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Media Matters: May 16, 2003

16 May 2003, Volume 3, Number 19
MULTIPLYING U.S. MEDIA MONOPOLIES? U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Michael Powell regularly points out that the 1996 Telecommunications Act mandates that media-ownership rules be reviewed every two years. When the FCC announced on 23 September that on 2 June it would reexamine its rules on media ownership -- including a rule that forbids any one company from owning both a newspaper and a broadcast-media outlet in any single community -- public comments were invited. In all, the commission received comments from some 13,000 groups and individuals, according to the March/April issue of "The Columbia Journalism Review." Backers of deregulation observe that cable television, the Internet, and direct-broadcast satellite offer a wide new array of choices for consumers that did not exist 25 years ago. Deregulation opponents make several observations to buttress their view that restrictions on media ownership should be left in place. Under the 1996 Telecommunications Act, U.S. media companies such as Viacom, General Electric, Disney, and News Corp. -- which own, respectively, CBS, NBC, ABC, and Fox -- are currently limited to reaching 35 percent of U.S. households. All of the cable news networks -- CNN, CNN Headline News, CNNfn, Fox, MSNBC, CNBC -- are owned by just three U.S. media conglomerates: AOL-Time Warner, General Electric, and News Corp., the magazine reports. In addition, two companies, EchoStar and DirecTV, own almost the entire direct-broadcast satellite industry. Almost all the major Internet news-and-information sites are owned by a few major U.S.-based media companies, and their "editorial content is indistinguishable" from that produced by television and radio broadcasters and newspapers, "The Columbia Journalism Review" reports. Only a little more than half of U.S. households have Internet access, and access is even lower among minorities and the poor. In most other countries, Internet-access rates are much lower. CC

OPPOSITION LEADER BLASTS GOVERNMENT OVER MEDIA POLICY. Sali Berisha, who heads the opposition Democratic Party, said in Tirana on 13 May that parliament should hold a special session to debate what he called the government's suppression of freedom of the press, Deutsche Welle's "Monitor" reported. Calling Prime Minister Fatos Nano a "tyrant," Berisha charged that the government has pressured unspecified independent media to support its policies or be forced out of business. He warned that Nano's media policy threatens the future of Albanian democracy. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 May)

JOURNALISTS PROTEST RESTRICTIONS ON SALE OF OPPOSITION PUBLICATIONS. Meeting in Baku on 12 May, the Council of Editors expressed its support for the planned picket of the Baku municipal administration to protest restrictions on the sale in the city of opposition publications, Turan reported. The Committee for the Rights of Journalists had adopted a statement on 6 May calling on the authorities to revoke the ban imposed on 5 May on the sale of opposition newspapers at metro stations and the total ban on sales of "Yeni Musavat," "Azadlig" and "Hurriyet." According to the Council of Editors, that ban was ordered by presidential administration head Ramiz Mekhtiev. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 13 May)

ELECTRONIC-MEDIA COUNCIL BANS ADVERTISING IN SPONSORSHIP SPOTS. The Council for Electronic Media decided on 12 May that the presentation of sponsored television and radio programs can no longer include invitations to purchase the sponsor's products or use its services, BTA reported. The sponsored programs are not to mention in any way the qualities of the sponsor's services, nor to cite the sponsor's address, telephone number, or other contact information that could facilitate the acquisition of the sponsor's products or use of its services. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 13 May)

NEW CZECH BROADCASTING COUNCIL CAN START FUNCTIONING. The Chamber of Deputies approved five new members of the Radio and Television Broadcasting Council on 13 May to join the six council members elected by the lower house last month, CTK reported. Two more members are to be selected for the 13-member council, but the body may now function normally. Eight of the 11 members elected thus far were nominated by the three ruling coalition parties -- the Social Democratic Party, the Christian Democratic Union-People's Party, and the Freedom Union-Democratic Union. The ruling coalition is thus near its goal of naming nine members to the council, which represents a majority capable of taking major decisions, such as granting or revoking licenses. The Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia has two representatives on the new body, and the senior opposition Civic Democratic Party has one. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 May)

PUBLISHER RECEIVES DEATH THREAT. Georgian Times Media Holding President Malkhaz Gulashvili has received a death threats, the Tbilisi-based Independent Association of Georgian Journalists (IAGJ) has reported. On 8 May, Gulashvili told journalists that a high-ranking official had informed him that someone was planning to kill him. Gulashvili believes that the state "power structures" are behind these threats. Georgian Times Media Holding, one of the country's most influential media companies, owns four newspapers, including "Tribuna" and "The Georgian Times," and several Internet sites. The company's newspapers have been sued three times in the past two months, including by the head of the Ajara Autonomous Republic's Supreme Council. The IAGJ called upon law enforcement agencies to take all possible measures to protect Gulashvili and other journalists. The IAGJ also warned of possible attacks against journalists in the period leading up to the November parliamentary elections and advised publishers to be careful during this time. CC

SEVEN LIBERAL ISLAMIC JOURNALISTS SENTENCED. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on 12 May protested prison sentences, ranging from four to 13 years, imposed on seven journalists by the Tehran Revolutionary Court at a 10 May trial that was closed to the public. The journalists, who were also stripped of their civil rights for 10 years, were members of the National Religious Movement, a liberal, nationalist Islamic group that was banned in March 2001. The seven imprisoned journalists are Ezatollah Sahabi of the banned monthly "Iran e-Farda" (who received a 13-year term); Taghi Rahmani of the banned weekly "Omid e-Zangan" (10 years); Hoda Saber of "Iran e-Farda" (10 years); Reza Alijani of "Iran e-Farda" (six years); Saide Madani of "Iran e-Farda" (6 years); Ali-Reza Redja� of "Asr e-Azadegan" (4 years); and Morteza Khazemian of the closed daily "Fath" (4 years). CC

TEHRAN CRACKS DOWN ON INTERNET SITES. Government spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh on 7 May said that Iran's Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution has set up a committee to crack down on "immoral" websites, IRNA reported. He said the state telecommunications company has already started blocking access to such sites. IRNA, quoting Prosecutor-General Adonnabi Namazi, also reported that the judiciary is drawing up a bill to investigate Internet offenses. In addition to obscene and immoral material, the Islamic Republic is concerned about political material. IRNA cited a "Jomhuri-yi Islami" report that some websites are "ridiculing religious and political figures of the country in an obscene manner." "Cyber-acquaintanceships" are also to be regulated, according to IRNA. This appears to be a response to the great popularity of chat rooms as a means for young Iranian men and women to get acquainted. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 9 May)

U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT LAUNCHES WEBSITE IN PERSIAN. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell on 12 May unveiled a new Persian-language State Department website aimed at educating Iranians about U.S. policy toward Iran, according to international news agencies. In an open letter posted on the website (, Powell explained that the United States' differences are not with the Iranian people. "It is the Iranian government's decisions to support terrorism, to pursue weapons of mass destruction, and to deny human rights to the people of Iran that are the obstacles to improved relations between our two countries," Powell wrote. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 13 May)

U.S. REPORTER, IRAQI TRANSLATOR KILLED IN CAR CRASH. Veteran "Boston Globe" foreign correspondent Elizabeth Neuffer and her translator were killed on 9 May when their car hit a highway guardrail while returning to Baghdad from Tikrit, international media reported. The wife of translator Waleed Khalifa Hassan Al Dulaimi is eight months pregnant with twins. CC

BRITISH GOVERNMENT REFUSES TO INVESTIGATE DISAPPEARANCE OF TWO JOURNALISTS. RSF on 13 May denounced British Defense Minister Geoff Hoon's refusal, made public on 12 May, to open an investigation into the 22 March disappearance of two ITN crewmembers in southern Iraq until ITN proves that a war crime has been committed. On 28 April, U.S. authorities announced they are investigating the case of French cameraman Fred Nerac and Lebanese interpreter Hussein Othman, who have been missing since the vehicle carrying the four-member ITN crew came under fire near Al-Basrah during fighting. CC

MEDIA CRITIC SLAMS U.S. MEDIA'S WAR COVERAGE... In the 29 May issue of "The New York Review of Books," Michael Massing, contributing editor of "The Columbia Journalism Review," provides an analysis of how the Coalition Media Center in Qatar functioned during the U.S.-led military operation to depose Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Massing notes that chief military spokesman U.S. Brigadier General Vincent Brooks was always "polite, unflappable, and remarkably uninformative" and the other press officers were "always on message." He also reports that the questions posed at briefings by Arab and European journalists "tended to be more pointed and probing that those from the Americans." He reports that the BBC fielded a staff of 200 during the conflict and "offered no-nonsense anchors, tenacious correspondents, perceptive features, and a host of commentators steeped in knowledge of the Middle East." In contrast, Massing writes that most U.S. journalists "knew very little about the Middle East" and that this lack of knowledge reflects that fact that U.S. television networks have been "turning away from the world...for a long time." Massing points particularly to MSNBC's "mawkishness and breathless boosterism." He also reports that six months before the military operation in Iraq, CNN management decided to run separate coverage operations, one for international viewers and another for those in the United States. Massing writes that the international version of CNN's coverage was "far more serious and informed than the American version." "U.S. news organizations gave Americans the war they thought Americans wanted to see...[without] bullet-ridden bodies and headless corpses," Massing writes. "Spared exposure to the victims of war, Americans had little idea of its human costs." CC

...WHILE U.S. PAPER LAUDS WORK OF EMBEDDED REPORTS. The last day of full-scale fighting in the Iraq war, 3 April, was vividly portrayed in more than 800 page of dispatches from 85 journalists embedded with the key U.S. 3rd Infantry Division, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on 11 May. Reports from these journalists also covered "things that the U.S. military was doing its best to ignore" including the large numbers of Iraqi casualties, the paper reported. CC

REPORT ALLEGES THAT IRAQI AGENTS INFILTRATED AL-JAZEERA... Britain's "Sunday Times" reported on 11 May that documents from Baghdad prove that Iraqi intelligence agents infiltrated Qatar-based satellite-television network Al-Jazeera. According to the documents, allegedly obtained by the Iraqi National Congress (INC) and subsequently made available to the "Sunday Times," Iraqi intelligence controlled three unidentified agents within Al-Jazeera and referred to the network as an "instrument" the regime used to "foil" U.S. aggression. There has been no independent confirmation of the allegations. For its part, Al-Jazeera promised to investigate the matter, CNN reported on 11 May. Network spokesman Jihad Ballout commented: "We were told that there were documents. We were presented with documents. But we have not ascertained their authenticity." Ballout told Reuters on 11 May that the network does not know of "any member of Al-Jazeera who is working for any foreign-intelligence" group. Some observers saw a pro-Hussein bias in the network's war coverage, which focused heavily on Iraqi civilian casualties. An Al-Jazeera crew was harassed by a crowd of Iraqis in Al-Basrah on 10 May, AP reported the next day. According to the Al-Jazeera newscaster, "angry locals accused the station of complicity with the previous regime." No one was hurt in the incident. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 12 May)

...AS ANALYST PONDERS AL-JAZEERA'S ORIENTATION. Al-Jazeera's staff is split into two main factions who struggle for power -- the Islamists who believe in a type of religion-based Arab nationalism and secularists who are attracted to liberalism and modernism -- according to Michael Massing in the 29 May "The New York Review of Books." After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Arab world increasingly has been "saturated by religion," particularly the media. In its coverage of the war in Iraq, Massing noted, Al-Jazeera stressed mainly "the plight of its victims, while the brutality of the Ba'athists and their horrifying methods were hardly mentioned." Other Arab newscasts were along the same lines. Basically, the war in Iraq has added to Islamist tendencies in the Middle East, and this "development has been reflected in -- and reinforced by -- the Arab press and television," Massing observed. CC

JOURNALIST THREATENED WITH DEFAMATION SUIT. Abdykerim Temirberdiev, a 72-year-old member of the Union of Journalists, said on 24 April that he had written about human rights violations in the Osh Oblast psychiatric hospital, the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations reported in the 28 April-4 May issue of its "CIS Report." After his report was ignored, Temirberdiev filed a complaint with the city prosecutor's office and a local court. Rather than investigating the case, a prosecutor allegedly told the journalist to withdraw his complaint. After Temirberdiev refused, the official informed him that criminal defamation charges might be filed against him. CC

MACEDONIAN ALBANIAN MAYORS SLAM SERBIAN NEWS AGENCY. Mayor Hysamedin Halili of Lipkovo and Vebi Ismaili, his counterpart in Dzepciste, told Deutsche Welle's Albanian Service on 7 May that a recent report by the private Serbian Beta news agency that the two men distributed uniforms of the shadowy Albanian Liberation Army (AKSH) is "complete disinformation." They argued that Beta has long spread "anti-Albanian propaganda" aimed at destabilizing the situation in Macedonia as part of unspecified "coordinated efforts." ("RFE/RL Newsline," 9 May)

PROSECUTORS SEARCH 'FLUX' OFFICES. Chisinau Deputy Prosecutor Andrei Pantea on 13 May carried out a search of the offices of the daily "Flux," according to the Flux news agency. Pantea said the search was made to find the employment contracts of two journalists who published an article in the daily on 20 March that alleged links between Lebanon's former Honorary Consul in Chisinau Hammud Mahmud and Islamic terrorist organizations. The Prosecutor-General's Office charged the daily publication with libel. Mahmud is the son-in-law of former Moldovan parliamentary speaker Dumitru Diacov. Pantea ordered the confiscation of archived electronic material on Mahmud. Igor Burciu, editor in chief of the daily, claimed the search was "an intimidation attempt" ordered by President Vladimir Voronin. He said that, while Voronin ordered Mahmud's expulsion and stripped him of Moldovan citizenship, the president's current close relations with Diacov explain such action. Burciu pointed out that Diacov's daughter -- Mahmud's wife -- has been appointed to a diplomatic post in Germany. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 May)

NEW BRIBERY ALLEGATIONS ON MEDIA LAW. The special parliamentary commission investigating the so-called Rywingate bribery scandal interrogated Jaroslaw Sellin, a member of the National Radio and Television Broadcasting Council, on 13 May, Polish media reported. Sellin said film producer Lew Rywin sought the alleged bribe on behalf of the ruling Democratic Left Alliance at "the most rational and well-considered moment." According to Sellin, the government did not compromise with "Gazeta Wyborcza" publisher Agora on a media bill in mid-July 2002, as suggested by Premier Leszek Miller before the commission in April. Miller testified that Rywin's alleged solicitation of a bribe from Agora was "absurd," since the government had already agreed on a version of the media bill that satisfied Agora. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 May)

EXPERT SEES DRAFT MEDIA BILL AS THREAT TO PRESS FREEDOM. Mikhail Fedotov, secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists and former State Press Committee chairman under President Boris Yeltsin, told "Argumenty i fakty," that the new law on the mass media being drafted by the Industrial Committee -- an organization that represents the owners of the country's major media outlets, including the state-controlled media -- is a threat to freedom of the press in Russia. Fedotov, who is a co-author of the current law on the mass media that was adopted in 1990, said the new draft contains several worrying provisions that "might not be dangerous under a 'good' president and a liberal media minister, but which otherwise could be used as a big stick in a political struggle." He said that the draft also strongly favors media owners over journalists, who would be reduced under it to the status of merely hired personnel. Fedotov said that the Union of Journalists wants to improve the bill to separate and define the rights of property owners and those of journalists. He said he does not believe that Russia's mass media have "been captured by information oligarchs." He said that various media outlets are controlled by different financial and industrial groups and, therefore, represent a variety of opinions. He noted as well that most of the country's media are still controlled by the state and, therefore, the most dangerous "information oligarch" is the government. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 12 May)

MAJOR PARTIES SELECT IMAGE-MAKERS FOR DUMA CAMPAIGN. Russia's leading political parties have already selected image-makers, or public-relations agencies, to handle this fall's campaign for the State Duma, NTV reported on 10 May. Gleb Pavlovskii's Foundation for Effective Politics will handle the Unified Russia campaign. A special Information-Technological Center headed by Ilya Ponomarev will handle the Communist Party's campaign. The Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) will hire two image-making firms: Video International PR and Vladimir Ruga's PR Center. Yabloko will use Leonid Levin's Secret Adviser agency, which it has used in the past, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) has hired Yelena Sorokina's agency Feedback. According to recent opinion polls, the Communist Party and Unified Russia are each supported by more than 20 percent of the population, with the SPS, Yabloko, and the LDPR all hovering around the 5 percent threshold needed to gain Duma seats allocated by proportional representation. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 12 May)

ARE RUSSIAN VIEWERS SWAYED BY TV PROGRAMS? Speaking at the Kennan Institute on 14 April, U.S. media analyst Ellen Mickiewicz discussed her research on focus groups from four Russian cities. She doubted the findings of polls that most Russian television viewers usually trust state television. According to Mickiewicz's preliminary findings, Russian viewers react to government recitations of its achievements as neither provable nor disprovable. Because most viewers tune out or cannot recall state-television stories, the "persuasion potential" of such stories is likely to be poor. Michiewicz's research also found that although Russian audiences complain about too much "chernukha" (garbage) on television, they also give "zero credibility" to positive news stories. Since Russian viewers are keenly aware that economic or political interests are behind most news stories, they tend to be willing to put in the extra time and effort needed to properly evaluate news stories. Mickiewicz's findings indicate that Russian audiences are "extraordinarily sophisticated." CC

JOURNALISTS' ACCESS TO FEDERATION COUNCIL STAFF REDUCED. Journalists will have more trouble acquiring information from Federation Council staffers under an order imposed by Petr Tkachenko, head of the upper chamber's apparatus, "Gazeta" reported on 7 May. The new rule requires staffers to seek clearance from the chamber's press service for contacts with journalists and to report the topics of discussion in advance. An unnamed source in the Federation Council's apparatus told "Gazeta" that the rule is a response to leaks concerning the council's work, which create "unnecessary flaps in society and harm the image of the Federation Council itself." "Gazeta" noted that the State Duma does not impose such limits on staffers. On the federal level, only the presidential administration restricts contact with the press to the same degree. Journalists often rely on Federation Council staffers for information because many deputies routinely skip the chamber's monthly sessions and are therefore unavailable for comment. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 9 May)

TVS CHIEF EDITOR SURVIVES BOARD MEETING. Despite speculation that they would eliminate the position held by TVS editor in chief Yevgenii Kiselev, TVS shareholders left Kiselev's job and its powers intact during an 8 May meeting, reported. Lawyers for the company had determined that eliminating the position of editor in chief would violate Russia's law on the mass media. The future of TVS remains in doubt in light of a recent court ruling invalidating the move to shut down TV-6, which until January 2002 broadcast on the frequency now used by TVS. Kiselev is not liked or trusted in official circles. The editorial policies he helped shape at NTV and later at TV-6 inspired pressure campaigns against both of those networks between 1999 and 2002. Jettisoning Kiselev might have helped TVS smooth relations with the Media Ministry, which now has the power to take TVS off the air. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 9 May)

TVS LOSES POPULAR PROGRAMS. Several entertainment programs will no longer appear on TVS because of the station's massive debts to their production companies, "Izvestiya" reported on 14 May. TVS's shareholders include some of the wealthiest Russian businesspeople, but Sergei Kalvarskii, who produces two of the programs to be canceled -- "Outside the Law" and "Love Stories" -- told "Izvestiya" that TVS has not paid his company since January. He threatened to take TVS to court if the network does not meet its financial obligations. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 May)

OPPOSITION WEBSITE UNAVAILABLE IN TAJIKISTAN. In an interview published in the 8 May issue of the Russian newspaper "Kommersant-Daily," Dododjon Atovulloev -- editor in chief of "Charogi ruz," a Tajik opposition newspaper that is published abroad -- said access to the website he launched on 1 March has been blocked in Tajikistan. The website -- -- is compiled by the staff of "Charogi ruz." Atovulloev said the site is important because the newspaper appears only once a month and, in his view, provides Tajik citizens with objective information about the country. He said that within two to three weeks of its launch, the site received some 20,000 visitors a day. By now, he said, that number has risen to 50,000. The Tajik authorities blocked access to it a few days ago, Atovulloev charged, quoting Deutsche Welle and BBC reports that the Tajik Ministry of National Security had blocked the site. This is reportedly the first time such an action has been taken in Tajikistan. Atovulloev speculated that items on the referendum on constitutional amendments scheduled for 22 June were a primary reason for the move. The referendum is being widely seen as a vote on extending President Imomali Rakhmonov's term in office. Another reason, according to Atovulloev, was the publication of materials about the U.S. State Department's annual report on human rights in Tajikistan. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 12 May)

KYIV DISAGREES WITH WASHINGTON ON EFFICIENCY OF COMBATING CD PIRACY. The United States' inclusion of Ukraine on a list of countries that do not effectively combat CD piracy is unfounded, Viktor Lytvynenko of the Ukrainian Interior Ministry's Department for Combating Economic Crime, charged on 8 May, according to Interfax. "Ukraine has adopted all the laws necessary for the protection of intellectual-property rights, and law enforcement bodies are intensively combating the manufacture of pirated media," Lytvynenko said. He said only one plant in Ukraine currently produces CDs, and its production is being carefully monitored by the authorities. Lytvynenko said the fact that U.S.-based software giant Microsoft more than tripled its sales in Ukraine over the past year is a sign of success in the battle against media piracy in the country. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick released a report in early May listing Ukraine as a "Priority Foreign Country," that is, as one "pursuing the most onerous or egregious policies that have the greatest adverse impact on U.S. right holders or products, and are subject to accelerated investigations and possible sanctions," Interfax reported. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 9 May)

REPORT: MEDIA IN THE FORMER YUGOSLAVIA 'PARTLY FREE.' Media in the countries of the former Yugoslavia are only "Partly Free," according to a Freedom House survey issued on 30 April. Only Slovenian media were rated "Free," while Macedonian media face the worst situation, Freedom House wrote. In other countries, politicians and public figures intimidate media by filing civil complaints or bringing criminal charges against media outlets. Its report noted that in Serbia the killers of Belgrade journalist Slavko Curuvija are still at large. However, despite problems, media freedom in Serbia and Montenegro improved last year. The study, "Freedom of the Press 2003: A Global Survey of Media Independence," is at CC

RUSSIAN MEDIA HIGHLIGHT PLIGHT OF RUSSIAN CITIZENS IN TURKMENISTAN. The 100,000 holders of dual citizenship who reside in Turkmenistan have been given until late June by Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov to decide which citizenship they want to retain and, if they decide to keep Russian citizenship, to leave the country. But sources in both Turkmenistan and Russia have reported that the Turkmen authorities are preventing many people who want to leave the country are being prevented from doing so. The Russian media is increasingly turning its interest to the fate of the Russian citizens in Turkmenistan and criticizing the Russian government for revoking the 1993 agreement with Turkmenistan on dual citizenship in order, as is widely believed, to obtain Niyazov's signature on a long-term natural-gas deal. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 9 May)

WAN TO HOST PRESS-FREEDOM ROUNDTABLE. The World Association of Newspapers (WAN) will hold a roundtable on press freedom in its 8-11 June World Newspaper Congress in Dublin, Ireland. The roundtable, entitled "Media Under Threat: Press Freedom Challenged By Civil War," will be held on 8 June and will feature eight speakers. CC

PROGRAM ON COMPARATIVE MEDIA LAW AND POLICY. A program on comparative media law and policy will be held at Oxford University 28 July-18 August, supported by the Open Society Institute and the Council of Europe. For details and an application form, see CC

AFGHAN REPORTERS TO ATTEND WORKSHOP ON COVERING WOMEN'S ISSUES. The International Women's Media Foundation and Internews are organizing a two-week course for 16 Afghan reporters on covering women's issues. It is scheduled to begin on 10 August in Kabul. For more, see CC

MEDIA SESSION AT CIS BUSINESS SUMMIT. On 26 June There will be a session on the role of the media at the CIS Business Summit in London on 26 June. Contact for more information. CC

WORLD MEDIA MONITOR LAUNCHED. is inviting free-expression advocates to participate in its newly launched world media monitor, an online forum on how media shape our understanding of global events. Spanning the political spectrum and coming from four continents, some 500 writers, editors, and columnists -- independent of any media corporation or commercial ownership -- share their views with readers in 150 countries. See http// CC

NEW REPORT ON APPLICATION OF RUSSIAN MEDIA LAW. On 12 May, the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations posted a report entitled "An Analysis of the Application in Russia [of] Legislation on the Mass Media in 2002" (in Russian). See http// CC

FILM ON PROTESTS AGAINST VIOLATIONS OF JOURNALISTS RIGHTS. On 8 May, a seven-minute film on protests in the countries of the former Soviet Union against violations of the rights of journalists is available at the website of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations. See CC


By Vera Rich

Article 19, a London-based watchdog organization that monitors violations of freedom of speech worldwide, has just issued its report on Belarus for February-April 2003. The report is a grim one -- an all-too-familiar chronicle of media outlets closed or suspended and journalists and editors arrested or subjected to other forms of harassment.

The lead story, however, is the draft law on the media, which was scheduled to be made public in March and to be discussed by the National Assembly on 2 April. Neither of these events occurred, however. The bill is "still being discussed by the Belarusian authorities," Article 19 writes. "Despite efforts by civil society to learn about developments in the compiling of the draft law, the authorities the authorities have refrained from releasing conclusive information on the subject. Judging from previous drafts, the new piece of legislation is likely to compound the problems already existing in the current regulations."

The report then analyses the resolution on setting up the Television and Radio Broadcasting Commission that was adopted by the Information Ministry in January. A number of defects are pinpointed, notably that since the chairman of the commission is the information minister, the commission "will have virtually no independence of government in the making of its decisions" and, in practice, may under the legislation "be completely controlled by the Information Ministry." The report further says, "there are no clear regulations as to the appointment of the other members" and that to date it has proven "problematic even to obtain information on the identity of the commission members."

Next, Article 19 expresses its full support for a campaign by the Belarusian Association of Journalists calling for the review of Articles 367, 368, and 369 of the Criminal Code. These articles grant the country's president special protection against defamation. The Article 19 report argues that "according to international standards, public officials should tolerate a higher level of criticism than ordinary citizens" and that "as the European Court of Human Rights held: 'In the democratic system the actions or omissions of the government must be subject to the close scrutiny...of the press and public opinion.'"

It likewise quotes the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on the cases of Mikola Markevich, Pavel Mazheyka, and Viktar Ivashkevich, who have received prison sentences for defaming the president: "It is...unacceptable in a democracy that journalists should be sent to prison for their work."

Next comes an analysis of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's "Ongoing Seminar for the Leaders of Republican and Local Public Organs" on 29 March, the participants of which (according to "Sovetskaya Belorussiya") took the view that "each Belarusian family lives according to the state ideology, and the media is the most effective means to popularize it." Further, they agreed that the work of the media, both state-run and private, "should consolidate Belarusian society."

Already, "ideological meetings" have been introduced instructing journalists of the state media on "what and how to write." Article 19 is "very disturbed" at this news, says the report, and wishes to remind the Belarusian authorities that the "imposition of requirements for the dissemination of ideological or other messages on behalf of the authorities runs counter to international standards of freedom of expression."

The report then proceeds to chronicle the various violations: of the right to peaceful assembly, prosecution, harassment, and suppression of newspapers and individual journalists. Finally, it notes the "suspension" of the investigation of the "disappearance" of ORT cameraman Dzmitry Zavadski in July 2000, observing that "cases of 'disappearances' of journalists exert a very powerful 'chilling effect' on the work of the media. It is therefore of paramount importance that a thorough and impartial investigation is carried out to shed light on what happened to Zavadski."

Throughout the report, point by point, Article 19 makes recommendations of how the situation should be rectified in the light of international standards. Under the present circumstances, however, it seems unlikely that the Belarusian authorities will heed such calls as "All forms of interference in the work of the State and independent media should be discontinued and the editorial independence of these media should be respected by the authorities" or "Measures should be taken to ensure that people in Belarus are free to take part in peaceful demonstrations." Yet without such measures, Belarus seems likely to remain an information "black hole" in which even a pro-Western student, who considers himself (unlike the "ordinary people") immune to the regime's propaganda, can -- as a letter in the possession of the current author shows -- be himself so subconsciously influenced by President Lukashenka's interpretation of world affairs, that he fears the inevitable outcome of the U.S. Belarus Democracy Act will be a Baghdad-style attack on Minsk.

Vera Rich is a London-based freelance researcher.