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Media Matters: May 30, 2003

30 May 2003, Volume 3, Number 21
AUTHORITIES SUSPEND MAJOR INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPER. The Ministry of Information suspended publication of the independent newspaper "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta" and its supplement "BDG. Dlya sluzebnogo polzovaniya" for three months on 28 May, Belapan reported, quoting Pyotr Martsau, director of Marat, the company that publishes both periodicals. The ministry reportedly said it suspended the publications "for gross [and] numerous violations of the law." Last week, the ministry issued two warnings to "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta" and one warning to "BDG. Dlya sluzebnogo polzovaniya," charging that the periodicals broke the law by defaming President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and publishing materials about criminal investigations without official permission. Under Belarus's restrictive media law, two official warnings provide sufficient grounds for a court to close a media outlet. Martsau said he will appeal the ministry's decision in court. The Russian-language "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta" has been appearing in Belarus for 11 years. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 29 May)

LABOR MINISTRY FUNDS ROMANY RADIO. Labor Minister Sandor Burany and Radio C Editor in Chief Gyorgy Kerenyi signed an agreement on 22 May whereby the ministry will grant 4 million forints ($19,000) to the cash-strapped Romany radio station and expects it to broadcast information concerning job opportunities, Hungarian television reported. Kerenyi said he plans to re-launch the station on 1 June. The station stopped its broadcasting on 7 April due to a lack of funds (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 April 2003). ("RFE/RL Newsline," 23 May)

AUDITORS ALLEGE CRIMINALITY AT STATE TELEVISION. The State Audit Office (ASZ) has filed a criminal complaint alleging that hundreds of millions of forints was illegally channeled into management pockets in the form of severance payments at the state-owned MTV television network, "Nepszabadsag" reported on 29 May. The daily reported that ASZ believes MTV paid out over 300 million forints ($1.4 million) in severance payments to employees it continued to employ or later rehired. Auditors suspect that current News Editor Zoltan Rudi received 20 million forints in severance pay but was later rehired. He reportedly pledged to repay the money, according to "Nepszabadsag." ("RFE/RL Newsline," 29 May)

CHIEF EDITOR OF PROMINENT OPPOSITION NEWSPAPER RESIGNS. Yermurat Bapi, editor in chief of "SolDat," one of the most prominent Kazakh opposition newspapers, announced his resignation at a news conference in Almaty on 27 May, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service and Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Bapi had told RFE/RL the previous day he intended to step down. He explained on 27 May that he learned that his presence at the newspaper irritated the authorities, adding that he hopes his departure will save the publication. He pledged that editorial policy will remain unchanged. Bapi is facing a tax-evasion charge that the opposition considers to be politically motivated. During the four years he has served as editor in chief of "SolDat," 11 charges of administrative offenses and three criminal cases have been brought against the newspaper. Bapi is also a prominent member of the Republican People's Party of Kazakhstan, which is headed by former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, a political rival of President Nursultan Nazarbaev who now lives abroad. Bapi said he intends to remain a party member. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 28 May).

JAILED OPPOSITION JOURNALIST RUMORED TO BE BEATEN. Rumors that jailed opposition journalist Sergei Duvanov has been beaten in prison appear to have been confirmed following a visit from his lawyer, Institute for War and Peace Reporting's (IWPR) "Reporting Central Asia" reported on 23 May. When attorney Maria Pulman met with her client in Zarechnoye prison on 22 May, she noticed that his face was "bruised and grazed." Human rights activists, worried by unconfirmed reports that Duvanov had been injured, had attempted to visit him the previous day only to be turned away by prison officials. While Duvanov refused to comment on his physical condition, a statement released by his supporters on the website alleges that he was beaten on the instructions of the Kazakh authorities. When IWPR called the prison to inquire about this, the receiver was hung up and repeated attempts to call back failed. The Interior Ministry was also contacted and asked for their response to the recent developments and allegations, but they declined to comment. Duvanov's supporters claim that the incident was designed to pressure the jailed reporter into asking President Nursultan Nazarbaev for an amnesty -- something that Duvanov has flatly refused to do. CAF

ISSUE OF OPPOSITION NEWSPAPER SEIZED IN BISHKEK. An entire issue of the opposition daily "Moya stolitsa-novosti" has been seized by judicial authorities in Bishkek in connection with a court order that the publication's property be confiscated, Deutsche Welle reported on 25 May, quoting the paper's Editor in Chief Aleksandr Kim. Court officials were thwarted in an attempt to inventory the newspaper's holdings on 26 May, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. When the officials arrived at the paper, they were told that the only possessions of the newspaper in the office were two cash registers, and that all other equipment belongs to the U.S. Embassy and the office itself was rented from another publication. "Moya stolitsa-novosti" has been sued 37 times by government officials, including Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev, who assert that their honor and dignity were damaged by the publication. Court awards to plaintiffs of 98 million soms ($2.3 million) are outstanding against the newspaper. Kim was quoted as saying that he intends to start up the newspaper again under a different name. As for the confiscated issue, Kim said he believes the authorities picked that specific issue to prevent the appearance of an article criticizing President Askar Akaev. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 29 May)

JOURNALISM CENTER SLAMS ELECTRONIC MEDIA FOR CAMPAIGN BIAS. Experts for the Moldovan Independent Center for Journalism said on 27 May that coverage of the local-election campaign by state-controlled electronic media has been heavily biased in favor of the ruling Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM), Infotag reported. The center monitored coverage on 14 television channels and 10 radio stations. A spokesman for the center said the national radio station and Channel One behaved during the campaign as if they were PCM institutions and did not shy away from attacking opposition candidates. Those local elections were held on 25 May. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 29 May)

ROW OVER ENDING TELEVISED PARLIAMENTARY SESSIONS. The State Radio and Television Council decided in Podgorica on 26 May that what is now state-run television will stop broadcasting legislative sessions when it becomes a public broadcaster on 1 June, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The governing Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) hailed the move, saying that ending the live broadcasts will help legislators to work better. Opposition leaders charged that the council's decision is a blow to democracy and free speech. Montenegro is one of Europe's last bastions of the oral epic tradition, and many politicians pride themselves on their oratory. Many observers in former Yugoslavia considered the televised debates to be first-class entertainment as well as a public service. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 29 May)

CONSTITUTIONAL COURT LIFTS CURBS ON LUSTRATION. Poland's Constitutional Tribunal ruled on 28 May that an amendment to the country's lustration law passed by the ruling Democratic Left Alliance-Labor Party bloc with the help of Self-Defense last year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 October 2002) is unconstitutional and thereby invalid, Polish Television reported. The amendment exempted from lustration individuals who collaborated secretly with the communist-era intelligence and counterintelligence services and border guards. "This is a victory for the [current Polish] republic over the Polish People's Republic, for truth over lies, and for honesty over the cynicism of those who wanted to paralyze lustration," said lawmaker Kazimierz Ujazdowski of the Law and Justice parliamentary caucus, which petitioned the tribunal to rule on the amendment. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 29 May)

EUROPEAN PUBLIC BROADCASTERS MEET WITH ROMANIAN TV. European Broadcasting Union (EBU) Secretary Jean Stock, accompanied by EBU Director of Legal and Public Affairs Werner Rumphost, visited Bucharest on 20-21 May to discuss independent public funding of public-service broadcasting. Their visit came at the invitation of the general directors of Romanian television stations ROR and TVR, and they also met with Romanian President Ion Iliescu and members of the Romanian Senate and appeared on a television program to discuss the issue. In EBU's view, independent funding of public broadcasting via a system of subscriptions has been a successful method in Europe of ensuring independence of public broadcasting from the government. The EBU describes itself as the largest professional association of national broadcasters in the world, with 71 active members in 52 countries of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, and 45 associate members in 28 other countries. CAF

CENTRIST DEPUTY CALLS FOR CRIMINALIZING BLASPHEMY. During the Duma's session on 22 May, Deputy Aleksandr Chuev (independent), a member of the Committee on Public and Religious Organizations, called for the inclusion into the Criminal Code of an article criminalizing blasphemy, reported. Chuev said that he has received many complaints from believers who claim that they are being systematically insulted, citing such examples as a pornographic movie filmed against the background of a religious site. Chuev suggested that blasphemy be criminalized and punishable by a fine of up to $15,000. In severe cases, convicted blasphemers should be imprisoned, Chuev added. An attempt to criminalize blasphemy would likely be challenged in the Constitutional Court, since Article 14 of the constitution declares that Russia is a secular state. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 23 May)

SUPREME COURT OVERTURNS ACQUITTALS IN CASE OF MURDERED JOURNALIST. The Military Collegium of the Supreme Court on 27 May overturned the acquittals of six men who were tried in connection with the 1994 killing of "Moskovskii komsomolets" military journalist Dmitrii Kholodov, Russian media reported. The court ordered the Moscow Military District Court to hear the case against the six men again. Kholodov was killed on 17 November 1994 by a booby-trapped briefcase following numerous publications exposing high-level corruption in the Defense Ministry and, in particular, leveling serious accusations against then-Defense Minister Pavel Grachev. The Prosecutor-General's Office brought murder charges against Colonel Pavel Popovskikh, formerly the head of intelligence for the Airborne Forces, and five other men, but the Moscow Military District Court acquitted them in June 2002 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 June 2002). In its ruling, the Supreme Court said the lower court had wrongly thrown out as "unreliable" statements by Popovskikh, who allegedly told investigators that Grachev had repeatedly told him "to settle accounts" with Kholodov and had threatened to disband Popovskikh's unit if those instructions were not obeyed, reported on 27 May. The report quoted a spokesman for the Moscow Military District Court as saying that the new hearing would probably be a jury trial. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 28 May)

POSTAL WORKERS SHRINK FROM DELIVERING BAD NEWS. Postal workers in the Republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia "do not want to be the disseminators of negative information and refuse to distribute publications that pump up distrust toward the republic's leadership," according to an open letter to the republican branch of the Antimonopoly Ministry published in the official newspaper of the republican branch of the Federal Postal Service, reported on 23 May. After the postal service in Karachaevo-Cherkessia interfered with the distribution of three independent newspapers ("Vozrozhdenie respubliki," "Dzhamaghat," and "Cherkessk"), those publications filed a complaint with the republican branch of the Antimonopoly Ministry. On 7 May that body ruled in favor of the publications and ordered that postal workers be fined 200,000-500,000 rubles ($6,250-$15,600) if they refuse to distribute the newspapers. Karachaevo-Cherkessia is scheduled to hold presidential elections next month. Official interference with newspaper distribution is a common form of post-publication censorship in many Russian regions. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 27 May)

MEDIA MINISTRY AND ELECTION COMMISSION LAY DOWN THE LAW. Central Election Commission (TsIK) Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov said on 27 May that a new version of the law on the mass media will be passed at the beginning of June, RosBalt reported. Speaking to a meeting of the Media Ministry's collegium, Veshnyakov called the law's passage "the main problem that needs to be solved" before this December's State Duma elections in order to ensure that "mass media that deliberately ignore the election rules" are brought to account. According to Veshnyakov, the draft law states that the Media Ministry can take any media outlet that has committed three violations to court and force it to cease its operations. This provision, he said, "will help stop those who start to become brazen." Also speaking to the collegium, First Deputy Media Minister Mikhail Seslavinskii said the Media Ministry and the TsIK are jointly developing "methodological recommendations" concerning press coverage of the election campaign, RIA-Novosti reported on 27 May. Seslavinskii said a single federal registry of mass media will be ready by 1 September, allowing his ministry to follow all information being published in the country. Nina Tikhomirova, who heads the Media Ministry's territorial department, said that violations of electoral law most often involve the publication and dissemination of campaign materials prior to the legal start of the campaign and the dissemination of campaign propaganda under the guise of news. Other violations, she said, involve the publication of falsified printed material using the names and logos of existing newspapers, reported on 27 May. Yet another type of violation, she said, involves officials using "administrative resources to pressure media" into publishing "compromising material" or publishing campaign propaganda on the day of the election, when such agitation is forbidden, RosBalt reported on 27 May. The Industrial Committee, an organization of media owners and managers that is dominated by representatives of the state-controlled media, has taken the lead in drafting the new mass media law. Earlier this month, Mikhail Fedotov, secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists and former State Press Committee chairman under President Yeltsin, warned that the proposed law represents a threat to press freedom. The draft, Fedotov said, includes 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" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 and 23 May 2003). ("RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 29 May)

POLICE FILE CHARGES AGAINST JOURNALISTS. The Serbian Interior Ministry filed libel charges on 28 May in Belgrade against Zeljko Cvijanovic, who is editor of the weekly "Blic News," and Jovica Krtinic, who is a journalist with the same newspaper, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The police charged that Krtinic in a recent article falsely accused police of trying to frame innocent people while investigating the murder of former police General Bosko Buha. The police added that Krtinic has published similarly defamatory articles about them in the course of the past two years. Cvijanovic said he will not reveal the sources of his information regarding the Buha case. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 29 May)

ATTACKS ON JOURNALISTS INCLUDE JAILINGS, DISMISSAL. Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the French-based media-freedom advocacy group, has expressed concern about recent attacks on journalists in Uzbekistan. In a press release issued on 28 May, RSF said three members of a press-freedom group in Tashkent, the Union of Independent Journalists of Uzbekistan (UIJU), were arrested and charged with alleged homosexuality and sex with minors. RSF said a state-owned TV station attempted to fire a journalist who had objected to censorship and dismissed the station's news editor earlier this month. In a letter to President Islam Karimov, RSF said at least two newspapers have been closed and several journalists have been arrested since the start of the year, usually on false pretexts, and now, over a matter of days, at least two journalists had been dismissed from one of the state TV channels for straying from the official line or publicly denouncing press-freedom violations. In the context of the current climate, RSF says it fears the arrest could be politically motivated. UIJU President Ruslan Sharipov, UIJU activist Azamat Mamankulov, and UIJU member Oleg Sarapulov were arrested on 26 May, and are currently being held in a Tashkent police station. Sharipov and Sarapulov have been accused of paying for sex with minors The two journalists, who face three-year prison sentences, told Vasilya Inoyatova of the Uzbek human rights organization E'zguilik when he visited them on 27 May that they did know these youths. Mamankulov has not been charged. CAF

ACTIVISTS CALL FOR REINSTATEMENT OF FIRED STATE TV EDITOR. The head of the Tashkent branch of the Human Rights Society, Elena Urlaeva, and two other activists picketed the state-television building on 20 May to demand the reinstatement of Uzbek State Television chief political editor Akhmadzhon Ibragimov, who was fired for "mistakes" made in coverage of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD)'s board of governors meeting in Tashkent earlier this month, Deutsche Welle reported on 22 May. The firing set off a spate of commentaries in the independent Uzbek media. Apparently, Ibragimov's "mistakes" consisted of allowing unflattering footage of President Karimov during the EBRD meeting to be shown on state television. The activists who called for Ibragimov's reinstatement apparently were unaware that he had been reinstated the previous day, Deutsche Welle commented. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 22 May)

'MEDIA UNDER THREAT.' "Media Under Threat" is a theme at the 54th World Newspaper Congress and 10th World Editors Forum, the global meetings of the world's press organized by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) in Dublin, Ireland, to be held from 8-11 June (see In addition to dozens of business sessions designed to help improve the economics and editorial practices of newspapers, the annual events will include major sessions on press freedom and the role of the newspaper in society. Dozens of journalists working in dangerous conditions around the have been invited to discuss their experiences and the importance of such work for the defense of free expression. At the Congress, WAN, which represents 18,000 newspapers, will also present its annual press freedom prize, the Golden Pen of Freedom, to the Belarus Association of Journalists. CAF

ONLINE MEETING WITH PAKISTANI JOURNALIST. The Digital Freedom Network (DFN) hosted an online meeting with Ahmed Rashid, the author of the best-seller "Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia," on 29 May. Understanding that democracy and civil society require the free flow of accurate, impartial information, Rashid donated a quarter of his profits from his book to create the Open Media Fund for Afghanistan (OMFA). To help increase the availability of information, OMFA provides timely support through a simple grant-making process. Thus far, OMFA, which was launched in February 2002 and is administered by Internews Network, has provided support to local and community print outlets throughout the country that need to strengthen their journalistic skills, management expertise, and technical base. Grant recipients include a children's educational magazine, a political satire magazine, a weekly newspaper, and a magazine for professionals addressing reconstruction, cultural issues, and education. In addition to needed equipment, OMFA provides technical support and travel grants to allow Afghan reporters to cover stories in other regions of the country. More information is available at CAF


By Valentinas Mite

Satellite television dishes are sprouting like mushrooms on rooftops in post-Saddam Hussein Baghdad. The trade in TV gear is flourishing, and enterprising Iraqi entrepreneurs see bright prospects for this business, which was banned during the rule of Saddam Hussein.

Abu Mehdi is one of the owners of the Hyder shop in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. The shop imports satellite dishes, receivers, and decoders from neighboring Jordan. Mehdi said Iraqis are hungry for news from outside the country. "The news, the news. Al-Jazeera, yes. MBC [an Arabic-language channel]. Lubnan. Lubnan, very good Lubnan [a Lebanese channel]," he said.

Mehdi said people are buying satellite equipment for two reasons. The first one is that satellite television was illegal in Iraq under Saddam Hussein's rule and people now want to "taste a forbidden fruit." The other reason is that Iraqi state TV is off the air and people want access to news and entertainment of any kind.

Following Hussein's ouster last month, houses in Baghdad began to sprout satellite dishes. No one wants to depend on their neighbor to see foreign broadcasts. Everyone wants their own remote controls. And while Iraqis often complain about a lack of money, many somehow find the cash for satellite television setups. A European-made satellite dish with all the necessary equipment costs about $250. Satellite gear from China costs around $150. The most popular television sets, Egyptian-made Toshibas, cost nearly $200 each.

Mehdi said he usually sells five to six pieces of satellite equipment each day and makes a profit of $20 per unit. His shop also sells all kinds of electrical equipment -- from light bulbs to air conditioners. He said the former authorities in Iraq used to confiscate satellite dishes and fine their owners $200. Such fines also attracted the attention of Hussein's omnipresent secret services.

Firas is an owner of the Al-Ajraas shop, which is just several meters from Abu Medhi's store. His shop has three employees and sells only satellite gear. Firas said he sells about 20 units in his shop each day. He said people in Baghdad mainly watch Arabic channels. They like these channels, he said, but notes they have few alternatives. While they can watch BBC television, they can't tune in to CNN or Fox News from the U.S. without buying an expensive decoder. "No. It's coded, and it doesn't work on our system," he said. "If you want to see it, you should pay money for a card. We don't have them here. Until now, we do not have cards." Firas said a decoder card, or "smart card," costs more than $100 each, and that few people want to pay the extra money.

Muhaned, a man in his 30s, came to Firas's shop to buy a satellite TV setup. He said he wants to watch the news, not just entertainment programs. "I want the news and the events which are happening in Iraq. I would like to watch Al-Jazeera, Abu Dhabi [television], CNN. However, [CNN] is coded," he said.

Abas Marhun has a slightly different business. He has been making and assembling satellite equipment in his garage in Baghdad since 1991. He is continuing to work with his teenage son and said he manages to compete with the satellite shops selling all-imported equipment. He said he built a good reputation over the past decade and that people know his work.

Marhun said he operated under difficult conditions when Hussein was in power. "Yes, I made [satellite gear] but closed the door [when I worked]. I made it inside here, in the garage, and no one see it. After midnight, I put the dish into the car -- a pickup or a lorry -- and sent it to a client," he said. He said a friend once warned him that the police were interested in his business. He said he managed to hide all of his equipment and evade arrest.

Valentinas Mite is an RFE/RL correspondent.