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Media Matters: July 7, 2003

7 July 2003, Volume 3, Number 25
ARE AUTHORITIES ANGLING TO EXPEL U.S. ORGANIZATION FROM MINSK? The Minsk offices of the Washington-based International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) has dismissed as lies recent allegations aired by Belarusian Television about the organization's activities, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported on 30 June. Belarusian Television's Channel 1 broadcast a program on 22 June in which the country's KGB alleged that IREX allocated at least $500,000 to Russian television networks for a mudslinging campaign against Belarus during the 2001 presidential election. The program, which was subsequently rebroadcast by two other state channels, also alleged that IREX earmarked $600,000 for deploying a network of transmitters in Poland, Lithuania, and possibly Ukraine to broadcast propaganda into Belarus. IREX, which is a nonprofit organization specializing in higher education, independent media, Internet development, and civil-society programs, has demanded explanations from the KGB and apologies from Belarusian Television. IREX activists did not exclude the possibility that authorities are preparing to reject an extension of IREX's registration in Belarus, which expires on 7 August. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 1 July)

FOREIGN MINISTRY BANISHES RUSSIAN JOURNALIST. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry on 28 June expelled Pavel Selin, a correspondent of Russia's NTV television, accusing him of slandering the government in a news report about the funeral of Belarusian writer Vasil Bykau, Belarusian and international news agencies reported. Selin's report on Bykau's funeral included an interview with Stanislau Shushkevich, the first head of state of independent Belarus. "I think the main reason behind [the expulsion] is the interview with Shushkevich, who said Lukashenka was the only person in Belarus not to have read Bykau's books," Reuters quoted Selin as saying. "The report included statements that were false, biased, provocative...[and] aimed at destabilizing the government and undermining the authorities," the Foreign Ministry stated, threatening that it will seek the closure of the NTV office in Minsk if the network fails to apologize. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 30 June)

FM RADIO STATIONS DIRECTED TO BROADCAST 50 PERCENT NATIVE CONTENT... Under new procedures related to their re-licensing in May and June of this year, starting 1 July Belarusian FM radio stations are required to use 50 percent Belarusian music in their programming, BelaPAN reported on 2 July. Some radio officials say it will be difficult to meet the requirement. Vitaly Drozdov, program director of Alfa Radio, said there was not "quality material in Belarus," and that even well-known artists were taping their songs under such poor conditions that "it is impossible to listen to on a stereo receiver," Drozdov was quoted by BelaPAN as saying. Nevertheless, he felt the new requirements would serve as an incentive to local music groups, especially since production costs for making tapes were less than in Russia. Pavel Baranovsky, program director of Unistar, said he had no trouble meeting the 50 percent requirement and had gradually made the transition to the new format in recent months. Roman Orlov, a music producer, said only a market economy could help the Belarusian music industry, not administrative decrees. "Everything connected to FM radio is business," BelaPAN quoted him as saying. CAF

...AND STRUGGLE TO COMPLY WITH INSTRUCTIONS. The new directive does not specify the language of the music, meaning musicians may sing in Russian or Belarusian, but does mandate that songs must be played by native Belarusian musicians. Local music industry commentators fear that without more investment in studio production and concert promotion, not only will it be hard to meet the 50 percent requirement, the directive will only serve to shrink the native Belarusian FM market as listeners will tune to other stations where they can hear more popular Western and Russian tunes. On the other hand, if radio stations will now be forced to find more Belarusian content, more investment in studios may be forthcoming and could eventually improve technical capacity, although it will take half a year to see results, commentator Dmitry Bezkorovayny of "Belorusskaya gazeta" wrote on 1 July. Some radio DJs plan on interpreting the requirements loosely, for example by playing the music of the Belarusian composer Yuri Antonov who has made a career in Russia. While there are home-grown folk and rock groups singing protest songs in the Belarusian language, another new directive from the Information Ministry may discourage including them in playlists to meet the quota. On 7 June, ministry officials held a meeting with directors of FM stations and informed them that they must submit their playlists and scripts for news shows to the ministry at the end of each working day so their content can be monitored, reported on 23 June, citing the Belarusian Association of Journalists. CAF

COURT SENTENCES FORMER FOREIGN MINISTRY OFFICIAL FOR ATTEMPTED MURDER. A court in Ceske Budejovice on 30 June sentenced former Foreign Ministry Secretary-General Karel Srba to eight years in a maximum-security prison, CTK and dpa reported. Srba was found guilty of commissioning the failed attempt in 2002 to assassinate journalist Sabina Slonkova, who published a series of articles describing the suspicious circumstances under which the Foreign Ministry leased the Cesky Dum (Czech House) in Moscow to a private firm. Srba was subsequently forced to resign from his post in March 2001. Two of Srba's accomplices were sentenced the same day to six years in prison and a fourth defendant was sentenced to four years' imprisonment. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 30 June)

HUNGER-STRIKING WIFE OF JAILED IRANIAN JOURNALIST HOSPITALIZED. Soheila Hamidnia, the wife of journalist Mohsen Sazgara, was hospitalized on 27 June, the "Hambastegi" daily newspaper reported on 28 June. An anonymous source said her condition resulted from her hunger strike and mental stress that were brought about by the jailing of her husband and her son Vahid. Hamidnia had just visited the Prosecutor's Office at Evin Prison to inquire about her family members when she was told that she must report to the prison in 48 hours, "Iran Daily" reported on 28 June. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 1 July)

JOURNALISTS TRAIN TO AVOID LIBEL SUITS. Citing an increasing number of libel suits against reporters in Kyrgyzstan, John O'Keefe, a U.S. envoy to Bishkek, opened a two-day training seminar for journalists in the capital funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) through the Academy of Education Development and Freedom House, "Vercherniy Bishkek" reported on 26 June. Local reporters studied the existing legal framework in Kyrgyzstan for journalism and discussed strategies to avoid being sued under their difficult working conditions. A similar program was scheduled to take place in Jala-Abad on 26-27 June. Both human rights activists and journalists contend that government officials deliberately misuse the press law to harass newspapers and impose crippling fines which have forced some papers, like "Moya Stolitsa," to close (see "RFE/RL Media Matters," 30 June 2003). Both Kyrgyz government officials and Western media trainers maintain that journalists could avoid some legal actions by checking their information and sources more carefully. Journalists claim government officials are inaccessible or refuse to comment on allegations until they are forced to react when investigative articles about corruption appear in print. CAF

UZBEK TV REPLACES NATIVE BROADCASTING IN SOUTH. Most villages in southern Kyrgyzstan cannot receive KTR, the national Kyrgyz broadcaster, on their television sets, the "Bishkek Times" reported on 27 June. The gap in coverage in remote areas means southerners cannot get "quality TV," the paper laments. Meanwhile, they can easily access up to five channels from Uzbekistan, where equipment and broadcasting capacity are better, says the paper. Some 200 villages in Kyrgyzstan cannot receive any television at all, including several villages just 30 kilometers from Bishkek, says the paper, expressing hope that the new owner of Kyrgyztelecom Swedtel will make an attempt to address what the paper characterized as "Kyrgyzstan's information crisis." Local observers report that travelers from Uzbekistan to southern Kyrgyzstan often seek out Kyrgyz- and Russian-language newspapers since they contain more information and independent commentary, at least by contrast with Uzbek media. As for electronic media, people tend to watch what is on their television sets. CAF

ETHNIC ALBANIAN PUBLISHERS COMPLAIN OF LACK OF ATTENTION. The Association of Albanian Publishers held a press conference in Skopje to protest what they called the "disproportional development of culture in Macedonia," Makfax reported on 1 July. The organization said that it felt there were "shortcomings and chaos" in the 2003 publishing program devised by the Culture Ministry. State institutions in Macedonia had an "inappropriate attitude" toward Albanian culture, the association said, evidently by failing to devote adequate attention and resources to support the literary needs of the ethnic Albanian community in Macedonia. CAF

OPPOSITION DEPUTIES CRITICIZE RADIO-TV TAX BEFORE CONSTITUTIONAL COURT. A group of 54 deputies from the opposition National Liberal Party and Democratic Party on 1 July asked the Constitutional Court to rule on the legality of a government ordinance that introduces a tax on the ownership of radios and televisions, Mediafax reported. The ordinance, which was recently adopted by parliament's lower house, forces every family to pay a "radio-TV tax," irrespective of whether they actually own a television or radio. The deputies argued that the ordinance is unconstitutional, and that if failed in the Chamber of Deputies to obtain the required number of votes for passage. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 2 July)

MEDIA WATCHDOG URGES PUTIN NOT TO SIGN TV BILL. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New-York based group monitoring and protesting press freedom violations worldwide, released an open letter to President Vladimir Putin on 1 July in protest against an impending law, "On Amendments and Addenda Brought into Certain Legislative Acts," passed by the lower and upper houses of Russia's parliament on 18 June and 25 June respectively. The bill, which is currently awaiting Putin's signature, is seen by local and foreign journalists as increasing state regulation over independent media outlets, particularly their coverage of election campaigns. The Central Election Committee chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov noted in the online daily that the purpose of the bill is to minimize the use of dirty campaign techniques in the December 2003 parliamentary elections and the February 2004 presidential elections. In particular, he said, the bill seeks to minimize the use of "black PR," a relatively common practice where political parties bribe journalists to write favorable articles about their candidates or negative articles about their opponents. Journalists in Russia and abroad see the media as the primary targets for punishment, rather than the corrupt politicians who offer them bribes. The problem of corrupt elections is better fixed by campaign finance reform than adjustments to media law, says CPJ. CAF

'OPPOSITION' NEWSPAPER REAPPEARS MINUS CONTROVERSIAL TYCOON. After a four-month hiatus, the daily "Novye izvestiya" reappeared on 1 July with a declared print run of more than 40,000 copies, reported, citing Editor in Chief Valerii Yakov. According to Yakov, the new "Novye izvestiya" "will not be as loyal to the authorities as the majority of [other] publications." Yakov received from former proprietor Oleg Mitvol the right to use the newspaper's old name. The chief investor in the newspaper is the Alyans group, and according to Yakov, the new paper has no relationship to self-exiled tycoon Berezovskii, who provided the financing for the old version of the paper. Former "Novye izvestiya" Editor in Chief Igor Golembiovskii now works for "Russkii kurer," according to "Kommersant-Daily" on 2 July. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 2 July)

PAROLED RADICAL WRITER SAYS HIS PARTY WILL REMAIN ACTIVE IN POLITICS. National Bolshevik Party leader and writer Eduard Limonov was released on parole from prison in Saratov Oblast on 30 June, Russian media reported. A city court earlier in June granted Limonov an early release from his four-year prison sentence because he had already served half of his sentence while in pretrial detention, and prison authorities found his behavior satisfactory, Interfax reported. Limonov was sentenced in April to four years' imprisonment on weapons charges. Limonov told reporters in Saratov that he will continue to engage in politics, but he does not plan to run in the December State Duma elections. He added that he "will continue his struggle using every legal method," and his party plans to learn from the experiences of Greenpeace and other antiglobalist organizations in conducting mass actions, according to RosBalt. He also called on his fellow Russians not to forget their compatriots in Turkmenistan. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 1 July).

PUTIN SPEAKS OUT AGAINST STATE IDEOLOGY AND CENSORSHIP. While in Kaliningrad on his way back to Moscow from a four-day state visit to Great Britain, President Putin on 27 June addressed students at Kaliningrad State University, saying that Russia does not need a single state ideology, because that would be "a sign of a totalitarian society," reported on 27 June. "Any country that is striving for efficient development should have a struggle of opinions," Putin said. In response to an assertion that the greed of the mass media is corrupting the public, Putin acknowledged that it is a serious problem but said that censorship is not the answer. Putin seemed to indicate that he believes that there is a kind of censorship in the United States controlling the dissemination of sexually explicit materials. "For example, in the United States, there is no pornography. Just try it...." Putin said, according to ("RFE/RL Newsline," 30 June.)

RADIO LIBERTY LICENSE EXTENDED. Radio Liberty's license to operate in Russia, due to expire 3 July, has been extended, Interfax and other Russian media reported on 3 July, citing an announcement from First Deputy Press Minister Mikhail Seslavinsky. Yelena Rykovtseva, editor in chief of Radio Liberty's Moscow office, hailed the decision, calling it "particularly welcome" as last month the Press Ministry had informed the U.S.-funded station that there was another candidate ready to take over the broadcast frequency used by Radio Liberty. "And although we received no warnings and believed that our license would be extended, some uncertainty remained," Rykovtseva was quoted by Interfax as saying. CAF

COMMUNICATIONS OFFICIAL FILES CHARGES AGAINST WEEKLY... Vladimir Popovic "Beba," who heads the Serbian government's Communications Department, filed charges in Belgrade on 27 June against the weekly "Vreme" and its well-known journalist Milos Vasic for some of "Vreme's" articles during the recent state of emergency, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 9 May 2003 and "RFE/RL South Slavic Report," 29 May and 5, 12, 19, and 26 June 2003). Beba wants $33,000 for "mental anguish and damage to his reputation." He previously filed similar charges against several other news organizations, including the weekly "NIN," Radio B92, and the "Novosti" publishing house. Elsewhere, Prime Minister Zivkovic said Beba's lawsuits are his own private affair and not the work of the government. Lawsuits against critical media were a frequent practice under former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and the late Croatian President Franjo Tudjman. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 30 June)

...WHILE CULTURE MINISTER DROPS CHARGES AGAINST JOURNALIST... Culture Minister Branislav Lecic withdrew his civil case against "NIN" weekly journalist Radmila Stankovic, B92 reported on 3 July. While other government officials are pressing suits against the media, Lecic said his move was aimed at "contributing to the reduction of tensions between the authorities and the media." Lecic, who is also a prominent Serbian actor, said in a statement released to the press, "Politicians and other public figures should get used to the fact that their private life is more exposed to public scrutiny." Lecic sued Stankovic in December 2001 over what he claimed were false statements regarding his artistic work and alleged abuse of his ministerial position for financial benefit. CAF

...AND VOJVODINA ASSEMBLY SPEAKER BLASTS MEDIA. Vojvodina Assembly speaker Nenad Canak lashed out on 2 July at the newspaper "Vreme," the B92 radio station and media company, and the Association of Independent Electronic Media (ANEM), B92 reported on 3 July. Canak, leader of the League of Vojvodina Social Democrats, accused the "former independent media that lives on international aid" of engaging in a witch-hunt against him and his party. Canak won a suit in court earlier this year against journalist Alsi Djruicin for his statements about the city authorities. Canak complained that Veran Matic, head of B92, was "creating a climate in which B92 and ANEM have the right to judge who's correct and who's not -- above the courts, the judges, the truth, and everything else -- merely because they have the image of those who speak the truth." ANEM and B92 have issued a statement detailing Canak's telephone threats against Djuricin, which they claim have been verified in the court proceedings. CAF

AUTHORITIES ACCUSES DEUTSCHE WELLE OF DISSEMINATING FALSE INFORMATION. The Turkmen authorities have accused Deutsche Welle of disseminating false information because of a report on the confiscations by Turkmen security officers of apartments inhabited by holders of dual Russian-Turkmen citizenship, reported on 1 July. The Deutsche Welle report sparked investigations by Russian media that confirmed and added detail to the story. According to, the Turkmen Foreign Ministry has sent a note to its German counterpart, expressing "serious concern" over Deutsche Welle broadcasts concerning the termination of dual citizenship and particularly the apartment-confiscation story. The Foreign Ministry's note calls the story "a flagrant falsification intended to deliberately distort reality and create an atmosphere of distrust in Turkmen society." After accusing Deutsche Welle of taking an active part in a purported propaganda campaign against "independent, neutral Turkmenistan," the note asks the German Foreign Ministry to take measures to prevent the German media from reporting "slanderous material" against Turkmenistan. Similar demands have been made of the Russian authorities. Arkadii Dubnov, a well-known specialist on Turkmenistan, reported having learned that the confiscation of homes of dual citizens began after Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov issued his 22 April decree on the revocation of dual citizenship. Dual citizens who applied for exit visas in their Turkmen passports were targeted. Other journalists reported receiving lists of persons driven from their Ashgabat homes, and letters asserting that this had happened to the letter writers themselves or to their relatives. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 30 June and 2 July)

AUTHORITIES BAN ROMANIAN JOURNALIST. Victor Roncea, the head of the foreign policy department at the Romanian daily "ZIUA," has been banned from traveling to Ukraine for a period of five years, the International Press Institute said in an open letter of protest to Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma released on 27 June. Roncea was to have visited the Black Sea countries as part of his involvement in the U.S. Mission to NATO. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has announced that Roncea is declared a "persona non grata." While Roncea has had little involvement with the Ukrainian authorities, it is believed that their actions stem from an incident in 2000 when the reporter was traveling on a train from Bucharest to Moscow to cover the Russian presidential elections. When he arrived at the Ukrainian border, Roncea, along with a Russian translator, was held for 17 hours and subsequently sent back to Romania. It is also believed that the Ukrainian government may have been angered by "ZIUA's" coverage of the murder of independent journalist, Heorhiy Gongadze. CAF


By Kathleen Knox

Britain's vast public service broadcaster, the BBC, is clashing with a top aide to Prime Minister Tony Blair over the continuing Iraqi intelligence row. The aide, Alastair Campbell, has demanded the BBC apologize for claims that the prime minister's office exaggerated the Iraqi weapons threat. The BBC says it won't, and that it stands by its story. The broadcaster, which is largely funded through public money, has run afoul of governments before. But it says Campbell's demands amount to "unprecedented" government pressure.

The row centers on a dossier the British government drew up last year on the Iraqi weapons threat. A BBC report last month claimed the dossier had been "sexed up" at the request of Blair's office -- that is, certain parts had been emphasized to exaggerate the threat from Iraq. Not true, says Campbell, Blair's director of communications. He appeared this week in front of members of parliament (MPs) who are investigating the decision to go to war. "I simply say in relation to the BBC story -- it is a lie, it was a lie, it is a lie that is being continually repeated. And until we get an apology for it, I will keep making sure that parliament, people like yourselves, know that it was a lie," Campbell said.

And that's not all. Campbell said the BBC had a hidden "agenda" in its coverage of the Iraq story. "I think in the run-up [to the Iraq war], there was a disproportionate focus upon the dissent, the opposition to our position. I think that in the conflict itself, the prism that many were creating within the BBC was, 'It's all going wrong.' And now what's happening, the conflict not having led to the Middle East going up in flames, not having led to us getting bogged down for months and months and months, these same people now have to find a different rationale [for their dissent]. Their rationale is that the prime minister led the country into war on a false basis," Campbell said.

Campbell has since sent the BBC a letter demanding an apology -- one the BBC says he is not going to get. The broadcaster is standing by the story, saying it was based on information from a "senior and credible" source. And it says Campbell's demands represent "unprecedented" government pressure.

It's not the first time the BBC has run afoul of the British government. Towyn Mason, former deputy secretary to the BBC's Board of Governors, says "I can't think of a similar occasion where the BBC has directly been asked to admit it was mistaken on a particular point and apologize to the government. That's pretty 'in-your-face.' But as a case of the government being annoyed with the BBC for reporting something on a sensitive subject, this is something of a pattern," Mason said.

Winston Churchill, then chancellor, wanted the British government to take control of the BBC because of what he believed was its unfair coverage of the 1926 General Strike, which had paralyzed the country. In the 1950s, the government wanted the BBC to tone down its reporting of the Suez crisis. And the 1980s saw several confrontations.

Bob Atkins, a former BBC employee who now teaches at the Cardiff School of Journalism in Wales, says, "There [were] arguments between the then conservative government of Mrs. [Margaret] Thatcher and the BBC over its coverage of the Falklands war," Atkins said. "She felt the BBC was too neutral in this, not backing our boys in the way she thought it should do. There were rows in the BBC's coverage of Northern Ireland, the IRA, and a famous incident when the United States bombed Libya from bases in Britain [in 1986], and Mrs. Thatcher was extremely irritated by the BBC's coverage of that."

The 1980s also saw a rare example of the BBC governors yielding to government pressure. Home Secretary Leon Brittan was worried that a documentary on the Northern Ireland conflict would boost the morale of extremists. The BBC's Board of Governors postponed the broadcast -- and angry broadcast journalists went on strike.

But mostly, the BBC has been successful at fending off political pressure. It's respected around the world for its independent, objective reporting. Yet the BBC -- formed in 1922 -- operates under a royal charter, is regulated by politically appointed governors, and is largely funded by public money through a license fee on television sets -- about 15 euros (about $17) per month per household. How does it manage it?

Part of it is the setup. The board's job is actually to safeguard the BBC's editorial independence. Mason says there's also a tradition of independence and impartiality built up over the years. The BBC is held to account if it falls from its own high standards. "It works because it works and people expect it to," he says. "Whatever happens, there is somebody who will say, 'Hold on. Stop trying to pressure the BBC.' Then you've got the wider community, the press, and everyone else, and were there a case when a government attempted to persuade the BBC to soften something or report it in a certain way, it would very quickly become apparent and there would be a row about it. As long as you have that healthy democratic hinterland in Britain, then I think you can maintain that situation of an independent broadcaster." He adds, though, that situations can change and that editorial independence can be eroded.

Bob Franklin, a journalism professor at Sheffield University in England, says the row comes at a sensitive time for the BBC, in the run-up to the renewal of its royal charter in 2006. The charter sets out its objectives and obligations and is renewed every 10 years or so. Some critics say that around this time, the BBC is less likely to broadcast stories that would upset the government. "This is a long and protracted process in which the BBC is obliged to be rather sweet towards the government," says Franklin. "It can't afford to offend the government of the day. So the timing here is very crucial and such a strong statement by such a senior person in government at such a critical time [is] undoubtedly going to ricochet around the corridors of the BBC, and I would have thought, cause considerable consternation."

Kathleen Knox is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague.