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Media Matters: October 17, 2003

17 October 2003, Volume 3, Number 40
MORE MEDIA EMPLOYEES KILLED IN 2003 THAN PREVIOUS YEAR. The World Association of Newspaper Editors reported that so far 51 media workers have been killed in the line of duty this year, up from 46 in 2002. Sixteen of the reporters and camera crewmembers -- nearly a third of the deaths -- were killed in the war in Iraq, the group said. Several media groups issue annual tallies of journalists deaths, but the numbers can vary depending on whether they include cases for which insufficient information is available to determine if the death is related to a reporter's professional work. Three journalists have been killed in Russia, one in Kyrgyzstan, and one in Iran. The report is available at CAF

NEW STUDY ON REGULATION OF MINORITY-LANGUAGE BROADCASTING. "Minority-Language Related Broadcasting and Legislation in the OSCE," a new study on the regulation of minority languages in broadcasting covering each of the 55 participating states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was released in September. The study, containing an overview of trends as well as individual country reports, finds that while such broadcasting is regulated, it is rarely prohibited and very diverse across the region. The study is available at CAF

GOVERNMENTS, COMPANIES SEEK TO CONTROL CYBERSPACE, WATCHDOG GROUPS SAY. "Silenced" is a yearlong research project run by Privacy International and GreenNet Educational Trust involving 50 experts around the world who have been studying censorship on the Internet. The researchers released their findings in September, concluding that censorship in cyberspace is common, and that multinational corporate censors who are less transparent to the public are increasingly threatening Internet freedoms, in part through what the authors characterize as "aggressive protection of corporate intellectual property" but which companies themselves say is necessary not only because of copyright law but in order to pay the costs of the maintaining infrastructure and content on the Internet. The authors also say the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 "provided a springboard for measures that in another era might have been abandoned as unworkable or found to be unacceptably heavy-handed." Although many countries are covered, only Russia, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan are included from Eastern Europe and Eurasia, with only a cursory mention of legislation and a few examples of cases, so as to miss, for example, the systematic persecution and even killing of Internet journalists in Ukraine. As with other world reports, the problem may have been related to a language barrier and difficulties in getting local information. Researchers interested in expanding on the report could easily do so, as Privacy International subscribes to the terms of what is called the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical-ShareAlike License, meaning anyone is free to copy or distribute the report or make derivative works as long as it is not for sale and provides credit to the authors. The report is available at CAF

JOURNALIST BEATEN BY MINISTER. Minister of Public Order Luan Rama demonstratively beat Vizion+ TV Editor in Chief Ilir Babaramo at a public event at Rozafa Plaza in Tirana organized by the prime minister's press office, the International Federation of Journalists reported in a statement released on 16 October. The incident, which occurred several days after elections during a meeting of the Socialist Party, apparently stemmed from a comment the journalist had made two months ago regarding the security situation in Albania. CAF

EMBATTLED TV STATION AGAIN DENIED NEW FREQUENCY. Armenia's National Commission on Television and Radio on 13 October rejected for the third time a bid by the independent television station A1+ for a new frequency that would have enabled it to resume broadcasting, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. A1+ went off the air in April 2002 after losing a tender for the frequency on which it had been broadcasting. Its subsequent tender bids were also rejected. The commission ruled that A1+ submitted inaccurate data concerning its intellectual-property and financial assets. Several press commentaries on 14 October rejected that argument as ludicrous and unconvincing. Opposition parliament deputy Viktor Dallakian (Artarutiun) criticized the commission's decision as further evidence that the Armenian authorities "are not interested in freedom of expression and the independence of the mass media." ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 October)

JOURNALISTS' ORGANIZATIONS AT ODDS OVER DRAFT MEDIA BILL. Three Armenian journalistic associations, including the Yerevan Press Club, issued a statement on 10 October accusing the more radical National Press Club of obstructing their efforts to push through sweeping amendments to a new draft media bill, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Hranush Hakobian, chairwoman of the parliament's Standing Committee on Science, Education, and the Media, has assured the media community that the legislature will remove from the draft several controversial articles, including a requirement that media outlets disclose their sources of noncommercial funding. The National Press Club argues that the proposed changes to the bill are purely cosmetic, and has drafted an alternative bill. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 October)

POLICE INJURE REPORTERS IN VIOLENT POST-ELECTION CLASHES. Journalists attempting to cover violent opposition demonstrations in the wake of Azerbaijan's 15 October presidential elections have themselves been subjected to police beatings and detentions, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported in a statement on 16 October. The controversial victory of Ilham Aliyev, son of outgoing President Heidar Aliyev, touched off angry opposition protests about unfair election conditions also criticized by international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). At least 25 local and foreign reporters were beaten by Azerbaijani security forces, leading to hospitalization for some. Among those injured were journalists from Turan news agency who suffered concussions and head lacerations. A correspondent for "Uch Nogta" and another for "Baki Habar" were detained for several hours for covering activity near polling stations, RSF reported. Reporters attempting to come near voting areas told RSF that staff prevented access and shouted insults at them. CAF

LEGISLATORS MULL NEW LAW TO MONITOR INTERNET CAFES. New legislation to control Internet usage expected to be introduced soon may curb users of computer clubs and public Internet cafes, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) reported on 14 October. Under the terms of the draft law, copies of which have begun to circulate, Internet cafe owners may be ordered to monitor their customers or face closure, IWPR reported. As independent radio stations and newspapers have been closed by authorities in recent months, they have increasingly turned to the Internet to reach their publics, and may have triggered the government's desire to target Internet cafes, widely used in Minsk due to the high cost of computers and subscriptions for Belarusians. Human rights activists told IWPR that the government would like to censor the Internet in advance of parliamentary elections in 2004. One city official contacted by IWPR said privately that the move was only to prevent teenagers from looking at pornography sites. Andrey Bastunets, a lawyer for the Belarusian Association of Journalists, which has criticized the planned legislation, said, "It has become a tradition to use supposed concern for someone, in this case teenagers, to introduce restrictions" which are in fact human rights violations. The cafes are already regulated and the government is known to monitor and sometimes block sites it finds offensive. CAF

SARAJEVO EDITOR LAUDED. The former editor in chief of the Sarajevo daily "Oslobodjenje," Kemal Kurspahic, was awarded the "Dr. Erhar Busek-SEEMO Award for Better Understanding," by the South East Europe Media Organization (SEEMO), which is affiliated with the International Press Institute (IPI) in Vienna, IPI reported on 15 October. Kurspahic became famous for putting out the daily even in the ruins of his offices during the siege of Sarajevo and the Bosnia war in the 1990s. CAF

FORMER COMMUNIST FUNCTIONARY GETS TOUGHER PRISON SENTENCE. A Prague high court on 13 October increased the sentence against Karel Hoffmann, a former senior communist leader who abetted the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia by silencing state radio broadcasts, CTK and other media reported. The aged Hoffmann is the only former high-ranking functionary to have been convicted for his part in the Soviet-led occupation to quash the Prague Spring reform movement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 and 9 June 2003). The court reasoned that Hoffmann, the head of a communications office at the time, not "only" abused his position but also committed sabotage. "The punishment must be satisfaction for those injured," Judge Robert Fremr said, according to "Mlada fronta Dnes." A court of lower instance will determine in the next few weeks whether or not Hoffmann is fit to serve his prison term, the newspaper reported. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 October)

HUNDREDS DEMONSTRATE IN SUPPORT OF RADIO CHAIRWOMAN... Hundreds of people attended a demonstration on 11 October outside the Hungarian Radio building expressing their support for radio Chairwoman Katalin Kondor, who has recently been accused of collaborating with the state security services in 1974-83, Hungarian media reported. Opposition FIDESZ deputy Annamaria Szalai, who attended the demonstration organized by the right-wing Magyar Conquest 2000 society, said Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy's goal is to "gain a complete dictatorship of opinion," "Nepszabadsag" reported. According to the daily, on 13 October Kondor examined documents related to her past at the State Security Historical Archives. Archives Director Gyorgy Gyarmati reportedly asked Kondor to decide whether she considers herself to be a public figure. If Kondor answers affirmatively, her documents will be made available for public research. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 October)

...WHO DENIES COUNTERESPIONAGE LINKS. Hungarian Radio Chairwoman Kondor on 14 October told reporters after she examined documents related to her past at the State Security Historical Archives that she "was never in contact with the III/II counterintelligence department" of the communist-era secret services, Hungarian media reported. Kondor told that there is only one file containing information about an attempt at recruitment, which is identical to the one published by the "Nepszava" daily on 25 September, but there is no hint of whether she actually filed any intelligence report. Kondor argued that she was unaware of being registered into the counterespionage division. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 15 October)

MEDIA CAUTIOUS IN COVERAGE OF NOBEL PRIZE LAUREATE. The state media has played it safe it covering the awarding of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize to human rights activist Shirin Ebadi, caught between conservative and hard-liners critical of the award and reformists who have politicized the issue. The Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) and Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) provided factual reports on Ebadi's award. State television took particular note of her efforts in children's rights, failing to mention the time she spent in the Islamic Republic's prisons on trumped-up accusations. Nor did they say that, before the revolution, she was a judge and afterwards women were deemed too unstable to be judges. The hard-line "Jomhuri-yi Islami" daily on 11 October called Ebadi an "ex-convict" (she was a political prisoner) who maintained contacts with foreign organizations, was involved with anti-Islamic Republic activities, worked with Human Rights Watch, and had a husband in jail. The daily stated falsely that Ebadi was in the U.S., when in fact she was in France. "Entekhab" managing editor Taha Hashemi said on 10 October that there are many more deserving Iranians, ISNA reported. People with ulterior motives are trying to belittle the efforts of such Iranians, and "if the world had been telling the truth, it would have given the prize to Mr.[President Mohammad] Khatami before giving it to anyone else." Hashemi added, "The prize would never have been given to Ebadi without taking into consideration the views of Americans and their express wishes," he added. ("RFE/RL Iran Report," 13 October 2003).

TEHRAN BROADCASTING ACTIVE IN BAGHDAD. Of the 59 AM radio broadcasts audible in Baghdad on 7 October, broadcasts originating in Iran could be heard on 33 AM frequencies. Four of the frequencies broadcast programming in Arabic, one was in Kurdish, and 28 were in the Persian language. Reception varied from poor to good. Four FM broadcasts originated in Iran, including Tehran radio's Arabic service, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq's Voice of the Mujahedin, and Tehran's youth-oriented Javan radio. The newest entry is Tehran's Voice of the Palestinian Islamic Revolution. Voice of Rebellious Iraq apparently transmits from Ahvaz on AM for seven hours a day. Four Iranian television channels can be seen and heard in Baghdad. The Arabic-language Al-Alam news channel and the Sahar news channel are audible and offer good-quality video, while Sahar's English broadcasts can also be heard. Al-Alam is available via the Arabsat, Asiasat, Telstar, and Hot Bird satellites, and can be received in the Middle East, Europe, the Asia-Pacific region, and the U.S. Iran's Al-Thiqalayn Television transmits religious programming to Iraqi viewers. The SCIRI's Resistance Channel television is based in Tehran; it broadcasts for six hours a day and can be received via satellite. ("RFE/RL Iran Report," 13 October 2003).

BAIL GRANTED TO DEFENDANT IN JOURNALIST'S MURDER CASE. Judge Rasul Ghanimi announced on 13 October that the temporary detention order for the individual accused of murdering Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi while she was in Iranian custody has been changed to a bail order for 30 million tomans (about $37,500), ISNA reported. Mohammad Reza Aghdam Ahmadi is the defendant in a trial that began the previous week (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 13 October 2003). Ghanimi said no one has posted Ahmadi's bail. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 October)

INFORMATION MINISTER SAYS NUMBER OF MEDIA OUTLETS INCREASING. Kazakh Information Minister Sautbek Abdrakhmanov said at the Civic Forum, a public meeting of government officials and nongovernmental activists, on 14 October that the number of registered media outlets in Kazakhstan is rising, and currently 80 percent of them are privately owned, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Abdrakhmanov said there are 1,237 newspapers, 503 magazines, 162 television and radio broadcasting companies, and 13 news agencies operating in the country. He described the system of paying private media to disseminate government information as a replacement for direct state subsidies. Some independent media operators have complained that the policy discourages media from disseminating material critical of the government. Abdrakhmanov also raised the issue of equal broadcast time for both Kazakh- and Russian-language programming -- the subject of a draft law on media now before parliament -- and warned that Kazakh-language broadcasters will have to maintain the standards of their Russian-language competitors for the law to work. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 15 October)

STATE OIL FIRM SHOULD STAY OUT OF NEWS BUSINESS, SAYS OPPOSITION LEADER. The co-chairmen of the Kazakh reformist Ak Zhol (Bright Path) Party, Alikhan Baimenov and Bulat Abilov, told a news conference in Almaty on 15 October that the Kazakh state oil-and-gas firm KazMunaiGaz should stick to the extraction of hydrocarbons and not venture into the media sector, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. KazMunaiGaz has announced plans to set up a media holding company that would include a news agency, newspapers, and a company that will rebroadcast the programs of Russia's NTV television channel with Kazakh news added. Reportedly, organizers of the holding company have asked government officials to grant them broadcast frequencies without making them go through the legally required tender process. Abilov objected specifically to the use of state funds to set up the media venture. He also criticized the proposal to rebroadcast Russian programs rather than create an independent station that would create its own programming. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 16 October)

HIZB UT-TAHRIR MEMBERS PROSECUTED FOR PRINTING PRESS. Three members of the Muslim extremist movement Hizb ut-Tahrir are being prosecuted in Shymkent, the administrative center of South Kazakhstan Oblast, for allegedly running a clandestine printing house that produced Hizb ut-Tahrir literature, KazInform reported on 16 October. The printing house, which was reportedly set up in a Shymkent apartment by three men from Kyzylorda Oblast, was discovered and shut down by security officials in August. The men are being prosecuted for producing and distributing material inciting interethnic and interconfessional hatred. Major Kanat Imanaliev, deputy head of the antiterrorism department of the Shymkent National Security Committee branch, complained that Hizb ut-Tahrir is not officially banned in Kazakhstan, making it more difficult for the authorities to deal with it. He added that among the alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir members who have been questioned in connection with the printing-house case were a number of government employees. Previously, he said, movement members were usually unemployed. ImanAliyev declined to specify how many Hizb ut-Tahrir members there are in South Kazakhstan Oblast. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 16 October)

CONSTITUTIONAL COURT CONSIDERS CONTROVERSIAL MEDIA LAW. The Constitutional Court on 13 October began consideration of the law regulating media coverage of election campaigns, which has been challenged by more than 100 State Duma deputies and numerous journalists. Presidential envoy to the court Mikhail Mityukov commented that he thinks the law needs to define more precisely what is meant by campaign propaganda, RIA-Novosti reported. The court heard on 13 October about "absurd" applications of the law, according to Interfax. For example, a newspaper in Tula received a warning for referring to State Duma Deputy Aleksandr Korzhakov not simply as a deputy, but also as a "general." Korzhakov was named a general in 1992 when he was appointed to head then-President Boris Yeltsin's security detachment. Pavel Astakhov, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, concluded that under the current law, only candidates have the right to express their opinions during a campaign. The court is expected the make a ruling in about two weeks, according to NTV (see also End Note). ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 October)

TOLYATTI EDITOR KILLED. "Tolyattinskoye obozrenie" Editor in Chief Aleksei Sidorov was slain on the evening of 10 October, just 17 months after his predecessor at the newspaper, Valerii Ivanov, was also killed, Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 May 2002). Before his death, Ivanov published a series of articles investigating corruption among local officials. Sidorov, 31, was stabbed outside his home. According to, investigators believe that Sidorov's killing is likely connected with his journalistic activities, although they are looking into other motives. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 October)

POLICE SAY NEWSPAPER EDITOR WAS IN WRONG PLACE AT WRONG TIME. Police have arrested two men in connection with the 10 October killing of Tolyatti newspaper editor Aleksei Sidorov, Russian media reported According to Interior Ministry Directorate for the Volga Federal District head Vladimir Shcherbakov, investigators believe Sidorov got caught up in a fight with two strangers who had run out of vodka, reported on 15 October. However, reported that, according to witnesses, Sidorov was stabbed immediately after he emerged from his car and that there was no conversation about vodka. According to the police, Sidorov had been sitting outside his home drinking vodka.("RFE/RL Newsline," 16 October)

COLLEAGUES INSIST EDITOR WAS KILLED DUE TO HIS WORK. Russian media and international journalists' defense organizations persisted this week in saying newspaper editor Aleksei Sidorov was killed because of his work, denying official reports that he was killed accidentally in a drunken brawl. reported on 10 October that Sidorov was working on a series of reports on thefts from the AvtoVAZ plant by the so-called Volga criminal gang, 10 members of which are currently awaiting a decision in their case by a Tolyatti court. Tolyatti city prosecutor Yevgenii Novozhilov, told that Sidorov had apparently been receiving threats for some time, had taken precautions, and even moved around the city with bodyguards, whom he dismissed after a time when he felt the danger had lessened. Journalists at "Tolyattinskoye obozrenie" told the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists that they were convinced the slaying was in retaliation for the reporter's work and that Sidorov had been repeatedly threatened. "Sidorov's murder shows that investigative reporting is incredibly dangerous in Russia, and that the authorities are not doing enough to protect journalists," CPJ said in a statement released on its website ( on 10 October. Reporters Without Borders and the International Federation of Journalists have sent protests to Russian officials calling for a credible, independent investigation of the death. CAF

ATHENS REFUSES TO EXTRADITE FORMER NTV OWNER. The Athens Appeals Court on 14 October declined Moscow's request to extradite former oligarch and media tycoon Vladimir Gusinskii, who is wanted in Russia on charges of fraud and money laundering, Western and Russian media reported. Gusinskii was arrested in Athens on 21 August under a Russian-issued international arrest warrant. The court ruled that there is insufficient evidence that Gusinskii committed a crime. It immediately lifted all movement restrictions on Gusinskii and returned his 100,000-euro bond. Gusinskii's lawyer, Aleksandr Berezin, said Gusinskii will leave Greece and divide his time between Israel and the United States, as he has business interests in both those countries. Gusinskii and his lawyers continue to insist that Moscow's charges against him are politically motivated. The Prosecutor-General's Office on 14 October denounced the Greek court's decision, saying that it will have no bearing on Gusinskii's status in Russia, Interfax and other Russian media reported. The case against him has not been closed, and he continues to be wanted on fraud and money-laundering charges, the prosecutors' statement said. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 15 October).

TV CHANNELS PLAN PRE-RECORDED CAMPAIGN DEBATES. Russian television channels, including state-owned RTR and state-controlled ORT, are planning to broadcast pre-recorded election debates, and reported on 14 October. Television host and Russian Television Academy President Vladimir Pozner told Ekho Moskvy that recorded debates are a "farce," arguing that viewers will lose the acuteness and spontaneity of the events. Commenting on recent legislation to regulate media coverage of elections, Pozner said: "If this is a sincere attempt to combat 'black public relations,' then one can only be amazed by its stupidity. However, I think the move [was] not that naive, and had other motivations." Yelena Dubrovina, Yabloko's representative on the Central Election Commission, said that recorded debates are simply a logical continuation of the Kremlin policy of "managed democracy," reported. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 15 October)

ZYUGANOV COVERAGE NOT BREACH OF JOURNALISTIC ETHICS, PANELISTS SAY. The Union of Journalists convened a "grand jury" to examine allegations of a breach of professional ethics in the case of a broadcast by the program "Vesti" on state-owned RTR, Interfax reported on 10 October. Communist Party (KPRF) Chairman Gennadii Zyuganov complained to the channel, saying he was unflatteringly portrayed in the show. The journalists' panel viewed the show, about a book fair in Moscow, at which Zyuganov claimed the producers of the television show had violated an election pact made by 27 parties and six civic organizations, including the KPRF, on refraining from negative campaigning on the air. The jury concluded that the show had contained lightly humorous portrayals of a number of figures at the book fair, including Zyuganov, Vladimir Zhirinovskii, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, and others, and that the public figures had each been given an opportunity to speak during the show, and Zyuganov had not been singled out for attack. The panel was an effort to find a non-judicial avenue to resolve media complaints as an alternative to implementing a new media law restricting campaign coverage which journalists have said unjustly restricts freedom of the press. CAF

STATE DUMA BARRED FROM COMMENT ON FOREIGN POLICY. The upper house of the Russian parliament, the Federation Council, has moved to muzzle their colleagues in the lower house, the State Duma, fearing they have become too outspoken on foreign policy, reported on 14 October. Invoking the Russian Constitution's language under Article 8 describing foreign policy as under the president's jurisdiction, the senators say that members of parliament who sound off on foreign policy issues are going beyond their mandate. The action appears related to forthcoming State Duma elections in December, when legislators worry that deputies may electioneer about hot-button issues abroad. Russian voters have grown accustomed to often outlandish statements by their parliamentarians, according to, which cited Zhirnovskii's infamous adage about Russian troops washing their boots in the Indian Ocean. Federation Council International Relations Committee Chairman Mikhail Margelov told that the motion was not designed to ban commentary but to promote "common sense" and prevent "extravagant" statements, such as a demand to cancel Paul McCartney's recent concert on Red Square. Although such resolutions have no legal force, the senators believe they could interfere with President Vladimir Putin's foreign policy program. CAF

DAILY EDITOR TENDERS RESIGNATION. "Izvestiya" Editor in Chief Mikhail Kozhokin told Ekho Moskvy on 15 October that he has resigned in order to launch a new project. However, the newspaper's board of directors has reportedly refused to accept his resignation, ITAR-TASS reported. reported the same day, citing unidentified sources, that Kozhokin will be replaced by "Gazeta" Editor in Chief Raf Shakirov, who is also a former editor of "Kommersant-Daily," because Prof-Media -- the media-holding arm of Vladimir Potanin's Interros group which owns a controlling stake in the newspaper -- wants to target a new readership: the Russian "middle class" and younger readers. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 16 October)

A NEW BIRTH OF TOTALITARIANISM? The reinstitution of Soviet-era public-life traditions is in full swing, according to a recent report by human rights activists Lev Ponamarev, Yurii Samodurov, and Andrei Babushkin, "Moskovskii komsomolets" wrote on 13 October. Since 2000, many senior government posts have been occupied by veterans and members of the security organs, and the human rights situation in the country has deteriorated markedly, the newspaper wrote. In addition to the ongoing war in Chechnya, there has been increased pressure on the mass media, public organizations, and the business community. The independent national television channels NTV and TVS were taken over. A chain reaction of mass-media persecution was set off in the regions and many local independent media outlets have been closed or muted. As a result, there is almost no widely available information about violations of law and human rights. Russia has almost returned to Soviet-style power, the daily concludes. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 October)

POLICE SEIZE NEWSPAPER. Police in Tambov Oblast reportedly seized 100,000 copies of the newspaper "Sovetskaya Rossiya" on 8 October because it allegedly contained material directed against State Duma candidate Nina Koval, Regnum reported on 9 October. Koval, who is currently a city legislator, is running for the Duma from a single-mandate district. Moscow representatives of the publication told a local television station that the newspaper is not planning and has not planned to carry out any kind of free distribution of its publication in Tambov. The agency also asserted without reference to sourcing that Koval is supported by the Tambov mayor's office, and the scandal with the newspaper was initiated by city-administration officials. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 10 October)

FORMER EDITOR OF LIBERAL WEEKLY LANDS AT ANOTHER LIBERAL WEEKLY. Viktor Loshak, the former editor of "Moskovskie novosti" who was recently replaced by TV personality Yevgenii Kiselev, has been named editor of "Ogonek," reported on 9 October. Loshak said he will not initiate "any revolutions" at the journal. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 10 October)


By Sophie Lambroschini

A new law meant to regulate election campaigns in Russia and their coverage by the media is being challenged even as it is being implemented. The text of the new law has journalists and election officials alike scratching their heads about how to interpret a ban on "illegal campaigning." In a surprise decision, Russia's Constitutional Court has agreed to hear four different appeals against the new legislation brought by three journalists and more than 100 State Duma deputies.

All four appeals challenge several provisions of Article 48 and the law on "guaranteeing voters' rights." Under the law, Russian media are prohibited from publishing or broadcasting information about candidates that has nothing to do with official functions or which could create a "positive or negative image" of a candidate. For every violation, local election commissions can issue warnings. After two warnings, the Media Ministry can appeal to a court to suspend the media organization until after the election.

Theoretically, the law is meant to limit the media's role solely to "informing" citizens about election campaigns. But its critics argue it is so vague and far-reaching that almost any election story could be banned, and that it therefore violates the Russian Constitution, which guarantees the right to collect, receive, and impart information.

When the appeal hearing opened earlier this week, lawyer Pavel Astakhov stated the case against the new law. "It's impossible not to have doubts about the constitutionality of some of the provisions of the law of 12 July 2003, on 'guaranteeing electors' rights and referendums,' which introduced a ban on the expression of personal opinion and the discussion of political problems by citizens and the media, in regard to candidates, blocs and unions during the campaign period," he said.

However, Central Election Commission Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov, who initially drafted the amendments with the Kremlin's support, insisted that the law is just. "One again, we carefully analyzed all the complaints and statements to the Constitutional Court -- all the reasons and the arguments made by the plaintiffs," he said. "And after having done this analysis, we conclude that in our opinion there is no basis for the claim that [certain] norms do not concord with the Constitution of the Russian Federation."

At a news conference on 15 October, Veshnyakov accused the media of putting pressure on the court. Earlier, he called the appeals part of a campaign against his department.

State Duma Deputy Valerii Grebennikov defended the new law, arguing that the public will be better informed because the law bans the media from taking sides. "As soon as the campaigning starts, you are not allowed -- as a newspaper or a television [channel] -- to communicate your appraisals. You are only allowed to state the opinions of those taking part in the campaign," he said.

Another deputy, Sergei Popov, said that while tougher legislation is necessary to weed out smear campaigns, Article 48 is an example of a good idea gone too far. "The law was a step in the right direction," he said. "But at the same time, many mistakes were made. And in this case, I think that the Russian proverb is right -- a spoonful of tar will spoil a whole barrel of honey."

Last week, a local newspaper in Kaliningrad was issued a warning for mentioning in an article that Duma candidate Aleksei Yushenkov is the son of former Deputy Sergei Yushenkov, who was slain in an apparent contract hit. According to the local election commission, mentioning this affiliation is illegal, since it has nothing to do with the candidate's job. The same commission handed out 15 other warnings to local media outlets. In Tula, a local election commission decided that references by a local communist newspaper to two candidates being a "general" and an "actress" also went against the law.

Earlier this month, a Bryansk election commission issued several warnings to local newspapers -- in one case, for publishing an interview with a candidate from the Yabloko party but not from competing candidates, in two other cases for failing to mention when a public-opinion poll was conducted and who had paid for it.

Lawyer Fedor Kravchenko works for Internews, a nongovernmental organization that supports open media worldwide. Kravchenko, who lectures local Russian election commissions on the new legislation, said the law lacks clarity. "If you're going to give one and the same unclear text to 1,000 people, then probably among those 1,000, you'll have a few people with an original way of thinking who will read the law in a completely unexpected way because it is not clear enough," he said.

Some observers also say the law's vagueness leaves a lot of room for arbitrary decisions that could be politically motivated. In the end, however, the simple fact that the Constitutional Court decided to hear the appeals is being seen as good news by the Russian press. Indeed, Veshnyakov himself expressed "surprise" at the Constitutional Court's decision to hear the cases so soon. Most observers had speculated that the court would postpone the cases until after parliamentary elections in December.

If the Constitutional Court declares all or parts of Article 48 illegal -- it has three weeks in which to make up its mind -- its decision would be immediately applicable, at least in theory. But in practice, there appears to be some leeway. The State Duma would have to cancel the unconstitutional provisions and adapt them before they would go into force.

Sophie Lambroschini in an RFE/RL correspondent based in Moscow.