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Media Matters: September 30, 2004

30 September 2004, Volume 4, Number 18
By Liz Fuller

Among the commitments given by Azerbaijan when that country was accepted into full membership of the Council of Europe in January 2001 was the creation of a public television broadcaster. Almost four years later, that pledge has still not been met.

A draft law on public television was submitted to Council of Europe experts for approval in June 2002, at the same time that it was discussed and passed in its first reading by the Azerbaijani parliament. Proposals put forward by the NGO Internews and the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP) were taken into consideration when preparing that draft. But the draft stipulated that given the extreme impoverishment of the majority of the country's population, public television would be financed by the state, rather than by license fees and advertising revenue, as it is in more developed countries. Critics such as Internews employee Zeinal Mamedli protested that the new broadcaster would therefore not be independent of the state, and the draft was amended during the second reading in October 2002 to stipulate that state funding for public television would cease in 2010, after which the station would be funded on the basis of a special tax.

That amended draft still contained provisions that independent journalists criticized as restricting the planned broadcaster's independence. The most serious of those was the provision that the work of the station would be overseen by a council whose members would be appointed by the president.

The third and final reading of the draft bill was originally scheduled for spring 2003, but it was postponed to enable the legislature to concentrate its attention on the new draft election law, presidential administration official Ali Hasanov told Turan on 14 April. Two months later, in late June, Internews issued a statement deploring both the delay in the passage of the law and deputies' failure to ensure the broadcaster's independence by abolishing the envisaged presidential prerogative in appointing its governing council.

Parliament eventually passed the bill in its third and final reading on 10 January 2004. But President Ilham Aliyev vetoed it two months later and sent it back to parliament to be amended. Aliyev specifically called on deputies to reconsider articles defining the legal status of public television, the supervisory role of the National Television and Radio Council, the coverage of official information, and how the new public broadcaster should be financed. Rizvan Djabiev, who headed the working group that drafted the rejected version of the law, was quoted by Turan on 15 March as saying that after the third reading Council of Europe experts had taken issue with 25 of the 35 articles. Djabiev told journalists some, but not all of those criticisms would be taken into account when drafting a new version. He also said that the public-television outlet would be created on the basis of the first channel of Azerbaijani State Television.

On 6 May, presidential administration department head Ali Hasanov told Turan that a new bill had been drafted and submitted to the Council of Europe. Three weeks later, on 27 May, the online daily quoted Arif Aliyev, head of the journalists' organization Yeni Nesil, as telling journalists that the Council of Europe had once again criticized the draft. According to Aliyev, this time they objected to the fact that the draft mentioned no timeframe for the creation of a public broadcaster and that it made provision for a change in the broadcaster's ownership, which theoretically would enable the state to acquire a controlling stake.

On 14 September, presidential administration official Hasanov told Turan that the Azerbaijani authorities have taken into consideration the Council of Europe's recommendations and that a final version will be submitted to the council within days. But a few days earlier, Hasanov made clear that Baku has rejected one of the primary criticisms. He argued that only the president of Azerbaijan, not the Council of Europe, has the authority to decide on abolishing state television. "We will do whatever the Council of Europe wants us to do and [whatever] meets international standards, but we will not abolish AzTV-1," the first channel of Azerbaijan state television, Interfax quoted Hasanov as saying on 10 September. He added that AzTV-1 will be preserved, but restructured, while the public broadcaster will be created on the basis of AzTV-2, the second state-run television channel.

In an interview broadcast on the Azad Azerbaycan TV station on 13 September, Hasanov criticized the Council of Europe proposals in even more vehement terms. "After the second appraisal," he said, "the Council of Europe came up with completely different recommendations and advice than after the first assessment." He went on to accuse the council of double standards, and he pointed out that other countries in the region still have state-run television channels, including Russia and Turkey, which he said has four.

Meanwhile, the reformist wing of the opposition AHCP released a statement on 18 September rejecting as "absurd" the idea of founding the public broadcaster on the basis of the second state-controlled television channel.

At a joint meeting on 23 September, four parliament commissions nonetheless gave the green light to the amended draft. Djabiev was quoted by as saying that 25 articles were changed in line with Council of Europe suggestions. But the new draft failed to incorporate a proposal to broadcast 15 minutes per day in the languages of Azerbaijan's national minorities, on the grounds that ethnic minorities constitute less than 10 percent of the country's population. Djabiev said that deputies also rejected the proposal to take a state-run television channel as the basis for public television, but that they acknowledged at the same time that such a decision is the prerogative of the president.

Yeni Nesil Chairman Aliyev complained to on 25 September that as the deadline for passing the new draft approaches, independent journalists are being excluded from the discussion of it. At the same time, he disclosed that there is no consensus among the authorities on the key question. Aliev said some officials argue that it is essential to preserve Az TV-1, others say Az TV-1 should be dissolved and public television created on that base, while a third group advocates creating public television on the basis of Az TV-2, which does not have its own facilities independent of Az TV-1. Aliev adduced two cogent reasons for abolishing Az TV-1: first, because it "devours millions" from the state budget, and second, because it is a government mouthpiece that engages in propaganda rather than trying to inform and enlighten the population.

Those arguments are unlikely, however, to cut much ice with the parliament, which is dominated by the Yeni Azerbaycan Party created by President Aliyev's father and predecessor, Heidar Aliyev, to serve as his power base. And given the reported disagreement within the executive branch over the future of Az TV-1, it could be months before the new draft becomes law.

Liz Fuller is the editor of "RFE/RL Newsline" and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report."

By Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Belarusian authorities have ensured that in the run-up to parliamentary elections in October, even harsher measures than usual are being taken to suppress the independent media and to ensure that state-controlled outlets and Russian broadcasting do not intrude upon the country's "information space" with untoward political messages detracting from President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's ultimate goal of remaining in power for an unconstitutional third term.

In fact, Lukashenka seized control of the media long ago, when he first consolidated power in 1996, engineering a public referendum to change the constitution and extend his first term in office. At that time, Radio 101.2, a popular FM station that broadcast in the Belarusian language and opened its microphone to opposition leaders, was shut down and its frequency was given to a state-run youth organization. Since then, radio, television, and print media have been steadily brought to heel through a combination of co-option and outright force, sometimes through closures, beatings by unidentified assailants, and expulsions of journalists, and sometimes merely by persuasive conversations with printers and advertisers.

Belarusian newspapers have shown a surprising resilience given the extremely hostile environment in which they operate. Some publish in neighboring Baltic countries or Russia when they are barred from printing presses at home and try to bring print runs into Belarus, sometimes facing confiscation and additional harassment. Yet the government can always squeeze independent editors by pressuring state-run printing presses, kiosk owners, and the postal system, which is still used to handle subscriptions. Libel suits are the most common way of wearing down newspapers by tying them up with court battles and crippling them with punishing fines.

On 27 August, Information Minister Uladzimir Rusakevich shut down "Navinki," a satirical newspaper, saying it had not informed the ministry of its new address and publication schedule as required by law. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) protested the move in a statement released on 2 September, saying they had repeatedly appealed to the minister not to suspend publications during the election campaign. Two other newspapers also were suspended on administrative technicalities. "Novaya gazeta Smorgoni," an independent weekly in Smarhon, was closed for three months on 16 August and "Rabochaya solidarnost," a workers' weekly, was suspended on 3 June, RSF reported.

Ramuald Ulan, editor of "Novaya gazeta Smorgoni," has repeatedly been targeted by officials. In 2003, his publishing license was suspended. Since "Rabochaya Solidarnost" is published by the Belarus Labor Party, a co-founder of the newspaper, which itself was ordered dissolved by the Supreme Court, officials said the paper could no longer be published. The paper was actually suspended for criticizing the official trade union organization, party leader Alyaksandr Bukhvostov told RSF.

Four independent newspapers -- "Belorusskii rynok," "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta," "Belorusskaya gazeta," and "Narodnaya volya" -- issued a statement on 23 August saying that seven major stores in Minsk have stopped selling their papers, RSF reported. The Belarusian Association of Journalists said storeowners came under pressure not to sell the papers. Earlier, advertisers had faced pressure as well.

On 4 August, the Krasnaya Zvezda printing house was ordered to stop printing "Narodnaya volya" a day after a regional court confiscated equipment belonging to the newspaper, RSF and Belapan reported. At a 5 August press conference, editor Iosif Seredych said the value of the equipment was more than the damages claimed by a businessman who had won a libel case against the paper.

It was not the first time the editor battled a punishing libel suit or confiscation. In the end, "Narodnaya volya" resumed publication by depositing a total of 65 million Belarusian rubles ($30,000) to pay the court-imposed fines to cover a libel suit by Syarhey Atroshchanka, editor of the weekly "Obozrevatel'," and Yahor Rybakou, former chairman of Belarusian National Television and Radio Company, who is currently under arrest, Interfax reported 9 August.

Mikhail Pastukhou, a media lawyer who defended the newspaper, said he believes the authorities' seizure of the equipment and support of the two libel cases was not really about the substance of these cases. "I believe that the firm desire to destroy the newspaper arose after the material printed on 3 August. On that date, the issue of 'major disappearances' in Belarus was brought up again along with General [Mikalay] Lapatsik's report testifying to the possible involvement of Belarusian high-level officials in these disappearances," Pastukhov was quoted as saying by Belapan on 5 August.

The actions authorities take against newspapers bring more unwanted publicity to Belarus from foreign media, and draw condemnation from international press watchdogs and bodies such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has repeatedly raised press-freedom violations with the Belarusian authorities through its representative on media freedom, who has been barred from visiting Belarus, and through the local mission in Minsk.

Given all the restrictions and difficulties faced by independent print media, readership is unlikely to reach more than half a million per day, mainly in the capital. Yet the zeal with which authorities suppress their every attempt to keep appearing on newsstands is a testimony to the power that newspapers still wield.

More than 10 newspapers have been closed, as well as several human-rights groups that also provided information in 2003, RSF reported.

Reaching a far wider audience and far more influential are television broadcasts from neighboring Russia, since even the restricted level of reporting on Belarus in the Russian media in recent times contains more nongovernmental information than can be obtained within Belarus. In July, the Belarusian authorities closed the local bureau of RTR, the Kremlin-owned television station that broadcasts the official views of Russia. The Russian Foreign Ministry protested by summoning the Belarusian charge d'affaires and by issuing a statement that the closure "runs counter to the union nature of relations between our countries and is an infringement on freedom of speech," ITAR-TASS reported 30 July. Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials appeared not to make a public issue of the closure, and it is not certain if complaints were made privately. RTR had previously aired some coverage of demonstrations suppressed by police in Minsk and had run some uncomplimentary footage of Lukashenka's speeches.

On 21 July, RTR's local reporter, Dmitrii Petrov, filed a report saying a demonstration he covered was attended by 2,000 to 5,000 people. The rally had been called to protest 10 years of Lukashenka's rule. The Interior Ministry claimed there were only 150 protestors, and decided to revoke Petrov's accreditation. Reuters estimated the size of the crowd at 4,000. The Belarusian government has ordered the expulsion of Russian television bureau chiefs in the past, as it did in 2003 with Pavel Selin of NTV.

For its part, the Belarusian Embassy in Russia publicly attacked "certain Russian journalists," saying they were "actively 'rebroadcasting' the views of Belarusian oppositions who enjoy no real popular support and do not reflect the country's public sentiments," reported 23 September, citing the Belarusian Embassy's statement. "We consider it odd that people who do not conceal their anti-Russian sentiments appear on the pages of [Russian] newspapers and on television criticizing the current Russian leadership's policy regarding Belarus."

Mikhail Podolyak, a Ukrainian journalist who contributed to the Minsk-based independent weekly "Vremya," was deported by Belarusian security agents on 21 June. They claimed the journalist had been making "slanderous fabrications" about the political situation in Belarus, reported Committee to Protect Journalists in a letter to Lukashenka released to the press.

As much as his regime has controlled the media, Lukashenka appears uneasy even about state-run media. Lukashenka met with executives of the Belarusian Television and Radio Company on 21 September, and urged them to cover the upcoming constitutional referendum on 17 October calmly, "without unnecessary vigor," ITAR-TASS reported the same day. The referendum is to determine whether the president can run for a third term of office, and is widely believed to be controlled by the president's administration. "Coverage of the referendum should be tactful in order not to ward off people we want to be our allies, and not to irritate our supporters, who make up 60-65 percent [of the population] at present," Lukashenka cautioned media executives at the meeting. "It is senseless to tell the press about myself 10 years after I took office. Judge my deeds."

The president makes no pretense of fostering media freedom. "We have already passed that period when we could consider mass media to be absolutely free, reporters independent, and to say that pressure was put on the state mass media," he said. "You creative people do not share this opinion anymore, as you have seen what private mass media outlets are -- when a man is completely dependent because he knows what money he works for and whom he depends.... Your master is the state and you express its point of view. You should make no secret of this fact," the president said in the meeting, reported 22 September.

The Belarus Association of Journalists issued a critique of both independent and officially sponsored media on 22 September, reported the same day. Ales Antsipenka of BAJ told reporters that most government and independent media have taken coverage of the election campaign to extremes, providing either overly negative or overly positive coverage. He described state-run outlets as a "campaign tool for pro-government candidates" and independent media as engaging in "political advertising" for opposition candidates. BAJ performed a media survey of 16 newspapers, two national television stations, and five regional channels for the period of 16 August through 6 September, and found campaign reporting occupied only 1 percent of air time and newspaper pages in official media, contrasted with more coverage in the independent press.

Catherine A. Fitzpatrick is the editor of "RFE/RL (Un)Civil Societies."

By Peyman Pejman

The mass killings in the southern Russian city of Beslan ended weeks ago, but Arab newspapers and columnists are still running articles and commentaries on the topic.

Jihad Khazen is a prominent columnist and former editor of the London-based "Al-Hayat" newspaper. He said the Beslan siege has driven home the point that most terrorist acts in the world these days are carried out by Muslims. In his view, this should bring shame to all Arabs.

"At the moment, [this] seems to be true. There have been terrorists in the Balkans. There have been terrorists in Africa. At the moment, most of the terrorist acts are carried out by Muslim extremists, and this is -- apart from being a crime if nothing else -- it should be very embarrassing for Arabs and Muslims. We have some legitimate national causes, [but] no right will justify killing children. In fact, when you kill women and children, you take away from that right, you take away from that just cause, and this is what I think happened with the Chechen terrorists who killed the women and children in that school."

Muhammad Sayyd Said, an Egyptian political analyst, says the school siege has elicited a stronger reaction this time because the victims were largely children.

"Those are our own kids, not the kids of our enemy," Sayyd Said commented. "All the kids in the world are our own as well. Kids and children, generally, have to be secured."

To be sure, there are many in the Arab world who accuse people like Khazen of having become propagandists for anti-Arab sentiment. Muhammad Salah, an Egyptian political analyst and a student of radical movements in the Middle East, said writers like Khazen have become part of an effort to portray Arabs as terrorists.

"In my opinion there is an argument about the image portrayed by Arab youth in Muslim countries and outside, and there is an attempt to slap them with charges of terrorism," Salah said. "There is a great effort in that and there are some Arab intellectuals and politicians participating in that, including analysts and journalists."

Salah said that while it is true that many suicide bombings are carried out by Arabs and Muslims, this is something to be proud of. He said, in his view, only deeply religious Muslims can become suicide bombers.

Some Arab commentators have warned that the hostage-taking incident could signal a turning point in the Russian people's attitudes toward Arabs in general.

Youssef Ibrahim, a veteran Middle East analyst, said that in the past Russians have been able to distinguish between the Muslim separatist cause in Chechnya and the greater Arab world. Now, he said, that distinction might be blurring.

"Nothing has happened yet, but I assume that 144 million Russians now really hate the Arabs and Muslims altogether," Ibrahim said. "Certainly, they have rallied behind [Russian President Vladimir] Putin."

Ibrahim said it is the Arab people and not their governments that have been behind efforts to condemn the hostage taking. He said that is typical of the slowness with which Arab governments perform.

Ibrahim said comments condemning the hostage takers have been more vocal in countries like Egypt and Lebanon -- rather than in the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia. In the latter countries, he said, it is still taboo to criticize groups operating in the name of religion.

Peyman Pejman is an RFE/RL correspondent.

By Robert Coalson

The exchange of diplomatic pleasantries during the 28 September summit in Moscow between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski was interrupted by a discussion of Russian criticism of Polish media coverage of the school hostage taking incident in North Ossetia earlier this month, Russian and international media reported on 29 September.

On the day before the meeting, the Kremlin issued a statement saying "against the background of global support for Russia during the tragedy in Beslan, a broad anti-Russian campaign in the Polish media -- supported by a number of official figures in Poland -- created a serious dissonance," "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 29 September. Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko echoed this statement in an interview posted on the ministry's website ( on 27 September. "The Polish government sharply and unambiguously condemned the terrorist act in Beslan and expressed solidarity with Russia," Yakovenko said. "At the same time, it was noticed that against the background of the sympathetic reaction of the Polish people the coverage of these events in the Polish media demonstrated a certain anti-Russian prejudice."

During a 27 September joint press conference with Putin, Kwasniewski acknowledged that the leaders had discussed the Kremlin's impression of Polish media's coverage of Beslan and that Putin had repeated Moscow's criticism. Although Kwasniewski repeated his government's solidarity with Russia in the war against international terrorism, he made no apologies for the Polish media. He told Putin that "there is no political center in Poland" that orders up certain types of media coverage.

The Kremlin, Kwasniewski said according to "Izvestiya" on 29 September, "has an entire analysis of publications in the Polish media that claims that articles about the tragic events in Northern Ossetia was extremely negative."

"I do not have such an analysis," Kwasniewski added. "I would like to say only that the media in Poland are free. But just as they are free, they are also responsible for what they write." He added that it was natural for the media to discuss such issues as the situation in Chechnya, the recent presidential elections there, and the situation of Chechen displaced persons and refugees in the context of the Beslan events, "Vremya novostei" reported on 29 September.