be legally registered in order to appear in the ministry's catalog and to qualify for distribution through state-controlled distribution mechanisms. "Groznenskii rabochii" remains dependent on informal street sales. Muradov believes that his actual readership is as much as 30 times greater than the paper's print run of 5,000 copies, as copies often pass from house to house through entire villages.
Last year's much-criticized constitutional referendum and presidential election in Chechnya posed major problems for "Groznenskii rabochii," which had to cover these controversies carefully and -- Muradov admits -- sometimes had to avoid covering them at all. Human rights monitors who visited the republic noted an eerie lack of people on the streets of towns and cities. Muradov told "RFE/RL Media Matters" that this was not just because of the fear of violence -- several presidential candidates withdrew from the race citing fears of violence -- but also because the public is widely disenchanted with politics. "They pretend they don't see anything," Muradov said, adding that this is a form of silent protest.
Likewise, Muradov says, when covering political life becomes too dangerous, the paper simply does not cover it, its own form of silent protest.
In contrast to the first Chechen war in the mid-1990s, readers of "Groznenskii rabochii" don't seem very interested in the current conflict. Instead, they want information on how to get by and how to earn money. Unemployment in the republic remains very high. "An editor has to meet that need," Muradov explains. He does so by allowing individuals seeking work to place advertisements for free and by charging a nominal fee to companies placing help-wanted ads. The most popular section of the paper is called "Harmony," which is full of personal advertisements and ardent declarations of love. "You would be surprised how sentimental people are, even in the ruins of Grozny," comments Muradov.
Muradov is most keen to keep what he views as his paper's excellent reputation for not becoming politically engaged with any of the sides in the conflict. He believes the general public and government officials, who apparently read the paper avidly, value this position. Currently, he is struggling to make ends meet and to support his staff of 11, including four reporters. This staff is supplemented by five or six stringers who must bring their stories into the office, hand-written on school notebooks, because of poor telephone connections and a lack of computers in Chechnya.
Still, these dedicated individuals persist, because they believe they are meeting a vital public need. Muradov believes newspapers in Chechnya play a particularly important role in meeting people's demand for information because there are no private television channels there, and the government-sponsored station does not even have a regular schedule of programming, appearing for five hours a day or less and usually just broadcasting interviews with officials.
Gradually, Grozny is coming back to life, Muradov says, as some people are successfully clearing the hurdles to get the government's promised compensation of $11,000 to rebuild their destroyed homes. He hopes these returning readers will enable his paper to survive and, gradually, to increase its independent reporting.
As he received his CPJ award in New York, Muradov commented that in Russia, the state tends to reward only those journalists who do favors for it. "Close friendship between the media and the authorities is never good for journalism," he said, to enthusiastic applause.
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick is a freelance writer living in New York City specializing in the former Soviet Union. She is the editor of "RFE/RL [Un]Civil Societies."