30 June 2003, Volume
SENIOR POLICE OFFICIAL DEFENDS CRIMINALIZING LIBEL.
Manvel Grigorian, who is one of the co-authors of Armenia's new Criminal Code, on 23 June rejected criticism by the OSCE office and several Western ambassadors in Yerevan of the inclusion in the new code of an article under which libel carries a prison sentence of up to three years, according to Armenpress on 24 June, as cited by Groong. Grigorian argued that libel is a criminal offense in all other CIS member states, and that Germany sets even tougher penalties for slander and libel. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 25 June)
NEW LANGUAGE REQUIREMENTS FOR TV, RADIO BROADCASTING
Azerbaijan's National Council for Television and Radio adopted on 25 June regulations on the use of the state language (Azerbaijani) in television and radio broadcasts, Turan reported. The council ruled that a minimum of 75 percent of all programs, announcements, and advertisements on both state-controlled and privately owned television and radio stations must be in Azerbaijani. It also stipulated that announcers and moderators must speak fluent and well-articulated Azerbaijani. The council further ruled that all television and radio stations must cover news developments of "national and special state importance." ("RFE/RL Newsline," 26 June)NGO CRITICIZES DELAY IN ADOPTING LAW ON PUBLIC BROADCASTING IN AZERBAIJAN.
The Baku office of the nongovernmental organization Internews issued a statement on 24 June deploring the postponement until the fall parliamentary session of the third reading of a draft bill on public broadcasting, Turan reported. The bill was passed in its second reading in October 2002. The statement noted that state television remains under the control of the presidential administration. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 25 June)
KARZAI ORDERS RELEASE OF DETAINED EDITORS...
Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman (ATA) Hamid Karzai ordered the release of Editor Sayyed Mir Husayn Mahdawi and Deputy Editor Ali Reza Payam of "Aftab" weekly on 25 June, Radio Afghanistan reported. The men were arrested on charges of blasphemy on 17 June "We support freedom of the press, and we defend it," Karzai told a press conference, adding that the ATA has tolerated "insulting statements" and even personal attacks by the press in the last year. He said, however, that "when it is the Afghan people's religion in question, when the basic and general interests of the Afghan people are in question, and when the protection of the constitution and press law are in question, we have to assume responsibility and take measures." Karzai said he ordered the release of the two detainees after receiving a letter from Information and Culture Minister Sayyed Makhdum Rahin confirming that Mahdawi and Payam are Muslims and did not intend to defame that religion or act against the laws of Afghanistan. Last week, Rahin said the men should no longer be considered detainees but were being held under police protection against possible attacks stemming from their work, "Erada" reported on 24 June (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 June). ("RFE/RL Newsline," 27 June)...AS WATCHDOG WELCOMES RELEASES BUT WANTS CHARGES DROPPED.
In a statement issued on 25 June, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) welcomed the release of the "Aftab" editors but expressed its deep concern that the ATA has threatened to "prosecute the journalists for blasphemy in connection with articles published that were critical of Islam." According to the CPJ, Karzai has said that he ordered an investigation into the article and that the detention was necessary for that purpose. CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said that "until the charges against [Mahdawi and Payam] are dropped and new laws protecting the rights of journalists to do their jobs without fear of reprisal are established, Afghanistan will continue to be a hazardous place for the media." At his 25 June press conference, Karzai said: "We do not value opinions given by some international sources. What we value is the national interests of Afghanistan, the protection of religion, and the national dignity of the Afghan people," Radio Afghanistan reported. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 27 June)SUPREME COURT SAYS EDITORS WILL BE TRIED UNDER SHARI'A LAW...
In a 24 June interview before the announcement that the "Aftab" editors would be released, Chief Justice Fazl Hadi Shinwari said the Afghan Supreme Court "cannot accept anyone's demands" and that the two will be tried under Shari'a law (Islamic jurisprudence), Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press reported. Shinwari said the Afghan judiciary is "free and independent" and will act accordingly. He added that the Dar al-Ifta' -- the religious body that issues edicts -- will issue a fatwa concerning the "Aftab" case and present it to the lower court in Kabul Province. He added that no anti-Islamic publication will be tolerated in Afghanistan. At his press conference the next day, Karzai vowed that the editors' trials will be fair, as he and the chief justice have a "personal interest" in seeing a just process. Karzai added that, in the event of any impropriety, he will "personally intervene and free them," Radio Afghanistan reported on 25 June. Shinwari said Karzai released the two editors after they repented, not because of international pressure, Reuters reported on 25 June. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 27 June)...AND MINISTER CALLS FOR TOLERANCE.
Information and Culture Minister Sayyed Makhdum Rahin said his ministry shares concerns voiced by the UN and other international bodies regarding the detention of the two editors, adding that because Afghan journalists are inexperienced, they should be treated with tolerance and forgiveness, "The Kabul Times" reported on 25 June. Rahin said he regrets the issue was not channeled through his ministry. Rahin added that debating the allegations of backwardness in Islamic societies is nothing new, but he suggested that "Aftab" should have been more sensitive in choosing its language. Following an appeal by the UN for the release of the editors, Rahin said his ministry urged the attorney-general to release them, "The Kabul Times" reported. "We are loyal to freedom of expression," Rahin said. In an interview with the Kabul daily "Anis" of 22 June, Deputy Minister of Information and Culture Abdul Hamid Mobarez said that while the ministry issued a report indicating that "Aftab" had violated the press law and that Mahdawi should appear before the Press Investigation Commission (PIC), it never asked for arrests of the editors, who Mobarez said were arrested without the permission of his ministry or the presence of a ministry representative. Mobarez said his ministry urged the rapid release of the journalists so that that the PIC can "talk to them in a free and democratic atmosphere," "Anis" reported. The arrests highlight the problems confronting a conservative country with a literacy rate of just 20 percent that has suddenly been opened to democracy ("RFE/RL Newsline," 24 and 27 June)
RENOWNED WRITER BYKAU DIES.
Vasil Bykau, who is widely regarded as Belarus's most distinguished contemporary writer, died in Minsk on 22 June at the age of 79, RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported. Bykau spent the last years of his life in Finland, Germany, and the Czech Republic, shunning life in Belarus under the authoritarian regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Following surgery in Prague this past April, the writer returned to Minsk. Bykau established his name in literature in the 1960s with a number of dramatically plotted and psychologically insightful stories and novels about Soviet soldiers during World War II. He expanded his creative scope in the following decades with novels about Belarus under Nazi occupation and during the Stalin era. He was revered by opposition-minded Belarusian intellectual circles as a man embodying "the conscience of the nation." ("RFE/RL Newsline," 23 June)MINSK SLAMS RUSSIAN MEDIA OVER REPORTS ON EMINENT WRITER'S DEATH.
The Belarusian Embassy in Moscow released a statement on 24 June saying that some Russian media outlets carried "unprecedentedly provocative" reports on the recent death of acclaimed Belarusian writer Vasil Bykau, Belapan reported. Those reports included characterizations of Bykau as a "dissident" and an "exile," the embassy said. "Bykau was free to choose whether to live and work at home or abroad," the statement said. "He was always honored in his native Belarus." The statement makes no mention of the fact that a presidential aide, Eduard Skobeleu, urged state-run literary magazines last year to stop publishing Bykau and other "politically retarded" writers who do not support President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's polices. Lukashenka also expressed irritation at Russian media reports about Bykau's death. "The Russian media's playing the fool over Vasil Bykau's death will bring about negative consequences in relations between Belarus and Russia," RFE/RL's Belarusian Service quoted Lukashenka as saying. The Belarusian leader did not elaborate. Bykau spent the last five years of his life abroad -- in Finland, Germany, and the Czech Republic, but returned to Minsk in June, a few weeks before his death. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 25 June)AUTHORITIES SUSPEND FOURTH INDEPENDENT PERIODICAL.
The Information Ministry has issued a second warning to "Predprinimatelskaya gazeta" and suspended its publication for three months, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported on 23 June. The warning was issued for an article titled "Legalized Lawlessness" on the dismissal of Uladzimir Tselesh, director of the state-owned Chyrvonaya Zorka printing house. Chyrvonaya Zorka printed special issues of two independent weeklies that had lent their mastheads to another suspended newspaper, "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta". The number of the recently suspended publications in Belarus has thus risen to four, including "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta," "BDG. Dla sluzebnogo polzovaniya," and "Ekho." ("RFE/RL Newsline," 24 June)
SERBIAN JOURNALISTS PROTEST ARREST.
The Association of Journalists of the Republika Srpska (UNRS) lodged a protest with the Interior Ministry in Banja Luka on 25 June over the arrest of Tijana Veselinovic of the daily "Euro Blic" in conjunction with an article she wrote about a recent murder, Deutsche Welle's "Monitor" reported. The UNRS argued that police broke the law by forcing their way into the newspaper's offices and taking Veselinovic away for questioning without a warrant. The police said in a statement that neither they nor SFOR have any knowledge that the murder she described ever took place. Veselinovic wrote that a 25-year-old man from Gospic, Croatia, whom she identified only by the initials P.B., was killed by unknown individuals in Banja Luka on 24 June. The alleged victim was supposedly linked to former Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic, unnamed Serbian politicians, and the Serbian and Russian secret services. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 27 June)
LEGAL ROW CONTINUES OVER PRIVATIZATION OF TELECOM
The Supreme Administrative Court ruled on 20 June that the state Privatization Agency violated existing laws when it decided not to sell the Bulgarian Telecommunications Company (BTK) to the Austrian consortium Viva Ventures, novinite.bg reported. The Privatization Agency had cited "legal inconsistencies" in the documentation submitted by Viva Ventures in revoking its exclusivity following the tender for BTK. The agency then began negotiations with the Turkish consortium Koc Holding/Turk Telecom, which initially finished second in the tender (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 May 2003, and End Notes, "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 and 19 June 2003). According to media reports, the Privatization Agency is set to challenge the decision before the court's second (and last) instance. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 24 June)
RUSSIAN JOURNALIST ASSAULTED.
Tengiz Pachkoria, who is ITAR-TASS's Tbilisi correspondent, was attacked and severely beaten at the entrance to his Tbilisi apartment late on 23 June, Caucasus Press reported on 24 June. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 24 June)
TELEVISION BACK ON THE AIR.
A revamped Republic of Iraq Television channel, renamed Iraqi Media Network TV by coalition forces, was back on the air on 20 June after roughly three months off the air as a result of coalition bombing, the BBC reported the same day. Carrying a caption reading, "Iraqi Media Network welcomes you in its test transmission," the channel carried entertainment programs such as songs from the Egyptian Dream TV network as it tried, unsuccessfully, to cover the Dream TV logo, BBC reported. It also carried a news bulletin read by two announcers. The headlines included the shooting of two demonstrators in Baghdad on 19 June, a report on the lack of security in Baghdad, a report on Iraqis demonstrating for jobs and the formation of a national government, and a report on the port activities underway at Umm Qasr. The Iraqi Media Network radio has been operating since April using a number of frequencies used by the former regime's Republic of Iraq Main Service, the BBC noted. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 24 June)
RADIO SUSPENDS CONTROVERSIAL PHONE-IN PROGRAM.
The management of the Chisinau-based Antena C municipal radio station decided on 20 June to suspend until 15 September the controversial phone-in program "Hyde Park," Flux reported. The authorities have criticized the program on several occasions, saying extremist and anti-Semitic opinions have been aired during the broadcasts. Antena C General Director Ion Budunchi said that "Hyde Park" started off as a "program of civilized dialogue" among citizens, but deteriorated into one in which "a small circle of listeners allowed themselves to use obscene expressions during the [live] broadcasts." Budunchi said a new phone-in program with a different name and a different format will replace "Hyde Park." The broadcast's moderator, Oleg Brega, protested what he called an infringement of the right to freedom of expression. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 24 June)
MEDIA ORGANIZATION CONDEMNS INTERROGATIONS OF PUBLISHERS.
In an open letter released to the press on 23 June, the International Press Institute (IPI), an international network of editors, media executives, and journalists in over 115 countries, condemned the recent police interrogation of two members of the management board of Presspublica, the publisher of the Polish daily "Rzeczpospolita." According to IPI sources, on 16 June, Grzegorz Gauden, president of the management board, and Elzbieta Poniklo, vice president of the management board, were interrogated at the Warsaw-Ochota district police station, in connection with allegations by the authorities that directors of Presspublica had "acted to [the company's] detriment" in 2000 when they made a severance payment to the then editor in chief of "Rzeczpospolita." To IPI's knowledge, the case concerning the severance payment had been discontinued by prosecutors in December 2002 after the investigation found that there were no "signs of actions forbidden by law." The decision to reopen the case is yet another example of "political and judicial harassment" against the officials of Presspublica and is unacceptable in a country that will soon be a full member of the European Union, IPI commented, calling for an end to what it characterized as politically motivated harassment. CAF
REGIONAL RADIO STATION WINS INTERNATIONAL AWARD FOR FEATURE REPORTING.
For the first time since the awards' inception in 1971, the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) is issuing one of its 2003 Edward R. Murrow Awards for excellency in journalism to a "former Iron Curtain country," RTNDA announced in a press release on 16 June. Regional Radio Timisoara, a local station in a predominantly ethnic Hungarian part of Romania, shares the prestigious prize under the category "Feature Reporting" with such media giants as CBS News and National Public Radio in the United States. The radio's prizewinning feature, "The Courage to Face Fear," under the subcategory of "small market radio," tells the story of an 82-year-old man born in Detroit who returned with his parents to Romania in 1932, fought in World War II, and then was jailed and sent to a Russian labor camp in 1951 when his name showed up on a list of possible American translators to work with a church-related delegation. He renounced his U.S. citizenship and stopping speaking English completely to avoid persecution of his family until he gave the interview, which was aired entirely in English. A journalist from Regional Radio Timisoara commented at the end of the feature, "I left [him] with the secret hope that one day all of us in Romania could face our history the same way." A total of 49 news organizations selected for 70 awards will be honored at a dinner ceremony in New York on 13 October. RTNDA is the largest professional organization devoted exclusively to electronic journalism representing local and network news professionals in broadcasting, cable, and other electronic media in more than 30 countries. The complete list of winners can be accessed at http://www.rtnda.org/asfi/awards/murrowshow2003.asp. CAF
TVS BACKERS SAY MEDIA MINISTRY ON SHAKY LEGAL GROUND...
Media-Sotsium General Director Oleg Kiselev declared on 23 June that the Media Ministry violated the law when it turned off TVS broadcasts on 22 June and that Media-Sotsium will seek financial compensation, Russian media reported the same day. It was widely reported that the noncommercial partnership Media-Sotsium won a March 2002 tender to broadcast on channel six. However, Konstantin Remchukov, head of the advisory council for Oleg Deripaska's Base Element holding company, told NTV on 22 June that Media-Sotsium did not in fact receive a license as a result of that tender. It instead got only a "temporary broadcasting permit." However, Remchukov, who is also a Union of Rightist Forces deputy in the State Duma, added that the organizers of the tender did not make this clear, and if they had, many experienced businesspeople "would have been forced to think twice before participating in the tender." ("RFE/RL Newsline," 24 June)...AS TEMPORARY BROADCAST PERMIT IS QUESTIONED...
Aleksei Samokhvalov, head of the National Research Center for Television and Radio, told "The Moscow Times" on 23 June that the past arrangement under which TVS was broadcasting under a temporary license conformed to no Russian law. He added that allowing Sport television to broadcast on the TVS's frequency violated the law since no tender was held. According to regions.ru, a tender for the TVS frequency will most likely be held in August. In the meantime, those regional television stations that had been carrying TVS programming were informed by the Media Ministry that they can retransmit Sport broadcasts, according to the website. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 24 June)...AND ERA OF PRIVATE TV DECLARED ENDED.
"Nezavisimaya gazeta," which is controlled by self-exiled tycoon Berezovskii, argued on 23 June that with the closure of TVS, "the brief but colorful era of non-state-controlled public television is over." Moscow Independent Broadcasting Company (MNVK) Director Igor Shabdurasulov told the daily that a 75 percent stake in MNVK will soon be sold and the state will most likely acquire it. MNVK owned -- and might still own -- the original license to broadcast on channel six. Writing in "Vremya novostei" the next day, National Association for Television Broadcasters President Eduard Sagalaev declared that he is an "optimist and believes that the story of independent television in our country has not yet ended." He said that it is time to renew the composition of MNVK's ownership and to "revive broadcasting on this channel with a new concept and a new collective, and -- this is the main thing -- with an understanding of the real existence of private television in modern Russian conditions." ("RFE/RL Newsline," 24 June)RETRIAL DATE SET IN CASE OF SLAIN INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST.
A new trial in the case of the November 1994 slaying of "Moskovskii komsomolets" investigative reporter Dmitrii Kholodov is scheduled to start on 21 July, Interfax reported on 26 June. In June 2002, the Moscow District Military Court acquitted Colonel Pavel Popovskikh, a unit commander in the Russian Airborne Troops, and five of his comrades. The Supreme Court's Military Collegium, however, at the request of the Prosecutor-General's Office, overturned that acquittal in May and sent the case back to the Moscow District Military Court for retrial. The prosecution alleged that then-Defense Minister Pavel Grachev -- who was a major target of Kholodov's corruption investigations -- had encouraged the defendants to kill the reporter. Kholodov picked up a briefcase at a Moscow train station on a tip, apparently believing that it contained evidence of Defense Ministry graft. He was killed when the briefcase exploded in his office. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 26 June).MEDIA UNDER PRESSURE IN PUTIN'S HOMETOWN
Petersburg Television General Director Irina Terkina resigned on 20 June, and the hosts of two political programs, Daniil Kotsubinskii and Petr Godlevskii, have been dismissed, "The St. Petersburg Times" reported on 24 June. The municipally controlled channel was considered close to former St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev. Kotsubinskii alleged that his dismissal was "accomplished to make life easier for one candidate [in upcoming gubernatorial elections -- presidential envoy to the Northwestern Federal District Valentina] Matvienko." Godlevskii said that he was told that he "stirs up political tensions in the city." Local political analyst Leonid Kesselman told the newspaper that it was clear that Kotsubinskii and Godlevskii got into trouble for their criticism of the federal government. According to regions.ru on 24 June, the channel's broadcasting license is valid until 20 July. It has received two official warnings from the Media Ministry; the receipt of a third warning would mean that its license is automatically revoked. Terkina's resignation came just one day after she met behind closed doors with Media Minister Mikhail Lesin. However, she refused to discuss that meeting, saying only "it is my own decision to resign," the newspaper reported. In an interview with "Kommersant-Daily" on 23 June, the channel's new general director, Igor Ignatev, said that Lesin had suggested that he, Ignatev, head the channel. Ignatev added that his number one goal is "to save the channel for the city." ("RFE/RL Newsline," 27 June)
YET AGAIN, MEDIA FREEDOM IN RUSSIA APPEARS UNDER THREAT
By Jeremy Bransten
Russia's Media Ministry has shut down the country's last remaining independent national television channel while legislators have approved a bill that would let the authorities temporarily close news organizations found to be "biased" in their coverage of election campaigns. Is Russian press freedom once again under threat?
Viewers of Russia's independent TVS channel got an unwelcome late-night surprise on the weekend of 21-22 June. Citing ongoing financial and management problems, the Media Ministry shut the network down. Almost seamlessly, a new 24-hour sports channel took up the frequency. With the push of a button, TVS's political-satire shows poking fun at government policies, its investigations into official corruption, its commentaries by leading television journalist Yevgenii Kiselev all became history. In their place, was a soccer match.
Although few deny that TVS faced genuine financial problems, many journalists and activists are expressing alarm at the manner in which the shutdown was carried out and even greater concern at the fact that with TVS's demise, Russia has lost its last independent, national television news broadcaster.
"Personally, I was very alarmed and very depressed by the manner in which the television network was closed," said Olga Karabanova, director of the Moscow-based Press Development Institute. "Those of us in the business knew about TVS's financial, organizational, and structural difficulties for a long time. But to see a station once again shut down at night, in this way, with the frequency transferred to a new sports network, without any legal due process -- that is really upsetting."
One of the reasons for Karabanova's alarm is that TVS's closure followed an all-too-familiar pattern. Most of the editorial team at TVS -- led by Kiselev -- originally broadcast on NTV television. They left the station when the state-controlled Gazprom concern seized the private network in a hostile takeover in 2001. Kiselev's team then found a home at Moscow's TV6, until that too was shut down in January 2002. That is when TVS offered them jobs, which they had until the latest weekend shutdown.
Ostensibly, all three takeovers and closures resulted from business disagreements. But many commentators note that in all three cases, the independent broadcasters in question were known for their hard-hitting investigations and satirical programs that caused the Kremlin more than a few headaches.
With legislative elections looming in December and a presidential poll in March 2004, many in Russia say the closure of TVS comes at a convenient time for the government. With this in mind, they point to the State Duma's recent approval of a series of amendments to the country's mass-media law that would give the authorities the right to shut down any media outlet found to be covering election campaigns in a biased manner, for the duration of the campaign.
Proponents of the amendments -- which must still be signed by President Vladimir Putin before becoming law -- say the provisions are needed to put an end to the blatant yellow-journalism publications that crop up during election campaigns in Russia. Rival candidates use such publications, or sometimes directly bribe reporters at regular newspapers, to smear their opponents or to present false information -- all under the guise of independent journalism.
Aleksei Pankin, editor in chief of "Sreda," a magazine for Russian media professionals, shares this view. "Elections here are a feeding trough that allow people to make money in the basest way possible," Pankin said. "So, people who genuinely make their money from the free market, who service the consumer market, are happy [about this law] because they believe some sources of dishonest financing will be blocked. Their market position, by contrast, will be strengthened. I think the bill is not strong enough. I personally would ban election coverage for half a year because, I repeat, the way most of the Russian press covers elections is a desecration of the democratic process."
But Karabanova, at the Press Development Institute, says the Duma bill is yet more evidence of the authorities' attempt to muzzle the media ahead of elections. She notes that the bill's vague language, which would leave it up to electoral commissions to decide whether a newspaper has violated ethical standards in reporting, will facilitate the closure of newspapers whose coverage is deemed unfavorable by the government. For most newspapers, she adds, a forced shutdown for a period of several weeks spells certain bankruptcy.
"We know very well that newspapers don't solely depend, 100 percent, on electoral campaigns," Karabanova says. "And the absence of a paper for a week or two or three -- or, in the case of repeat elections, it could be two to three months -- an absence for such a period will lead to bankruptcy."
Pankin acknowledges the potential for abuse, but ultimately, he says, Russia's media have only themselves to blame. "There is of course a risk, naturally. But again, it is the media's own fault because they have put themselves in a position where they are treated like prostitutes that can be bought and treated in any manner. So, of course, there is always a risk and there is a risk that this law will hurt some worthy media. But this is the almost inescapable result of what the Russian media has become as a whole or in its majority," he said.
If you are going to hold the media to higher standards, Karabanova asks, what about the candidates and those behind them that start the whole cycle of payment-for-articles? "It is a fact that electoral campaigns in Russia aren't always the most transparent, let's say. The media wait for this period as a time to make a lot of money; money that won't be taxed, that will be hidden. But, unfortunately, the whole electoral process in Russia lacks transparency and you cannot say that the financing of all candidates or parties is always transparent. So, yes, money gets exchanged under the table. But we are only fighting one participant in this process," Karabanova said.
Ultimately, Karabanova takes some consolation from the fact that many of TVS's talented reporters will likely find their way to other stations, perhaps doing their part to raise the general level of television journalism in Russia. But the disappearance of the last national network not controlled either by the state or a state-owned company, she says, and the lack of any outcry from the public about the Duma's attempt to control the way journalists do their jobs at election time send a worrying signal for the future.
Jeremy Bransten is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague.