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Media Matters: October 11, 2004

11 October 2004, Volume 4, Number 19
By Laura Winter

There's an old Persian proverb that goes: "Moses has heard God's message. Mohammad has seen it. How can you compare?"

Faizullah Zaki believes in that proverb. Especially in Afghanistan -- a poor country where most people don't have television or radio, can't read the newspapers and live in areas too remote for presidential candidates to reach.

So how have the 18 candidates vying to win Afghanistan's first-ever presidential elections on 9 October got their message out?

Well, with posters, says Zaki, a spokesman for Abdul Rashid Dostum, one of the candidates. "Yes, [the poster is] the main [tool] because it goes far. It goes far. Its coverage is not comparable with radio, even with television," Zaki said. "You see -- nothing. Yes, it is comparable even to a face-to-face meeting, because you send a person to the top of a mountain or to the depth of a valley to talk to people. But then these are words. But here if he has a poster with him, then you have the picture, the visual message, which is the most efficient."

More than 10 million Afghan voters are expected to choose from a field of 17 men and one woman candidates. Yet only a handful of the candidates have been able to campaign outside of Kabul due to lack of funds or the fact that the roads are just too unsafe.

To get their message out, candidates have met with tribal elders who they hope returned to their villages not only to campaign for them -- but also to paste their posters in shop windows and on village walls.

These posters contain carefully crafted messages that not only convey the candidates' slogans, but also their faces and individual symbols. The aide group Awaz -- Dari for "The Voice" -- assisted each candidate in designing and printing posters at the cost of $5,000 per contender.

Dominic Morisette, an Awaz staffer, says a candidate's photo and logo are the most import images for average Afghans. For voters who know how to read, they can simply make a check mark next to their candidate's written name. But for those who can't read, they can mark their ballot next to their favorite candidate's photo or logo.

Morisette says each of the symbols in the posters reflect the candidate's character. "If they don't recognize Dostum's picture," he said, "they will recognize his black horse because this is his logo.... I think it is quite related to him. [For] others, it is book because they are very religious, something like this. Karzai is an eagle and a scale. So that will make them, the people recognize the symbol. And I think the symbol, most of them are quite well related to the candidate."

Finding Massouda Jalal's photo on the ballot is easy: She is the only woman in the running. Voters choosing from the 17 male faces may alternatively have an easier time identifying their candidate by symbol. They include stylized maps of Afghanistan, different animals, Korans, a candle, a pen, and variations on wheat.

The importance of these posters is not lost on the thousands of campaign volunteers.

Abdul Nasir is a 25-year-old university student. He takes time out every day to paste up posters of his favorite candidate, Abdul Hasib Arian. He says people might know Arian's name, but they need to know his face and symbol, too.

The days of legal poster pasting ended on 8 October, when campaigning officially came to end. Two male candidates also dropped out of the race.

But the images of candidates are certain to remain plastered on walls across this mountainous country right through the election on 9 October

By Patrick Moore

The Sarajevo political weekly "BH Dani" has published a stinging and probably unprecedented attack on the leader of Bosnia-Herzegovina's Islamic Community. This is unlikely to be the end of the matter in what appears to be the latest chapter in the conflict between that country's clerical and secular forces in a sometimes ill-defined postcommunist media environment.

In its 30 September issue, "BH Dani" ran an article by its director and noted independent journalist Senad Pecanin, who accuses Reisu-l-ulema Mustafa Ceric, the head of Bosnia's Islamic Community, of behaving as though he were a witch doctor and treating Bosnia's Muslims like a primitive tribe under his control.

The point of departure for the article was the recent campaign leading up to the 2 October local elections, in which Muslim, Roman Catholic, and Serbian Orthodox clerics openly campaigned for their respective nationalist parties. In the Muslim case, this was the Party of Democratic Action (SDA). Pecanin wrote that clerics from all three religions behaved like tribal leaders displaying a "primordial social instinct" to mark and defend their respective territories.

But it was for Ceric that Pecanin had his sharpest words, arguing that the Reis took it upon himself to speak in God's name to tell the Muslim faithful how to vote. Pecanin argues that the Islamic Community and Muslim clerics in general were wrongly used for political purposes, which reflects Ceric's "absolutist methods for administering the Islamic Community, as well as his own personal ambitions." Pecanin adds that Ceric has been linked to the SDA since its founding in 1990 and that the late President Alija Izetbegovic and other leading SDA politicians helped Ceric win election to his current post in 1993.

Pecanin says that Ceric's main ambition is to succeed Izetbegovic as the undisputed leader of the Bosnian Muslims. The journalist adds that Ceric has involved himself in matters that even Izetbegovic shied away from. These include naming the head of the national soccer team and sacking a judge who dared probe too closely into the role of the SDA in the Bosnian secret service.

Perhaps the most serious aspect of the attack is not the article itself but the magazine's cover ( Next to the headline "I, the Great Imam," it shows eight identical pictures of Ceric wearing only his turban and a loincloth, talking into a mobile phone with a number printed over his head. The allusion to a newspaper ad for a telephone sex line is reinforced by different captions over each of the eight photos, some of which read "only for women," "for gay men," "do you want to know a secret," etc.. This is apparently a reference to Ceric's successful efforts to ban ads for telephone sex lines from the Sarajevo daily "Dnevni avaz."

Attacks on Ceric and other Muslim clerics in Serbian and Croatian publications are nothing new, but Pecanin's article -- and the magazine's cover -- are strong stuff coming from a Sarajevo weekly, even from a highly independent one. The article might now trigger a discussion of how far the media should go in dealing with issues such as the abuse of religion for political purposes. There is bound to be some sort of response to Pecanin in the media from Ceric or from conservative Muslim writers, and the Sarajevo rumor mill suggests that at least one Muslim organization is contemplating legal action against "BH Dani." (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 September 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 23 April and 24 September 2004).

By Michael Shafir

On 25 October 2003, Cornel Nistorescu, editor in chief of the Bucharest daily "Evenimentul zilei," told readers in an editorial that the Expres publishing group, which he had helped establish in 1992, would soon change owners. In September 1998, Expres had been bought by the German magazine and newspaper publisher Gruner+Jahr (G+J), which is part of the Bertelsmann media-holding giant. G+J eventually decided to concentrate mostly on magazine publishing, and ownership of the Romanian daily was to be passed on to the Swiss Ringier group, Nistorescu announced.

Nistorescu used the opportunity to praise the manner in which G+J had acted in relation to Expres and its publications. While concentrating on financial management and organizational improvement, Nistorescu wrote, G+J had fully respected freedom of expression and the independence of the Romanian journalists. Even in cases where the German political line and the personal political persuasions of its German director, Thomas Duffert, strongly diverged from that of the "Evenimentul zilei" staff -- such as over the recent war in Iraq -- there had never been any attempt to influence journalists to change their line. That, Nistorescu concluded, is what might be called the "German lesson." The Ringier group, he wrote confidently, was surely going to pursue the same policies, because "in the civilized world, the German lesson is also the Swiss lesson, the French and the British lesson, and, to an equal extent, the U.S. lesson."

Nistorescu, a severe but fair critical observer of all Romanian governments regardless of political color, has seldom been more wrong. The Ringier group took over ownership on 1 January 2004. Ten months later, the daily's editor in chief resigned in an "amiable understanding" under which he agreed to write twice-weekly articles. The conflict was apparently prompted by the new owners' attempts to tone down criticism in the daily of the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD). Almost in parallel, a conflict prompted by similar reasons erupted between the staff of the Bucharest daily "Romania libera" and its German owners, Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung (WAZ), which purchased a 70 percent stake in the newspaper in May 2000.

From the start, RFE/RL's Romania-Moldovan Service has covered these developments extensively. On 6 September, 48 journalists from "Evenimentul zilei" released a statement protesting what they said was the Ringier's failure to respect editorial independence. As was eventually revealed by two journalists interviewed on the private Realitatea TV channel, the statement followed an attempt by Ringier to sabotage the publication of a report on the alleged involvement in illegal business practices of Prime Minister Adrian Nastase's sister.

Under the pretext of organizational changes, they claimed, interference in editorial policy had increased and, purporting to pursue ways to increase the paper's circulation (currently about 110,000), "the new investor is attempting to tone down the newspaper's critical tone" toward the government. The journalists warned that the political line hitherto pursued "represents the choices of those who make it" and that "changing that line would be tantamount to abdicating from our principles and professional ethics in favor of other interests." Nistorescu did not sign the statement, and it was not printed in the daily itself. It eventually emerged that the owners tried to use their influence to prevent its publication elsewhere, too. It was nonetheless brought to the knowledge of the public by two other Bucharest dailies ("Romania libera" and "Cotidianul") and by RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service.

On 7 September, RFE/RL interviewed Thomas Landolt, Ringier's Bucharest administrative director, who claimed he had "never interfered in editorial independence" and had no intention of doing so in future. Landolt also denied having passed on to the daily "Libertatea" (also owned by Ringier) the material gathered for the envisaged investigation on the Nastase's sister's dealings, as alleged by the protesting journalists ("Libertatea" published a letter by Nastase's sister after "Evenimentul zilei" had announced the pending publication). As for preventing the protest's publication, Landolt told RFE/RL's Victor Eskenasy-Morosan that it would have been "incorrect" to publish it in "Evenimentul zilei," the more so as the journalists had refused to let management read it ahead of publication. At Eskenasy-Morosan's insistence, he reluctantly admitted to having tried to prevent the protest's publication elsewhere.

One week later, on 13 September, "Romania libera" published an article under the title "The Blackest Day." The daily's staff complained that despite an agreement signed when WAZ acquired the newspaper, the company's Bucharest representative, Klaus Overbeck, had been for some time attempting to influence editorial policies; again, what seemed to trouble the owners was "exaggerated" criticism of the PSD. Once more, under the pretext of improving the paper's circulation (estimated at some 40,000), management had recommended that politics be given generally less prominence and more prominence be given to more "mundane" coverage and "positive" news. Management went so far as to produce a "guideline" for coverage of events.

As "Romania libera" reported on 16 September, a "suggestion" dating back to 14 May told the newspaper's staff that priority on the front page should be given to a photo "illustrating positive news. Remember: a high-spirited reader is better for the newspaper than a low-spirited one," the suggestion stated. The daily's staff also complained on 13 September that the WAZ management intended to transform the newspaper into a tabloid, which went against its long-standing editorial policies. While having failed to make the investments agreed upon in 2000, the journalists wrote, WAZ was set to achieve what neither the communist Securitate (Editor in Chief Petre Mihai Bacanu and some members of his staff had been detained for trying to print an underground newspaper in the late 1980s), nor the miners who rampaged its editorial offices in 1990 had been able to do --silence critical voices.

Interviewed by RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service the same day, Bacanu attributed the pressures applied on "Romania libera" to the friendship alleged to exist between Prime Minister Nastase and Bodo Hombach, who is a former coordinator of the EU-led Balkan Stability Pact and now one of WAZ's four managing directors. The two "are hunting together," Bacanu said. On 14 September, Bacanu told Deutsche Welle that he had been present in Hombach's office as Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana called to complain about "Romania libera's" reporting on the PSD.

Following the printing of "The Blackest Day," Bacanu was threatened with dismissal, but he said in reaction that he would rather lose his job than his professional integrity. The threat (denied by WAZ) caused concern not only in Romania, but also abroad, where the media events in Romania were reflected in quite extensive coverage by international news agencies and newspaper reporting. Interviewed on RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service on 13 September, Oliver Vujovici, secretary-general of the South East European Media Organization and a Vienna-based veteran Yugoslavia correspondent, said it was "important that journalists work freely in every country, which means that editorial policies must be free. The owner has no right to exercise pressure on editorial policies and on journalists," he said, adding that journalists "have a right to protest "whenever they sense pressure being exercised on them or whenever the attempt is made to influence editorial policies."

On 22 September, RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service carried a 17 September statement by Aidan White, president of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), who spoke in similar terms, adding another important angle to the debate: foreign ownership aimed at maximizing profit might lead to "the deliberate sacrificing of journalistic standards," White said. The IFJ, he added, backs the protests of journalists from "Evenimentul zilei" and "Romania libera," considering that such pressures "place them under great risks in a country where labor rights are hardly respected" and where "professional unions are just emerging." Also on 22 September, RFE/RL interviewed Alexander Lupis, the European coordinator of the New York-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists, on the harassment of journalists.

WAZ was put in a rather embarrassing position when it claimed that it had asked the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe representative on freedom of the media, Miklos Haraszti, to rule in the dispute and that Haraszti said that the conflict at "Romania libera" was not about freedom of expression but an "internal dispute" between owners and employees. The former Hungarian dissident denied the claim, describing it as bordering on "fiction," and Hombach was eventually forced to apologize, though he attributed the incident to "journalistic misunderstanding." The German daily "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," which had also covered the protest of a Bacanu-led team in front of WAZ's offices in Essen, subsequently titled an article on the affair as "Bodo Muenchhausen," (Muenchhausen was a legendary liar). RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service covered this aspect as well, carrying an interview with Overbeck on 22 September and reporting on Haraszti's reaction.

Analyzing the two affairs, Romania-Moldova Service correspondent Traian Ungureanu concluded that both dailies are under siege because --with a readership larger than that of any other opposition dailies with countrywide distribution -- they are striking a dissonant tone in a servile media environment. The PSD, Ungureanu said, has a monopoly over television coverage. The influential Antena 1 private television owned by Humanist Party Chairman Dan Voiculescu was the last to join this monotonous orchestra, following the Humanists' recent return to the PSD fold after signing an electoral alliance. Ahead of the forthcoming elections, it was important for the PSD to transform the last vestiges of freedom of expression into what Ungureanu called "low-neckline publications" and thereby turn Romania's media environment into a "skating rink on which PSD stars slide without obstacle." With the exception of some low-circulation weeklies and local radio stations, the PSD had managed to achieve dominance mostly by using state-controlled advertising and selective enforcement of tax laws to influence media owners, as Media Monitor Agency Director Mircea Toma explained in an interview with the service on 28 September. And this was apparently the explanation for the attitude displayed by the foreign owners of the two remaining opposition outlets as well.

When Nistorescu announced his departure from "Evenimentul zilei" on 28 September, the daily's journalists were reportedly in tears. Ringier's Landolt, in an interview with RFE/RL, sought to alleviate their apprehensions, promising continued editorial independence while seeking to transform the paper into one meeting Swiss standards, as he put it. But according to "Evenimentul zilei" journalist Dan Tapalaga, what the owners had achieved was to introduce "capitalism without freedom" and former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu would have rejoiced. Capitalism without freedom, he wrote, was just as absurd as "communism without dictatorship." He added: "Nastase climbed on top of state advertising and distributes it to whomever he pleases. Televisions fabricate another truth every day, lying by committee, closing their eyes, taking shelter in 'neutrality' and entertainment, with criticism cut off, ready to air 'live' any propaganda gimmick from the governmental palace. The local press is in the hands of barons." While all this is happening, "the islands of freedom in the written press seem to sink day by day in the complicity of silence" and "some Western newspaper owners decided now, on the eve of the elections, to make their daily shinier" and readers "happier and more optimistic." After getting rid of Nistorescu, Tapalaga predicted, it was now apparently "the turn of...Bacanu." So, "what is left? The desperation of not being able to speak. the nightmare of nobody listening to you.... The pain of being alone.... The fear of a 'positive world' void. The disappointment. The agony before the end."

That, to return to Nistorescu's October 2003 self-defeating prophecy, is not the "German" or "Swiss" lesson. It is quite distinctly a Romanian lesson with heavy influence from places such as Belarus and, more recently, Vladimir Putin's Russia. What is saddest is that it is being taught by Germans and by Swiss "teachers."

By Jan Maksymiuk

Ukraine, beside Belarus, belongs to the harshest abusers of the freedom of expression not only in Europe, but also on a global scale. Even if the situation of the media in Ukraine is incomparably better than that in Belarus, Ukraine invariably occupies a top place on all lists of suppressors and enemies of the media compiled by various media watchdogs. Ukraine's significant input in the arsenal of means intended to muzzle the media and journalists is aptly reflected in the introduction of the Ukrainian coinage "temnyk" -- meaning "themes of the week" -- in the international use without translation. Temnyks are unsigned instructions sent on a daily basis from the Ukrainian presidential administration to major television and radio channels, both state-run and private, to tell journalists what news they are to cover and in what manner. Given that all Ukrainian media outlets must have their licenses renewed every five years, Ukrainian news editors usually follow prescriptions included in temnyks.

It is interesting and instructive in this context to look at how the problem of media freedom is perceived in manifestos of four major candidates in the ongoing presidential campaign in Ukraine: Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, Our Ukraine bloc leader Viktor Yushchenko, Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz, and Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko. One should expect that Ukraine's media sphere should be a major concern of presidential candidates, primarily those opposed to the government, since they do not have such media opportunities for promoting their presidential bids as Prime Minister Yanukovych. The reality, however, is surprising, and puzzling at the same time.

The first surprise is that, as regards mere wordage, it is Yanukovych who seems to be concerned about the media sphere more than the other three candidates. Yanukovych declares: "The state policy in the information sphere will ensure the implementation of constitutional rights to freedom of expression and information, the defense of national interests, the development of independent media." The next paragraph in his manifesto can also be referred to generally defined freedom of expression: "The participation of broad circles of society in the formation and implementation of the state policy and legislative process, political pluralism, open dialogue, constructive cooperation, common responsibility -- this is how we will overcome the alienation of the state mechanism from the life needs of a man." And that is all about media matters in the prime minister's presidential platform.

Yanukovych's manifesto, as regards both substance and style, is typical of all other presidential manifestos in Ukraine. In its substance, it tells what should be done but is dead silent on how it can be done and with what means. In its sloppy and blurred style, it is highly reminiscent of the Soviet-era journalistic lingo, which seemed to have been developed to conceal the truth rather than to reveal it.

Let's turn now to Yanukovych's main rival, Yushchenko. Yushchenko declares in his presidential program "Ten Steps Toward the People": "In a renewed Ukraine, the freedom of expression, the vigorous activity of public organizations and political opposition will become a norm -- as a guarantee of the state policy in the interests of the people." How Yushchenko intends to renew Ukraine and ensure the freedom of expression, as well as with what political and economic mechanisms, remains a mystery. True, Yushchenko's campaign team have promised to present a detailed plan for resolving major social and economic problems in Ukraine after his victory. One needs to patiently wait.

The biggest surprise awaits us in Moroz's presidential manifesto. Moroz is known as a fiery advocate of the freedom of expression on the Ukrainian political scene. It was Moroz who first publicized the so-called Melnychenko tapes, which suggested that President Leonid Kuchma and other top officials may have been involved in the kidnapping and slaying of Internet journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. Therefore, it is extremely puzzling to find that the only reference to media in his presidential platform is a pledge to fight "for overcoming the moral-spiritual crisis in society -- one of the reasons of Ukraine's decline, [and] for the prohibition of the dissemination of violence and cruelty in the mass media." Unbelievable but true.

Now Petro Symonenko. His style seems to be the most colorful of all the manifestos cited above. "The state is undergoing self-destruction, its functions are being taken over by criminal oligarchs, regional and family clans," the chief Ukrainian communist asserts. "They have also captured a majority of media outlets, which are essentially used for demoralizing society, particularly the young people. The information policy is being formed by political killers." However, Symonenko does not explain how, if at all, the information policy in Ukraine can be formed by more constructive operators.

One of the easiest explanations of why Ukrainian major presidential candidates are so vague and unspecific about the freedom of expression in their manifestos is that they are equally vague and unspecific about almost all other issues they touch upon there. In Ukraine, as in other post-Soviet countries, presidential election campaign are primarily battles of personalities, not of political programs. Therefore, nobody apart from political analysts -- who constitute a negligible part of the electorates -- pays attention to what candidates say in their manifestos, which are usually loose compilations of political slogans and cliches.

It is also not unlikely that presidential candidates in the post-Soviet area, both from pro-government and opposition camps, believe that it is the presidency and the government alone that have the right to define the extent of media freedom, therefore they remain as vague and noncommittal on this issue as possible in order not to back down on their election promises when they win the election.