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Media Matters: July 20, 2007

Iran: Vexed Government Lashes Out At Media 'Poison'

By Vahid Sepehri
July 12, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The government of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad is increasingly impatient with what it sees as a front of unjustified criticism in the media. It has impugned critics as motivated by either domestic political grudges or the discreet machinations of foreign powers.

The sum of reports in recent days gives the impression of a government exasperated by -- but intent on defending itself against -- malevolent verbal attacks from various quarters.

Culture Minister Mohammad Saffar-Herandi on July 8 accused unspecified newspapers and other media of mounting a "creeping" coup against the Ahmadinejad government.

His warning came amid reports that Iranian intelligence had caught a number of spies in western Iran, and with tensions high over at least four Iranian-Americans who are facing subversion and related charges.

Prominent Tehran-based journalist and press activist Mashallah Shamsolvaezin told Radio Farda on July 8 that governments habitually seek to blame someone "outside their own circle" for their failures, and the press in Iran seems the most accessible target.

The reformist daily "Aftab-i Yazd" observed on July 9 that there have been many more denunciations of critics by officials recently than expressions of sympathy with ordinary Iranians facing difficult economic conditions.

Blame The Messenger

Minister Saffar-Herandi's charge is not unprecedented -- officials have accused unspecified opponents of conspiracies, spying, or large-scale corruption before. It appears to be a response to public expressions of dissatisfaction by politicians and prominent public figures regarding the government's economic and public-administration performance since its inception in 2005.

The minister is furthermore not the only official to denounce perceived subversion or hostility. Fars News Agency reported on July 7 that presidential press aide, Mohammad Jafar Behdad, said Ahmadinejad's office would not sit quietly much longer as a "political and economic" gang spread "poison" and "black and unhealthy propaganda" against his government and pursued what it called "daily plots."

Prominent Tehran-based journalist and press activist Mashallah Shamsolvaezin told Radio Farda on July 8 that governments habitually seek to blame someone "outside their own circle" for their failures, and the press in Iran seems the most accessible target. Some observers might wonder where such overly critical -- never mind "subversive" -- press is, given the number of newspapers shut down by the judiciary during and since the reformist administration of then-President Mohammad Khatami in the late 1990s.

Most recently, the judiciary withdrew the publishing license for one reformist daily, "Mosharekat," that reflected the views of the reformist Participation Front and had been suspended for several years. It also suspended another daily, "Ham Mihan," that was run by a former Tehran mayor with ties to ex-President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and had been banned once before.

Judiciary authorities have also blocked the website for the labor-affiliated news agency ILNA. The agency had faced unspecified pressures for its coverage of student and labor unrest in recent months, according to Radio Farda on July 8. An unnamed judiciary official was quoted as saying the agency had faced many complaints and the website was blocked to prevent "the repetition of offenses," ISNA reported on July 11.

Activist journalist Shamsolvaezin observed that the government could defend itself through various sympathetic media outlets. He said such outlets include IRNA news agency and "Iran" newspaper, which reflect the executive branch's views while reporting news, right-wing dailies like "Kayhan" and "Resalat," and state television and radio, a generally conservative state institution. Shamsolvaezin argued that there are no "independent" media, as government officials cite, but at best "semi-independent" media that are "themselves subject to suppression, threats, closure, or self-censorship." Shamsolvaezin said that the government cannot tolerate even these outlets, arguably underscoring its own ineffectiveness.

Right-wing journalist Abbas Salimi-Namin disputed Shamsolvaezin's view in remarks published in the daily "Etemad" on July 10. Salimi-Namin said he thinks the government is lashing out precisely because it "is very weak in terms of media backing and use of media instruments," adding that such "weakness may be the reason why [the government] takes such a harsh view of press criticisms."

Lawmakers Weigh In

Salimi-Namin said some reformist papers have been consistently "unfair" in their criticisms of the Ahmadinejad government and that their reporting suggests a refusal to recognize Iran's elected government. He cited examples of such hostility -- reformist dailies like "Ham Mihan" and "Sharq" publishing similar-looking headlines some days, hinting that "clearly the two work in coordination." Why, Salimi-Namin asked, have such dailies not given credit to the Ahmadinejad government's foreign-policy achievements, such as improved ties in Latin America, which he called "beneficial" for Iran?

Saffar-Herandi's remarks provoked reactions from legislators. Mohammad Ali Moqnian, a member of the parliamentary Social Affairs Committee, urged the media to stand together in the face of "the pressure of some groups," ISNA reported on July 9. He warned that "pressure and powerful groups" are threatening the press, which they regard as endangering their interests.

A member of the legislature's Culture Committee identified on July 9 by ISNA only as Soruri, said with some optimism that the government should "pave the way for a reduction of pressures on the media" in the run-up to parliamentary elections. The daily "Aftab-i Yazd" observed on July 9 that officials are so busy denouncing domestic enemies and previous administrations that they seemed to be overlooking topics it said were of greater concern to Iranians and Muslims. The paper said such matters include the recent reported mistreatment of Iranian pilgrims in Saudi Arabia and the knighthood bestowed on Salman Rushdie.

Salimi-Namin told "Etemad" that he thinks the ministerial accusation points to government exaggeration of the scope and significance of press criticisms. He said it is unacceptable for a culture minister to use such terms regarding the press, and advised the government to increase its tolerance threshold ahead of parliamentary polls, set for March, which he predicted would be lively.

Iran's present government has shown its fondness for bombastic and provocative remarks, for which it garners considerable attention. Its minister of culture is -- alongside Ahmadinejad and the government's chief spokesman, Gholahussein Elham -- one of its more outspoken members. His accusations might not herald any new round of press restrictions, however, if only because such restrictions seem to exist on an ongoing basis and began before the arrival of the Ahmadinejad administration. But they might represent both an effort to justify government hostility to domestic critics -- who are presented as assailants, not dissidents -- and be part of moves that reformists fear are intended to discredit their forces enough to assure their disqualification before parliamentary elections.

Under such circumstances, this recent verbal attack might be regarded as part of the government's own creeping coup against future electoral rivals.

Afghanistan: Journalists Face Increasing Government Pressure

By Farangis Najibullah

Relatives of Zakiya Zaki, a killed female journalist, weep as her body is prepared for burial in Jabbul Saraj on June 6

July 9, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- An Afghan reporter who was critical of the government has been released after four days of detention on undisclosed charges. But a second journalist -- who reportedly reprinted extracts of an essay critical of President Hamid Karzai -- remains in custody.

International media rights groups such as the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders and the International Federation of Journalists in Brussels condemned the arrests of the Afghan journalists and demanded their release.

Unexplained Arrests

The Afghan National Security Directorate (NSD) did not say why radio journalist Kamran Mir Hazar -- who was released on bail on July 8 -- was arrested in the first place.

Journalists -- wary of possible retaliation for an unfavorable news report -- are forced to censor themselves in trying to avoid criticizing powerful politicians, drug dealers, or warlords.

The security service continues to hold Asif Nang -- the editor in chief of the government publication "Peace Jirga" -- who was arrested on June 30.

No reasons have been given by the NSD for either reporter's arrest.

Mir Hazar is also chief editor of the political blog, and his detention has been linked to articles published on his blog website.

Some of the articles criticize Afghan officials and accuse others of espionage.

After negotiation with security officials, Afghanistan's National Journalists Union was able to get Mir Hazar release on bail.

Criticism Not Taken Well

Union head Sayeed Agha Fazil Sanjaraki said he cannot confirm the alleged link between Mir Hazar's articles and his arrest. However, Sanjaraki says that Afghan officials do not usually tolerate journalists who criticize the government.

"Criticizing the Afghan government brings strong retaliation," he said. "The government does not tolerate criticism and it expects the media to exaggerate the government's achievements instead of disclosing the government's internal problems, its corruption and ineffectiveness, and criticizing its inabilities."

It seems that the alleged pressure from authorities is not the only problem Afghan journalists have been facing in recent months.

Sanjaraki says reporters face growing pressure and security threats as the security situation worsens in Afghanistan amid increased attacks from the Taliban-led insurgency.

He says that journalists -- wary of possible retaliation for an unfavorable news report -- are forced to censor themselves in trying to avoid criticizing powerful politicians, drug dealers, or warlords. Additionally, religion, family, and tribal traditions still remain taboo subjects for Afghan journalists and hardly anyone would dare challenge the words or actions of religious leaders.

Female Journalists Killed

Afghanistan's female journalists face additional pressure from their families and because of the practices in the country's conservative society.

Two women reporters -- Zakiya Zaki, the head of Radio Peace in Parvan Province, and Shakiba Amaj, a Shamshad TV reporter in Kabul -- have been killed this year for practicing their profession.

Manizha Bakhtari is the editor in chief of the magazine "Parniyan," based in Kabul. Bakhtari says security threats and self-censorship have become a "harsh reality of the day" for her colleagues.

"My colleagues face such problems every day and they face threats," she said. "So many times they [could] have criticized someone or disclosed a government secret or, sometimes, they got caught up in conflicts between the government and its opponents. [In such cases our journalists] were forced into self-censorship and had to remain silent. They were threatened."

Armenia: Restrictive Foreign-Media Legislation Falls In Parliament

By Jeffrey Donovan

Demonstrators against the bill outside parliament on July 2

July 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The Armenian parliament has failed to pass a bill that would have placed severe restrictions on foreign broadcast media, particularly RFE/RL.

The legislation would have banned foreign broadcasts on Armenian public television and radio and heavily taxed their retransmission on private stations.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) had said the proposals, which passed its first reading on June 29, amounted to a "ban on RFE/RL" and could have made Armenia's March 2008 presidential elections less free and fair.

The measure didn't pass in today's second and final reading because opposition, independent, and even some pro-government lawmakers blocked a quorum by boycotting two separate votes.

MORE: Coverage in Armenian from RFE/RL's Armenian Service.

Human Rights Watch , meanwhile, had called the legislative package a potential blow to media freedom in general.

But today's failed vote in parliament, where just enough lawmakers boycotted the vote to prevent a quorum, means the government must start over if it wants to try again to pass the legislation. That involves redrafting the proposals and resubmitting them again for a new first reading.

Victor Dalakian, an independent member of parliament, was one of the more outspoken critics of the legislation introduced by the government.

"The minority proved that quality is more important than quantity, and this would be a lesson for the parliamentary majority, that it should respect one of the most important rights: liberty," Dalakian told RFE/RL.

But it wasn't just the minority that doomed the draft legislation.

It didn't pass in today's second and final reading because opposition, independent, and even some pro-government lawmakers blocked a quorum by boycotting two separate votes.

In the first attempt, only 64 votes were cast (63 for, none against, one abstention) in the 131-member parliament. In the second try, 65 votes were cast (63 for, none against, two abstentions).

Both fell short of the 66 votes necessary for a quorum.

The votes came one day after the U.S. State Department weighed in. On July 2, following a question during a press briefing, the State Department issued a statement in which it suggested the proposed legislation was unlikely to further Armenia's "stated desire for continued democratization, particularly in the wake of the May parliamentary elections that marked a step forward even as they reflected the need for further improvements toward democratic standards."

The demonstration in Yerevan on July 2 (RFE/RL)

"We are pleased that there will now be more time for civil society to engage with Armenian lawmakers on this issue," Tom Mittnacht, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan, told RFE/RL after the vote today. "We appreciate the substantive and active dialogue we have had with the speaker of the assembly. We are happy that Radio Liberty will be able to continue broadcasting."

Speaker Tigran Torosian and other officials had argued that the legislation would actually not have affected RFE/RL broadcasts. But that position, given the legislation's wording, left observers both inside and outside the country puzzled.

That's because the legislation clearly spelled out sharp disincentives for private Armenian radio stations to carry foreign broadcasters' programs. They would have had to pay more than $200 in taxes each time they retransmitted a program produced by a foreign media organization.

That is about 70 times more than broadcasters must pay for a locally made program.

(RFE/RL's Armenian Service contributed to this report)

Russia: Sochi's Win Will Be Played 'For All It's Worth'

Arina Borodina (file photo)

July 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The overwhelming majority of Russian politicians and public figures have reacted with enthusiasm to awarding of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games to the resort town of Sochi. State television has been conducting a strident patriotic campaign around the decision. RFE/RL's Russian Service spoke with "Kommersant" television critic Arina Borodina.

RFE/RL: How would you describe the reaction to the Sochi decision?

Arina Borodina: Patriotic and rapturous. Maybe even a little too patriotic. Although in many respects such a reaction is fully understandable. I found [Duma speaker] Boris Gryzlov's reaction a little over the top [Gryzlov was quoted as saying the decision proves Moscow has allies with whom it can prevent the creation of a unipolar world], and it is true that television has been showing him a lot. But all the rest, in general, is very patriotic, very enthusiastic, but in my opinion, it is justified by such an event in the history of our country.

I think that this event plays perfectly into the hands of [President] Vladimir Putin and they [the state media] are simply going to play it for all it's worth. After all, as soon as the president arrived in Moscow, he spoke, against the background of the presidential plane, and congratulated all Russians on Sochi's victory -- said that in connection with it jobs will be created, that it is a socially significant idea. And all the television channels and all the news shows are broadcasting this and all the other politicians are joining in. To be honest, I think that now Gryzlov's rhetoric about how this isn't a unipolar world but a multipolar one, this will be played up to the fullest. Putin will use it to the full, and I think he deserves to since the lion's share of the success of Sochi's bid is due to Vladimir Putin's appearance, no matter how critically I may think of him.

We are talking about a truly significant event, one that every citizen of the country understands, no matter how poor and insecure. Of course, there are people who will say, "Why do we need the Olympics when we have unfinished roads, a lot of elderly people, poor people, and so on?" Of course. But the combination of this absolute fact and this propagandistic force, which is overwhelming.... Because what happened last night in the studios of Channel One.... Several [Duma] deputies and politicians who were there.... I have to admit that they all spoke about how only Sochi could win, but the rhetoric was such that...I felt sorry for my country and also a little embarrassed for those people.

RFE/RL: Why were you embarrassed?

Borodina: Channel One handled the event quite correctly. They worked in the studio non-stop and showed everything right up to the tallying of the votes. This is correct from the point of view of television. In such cases, television must work live and somehow keep up with reactions. But they invited into the studio two Korean girls who said that they were rooting for their country and how they saw on the news that the South Korean bid was among the strongest and how people were even betting on it. At which point the moderator Andrei Malakhov, in my opinion, completely unforgivably and improperly said that he doesn't know what news they were watching, that it must have been their news because our news wasn't showing anything like that, which was completely untrue, since that very show had clips from foreign news broadcasts, which was a correct approach. This was just boorishness, of course. Chauvinistic boorishness. Thank God last night they didn't spit on the West or make threats against America.

RFE/RL: This campaign connected with Sochi didn't just spring up overnight. It has been developing for several weeks, maybe even months. Everything was oriented toward Sochi winning. But what if Sochi hadn't won? There is a sort of feeling that the people who thought up this campaign would have known what to do. Do you have this feeling?

Borodina: Yes, definitely. I think that the majority of politicians -- not athletes, because I think the athletes yesterday acted in the most appropriate way -- but the politicians, and there were some governors, some Duma deputies, would have immediately launched tirades against all of Europe, against the IOC [International Olympic Committee]. I think the reaction would have been just the opposite. In some of the segments that were prepared, there were obvious "foundations" laid in case we lost.