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Media Matters: August 30, 2007

Radio Farda Journalist Describes Life 'In Limbo' In Iran

Parnaz Azima (file photo)

August 27, 2007 -- For more than eight months, Iranian authorities have prevented Radio Farda correspondent Parnaz Azima from leaving the country. In an interview with Radio Farda's Mosaddegh Katouzian on August 26, Azima said she lives in a state of limbo, never knowing precisely what are the charges against her or where they may lead. A citizen of both the United States and Iran, Azima has not been allowed to leave Iran since January 25, when she returned to visit her ailing mother.

RFE/RL: Court authorities have shown your attorney, Mohammad Hossien Aghasi, the specifics of your case for the first time. What is your reaction to the fact that it is now official that you have been barred from leaving Iran indefinitely until Intelligence Ministry officials return your confiscated Iranian passport?

Parnaz Azima: It is like you are in an unknown situation spending time in a state of limbo.... It is hard to put up with this when you don't know how long [it takes] and for an indefinite amount of time you end up living in a temporary situation, especially when you suddenly left everything [in the Czech Republic] and find yourself in Iran due to the illness of your mother.... I have left my apartment abroad for eight months, hoping God would look after it.... My grandchild will be born soon in the United States and I wish I could be there to experience this. I was under medical treatment before coming to Iran and that is now interrupted.

"Now, imagine a life in which you permanently think and feel that you are under surveillance, your visits and probably your phone calls are under control, and it is not clear when these will end."

In addition to all of this, an article was published in a newspaper in Iran in which it was implied that I was under surveillance.... I mean it was said that my visits with others are related to my work and things like this, which shows that therefore I am under surveillance. Now, imagine a life in which you permanently think and feel that you are under surveillance, your visits and probably your phone calls are under control, and it is not clear when these will end.... On top of that, if I have a security-related case, you have the feeling of threat or this concern that at every moment they may come to your home to inspect your residence.... The situation has become such that my close friends hesitate to visit me because these arrests and all the existing conditions have caused a fear among people, to which I give them every right. But, well, it is not that easy to bear this situation, especially when it becomes long-term and when you do not know when it will end.

RFE/RL: Have any officials made hopeful promises to you?

Azima: Well, some institutions representing the judiciary have tried to do some mediation; but they, too, made some suggestions to me that the Intelligence Ministry had suggested to me before -- i.e., the conditions they set up were similar to those of the Intelligence Ministry and under no conditions did I bend over and accept them. This has been the limit of such efforts and this contact, of course, was made only once.

RFE/RL: Which institution within the judiciary was it that contacted you?

Azima: I prefer not to mention its name.

RFE/RL: What were the specific suggestions made to you that you alluded to?

Azima: There was, of course, a new condition added. The first condition was to cooperate with the Intelligence Ministry -- the Intelligence Ministry had already proposed this to me, but I had rejected it. Then they suggested resigning from my position at Radio Farda, to which I said I thought it was a personal issue for individuals to decide where to work or not work or to resign or not resign. These cannot be dictated. Therefore I rejected these suggestions. I said, if I make a decision to cooperate with Radio Farda and continue my cooperation or at another point in time to leave Radio Farda for whatever reason, this would be my personal issue and no one else can dictate this to me.

RFE/RL: You also alluded to the article published in the daily "Etemad" about two months ago. Before you had mentioned that you and your attorney would try to have your response to the article published. Where have these attempts led?

Azima: After the talks with the representatives of those institutions in the judiciary, an article against me was published in "Etemad," which was very strange because usually "Etemad" does not publish this kind of article. There are other specific newspapers that we are familiar with that publish such articles. It was clear that the writer of the article had access to my case file, and it probably was an article dictated by the Intelligence Ministry or those who have had access to my case. And, of course much of the information in the article was altered and unreal. The writer attempted to prove that I was involved in actions against national security because I work for Radio Farda, or that since allegedly Radio Farda is an institution that seeks to instigate a soft revolution, therefore someone who works for Radio Farda is also involved in actions against national security, which were the same issues that I was asked about several times and which were mentioned during the interrogations. I mean, I had said that what you refer to as "propaganda against the state" is the same thing that we in professional and international journalism refer to as "the free flow of information."

In this article, in short, several unreal allegations were brought up and since in it there were allusions to the content of my case file, it is itself a crime, because it is first of all regarded as a kind of exposure of classified documents and, secondly, parts of it can be regarded as unfounded accusations.

Therefore, I wrote a letter to "Etemad" and asked the newspaper to publish my response. Despite my attempts and the contacts I made with the daily's editor and publisher, several phone calls and numerous visits of the "Etemad" office, unfortunately without officially saying that my response would not be published, the issue was constantly postponed to future weeks.

Then I sought my attorney's help in this matter, and following all contacts, he also faced a similar response. And, it is very strange to me why this newspaper is not willing to publish the response of a citizen who wishes to defend her honor and prestige, although this newspaper is a pro-reform publication. This is very strange to me. I asked them to publish the response by the end of the last month. But more than one month has passed since then and the response has not yet been published.

Mordvin Journalists Appeal To Russian President

By Liz Fuller
August 29, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Three journalists from the Republic of Mordovia recently addressed an open letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin protesting a campaign undertaken by the republic's prosecutor to close down "Erzyan mastor," the last non-state-controlled publication in Erzya, one of two closely related Mordvin languages.

In the letter (available here), the journalists categorically reject the prosecutor's argument that "Erzyan mastor" publishes "extremist" materials, and they stress that the Erzya feel no enmity toward the Russian people.

They suggest that the move to force the paper's closure was taken in retaliation for articles it printed criticizing the local authorities for their reluctance to take any measures to prevent the Erzya language, which is designated a state language in the republic's constitution together with Russian, from dying out.

Noting Putin's responsibility as head to state to "conduct a dialogue between representatives of different ethnic groups and religions," the signatories appeal to him to intervene.

Fighting Against Decline

Once the largest Uralic people within the Russian Federation, the Mordvins' numbers have reportedly fallen from 1,262,670 in 1970 to 1,153,516 in 1989, and by a further 300,000 over the past decade. At the time of the Russian Federation census of 2002, they accounted for just 31.9 percent of Mordovia's population of 888,766, while Russians accounted for 60.8 percent.

The Mordvins comprise two closely related ethnic groups, the Erzya and the Moksha, with the former outnumbering the latter by approximately two to one. The Erzya and Moksha languages, although related, are so different that speakers of one frequently have difficulty in understanding the other; Russian has become the lingua franca.

The Mordvins have for years been campaigning to reverse the steady erosion of their languages. At the Third Congress of the Mordvin People, which took place in Saransk, the Mordovian capital, in 1999, delegates were formally tasked by the republic's parliament with drafting legislation to promote the study of Mordvin in the republic's schools.

But six years later, the Erzya addressed an appeal to the 10th World Finno-Ugric Congress in Yoshkar-Ola in which they said neither Erzya nor Moksha is taught any longer in urban schools, while rural schools are being closed down. The recent appeal by the three journalists to Putin claimed that Erzya is "practically no longer taught," neither is there any textbook of the history of the Erzya people.

In those conditions, the forced closure of "Erzyan mastor," which has been published fortnightly since 1994 by the Mordovia Public Fund to Save the Erzya Language, could deal a death blow to the embattled Erzya language and thus, as the open letter signatories warn, to the Erzya's sense of national identity.

Abkhaz Journalists Outline Grievances To President

By Liz Fuller

Journalists are not alone in turning to President Bagapsh directly (file photo)

August 28, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The leader of Abkhazia recently met in Sukhum(i) with a group of independent journalists who issued a statement in July deploring what they termed official harassment and restrictions on media freedom in the breakaway Georgian region.

Sergei Bagapsh acknowledged that their grievances are at least partly justified, but it remains doubtful whether the de facto president's calls for the government bureaucracy to adopt a more cooperative stance vis-a-vis the independent media will be heeded.

Press Face Many Restrictions

The problems facing the independent print media in Abkhazia were outlined in detail in an editorial published in November 2006 in the independent weekly "Nuzhnaya gazeta."

That paper's editor, Izida Chania, listed spiraling printing costs; the reluctance of state-controlled printing presses to print independent publications; distribution problems; draconian tax laws that are applied only selectively; the absence of a legal framework to safeguard the functioning of a free press; and chronic stonewalling by government officials whom journalists approach for information.

A 115-page report released in June by the U.K.-based nongovernmental organization Article 19 makes the point that privately owned print media in Abkhazia, including "Nuzhnaya gazeta," constitute the sole alternative to either Abkhaz state television or Russian television channels, and often provide information that is not available from any other source. But most newspapers publish only weekly, in limited print runs, and are not available outside large towns.

Chania was one of five journalists who drafted an appeal to Bagapsh on July 27 following a roundtable discussion organized by the Abkhaz Journalists' and Publicists' Guild, reported on August 8. (Other roundtable participants included three parliament deputies from the opposition Forum of National Unity and the its executive secretary, Astamur Tania, who served as an aide to Bagapsh's predecessor as president, Vladislav Ardzinba.)

That appeal claimed that even though the Abkhaz authorities verbally profess their commitment to defending media freedom, the harassment of journalists -- including police control and constant summonses to the prosecutor's office -- has reached "Soviet-era proportions." They urged the Abkhaz authorities to endorse the open expression of diverging opinions, rather than seek to downplay problems and create the impression that "everything is going smoothly."

Going Right To The Top

An article published in "Nuzhnaya gazeta" on June 12 made the point that citizens frequently go directly to the president in exasperation after their complaints or requests are ignored by lower-level officials. Bagapsh reportedly sets aside Mondays for such meetings, and receives up to 20 people during one day.

At their meeting with Bagapsh on August 15, the same group of journalists raised the most important issues highlighted by Chania nine months earlier, including the lack of a legal framework for the media, tax policy, and access to information. (The widespread social repercussions in an impoverished postconflict society of limited access to information are discussed in detail in the Article 19 study.)

They also listed issues which they argued should become the subject of a broad public debate, including the privatization of large state-owned enterprises; the creation of industrial zones; migration; economic inequality between the republic's various regions; and the expansion of the tourist industry. They urged Bagapsh to intervene personally to overcome the "inertia" of middle-level bureaucrats.

The Article 19 study notes that since his election in early 2005, Bagapsh has sought to promote the more effective exchange of information between government and public. One of his initiatives was the creation earlier this year of a Public Chamber intended to serve as a means of communication between the state and civil society.

Several of the chamber's 35 members were present at Bagapsh's meeting with the editors, and he urged the chamber to work together with independent media outlets to facilitate the latter's access to government officials.

At the same time, he urged journalists to restrict themselves to "constructive" criticism in order to avoid exacerbating what his website termed the "standoff" between the media and the republic's authorities.

Russian Fiction Writer Faces Possible Libel Charges

Pavel Astakhov is also a lawyer who has defended companies against the Kremlin (file photo)

August 17, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's modern literary history might soon open a new chapter -- an author facing libel charges for characterizations contained in a work of fiction.

Moscow city prosecutors have already questioned Pavel Astakhov about his novel, "Raider," and are now deciding whether to open a criminal case.

The head of the city police's main investigative directorate, Ivan Glukhov, initiated the investigation by asking prosecutors to open a criminal case against Astakhov and his publishing company.

According to Glukhov, the novel "contains numerous insulting and libelous deliberations" about the directorate, and defames the reputation of Russian police in general.

In his letter to prosecutors, Glukhov acknowledges that the novel is "literary-fictional," but argues that, because the text refers to a police unit that actually exists, readers are being led to believe that events depicted in the story are true.

'Recognized Problem'

The author's lawyer, Mikhail Burmistrov, strongly disagrees. He tells RFE/RL's Russian Service that the issue of police corruption is nothing new -- and is even openly addressed by high-ranking officials in Russia. Therefore, Burmistrov says, his client's book is simply touching on a recognized problem.
"What's most important from a legal perspective, he does not mention a single concrete individual. This is really a work of fiction."

"He [Astakhov] is not saying anything new, just highlighting some problems more clearly," Burmistrov says. "And, what's most important from a legal perspective, he does not mention a single concrete individual. This is really a work of fiction. And fictional work is that is created by author's imagination."

"Raider," which can be described as a crime thriller, follows a plot centered on mergers and acquisitions among companies. The protagonist, a businessman, bribes officers from the investigative directorate, who raid companies and open criminal cases to his benefit. But in the story, a young lawyer confronts the corruption.

The possibility that a criminal case could be opened against Astakhov has surprised many. The genre of crime thrillers is very popular in Russia, and the wrongdoings of law-enforcement agencies are often addressed in works of fiction.

Crackdown On Freedom

Some analysts believe that there are deeper motives behind this case -- that it is intended to serve as a warning to authors by holding the threat of prosecution for what they write over their heads.

The author of the hugely popular "Day Watch" and "Night Watch" series and arguably the most popular science-fiction writer in Russia today, Sergei Lukyanenko, is among those who feel this way.

"Of course this worries me," he says. "Because it's easy to cross the line between observing the law, which is an essential part of any civilized country, and abusing the rights of ordinary citizens, abusing freedom of speech, and so on. This is a very difficult thing -- and in the struggle to protect these laws it would be easy to overstep the mark and start to limit a person's right to express himself freely."

To some commentators, the possible case against Astakhov also represents part of an ongoing crackdown on independence within the country's legal system.

Apart from being a writer, Astakhov is a successful lawyer. And at various times he has represented Russia's formerly independent television company, NTV -- now owned by the state-controlled gas monopoly, Gazprom -- and Yukos, against which the government led a politically charged campaign.

Some believe that such activities of an independent lawyer may have angered the authorities.

Prosecutors are expected to decide within a week whether to move forward with charges against Astakhov.