Accessibility links

Breaking News

Media Matters: September 5, 2003

5 September 2003, Volume 3, Number 34
COE URGED TO RECONSIDER 'RIGHT OF REPLY' IN NEW MEDIA. A draft Council of Europe (COE) recommendation proposes that all online publications that are "frequently updated" and contain "edited information of public interest" should grant an enforceable right of reply to individuals whose rights have been affected by inaccurate factual statements. The only exception is for websites "operated by individuals." On 22 August, the media watchdog ARTICLE 19 expressed its concern over the "right of reply" provision, since it does not take into consideration the variety of content found on the Internet. The draft COE provision would be analogous to granting a right of reply in regard to every published book and even to pamphlets. Under the proposal, websites such as those run by human rights organizations or political parties -- which are often updated, edited, and contain information of public interest -- would be seen as media outlets and be obliged to grant a right of reply to those who claim that their rights have been infringed by incorrect statements. This formulation of "right of reply" would constitute an unacceptable restriction on editorial freedom and would be open to abuse, according to ARTICLE 19. The draft recommendation also proposes that a refusal to comply could be contested in court, leading to possible closure of websites. ARTICLE 19 said that it does not believe that an enforceable right of reply can be justified as "necessary" under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. There is no "pressing social need" that would legitimize it, just as it has never been considered necessary or appropriate to impose such a right in relation to books or pamphlets. ARTICLE 19 has urged the Council of Europe to reconsider this proposal, and that any right of reply for Internet publications be made voluntary and limited to media outlets, in line with the right of reply for the print sector. The full ARTICLE 19 statement is at . The Council of Europe proposal can be found at CC

MURDER SUSPECT REAFFIRMS WITHDRAWAL OF TESTIMONY. John Harutiunian, a Karabakh Armenian on trial for the December 2002 killing of Armenian National Television and Radio head Tigran Naghdalian, again distanced himself on 2 September from his pretrial testimony, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Harutiunian said he signed the testimony, which he claims was written by prosecutors, under fear of torture. According to that testimony, Harutiunian said he believed that businessman Armen Sargsian, brother of Aram Sargsian, the former prime minister and opposition Hanrapetutiun party leader, contracted Naghdalian's murder. Harutiunian said the sole reliable record of his pretrial testimony is a video recording of his interrogation. On that recording, which was played to the court on 2 September, Harutiunian is shown answering questions about the Sargsian brothers' role in the murder, but does not incriminate either of them. A second suspect, Felix Arustamian, told the court on 2 September that neither he nor Harutiunian played any role in the shooting, but they were pressured to admit to having done so. Arustamian said Harutiunian pleaded guilty after receiving promises that he and Arustamian would be paid $250,000 and receive only an eight-year prison sentence. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 3 September 2003)

OFFICIAL DEFENDS JAIL TERMS FOR LIBEL. Speaking at a 27 August media forum in Yerevan, Mikael Grigorian, a top aide to the chief of the Armenian Police Service, expressed strong opposition to the idea, which is advocated by local media watchdogs and international organizations, of decriminalizing libel offenses in Armenia. An article of the new Criminal Code makes defamation of character a crime punishable by up to three years in prison. That clause has been criticized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as a "serious threat to freedom of expression." In a letter to parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian last June, the OSCE called for its abolition, saying that libel should be regulated by civil, not criminal law. Baghdasarian promised to amend the code in line with European standards, but indicated subsequently that the controversial provision should not necessarily be scrapped. Grigorian is one of the main authors of the Criminal Code, and his remarks suggest that the Armenian authorities are unlikely to agree to decriminalize libel. ("RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 29 August 2003)

OPPOSITION JOURNALIST EXPELLED FROM UNIVERSITY. On 26 August, Elnur Sadiqli, a regional correspondent for the opposition daily "Azadliq," was expelled from Ganja State University, the Journalists' Trade Union of Azerbaijan reported on 1 September. Sadiqli is reportedly being dismissed because he was detained for seven days for committing a "petty crime." On 30 May, Sadiqli went to the Dashkesan district, near the city of Ganja, to speak with antigovernment protesters. He was stopped by police and later charged. The journalist believes he was targeted because he has been critical of the local government. CC

PRESIDENT FORMS STATE PROPAGANDA TEAMS. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has decreed the formation of "informational-propagandistic groups" that will inform people in the provinces on the state's current policies, RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported on 2 September. The groups include more than 100 government officials and representatives of state-controlled media who are obliged to hold meetings in the provinces at least once a month. In particular, the explanation of state policies to voters was imposed on State Monitoring Committee head Anatol Tozik, National Bank Chairman Pyotr Prakapovich, Prosecutor-General Viktar Sheyman, and Belarusian Trade Union Federation boss Leanid Kozik. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 3 September 2003)

JOURNALISTS TO STAGE PROTEST WALKOUT... Zhanna Litvina, head of the Belarusian Union of Journalists, told RFE/RL she sometimes feels as if she is living in a time warp. Over the past two years, half of the country's independent media outlets have been shut down. Even Russian television and radio broadcasts, heavily watched due to their more balanced news coverage and better entertainment features, are having their local air time cut. "It would have been hard for me to imagine, say eight years ago, that this propaganda machine could be resuscitated to such a degree and that the methods used in communist times could be so easily taken up again. Belarus is an example of how easily this can be done, and it is dangerous," Litvina said. In an attempt to draw attention to their plight, Litvina said Belarus's remaining independent journalists will stage a walkout later this month. "It is going to be a 'day of closed newspapers.' We are going to have it on 19 September, the International Day of Solidarity With Journalists. [We want to] stick together, to once again show that you can shut down a newspaper, you can shut down a radio station, but journalists cannot be stripped of their profession," she said. ("RFE/RL Weekday Magazine," 2 September 2003)

...OVER LATEST CRACKDOWN. Journalist Zhanna Litvina believes that Lukashenka, now midway through his second term, is laying the groundwork for eliminating a constitutional ban on seeking a third mandate. "It means that the president is very keen on controlling public opinion, to control the consciousness of the 10 million citizens of this country," she said. "There must be no dissent because at some key upcoming point, perhaps a referendum or a new presidential campaign, citizens will have to be obedient. And a person cannot make an informed choice when he or she is deprived of information." Tatsiana Protska, at the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, said the worsening economic situation is driving the government to reinforce censorship while making ordinary citizens -- especially outside Minsk -- more reluctant than ever to get involved in politics. Protska also believes political motivation is behind the government's new campaign of repression. And she believes Lukashenka could easily win a carefully worded referendum on abolishing presidential term limits. Protska said the opposition, split among 18 political parties, remains little threat to Lukashenka -- even if his approval ratings, according to the latest survey by the Independent Institute for Socioeconomic and Political Studies, have dropped. ("RFE/RL Weekday Magazine," 2 September 2003)

SUPREME COURT RULES ON TELEKOM SALE. The Supreme Administrative Court on 3 September ruled that the Supervisory Council of the state Privatization Agency has given its tacit consent to the sale of a 65 percent stake in the state-owned Bulgarian Telecommunications Company (BTK) to the Vienna-based Viva Ventures, reported. With the ruling, the Privatization Agency is obliged to finalize the deal with Viva Ventures, and not with the Turkish consortium Koc Holding/Turk Telecom, which finished second in the tender, but was later preferred by the government for political reasons. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 4 September 2003)

FORMER CZECH CULTURE MINSTER, JOURNALIST TIGRID DIES. Pavel Tigrid, who was culture minister between 1994-96, died on 31 August in France at the age of 85, CTK and international news agencies reported. Tigrid worked for the BBC Czechoslovak section after the German occupation of 1939 and left again for exile in West Germany after the 1948 communist takeover in Czechoslovakia. He was director of RFE's Czech broadcasts in Munich, then left for the United States, and finally settled in France. He wrote several books and published a journal for Czechoslovak exiles in France, supporting dissidents and the Prague Spring movement. Tigrid returned to Prague after the fall of communism in 1989, served as adviser to President Vaclav Havel, and later served as culture minister. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 2 September 2003)

INCREASING STATE PRESSURE ON THE MEDIA? Observing that it is easy for popular politicians to adopt liberal media policies, Ghia Nodia, director of the Center for Peace, Development, and Democracy, said at a RFE/RL briefing on 4 September that the increasingly unpopular President Eduard Shevardnadze may soon adopt a different stance. Although as of yet, the Georgian media is largely free to play an active role in the run-up to the country's 2 November parliamentary elections, Nodia said that in the future Shevardnadze may follow the example of media tactics preferred by Russian President Vladimir Putin. CC

EDUCATION MINISTRY, TBILISI CITY COUNCIL AT ODDS OVER SCHOOL TEXTBOOKS. The Georgian Education Ministry has deployed police to guard a book depository to prevent supporters of Tbilisi City Council Chairman Mikhail Saakashvili from taking textbooks that Saakashvili has promised to present to first year school children at a ceremony in Tbilisi on 30 August, Caucasus Press and the website of the independent television station Rustavi-2 reported on 28 August. Saakashvili reportedly said the city council cannot at present afford to pay the publishers the 600,000 laris ($284,225) cost of the textbooks but will do so at an unspecified future date. Speaking at a government session on 27 August, President Eduard Shevardnadze condemned attempts to politicize issues that involve children, Caucasus Press reported. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 29 August 2003)

INVESTIGATION INTO CANADIAN JOURNALIST'S DEATH CONTINUES... The file on the case of Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi has been returned to the Tehran Criminal Court for further investigation, IRNA reported on 1 September. Jafar Reshadati, who heads the criminal division of the Tehran Prosecutor's Office, returned the case and called for further information on 17 parts of the original file, ranging from Kazemi's initial arrest to the final report from the coroner's office. The initial investigation blamed two Ministry of Intelligence and Security interrogators for Kazemi's death. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 2 September 2003)

...AND WILL AFFECT IRAN-CANADA ECONOMIC TIES. Seyyed Mohammad Ali Musavi, Iran's ambassador to Canada, said in an interview with ILNA that appeared in the 1 September issue of the "Nasim-i Saba" daily that the case of Kazemi "will definitely have a negative impact on public opinion" in Canada, and in turn this would affect economic and political relations. Musavi noted, "Trade relations cannot change over night. The economic impact of a particular event will be felt over the medium and long term unless governments issue instructions to the contrary in writing." Musavi added that Ottawa has promised to address the death of Keyvan Tabesh, who was shot in Vancouver in mid-July by the police officer he allegedly was attacking with a machete. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 2 September 2003)

PARLIAMENT LOOKS INTO WEBSITE FILTERING. Parliamentary representative Ali-Akbar Musavi-Khoeni told reporters on 27 August that Post, Telegraph, and Telephone Minister Ahmad Motamedi must appear before the legislature to answer questions from 40 parliamentarians about the filtering of certain websites, IRNA reported. Musavi-Khoeni said that the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution had approved filtering by the ministry. He added that the filtering is enforced selectively and this is a factional problem. "Certain websites continue to insult legal and real entities but no action has been taken against them," he said. ("RFE/RL Iran Report," 1 September 2003)

PROMINENT JOURNALISM GROUP CRITICIZES DRAFT MEDIA LAW. The Adil Soz (Free Word) International Foundation for Protection of Freedom of Speech has criticized a new draft law on the media in an open letter to journalists and members of the Kazakh parliament, reported on 2 September. The Ministry of Culture, Information, and Public Harmony submitted the draft law to the government on 26 August. The Adil Soz letter asserts that the law would significantly worsen the legal position of the mass media in Kazakhstan and restrict freedom of speech under the guise of preventing the abuse of this constitutionally guaranteed right. According to the letter's authors, broadcasting would be restricted as well if the current practice of holding competitions for broadcast frequencies is transformed into competitions for the right to broadcast. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 4 September 2003)

SECURITY SERVICE SHUTS DOWN ALLEGED HIZB UT-TAHRIR PRINT SHOP. The Kazakh National Security Committee has shut down an underground print shop that was allegedly turning out literature for the illegal Muslim extremist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir in Shymkent, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on 28 August, quoting the head of the security committee office in South Kazakhstan Oblast, Vladimir Nakisbaev. Shymkent is the administrative center of South Kazakhstan Oblast. Nakisbaev said that the secret print shop was discovered on 25 August during a series of raids intended to stop the activities of banned extremist groups. The apartment housing the print shop had been rented in February 2002 by three residents of neighboring Kyzyk Orda Oblast. Security officers found equipment for desktop publishing, a copier, and bookbinding equipment, as well as 600 leaflets and 250 books and magazines that had evidently been printed in the shop. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 29 August)

COURT SUIT TO END DIGITAL TV CONTRACT? The Transportation Ministry officially confirmed on 2 September that it has filed a suit with the Stockholm Court of Arbitration on 29 August asking that last November's agreement between Latvia's Digital Radio and Television Center (DLRTC) and the British company Kempmayer Media Limited and its Latvian branch, Kempmayer Media Latvia, be declared null and void, LETA reported. On 1 September, the Corruption Prevention Bureau launched a criminal case against DLRTC officials for signing the agreement, which officials allege contains terms that are disadvantageous for Latvia, without notifying the government in advance. According to the agreement, DLRTC was to pay a 4 million lats ($6.9 million) advance and supply a bank guarantee for the project by 1 September. The penalties for noncompliance are about $5,300 a day. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 3 September 2003)

OFFICIALS ABSENT FROM 'LANGUAGE DAY' CELEBRATIONS. Neither President Vladimir Voronin nor Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev took part in the 31 August celebrations of Language Day, which is an official holiday in Moldova, Flux reported the same day. Tarlev was scheduled to open a bookstand in Chisinau but canceled without explanation, according to BASA-press. Romanian Radio reported that poet Adrian Paunescu, who represents the ruling PSD in the Romanian parliament, was present at the festivities. The Moldovan authorities denied on 1 September that they had canceled the scheduled unveiling on Poets' Alley in Chisinau of a bust representing Romanian writer Liviu Rebreanu. A Culture Ministry official told RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau that the ceremony was merely postponed, due to the government's plans to renovate the alley. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 2 September 2003)

FORMER NTV OWNER RELEASED ON BAIL. A court in Athens released former media magnate Vladimir Gusinskii on bail on 29 August as Russian prosecutors continued efforts to extradite him to Moscow to face multimillion-dollar fraud charges, Russian and international media reported. "Gusinskii was ordered released on a 100,000 euros ($108,200) bail," Reuters quoted Gusinskii's Greek lawyer, Alexandros Likourezos, as saying. "He will stay in an Athens hotel and is not allowed to leave the country." Gusinskii was arrested on an international warrant at the Athens airport on 21 August after arriving on a flight from Tel Aviv, reportedly for a family vacation. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 2 September 2003)

MEDIA-FUND OFFICIAL FOUND STRANGLED. Mikhail Paperno, vice president of the media-support fund 095, was found strangled to death in his Moscow apartment on 3 September, RIA-Novosti and reported. A police spokesman told journalists that earlier in the day Paperno had telephoned relatives asking to borrow a large sum of money. The concerned relatives reportedly called the police, who went to Paperno's apartment and found him dead. The 095 fund, which provides assistance to print media organs covering cinema, was created in 1995 on the initiative of former Moscow Mayor Gavriil Popov and former Cinematographers Union President Armen Medvedev. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 4 September 2003)

MEDIA MINISTER ACCUSES CENTRAL ELECTION COMMISSION OF RESTRICTING MEDIA... Mikhail Lesin said on 1 September that attempts by the Central Election Commission (TsIK) to place "limitations on the media concerning information about the activities of various candidates" in the upcoming parliamentary-election campaign "do not correspond either to the letter of the law or its spirit," Interfax reported. Lesin was referring to amendments to the Election Code that were drafted by the TsIK and passed by the State Duma and Federation Council in June. According to the legislation, a media outlet can be suspended for the duration of a campaign if a court rules that it has committed two violations during that campaign. Violations could include favoring one candidate over another or simply criticizing a candidate's position, "The Moscow Times" reported on 2 September. Andrei Ryabov of the Carnegie Moscow Center questioned the sincerity of Lesin's sudden concern about the press restrictions, saying that they deal "a significant blow" to "very influential groups of public-relations specialists" who surround the media minister, "Gazeta" reported on 2 September. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 2 September 2003)

...WHILE ELECTION HEAD SAYS HE'S GETTING ALONG FINE WITH THE PRESS... Several hours before Media Minister Lesin made his comments, TsIK Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov met with the heads of print media outlets and information agencies, reported on 1 September. After the meeting, Veshnyakov told journalists they had engaged in a "normal" and "constructive" conversation that he hoped will extend through the parliamentary-election campaign. Veshnyakov also said he has no "fundamental differences" with the Media Ministry, adding: "If you're talking about details, we will be discussing them." ("RFE/RL Newsline," 2 September 2003)

...AS MEDIA SEEM LESS CERTAIN. "Gazeta," however, reported on 2 September that the media heads were skeptical, and asked Veshnyakov "many questions" about how it is possible to give equal column inches to all candidates, given that some will be known nationally while others will be unknown. Veshnyakov gave no clear answer, "Gazeta" reported. On 19 June, the day after the Duma passed the media restrictions, "Vremya-MN" warned of their potentially wide scope: "Write an article about a record crop, and it might be taken for campaign advertising in favor of the Agrarian Party. Mention wage arrears, and it might be taken for campaign advertising against Unified Russia, with its promise to keep an eye on timely payments. Actually, any apple-juice commercial can now be viewed as pro-Yabloko campaign advertising," the daily commented. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 2 September 2003)

CHECHEN PRESS MINISTER DISMISSED. Acting Chechen pro-Kremlin administration head Anatolii Popov issued a decree on 3 September firing Beslan Gantamirov from his post as press minister, Russian media reported. Gantamirov had openly expressed his support for Moscow-based businessman Khusein Dzhabrailov in the 5 October presidential elections. Dzhabrailov withdrew from the race on 2 September. In an interview in December 2002, Gantamirov said that his control of the Chechen media would enable him to determine the outcome of the presidential ballot. Popov on 3 September also issued a decree abolishing both the Press Ministry and the Nationalities, Regional Policy, and External Communications Ministry, and creating a new ministry to address all those functions. Former Nationalities Minister Taus Dzhabrailov (no relation to Khusein Dzhabrailov), who is running Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov's presidential-election campaign, was named to head the new combined ministry. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 4 September 2003)

RBC TO LAUNCH BUSINESS CHANNEL. RosBusinessConsulting (RBC) announced on 28 August that it will launch Russia's first-ever business news channel on 2 September, reported the next day. Targeted at Russia's growing middle class, the channel will present original programming as well as news from CNN and CNBC and will broadcast live from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m., with rebroadcasts to fill late-night time slots. RBC is investing $20 million of its own money augmented by $6 million in loans. The channel, which will broadcast in Russia's 12 largest cities, will rely on advertising for revenue. RBC Director Yurii Rovenskii told "Kommersant-Daily" on 29 August that RBC-TV has already concluded $2.7 million in advertising contracts and should break even after two years. Others were less sure. Aleksandr Gerasimov, first deputy director of news broadcasting at NTV, told "Vedomosti" on 29 August that he gives RBC-TV a 50-50 chance of survival. Vladimir Evstafev, president of the Russian Association of Advertising Agencies, told the newspaper that RBC-TV will likely lose money because rates in Russia are too low for a pure news channel to turn a profit on advertising alone. ("RFE/RL Business Watch," 3 September 2003)

NEW ANTI-SPAM COALITION FORMED. Russian high-tech concerns, including the Russian Microsoft headquarters, service, the Rambler portal, e-mail service, Ashmanov & Partners agency, Golden Telecom, and the Kaspersky Laboratory, have set up an anti-spam coalition, RIA-Novosti reported on 3 September. Spam accounted for 65 percent of total email in August -- 25 percent more than a year ago, according to The new coalition advocates amendments to Russian legislation to make spamming more difficult. CC

CELLULAR BUSINESS BOOMS. VimpelCom and Mobile TeleSystems (MTS) both announced better-than-expected financial results for the second quarter of 2003 last week, although analysts were quick to note that the cellular operators are likely benefiting more from propitious macroeconomic conditions than their own competitive acumen. VimpelCom's second-quarter earnings rose 75.6 percent year-on-year to $304 million and net profit increased 139.9 percent to $53 million MTS's second-quarter earnings jumped 92 percent year-on-year to $606 million, while net profit for the period rose 98 percent year-on-year to $128.5 million. (According to "Finansovye izvestiya," VimpelCom now has 8.54 million subscribers -- 4.84 million in Moscow, and 3.7 million in the rest of the country; MTS has 12.76 million subscribers -- 10.47 million in Russia, 4.135 million in Moscow, and 2.29 million in Ukraine.) Aton analyst Nadezhda Golubeva told "Vedomosti" on 29 August, "The macroeconomic situation favors both operators and the population is willing to spend money on cellular communications. Moreover, summer always brings with it an increase in traffic and income from roaming fees." Brunswick UBS analyst Dmitrii Vinogradov told "Kommersant" on 29 August, "The service is in demand and the macroeconomic situation is favorable. As a result, there are companies that will be able to advance that service." They may have considerable room to hawk their services in the future. Cellular penetration in Russia stands at a comparatively low 17 percent, and while the Moscow market may be nearing saturation, analysts foresee substantial regional growth. Finland's Nokia, for example, forecasts that by 2008 Russia will boast 60 million cellular subscribers, "Finansovye izvestiya" reported. ("RFE/RL Business Watch," 3 September 2003)

CLERGY CRITICIZE 'MEDIA INCITEMENT' AGAINST CATHOLIC CHURCH. Slovak Bishops' Conference spokesman Marian Gavenda told CTK on 1 September that some journalists are creating a hostile atmosphere against the Roman Catholic Church ahead of the planned 11-14 September visit by Pope John Paul II. Gavenda said those journalists constantly mention in reports that the cost of the visit will be some 80 million crowns (about $2 million). He said the visit is priceless, as it will greatly contribute to improving Slovakia's image abroad. Gavenda said that mainly "commercial media and tabloids" disseminate information leading to the "creation of hostility towards the church. They seek to create the impression that we [believers] are parasites of society," he said. Cardinal Jan Chryzostom Korec said on Slovak Television that it is regrettable and displays a lack of culture to talk about money in connection with the pontiff's visit. Trnava Archbishop Jan Sokol told a meeting of Roman Catholic youth on 31 August that he fears that a "conspiracy" is under way against the church, according to a 1 September report in the Czech daily "Pravo." ("RFE/RL Newsline," 2 September 2003)

OPPOSITION JOURNALIST BEATEN IN MOSCOW. Shanazar Berdyev, an RFE/RL stringer who is the son of prominent Turkmen opposition figure Muhamedgeldy Berdyev, was attacked at the door of his Moscow apartment on 2 September and severely injured by a person reportedly wearing a police uniform, the Russian human rights group Memorial reported on 4 September. Muhamedgeldy Berdyev's brother, Meretmuhammet, was detained in 1997 for distributing the opposition publication "Turkmen Ili" in Mary Oblast, and later died in a psychiatric institution under unexplained circumstances. Shanazar Berdyev emigrated to Russia in 2002 to escape the Turkmen security services and two unidentified Turkmen speakers reportedly attempted to kidnap him from a Moscow street in October 2002. His father was beaten on a Moscow street on 29 July. Muhamedgeldy Berdyev told Memorial that he has not reported the attacks on him and his son to the Moscow police because they do not have residence permits for Moscow and fear they will be deported to Turkmenistan. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 4 September 2003)

PRESIDENT SUBJECTS STATE TV TO MORE CRITICISM. During an expanded session of Turkmenistan's cabinet of ministers on 1 September, President Saparmurat Niyazov blasted state television for duplication and a lack of creativity, reported on 2 September. Niyazov noted that despite his frequent criticism, state television has failed to improve. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 2 September 2003)

PROSECUTORS CLAIM TO HAVE SOLVED JOURNALIST'S MURDER. Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun told Interfax in Bishkek on 3 September that his colleagues have concluded investigations into a number of high-profile criminal cases, including the 2000 murder of Internet journalist Heorhiy Gongadze and the secret tapes allegedly made in Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma's office by former presidential bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko. Piskun said prosecutors have placed three suspects in the Gongadze case on a search list, but declined to reveal their names. Piskun also said prosecutors have charged Melnychenko with forgery and revealing state secrets. He stressed that three tests performed have failed to authenticate the Melnychenko tapes. Therefore, he added, the Prosecutor-General's Office has ordered one more test -- a unique "phono-psycholinguistic" test -- that should answer the question of whether "the people whose voices were allegedly taped could say what is heard [on the Melnychenko tapes]." ("RFE/RL Newsline," 4 September 2003)

RIGHTS GROUP CALLS ON GREECE NOT TO EXTRADITE FORMER NTV OWNER. A group of Russian human rights activists -- including Yelena Bonner, the widow of physicist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov -- have called upon Greece not to extradite former Media-MOST owner Vladimir Gusinskii to Russia, Ekho Moskvy reported on 3 September. The group, called Common Action, says the charges against Gusinskii are politically motivated, and his extradition would make Greece responsible for participating in the repression of a Russian citizen. Gusinskii was arrested on an international warrant at the Athens airport on 21 August after arriving on a flight from Tel Aviv. Russian authorities have accused the former media tycoon of fraud. He was granted bail on 29 August pending the disposition of his case. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 3 September 2003)


by Jeremy Bransten

On 8 September, the world marks International Literacy Day. First celebrated in 1966 under the patronage of UNESCO, the annual event is meant to focus attention on efforts worldwide to eradicate illiteracy and provide basic education to all. The former Soviet Union was once a leader in this field. But over the past decade, the education system in some of the USSR's successor states has come under strain. Money is short and advances made in previous decades risk coming undone.

For all its negative aspects, even die-hard opponents of the former Soviet regime acknowledge one unquestioned success of the USSR: providing universal, primary education to all children, regardless of income or residence.

From the remotest villages to the largest cities, all Soviet children learned to read and write. A significant portion went on to higher education.

While this may seem basic, as the world prepares to mark International Literacy Day on 8 September, experts say the Soviet achievement of near-total literacy required great effort and resources. It stands in contrast to the situation in many countries that once bordered the Soviet Union. And, unfortunately, some of the Soviet successor states are struggling to maintain past levels of achievement in education amid economic hardship.

Around the world, according to UNESCO -- the United Nations' educational, scientific, and cultural organization, which sponsors International Literacy Day -- an estimated 860 million adults cannot read or write. More than 100 million children have no access to formal education of any kind. That is why, since 1966, UNESCO has devoted 8 September to focusing on the importance of basic education and literacy to a country's future. Without an educated citizenry, UNESCO argues, a state faces little chance of improving its economy.

Despite its moribund economy, especially in later years, the Soviet Union invested heavily in education. Many of the independent states that emerged from the Soviet collapse are struggling to maintain this standard.

Central Asia is a case in point. Iveta Silova is an Almaty-based senior education adviser for USAID -- the U.S. Agency for International Development -- and the Open Society Institute. She says that in the economic crises that followed independence, the Central Asian states made significant cuts in their education budgets.

"If you look at the percentage of education spending and the percentage of GDP [gross domestic product] in Kazakhstan, it declined from 6 percent in 1989 to only 3 percent in 2000. And for example right now in Tajikistan, it's 2.3 percent and in Kyrgyzstan it's 3.7 percent -- whereas in all the other countries [in the world] that are doing relatively well, education spending as a percentage of GDP is from 4 to 6 percent. So it's a very big difference," Silova says.

Over the past decade, Silova says, the cuts in state spending on education in Central Asia have meant the near-elimination in many regions of programs that were once ubiquitous and considered key to fostering literacy.

"Right now, if you look at the whole Central Asian region, only 14 percent of all children are enrolled in preschool, whereas this number is 75 percent for Central Europe," Silova says.

Among older children, near-100 percent enrollment figures in primary schools have dropped, albeit less dramatically.

"It [enrollment] was in the high 90s at the beginning of the 1990s -- at the time when the Soviet Union broke up. And right now, for example, in Tajikistan it is 84 percent, which is a more than 10 percent decrease. In Uzbekistan it's 88 percent, and it's 89 percent in Kyrgyzstan -- that's for basic education grades one to nine," Silova says.

Although primary school continues to be free, some parents, especially in rural areas, cannot afford the new secondary costs associated with sending their children to study.

Komron Aliev, an independent Tashkent-based analyst, explains: "The problem is that there is not enough money to buy notebooks, there is not enough money to buy textbooks, there is not enough money for children's clothes. There are many poor families where the men have left to be migrant workers in other countries or they travel around this country in search of work. Their families are left in very difficult circumstances."

Aliyev says funding shortages also mean that in Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries, the teaching profession no longer attracts the best and the brightest.

"The teaching profession has completely lost its prestige. Men no longer go into the profession. This year, it seems, there has even been a shortage of applicants to the pedagogical institutes of higher learning," Aliyev says.

Although teachers in Soviet times never received more than average salaries, they did enjoy many subsidies that made life easier. That is no longer the case.

"Subsidies are being eliminated one after another, for various reasons," Aliyev says. "For example, teachers in rural areas had subsidized public transportation, they enjoyed subsidized utilities in urban housing. Earlier, rural areas were charged less for electricity. Rural areas offered [teachers] produce at low prices or for free. But practically all subsidies for teachers have now been eliminated."

Turkmenistan, according to Silova, has dropped the furthest in regional education rankings, thanks to its government's policies. Most children still learn to read and write, but chances at acquiring deeper knowledge have been severely curtailed.

"Turkmenistan really offers probably the most radical example of how things are going downhill with education, because education has been cut down to nine years only. There is no secondary school. Kids study only nine years and then university is only two years of academic work and two years of practical work," Silova says. "So basically, even if you go through all the education that's possible in Turkmenistan, you would only at best get 11 years of education and you would be considered to have a higher education degree."

Despite the discouraging news, some countries in the region are attempting to counter negative trends. Experts say resurrecting the all-encompassing Soviet education system is financially unviable. But smaller steps can be taken to ensure past advances in education are not squandered.

Uzbekistan has begun to fund school supplies for first-graders whose parents cannot afford them, to ensure as many children as possible enroll in primary school.

Alisher Rakhmonberdeyev, head of the Manizha Information and Education Center, a Dushanbe-based NGO, tells RFE/RL that decentralizing the education system, as Tajikistan has started doing, can ensure limited funds are spent where they are needed by local communities.

Rakhmonberdeyev says private schools, even in smaller towns and some rural areas, have opened in recent years. He says experience shows that these schools can provide quality primary education at affordable prices, relieving some of the pressure on overcrowded state institutions.

"When we conducted our research last year in seven regions, we asked local people whether they would send their children to private schools, if it were possible, even if fees were higher [than in state schools] . You know, a third of parents said they would like to send their children to such schools. Private-school fees in rural areas cost the equivalent of 2 to 2.5 dollars per month and many parents can afford this," Rakhmonberdeyev says.

Tajikistan has also begun to address the issue of girls leaving school prematurely -- a phenomenon that has grown in post-Soviet years. The government has launched an awareness campaign for parents, to encourage them to let their daughters finish their education.

"Certain steps are being taken to attract more girls to education. Whereas at the beginning, in primary school, the ratio of girls to boys is about one to one, meaning all girls are enrolled, after 9th grade, the ratio diminishes as some girls quit school," Rakhmonberdeyev says.

When compared to neighboring Afghanistan, whose illiteracy rate is estimated to be around 60 percent, Tajikistan's education system remains a model -- despite surviving a civil war and a near-total economic collapse. But compared to what some now call the "glory days" of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan and its fellow Central Asian neighbors face difficult times. Experts say they must do more if they are to maintain their place among the world's best-educated countries.