Accessibility links

Breaking News

Media Matters: March 3, 2004

3 March 2004, Volume 4, Number 4

By Jan Maksymiuk

In 2002, the Belarusian authorities closed down several independent newspapers and temporarily blocked the publication of several others. Moreover, they convicted three prominent opposition-oriented journalists of defaming President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, sending them to corrective-labor colonies to serve sentences ranging from 12-24 months.

Judging by these 2002 standards, 2003 was a serene year for the independent media in Belarus. No journalists were imprisoned and no publication has been liquidated by the courts. However, the authorities were not idle last year, using a variety of more subtle methods to make the life of independent media outlets in Belarus intolerable, even without resorting to closure of publications or the incarceration of journalists.

On 28 May 2003, the Information Ministry suspended the independent daily newspaper "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta" and its weekly supplement "BDG. Dlya sluzhebnogo polzovaniya" for three months. "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta," which had appeared for 11 years, had a weekly circulation of some 70,000 and was widely regarded as the most influential independent newspaper in Belarus. Information Minister Mikhail Padhayny charged that it had repeatedly violated the media law by publishing "sheer lies," despite numerous warnings from authorities. The ministry issued three warnings to the newspaper within a week, accusing it of defaming Lukashenka and of publishing articles about ongoing criminal investigations without official permission. Under Belarus's restrictive media law, which was adopted in 1995 and amended in 1997 to make its provisions even tougher, two official warnings within a 12-month period provide sufficient grounds for a court to close a media outlet.

"Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta" tried to fight the publication ban by publishing its materials under the mastheads of several other independent newspapers -- "Salidarnasts," "Ekho," "Predprinimatelskaya gazeta," and "Mestnaya gazeta Shag." But these newspapers paid a high price for this show of journalistic solidarity, as the authorities subsequently suspended or blocked their publication by cutting them off from being printed by state-controlled printing houses. Moreover, the Information Ministry sacked the director of a Minsk-based printing company who authorized the printing of "Salidarnasts" and "Ekho" issues carrying materials written by journalists from "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta."

"Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta" resumed publication after its three-month suspension, but it had troubles regaining former subscribers and began to appear irregularly. This served as a pretext for Belposhta, Belarus's national postal service, to unilaterally cancel a contract to distribute "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta" subscriptions in the first half of 2004. Furthermore, Belsayuzdruk, the Belarusian national press's retail-sales network, has refused to distribute "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta" through its kiosks in Minsk, Brest, and Vitsebsk. Thus, without resorting to an outright closure, the authorities have crippled one of the most influential independent media outlets in Belarus.

Another efficient instrument for punishing independent newspapers in Belarus are defamation lawsuits with demands for exorbitant compensations by claimants. Such lawsuits led to the closures of the independent newspapers "Nasha svaboda" in 2002 and "Naviny" in 1999. In November 2003, the Minsk City Court ordered the independent daily "Narodnaya volya" to pay some $24,000 in damages for libeling Yahor Rybakou, chairman of the Belarusian State Television and Radio Company. "Narodnaya volya" has reportedly filed an appeal against the verdict with the Supreme Court. It is not clear whether the newspaper will be able to pay the sum if the Supreme Court upholds the libel verdict.

In May 2003, a district court in Minsk fined Pavel Kanavalchyk, editor in chief of the satirical twice-weekly "Navinki," some $700 for defaming Lukashenka. In June, the Information Ministry suspended "Navinki" for three months, after accusing it of violating the press law and issuing two official warnings to the publication.

In addition to intimidating and suppressing domestic newspapers, the Belarusian authorities in 2003 took major steps to limit the influence of Russian electronic media, which traditionally have large audiences in Belarus. On 1 January 2003, Minsk -- quoting shortages of funds -- stopped retransmitting programs from Russia's Mayak, Golos Rossii, and Yunost radio stations. Belarus's second national television channel, ONT (Public National Television), was slowly replacing the regular program schedule of Russia's ORT in Belarus. And the Russian television channel Kultura was completely replaced by the Belarusian "family-oriented" channel Lad.

"Belarusian viewers have always been confused by the existence of the three imperial channels [Russia's RTR, ORT, and NTV] here. We are a sovereign state, and we will be developing our own television," Rybakou said in January 2003.

In June 2003, the Foreign Ministry expelled Russian journalist Pavel Selin, a correspondent for Russia's NTV television channel, accusing him of slandering the government in a news report about the funeral of Belarusian writer Vasil Bykau. The Belarusian government also shut down NTV's Minsk offices, demanding apologies from the station, apologies that were later duly, if inconspicuously, supplied.

The cutting back of Russian television broadcasts in Belarus and the incident with Selin lead one to conclude that Russia's television channels will most likely be cautious about any coverage of Belarus that can be seen by Minsk as detrimental to the position of Lukashenka. Belarus, with its 10 million people, represents a substantial advertising market for Russian broadcasters.

Given the pitiful situation of the very few independent newspapers in Belarus, it is possible to say that any candidate in this year's legislative-election campaign who is not supported by the government will find it extremely hard to communicate his or her campaign positions to voters.

With regard to private FM radio stations and cable-television channels in Belarus, they routinely avoid controversial political and socioeconomic topics in order to be sure that their licenses are renewed. Thus, since the Belarusian-language Radio Racja, which was funded by U.S. sponsors, discontinued its broadcasts from Poland in 2002, RFE/RL's Belarusian Service remains the only source of unrestricted information for Belarusians about developments in Belarus.


By Patrick Moore and Luke Allnutt

Bosnia-Herzegovina remains a society firmly divided along ethnic lines. The general elections held on 5 October 2002 saw the return to power of the three nationalist parties that governed during the 1992-95 conflict. But just as these politicians have generally been sufficiently clever not to try blatantly to turn the clock back, the media have also not returned to the hate speech common during the war.

In the years since the Dayton agreements were concluded at the end of 1995, strict international regulation of broadcasting licenses and frequencies has gotten the hate-mongers off the air and kept them off.

Not so in the print media. Experts say it is not simply that newspapers support particular political parties -- this is common even in established democracies -- but that reporting, for the most part, can be sensational, unbalanced, and irresponsible. According to Freedom House's Annual Press Freedom Survey 2002, Bosnia's media outlets are still "mainly established on the basis of party or ethnic interests." That remains largely true today.

Depressed economic conditions keep newspaper-circulation figures low in Bosnia. Although the figures remain sketchy, most of the larger national and regional papers have circulations of somewhere between 10,000 and 50,000 copies.

Pluralism has not led to improved standards. Reporting in newspapers still depends on rumor and anonymous, "well-informed" sources, especially if they can be used to discredit political rivals.

Many observers agree that "Oslobodjenje" is resting on the laurels it received for its dogged determination to continue publishing during the wartime siege of Sarajevo. Its main competition in Muslim areas is "Dnevni avaz," which is widely seen as close to the Office of the High Representative, although its roots are in the Muslim Party of Democratic Action (SDA). "Oslobodjenje" also publishes abroad for the large and important diaspora, which includes refugees and "Gastarbeiter."

In Croatian areas, dailies from Croatia predominate, including ones with special supplements for Herzegovina. The main Croatian dailies have long been available for the diaspora.

In the Republika Srpska, the most serious daily is "Nezavisne novine" from Banja Luka, which many observers consider more balanced and informative than "Oslobodjenje" or "Dnevni avaz," to say nothing of the nationalist Serbian papers. Serbs throughout the former Yugoslavia were traditionally known as avid daily newspaper readers, although tough economic conditions have taken their toll. For the diaspora, the only Serbian daily is the Frankfurt-based "Vesti," which concentrates on Serbian affairs but often runs articles and interviews on the Republika Srpska.

In Bosnia, there is a common perception that journalists are just corruptible players in a dirty political game. High Representative Paddy Ashdown has publicly noted the link between biased journalism and widespread popular cynicism about politics.

The death and funeral of former Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic in October 2003 were reported and commented on by the Serbian and Croatian media, but were often given over to bombastic communist-style treatment by the Muslim media. The Muslim print dailies contained page after page of coverage for several days, including gushing comments from ordinary citizens about what Izetbegovic meant to them. Television coverage was similarly extensive and uncritical -- including reports on traffic conditions for the funeral -- broadcast to the far reaches of the country.

Television remains the most influential and popular media for the majority of Bosnians. Bosnia, a country of 3.5 million people, once had nearly 300 radio and television stations -- a figure that was reputed to be one of the densest rates in the world. Through a licensing process it was whittled down to about 50 television and 150 radio stations.

The dominant players in the electronic broadcasting market are still the public broadcasters in the respective entities: Radio and Television of the Federation of BiH (RTVFBiH) and Radio and Television of the Republika Srpska (RTRS). In addition HRT, the Croatian state television broadcaster from Zagreb, also reaches around 75 percent of the Muslim and Croat federation. NTV Hayat is also influential in Muslim areas.

Growing in popularity is the statewide Public Broadcasting System for Bosnia and Herzegovina, which gained its own frequency in 2003. The system operates a radio station called Radio BH1 and also produces television news broadcasts for transmission by local stations.

In May 2002, outgoing High Representative Wolfgang Petritsch issued a Law on the Public Broadcasting System, which was ratified by the Bosnian Parliament in August 2002. Petritsch's law allows public broadcasters, on both the state and the entity level, several sources of public financing. These include subscription fees, advertising, sponsorship, and direct state funding.

Journalists are still in danger in Bosnia, although probably less so than in recent years. An important means of control is through subtle pressures; most politicians shun journalists known to ask critical questions. The journalists, for their part, are often under the influence of communist-style reporting that simply serves to amplify rather than analyze or criticize the views of officials. Few politicians have grasped the niceties of public relations.

A number of international broadcasters, including RFE/RL, VOA, and Deutsche Welle's Bosnian Service are also available throughout Bosnia.

The Internet remains small-scale in Bosnia, and penetration rates are among the lowest in Europe, although Internet cafes are spreading. Computer access is restricted, for the most part, to the wealthier, better-educated segments of the population and to those with computers at their school or office. Young people tend to show a particularly avid interest when they have the opportunity to do so. Most of Bosnia's major media outlets have their own websites, which enable them to keep contact with the diaspora.


By Patrick Moore and Ulrich Buechsenschuetz

While the overall situation in Kosova might be called stable, political tensions in the province remain high. The ethnic Albanian majority increasingly regards the UN civilian administration (UNMIK) as a colonial institution that has overstayed its welcome, and Albanian political leaders press for UNMIK to transfer more of its powers to elected institutions. The Albanians' goal is independence and an end to all ties to Serbia.

Representatives of the Serbian minority, which makes up less than 10 percent of the population, seek greater security guarantees for the return of refugees and internally displaced persons, as well as for freedom of movement. Most Serbian leaders stress the need for Belgrade to play a continuing role in Kosova's affairs. Should the Albanians succeed in winning independence most Serbs would opt to partition the province, which the Albanians would not accept.

After the parliamentary elections in late 2001, the new Kosovar government led by Bajram Rexhepi took office on 4 March 2002. The international community announced in November 2003 that talks on the final status of Kosova could begin as early as mid-2005, but only if eight tough standards are met.

The situation of the electronic media in Kosova is quite different from those found in other Balkan countries in that the sector in Kosova is still controlled by the Temporary Media Commissioner (TMC), an independent institution introduced by UNMIK in June 2000. Persistent but unconfirmed reports have suggested for some months that the TMC is due to be closed soon, but it still appears to be up and running.

The TMC, which receives administrative support from the OSCE, "acts as the regulatory agency for broadcast media and is responsible for the implementation of a temporary licensing regime. This role includes upholding the principles of freedom of opinion and expression, but also entails the disciplinary authority to ensure that broadcasters uphold their licensing obligations," according to the TMC's official website, which otherwise appears to be in need of updating (

While print media are not subject to TMC control, the TMC was given temporary authority to address the conduct of the print media in Kosova.

It is mainly due to the international community's ability to influence editorial policies among the Kosovar media that nationalist content has been greatly reduced. Nonetheless, threats are made against journalists from time to time. Furthermore, investigative reporting has a long way to go, especially regarding key areas where change is needed such as crime, corruption, and attacks on Serbs.

The media market in Kosova is dominated by a small number of major players. The major electronic broadcaster is the public Radio and Television Kosova (RTK), which alone among television broadcasters features multiethnic programming. It must nonetheless struggle to keep broadcasting, to say nothing of achieving its goal of instituting 24-hour broadcasting.

RTK officials complain bitterly that they receive little foreign funding because they are a public broadcaster, even though they are the only television corporation that is multiethnic. Two private Albanian-language television broadcasters, by contrast, receive more foreign funding. Adem Demaci, known as "Kosova's Mandela" for his long years as a political prisoner under the communists, recently resigned as chairman of RTK, in part out of frustration with the lack of funding.

Evening television newscasts are the main source of broadcast information for most of the population. In addition to broadcasts from within Kosova, programs are received from Albania, Macedonia, and the Albanian Service of the Voice of America (VOA).

In addition to the major radio and television providers there are about 50 local radio stations that primarily broadcast entertainment programming.

In recent years, Internet cafes have sprouted up in Prishtina and elsewhere, but computer use is still limited by most European standards. Interest in the Internet nonetheless received a big boost during the 1998-99 conflict, both within Kosova and in the large and important diaspora. Internet users are most likely to be from the younger segments of the population or from professional classes.

Among the Albanian-language programs of foreign radio stations VOA ranks first, which is probably a result of the powerful impact of its television broadcasting. RFE/RL comes in second, followed by the long-established Deutsche Welle.

RFE/RL is the newest of the three broadcasters but enjoys an advantage over the others in that it is widely regarded as the most objective and serious as well as being concerned primarily with Kosova rather than with Albania. Deutsche Welle tends to be seen as close to Albania's socialists, while the VOA is regarded as sympathetic to Albania's Democrats. VOA's main advantage over its rivals is its television program, which broadcasts the first news bulletin early each evening.

Print media are widely dominated by three groups: the Koha group, the Zeri group, and the daily "Bota Sot." Prishtina has five daily newspapers and, as elsewhere in much of postcommunist Eastern Europe, seems long overdue for a consolidation of the market. The dailies are: "Bota Sot" (The World Today), "Koha Ditore" (The Daily Times), "Zeri" (The Voice), "Kosova Sot" (Kosova Today), and "Epoka e Re" (The New Era).

While the Koha group also has a television channel (Kohavision), its major outlet is the daily "Koha Ditore." That paper is closely affiliated with the political parties that emerged from the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK).

It is inseparable from the name of its publisher, Veton Surroi, and has sought to be regarded as Kosova's most serious daily. Some readers, however, feel that its quality has declined in recent months following some personnel changes in top editorial management in the second half of 2003.

The Switzerland-based daily "Bota Sot" is widely regarded as close to Ibrahim Rugova's Democratic League of Kosova (LDK). "Bota Sot" vies with "Koha Ditore" for the top circulation figures in Kosova, but is definitely the most widely sold Albanian-language daily in the diaspora.


By Bruce Pannier

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov presides over a country known to many as the "hermit kingdom." But the "Leader of All Turkmen," or Turkmenbashi, now says he wants the world to become better acquainted with Turkmenistan -- and is launching a new satellite television station to that end.

"The world does not know what is happening in Turkmenistan -- the economic growth, the changes in society. We live in an interesting time, you would be amazed at the changes in Ashgabat -- the streets, the buildings, the monuments, and the huge lake they are building for the future, the factories and plants," Niyazov said this month.

To be sure, Turkmenistan has undergone many changes since gaining independence in 1991. The capital Ashgabat has new buildings and a scattering of largely empty five-star hotels. It also has the Arch of Neutrality -- commemorating the United Nations decision in 1995 to grant the country neutral status -- complete with a revolving golden statue of Niyazov that perpetually faces the sun.

And it has the artificial lake touted by the president. The project, being built in desert lands at an estimated cost of $6.5 billion, does not actually mean more water for Turkmenistan. It just means the same amount of water in a different place.

It is unclear how such achievements have affected the lives of ordinary Turkmen citizens, who continue to struggle on an average monthly wage of less than $20.

The 19 February Flag Day celebrations -- which also mark Turkmenbashi's 64th birthday -- portrayed a public living in harmony with their leader. A children's chorus sang Niyazov's praises in Turkmen and English, and a magnificent chestnut stallion was presented to the president.

Not everyone, though, is content. Sixty-five-year-old Gurbandurdy Durdykuliev last month told RFE/RL how he planned to spend Flag Day. "I am asking for written permission to hold a protest on 18 and 19 February 2004 in the central square of Balkanabat," Durdykuliev said. "I have never been a supporter of bloodshed and I would never call on anyone to shed blood. I am proud of my country and my people. I love them."

If Durdykuliev had said his protest was intended to draw attention to bureaucratic corruption or environmental issues he might have received the permission he sought. But that was not what he wanted. "We want to demonstrate our dissatisfaction with the activities of the president and his bureaucracy," he said. "During this protest we will demand from the authorities that they pay more attention to the suffering of the people."

Since then, according to the rights watchdog Amnesty International, Durdykuliev has been forcibly taken from his home and is now reportedly being held in a psychiatric hospital.

This story isn't likely to be among those mentioned on Turkmenistan's new satellite television station. Nor is Niyazov's recent announcement that some 15,000 health-care workers -- nearly 15 percent of the sector's employees -- will soon be losing their jobs. It is just the latest in a series of significant cuts to Turkmenistan's health-care system. The Turkmen Health Ministry says the laid-off employees will likely be replaced by conscripted soldiers.

Niyazov says it will cost at least $13 million to get the satellite station on the air, and the government is holding a tender for the contract next month. Soon, the world could be able to get news in Russian, English, French, Chinese, and Farsi about what Turkmenbashi calls "the real Turkmenistan."

It remains to be seen, however, if Niyazov's Turkmenistan has anything in common with what the rest of the world sees. Oleg Panfilov, of Russia's Center for Journalists in Extreme Situations, said, "It seems Turkmenbashi is confusing information with propaganda."

(Rozinazar Khoudaiberiev of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service and Antoine Blua contributed to this report.)