5 December 2003, Volume 3, Number 44
KYRGYZSTAN'S NONSTATE PAPERS GET A PRESS OF THEIR OWN...By Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
The million-dollar project was 18 months in the works, and the only outfit with a forklift large enough to move the 10-ton, three-unit press into position was the U.S. Air Force unit stationed at Ganci Air Base. Yet in the end, Kyrgyzstan got its first independent printing press last month, and ran off the first two independent papers the week of 10 November.
Some heavy diplomatic lifting by the U.S. government with the Kyrgyz leadership was also clearly a factor in pushing the project to completion, say those involved in the effort. Now Uchkun, the state-owned printing press and hitherto the country's sole newspaper-printing house, has a competitor and will be unable to thwart the appearance of critical papers by censoring their content or refusing to print them, as occurred, for example, for several months in 2002 with the independent paper "Moya stolitsa." Forced to close because of punishing fines for allegedly libeling state officials, "Moya stolitsa" has now reemerged as "MSN" and will be printed at the new independent press.
The used Solna D-22 press -- which was originally manufactured in Sweden and later completely reconditioned -- was slightly damaged during the long trip to Bishkek by sea and rail. Repairs had to be made, software compatibility ironed out, and pressmen trained on the foreign equipment. When it was discovered that the independent media's pre-press equipment was inadequate, the Soros-funded Open Society Institute stepped in. The new press has the capacity to print 22,000 copies of a 16-page paper per hour.
The project -- which cost a total of about $1 million -- was sponsored by the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor through a grant to Freedom House, a nongovernmental organization based in Washington with offices throughout the region engaged in promoting democracy and human rights. Central Asia watchers and those involved directly in the project largely credit U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Lorne Craner and his aide, Patricia Davis, of the State Department's Department of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, with maintaining the focus and follow-up required to bring such a project to completion in a country still making a rocky transition from the Soviet era. Freelance journalist Philippe Noubel and European Parliament member Martin Callanan are among those who have also lent their prestige to the press by joining its board. Norway's Royal Ministry of Foreign Affairs made a financial contribution early in the project.
Freedom House's Mike Stone -- a lawyer-turned-journalist, a veteran of publishing ventures in Hanoi, Budapest, and Mexico City, and of media-assistance projects in Belarus who directed the Bishkek project -- told "RFE/RL Media Matters" that in order to avoid problems encountered during similar projects in Minsk and Almaty, where the government either seized independent presses or their owners broke away from the project -- the Bishkek project was carefully structured to bring on board all interested parties and make them collectively responsible. "Our set-up is designed to make sure no owners will sell their interests," says Stone.
Freedom House purchased part of an industrial building in Bishkek to house the equipment and registered a noncommercial entity called the Media Support Center Foundation with the Kyrgyz Justice Ministry to manage the project. The foundation has a broadly phrased mandate to strengthen and assist the development of independent media. The U.S. government leases the printing press directly to the Media Support Center Foundation.
To minimize the inevitable government displeasure at a forward-looking foreign initiative, state officials were included in the planning process from the outset. A supervisory board of the Media Support Center Foundation will meet frequently each year. The roster of distinguished figures who have joined -- including board Chairman and U.S. Senator John McCain (Republican-Arizona) and Anthony Lake, former U.S. national security adviser to President Bill Clinton -- illustrates the extent to which U.S. officials view the project as central to their thesis that U.S. engagement with Central Asia in the war on terrorism and the presence of its bases can provide an opportunity to open up closed societies there.
Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov is also a member of the governing body, as is Bolot Nauzakov, head of the defense and security department of Kyrgyzstan's presidential administration. Nauzakov's inclusion is a concession to President Askar Akayev's concerns about the opposition press, which generally covers him unfavorably. Other board members include former television editor and Kyrgyz parliament deputy Oksana Malevannaya and Viktor Zapolskiy, editor in chief of "Delo No.," a Russian-language weekly to be printed on the new press.
While Westerners often recite journalist A. J. Liebling's mantra that "freedom of the press belongs to those who own one," Stone pragmatically reminds his local colleagues in this foreign-subsidized operation that there is "no such thing as a free press." Everything costs money -- from ink to paper to spare parts to labor -- and publishers have to learn to look out for their bottom line. In Stone's assessment, Uchkun does not overcharge, since the government's high prices likely reflect the actual cost of printing. Yet, "the whole process is Balkanized," he says, missing opportunities to economize.
Freedom House will not only offer lower-cost pre-production and four-color printing using computer-to-plate technology, it also plans to assist with distribution, which is essential because advertising revenues in Kyrgyzstan, one of the poorest of the former Soviet republics, are low. "Distribution here is something like the U.S. had in the early 20th century," says Stone, commenting that as papers come off the press, they are picked up by sellers -- or "news babushkas" -- who sell on the streets. Some copies are shipped to the south in bulk or sent to the postal system for delivery to subscribers.
Stone says that independent papers in Bishkek have print runs of only 10,000-20,000, and that officially backed papers do not have many more readers. Questions such as where most Kyrgyz get their news have yet to be researched systematically, he says. He and his colleagues plan to launch a media survey next spring to study newspaper preferences and the pass-along rates for publications, taking into consideration the habit of those in the capital of mailing newspapers to relatives and friends in the provinces. Another factor for determining newspaper readership is language -- the largest-circulation state and independent newspapers are published in Russian, yet the younger generation, especially in the provinces, might prefer Kyrgyz-language publications.
Unlike Uchkun, which has long filtered print orders through a political lens, the Freedom House printing press will be open to both independent and state papers. The press also plans to seek international orders, such as publications from bodies like the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and to solicit orders in neighboring Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Materials that are not time-sensitive, like advertising inserts, could be ordered by publications even in Eastern and Western Europe, says Stone, and that will help support the independent Kyrgyz papers.
Unhappy with the business competition and the political implications of the new press, the pro-government "Vecherniy Bishkek" carried a critical article about the project illustrated with a caricature of Uncle Sam. Contradicting itself, "Vecherniy Bishkek" claimed the press is decrepit and that it could have an undo influence on Kyrgyz internal affairs. Asked if the presence of Kyrgyz government officials on the supervisory board could derail the project, Stone commented, "I honestly don't expect it to happen." With the initial hurdles of their organization's registration and the purchase of the building behind them -- and because government officials have been kept informed through inclusion on the governing body -- Freedom House does not foresee trouble.
Some Kyrgyz officials have grumbled privately about the press, says the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (http://www.iwpr.net/index.pl?archive/rca/rca_200311_247_1_eng.txt), citing one bureaucrat who is concerned the press might print extremist literature or pornography. Stone brushed aside these worries, saying, "We will work with fact-based journalists to assist the media of Kyrgyzstan to develop." He declined to speculate whether the increases in circulation and the newfound freedom of these newspapers -- many of which have relied on the very story of their persecution to keep readers' interest kindled -- might put some of them out of business. "I print papers; I don't edit them," says Stone, an attitude that will no doubt be refreshing to journalists who have struggled for years with state interference.
...AS DO THOSE OF SERBIA AND MONTENEGRO.With the help of international donors, independent newspaper publishers in Serbia and Montenegro for the first time have been able to open their own independent printing press to compete with state publishing houses. The new press is run by 12 local independent newspapers joined together in the Association of Private Media (APM) and is supported by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) and UNESCO. It began operation last month.
The approximately $5.3 million project is the culmination of a five-year effort by international agencies and donor governments, beginning with the creation and support of APM itself in 1997; help creating a private distribution system in 1998, and financing the new printing facility this year. The European Agency for Reconstruction and the governments of France, Denmark, and Germany contributed approximately $3 million to the project via UNESCO and WAN. An APM publisher in Serbia, Blic, contributed about $1.76 million.
Through an international tender, UNESCO purchased a second-hand MAN Colorman 30 press from a German firm, as well as pre- and post-press equipment. WAN provided expertise in managing the project. The APM built a 1,600-square-meter plant from scratch in six months on an empty lot it purchased outside Belgrade. Unlike other press projects getting started in Eurasia, the APM plant has a considerable advantage because it has already established an independent distribution system for the newspapers it will print. Back in 1998, hoping to improve the free flow of information, WAN, UNESCO, APM, and several regional distributors created APM Trans Press, which is now a 74.9 percent owner of the APM printing plant. Blic controls 25.1 percent.
The publishers believe they have already have established an effective alternative to the state-run distribution system. In contrast to former Soviet countries that have relied heavily on the government postal system to sell and distribute even opposition papers, in Serbia and Montenegro, few papers are distributed in this fashion. APM established its own courier system for businesses and embassies, which has given publishers more options to deliver their product. All of APM's publishers have free Internet editions in addition to their print versions.
To run the printing plant, APM has created a board of directors including a president who is currently selected from among WAN officials to represent the Western donors' interests; two local APM representatives; and a representative from Blic. "The printing plant is fully independent. Its operation doesn't depend on government will -- as much as is possible in a country that still needs to pass through the privatization process and legal and fiscal reform," APM Trans Press General Manager Natasa Vuckovic Lesendric " told "RFE/RL Media Matters." Asked how an independent press will affect the newspaper-publishing scene in her country, Lesendric says there is no obstacle now to newspaper development. Therefore, papers are likely to increase their circulation and readership.
Recent surveys show that since last year, even before the opening of the printing press, newspaper readership has been increasing. Most Serbs and Montenegrins get their news from local television networks and national television, but they rely on newspapers both for practical, everyday information, and political news and commentary. Currently, the two APM dailies together reach 200 000 readers, and APM weeklies have a total circulation of approximately 250,000. They will be in competition with state-sponsored papers, but with their own press, they hope to avoid being scooped on stories or having news items plagiarized -- which has happened in the past. They also predict an end to late deliveries and high prices for low-quality printing.
The sustainability of the project beyond the initial capital from donors is yet to be determined, but with the growth of circulation, the publishers are optimistic. Most rely on single-copy sales for the bulk of their income, as advertising revenue currently makes up only an estimated 30 percent-40 percent of total revenues. Independent papers still rely on donor support to meet their operating costs in a climate where the state has long dominated the media sector, and uncensored news and alternative views had to be consciously subsidized.
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick is a freelancer writer living in New York City specializing in the former Soviet Union. She is the editor of "RFE/RL [Un]Civil Societies."
GEORGIA.In the aftermath of Georgia's reportedly rigged parliamentary elections last month, the country's media has found itself facing enormous challenges. On 13 November, the Central Election Commission (CEC) decided to withdraw the accreditation of the popular independent Rustavi-2 television channel. Four days later, the head of state-run Channel 1 resigned in the wake of criticism from then-President Eduard Shevardnadze about the station's coverage of the aftermath of the elections. These developments were both pivotal milestones leading to Georgia's 22 November "velvet revolution."
Two days before the CEC's decision, pro-presidential party leaders appealed to the country's leadership and the public to boycott Rustavi-2, saying that it was responsible for "the possibility of bloodshed before the parliament." In response, several government officials, including CEC Chairwoman Nana Devdariani, refused to appear on the station.
When the CEC announced its decision, observers immediately denounced it as politically motivated. All the CEC members who voted to rescind Rustavi-2's accreditation represented For a New Georgia or pro-administration parties. When Rustavi-2 protested the decision to a Tbilisi court, Devdariani suddenly declared that the station's accreditation had never been cancelled and it was once again granted access to CEC sessions.
A bigger row broke out four days later when Channel 1 Director Zaz Shengelia resigned. "I cannot head a television station that gives one-sided information and does not convey opposition views," she said. The resignation came after Shevardnadze criticized the channel for failing to back his administration. "At least one channel should work for the state," Shevardnadze said at a government session on 19 November.
This turn of events was particularly remarkable given that state television rarely if ever tangled with the administration in the 11 years of Shevardnadze's reign. However, as the opposition protests against the elections gained momentum and the channel came under increasing criticism from opposition leaders for its coverage of the events, Channel 1's editorial team gradually began presenting increasingly controversial points of view. It never endorsed the opposition, of course, but it did seem intent on shedding its image as a government propaganda tool.
In the wake of the failed elections and Shevardnadze's resignation -- and with an eye toward the new presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for early next year -- the country is actively reexamining the media's role in the country's political life. There have been reports of pressure on journalists. On 25 November, unknown assailants fired shots at the house of the parents of Ljuba Eliashvili, news editor of independent Iberia TV. She reported that she has received numerous telephone threats for allegedly presenting coverage biased against the anti-Shevardnadze demonstrators. On 3 December, there was an explosion outside the state television building in Tbilisi. No one was injured, but station employees reported that shortly afterward an anonymous telephone caller threatened more explosions.
The campaign leading to the 4 January extraordinary presidential election will certainly present a formidable test for Georgian journalists -- long accustomed to taking sides -- and for the country's political forces -- long accustomed to pressing journalists to take sides. The result could be a further, crippling loss of credibility for the Georgian media, once again highlighting the need for fundamental media-sector reform. (Marina Rennau)
MACEDONIA.In a lengthy interview with the Skopje bi-monthly "Forum" of 21 November, Erol Rizaov, the editor in chief of the daily "Utrinski vesnik," spoke about politics, freedom of speech, journalistic independence, and the economic situation of the media in Macedonia.
As an ethnic Turk, 53-year-old Rizaov is one of the few prominent Macedonian journalists who speaks Macedonian, Albanian, and Turkish. He began his career with the main state daily "Nova Makedonija," where he worked for about 25 years before he joined "Utrinski vesnik."
As a long-term employee, Rizaov commented on the demise of the Nova Makedonija publishing house, which went into liquidation in October after a long agony and some failed attempts at privatization. Rizaov criticized the decision to privatize the company among the employees. Instead, management should have set up a holding consisting of the company's various departments, including its media outlets, printing facilities, and retail outlets.
He also argued that the government of former Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski launched "genocide" against the "Nova Makedonija" staff in 1998, when the management was replaced by persons close to Georgievski's Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE). It was also under Georgievski's government that the final effort to privatize the publishing house failed.
But economic difficulties were not a problem for "Nova Makedonija" alone. Its three major competitors -- the independent dailies "Dnevnik," "Utrinski vesnik," and "Vest" -- had problems, too. Their lack of capital prevented them from investing in modern equipment. That is what finally drove those three dailies into the arms of the German WAZ media group, which bought them up in July, Rizaov said.
He noted that WAZ was the first media group to ratify the OSCE's guidelines for editorial independence. "[Backed by] WAZ, you can have high quality printing, distribute your publications easily, and raise journalistic standards," Rizaov noted.
Such standards are now very low in Macedonia, Rizaov conceded. "Poor quality, vulgarity, tastelessness, and primitivism abound," he complained. "Macedonia has no neutral newspapers. All take...sides." He believes that there should be more neutral reporting, as it is not only important what is reported but also how it is reported. "We have independent, but not neutral journalism," he said.
For him, a major problem in Macedonia is the persistence of ethnic stereotypes and prejudices in the media of the different ethnic groups. "If you know Turkish, Albanian, and Macedonian...and if you read the newspapers in those languages, you will see huge differences in the reports and analyses," Rizaov said.
In his view, journalistic standards in all media outlets could be raised if the national television station, MTV, became a trailblazer. To do so, MTV would have to shed its business interests and adopt the BBC's journalistic standards. Such professionalism could serve as a positive example for the other media. The government could also play a positive role in raising journalistic standards, Rizaov believes. The government should adopt laws that ensure public access to information. He criticized the government for instead adopting a draft change to the Penal Code, raising fines for libel.
The Association of Journalists of Macedonia (ZNM) wants the government to follow the Council of Europe's recommendation and remove libel and slander from the Penal Code altogether. (Ulrich Buechsenschuetz)
POLAND.There have so far been no specific decisions in the bribery scandal dubbed Rywingate by Polish media. The scandal involves film producer Lew Rywin, who allegedly sought a bribe of $17.5 million in 2002 -- by some accounts on behalf of Prime Minister Leszek Miller -- for lobbying a media law that could prove favorable for Agora, the publisher of the "Gazeta Wyborcza" daily headed by Adam Michnik. A special parliamentary commission is still investigating Rywingate, while Rywin is awaiting trial on charges of seeking a bribe. But the announced competition for the post of chairperson of Polish Television seems to be directly connected with Rywingate.
Rywin said in a conversation with Michnik in July 2002, which was secretly taped by the latter and publicized in December 2002, that he is acting in concord with a "group of people in power" who are responsible for drafting a new media bill. Those people, Rywin hinted, would make it possible for Agora to buy a private television station, Polsat, the deal Agora was reportedly seeking. (A draft media bill proposed by the government in early 2002 banned the owner of a nationwide newspaper from obtaining a license for nationwide broadcasting.) Some speculation in the Polish media pointed to former Deputy Culture Minister Aleksandra Jakubowska, National Council of Radio Broadcasting and Television Secretary Wlodzimierz Czarzasty, and Polish Television Chairman Robert Kwiatkowski as the "group of people in power" that might have been standing behind Rywin's bribery proposal. All three have firmly denied any involvement in Rywingate.
There were many calls in Polish media for Kwiatkowski's resignation or dismissal, but he refused to step down, and the Supervisory Council of Polish Television did not remove him despite several attempts to vote Kwiatkowski out of office. However, the Supervisory Council announced an open competition for the five posts on the Polish Television board. According to the weekly "Polityka," as many as 252 people have applied, including 52 for the post of Polish Television chairperson.
The competition for the post of Polish Television chairperson is rather complicated, involving five selection stages. First, each of the nine members of the Supervisory Council chooses three candidates. Second, by secret ballot, the Supervisory Council reduces the number of candidates to nine. Third, the Supervisory Council qualifies for further consideration only those of the nine remaining candidates who were chosen by at least two council members in the first stage. Fourth, an independent auditing firm assesses the professional capabilities of the candidates, and the Supervisory Council selects the three best-suited candidates. Finally, following a "nationwide debate," the council appoints a new chief of Polish Television from the three finalists.
Until now, this appointment was made solely by the Supervisory Council, whose members were appointed by the National Council of Radio Broadcasting and Television (KRRiTV). The KRRiTV is constitutionally obliged to "safeguard the public interest regarding radio broadcasting and television." Since the nine-member KRRiTV is a political body itself -- four members are appointed by the Sejm, two by the Senate, and three by the president -- various political forces have complained at different times that Polish Television is politically biased. The new open competition for the post of Polish Television boss is apparently a response to such charges.
But, as the saying goes, the devil is in the details. The Supervisory Council decided that the auditing firm be selected in a tender organized by the current Polish Television board, headed by Kwiatkowski. Many in Poland fear that he will not be impartial.
It is theoretically possible that the Supervisory Council may not appoint a new television chief in during this competition because, according to the council's statute, at least six members must support the appointment. However, some observers assert the council will try to avoid a stalemate, having initiated such an ostentatious and complicated appointment process. (Jan Maksymiuk)
ROMANIA.Stelian Tanase is a rare intellectual bird -- a successful fiction writer, the first editor in chief of the postcommunist weekly "22," a professor of political science at Bucharest University, the author of several important political-science tracts, and a former member of the Romanian parliament representing the now-defunct Party of Civic Alliance. Tanase is also a popular television talk-show host.
As such, he has come under fire on more than one occasion. He has been fired at least twice because of political pressure on the private channels where his shows had record ratings. Earlier this year, he began moderating a daily talk show called "The Meat Grinder" on Romania's First Channel. With the campaign under way for next year's local, parliamentary, and presidential elections, there are indications that Tanase is now facing a third dismissal.
On 12 November, Dan Matei Agathon, secretary-general of the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD), addressed an open letter to Valentin Nicolau, president of the Romanian Television's (TVR) Administrative Council, bitterly complaining about the previous evening's talk show, in which Tanase's guest were Theodor Stolojan and Traian Basescu. The two politicians are the chairmen of, respectively, the National Liberal Party (PNL) and the Democratic Party, two opposition political formations that recently set up the Justice and Truth Alliance ahead of the 2004 parliamentary elections.
In his letter, Agathon complained that Tanase, who he said is well known for his pro-PNL sympathies, had infringed on the principle of "equal distancing" that must guide the TVR according to its charter as a station "financed by public funding." By inviting two allied politicians, Tanase, infringed on the "professional deontology." As TVR Administrative Council president, Nicolau must "either resign or [take measures] for the strict observance of deontological norms."
The letter authored by Agathon was hardly credible. This was not the first time that "The Meat Grinder" diverged from its usual format of inviting an independent journalist and a politician for each show, and the PSD never objected before. Also, monitoring shows that -- far from respecting equal distancing -- TVR covers the PSD leadership far more frequently than the opposition. Finally, Nicolau is a former personal adviser of Prime Minister Adrian Nastase and is known to be more than partial toward his former bosses, which is also reflected in the TVR's biased political coverage.
With his criticism of Nicolau, Agathon was likely attempting -- ahead of the election campaign -- to preempt opposition complaints about biased coverage and to intimidate TVR journalists.
The Democratic Party unwittingly fell into the trap by complaining the same day about a program allegedly biased toward Basescu, who is also Bucharest mayor. The National Audiovisual Council, as expected, rejected the complaint, which claimed that a report failed to present the "other side's" point of view. Nicolau, however, could now proudly claim that since the government and the opposition are both complaining, TVR is doing its job properly.
In early December, Agathon again complained that Tanase's guests on his talk show on Romania's national day (1 December) had been two intellectuals known for their right-wing political sympathies. He charged that Tanase -- who is not a member of any political party -- is using "The Meat Grinder" to secure for himself a slot on the PNL-Democratic Party electoral list. Tanase categorically denies this.
Nicolau, however, noted that Tanase's contract expires on 31 December and urged that it be "carefully scrutinized" before renewal. He also claimed "The Meat Grinder" has poor ratings, although he cited no data. The ending of this pre-election thriller would seem to be becoming clearer. (Michael Shafir)