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Media Matters: September 17, 2007

Turkmenistan: Media Repression Continues, One Year After Journalist's Death

By Oguljamal Yazliyeva

Muradova's name is included on a memorial in the French town of Bayeux for journalists killed on the job (file photo)

September 14, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- On June 18, 2006, the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation on Human Rights (THF) released a report on a "new wave of arrests of civil activists." It said Turkmen security forces had arrested human-rights activists Annagurban Amangylyjov, Yelena Ovezova, Sapardurdy Hajiyev, and RFE/RL correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova. All of them were held for allegedly possessing banned weapons.

The 58-year-old Muradova -- a former member of the THF -- had been reporting on deteriorating social conditions in Turkmenistan. At that time of her arrest, she had worked for RFE/RL for only three months. After her arrest, it was reported that Turkmen security agencies had earlier cut her telephone line and put her house under constant surveillance.

According to the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation, she also was followed by security-service agents and placed on video surveillance for 20 days before her arrest. Despite such pressures, Muradova continued performing her job as a journalist.

Black Day

September 14, 2006, became a black day on the calendar for Muradova's family, which includes three children and grandchildren.

Turkmen Security officials informed the family that Muradova had died and claimed her death was from natural causes. However, people who saw her body say it showed signs of Muradova having been severely beaten.

One year later, there has been no thorough investigation into the circumstances that led to Muradova's sentencing in a closed trial and her death in custody in prison. Her death is a tragic example of the overall human-rights condition in Turkmenistan.

Censorship Of Media Continues

Longtime authoritarian Turkmen leader Saparmurat Niyazov died three months after Muradova, in December 2006, yet there has been little change in the bleak status of press freedom in Turkmenistan.

Unfortunately, strict censorship of information and of the news media -- which is almost completely controlled by the state -- continues. Journalists for RFE/RL's Turkmen Service -- who provide the only source of independent information in the country -- are regularly subjected to threats and harassment by the authorities.

"The actions by the government taken against journalists who candidly express their views once again shows that there is no way for freedom of expression in Turkmenistan," said Hanamov Nurmuhammet, the leader of the Republican Party in exile. "Once again, it shows that authorities want to destroy independent journalists. It emphasizes the fact that free media and free expression is banned in the country."

"Countries like Turkmenistan don't want a free press, don't want the journalists to be able to speak freely and to criticize freely their governments." -- Jean-Francois Julliard, Reporters Without Borders

In an interview with RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, Jean-Francois Julliard, a news editor at Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said, "Countries like Turkmenistan don't want a free press, don't want the journalists to be able to speak freely and to criticize freely their governments."

He added: "This is the reason why in a lot of countries -- including Central Asian countries and Turkmenistan -- the authorities try to do their best to control the press, to control the independent media, and to try to shut down the critical voices."

However, there are some very small signs of change in the liberalization of Turkmen society.

On August 9, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov approved the pardon and release of 11 political prisoners. Additionally, Turkmenistan plans to release more than 9,000 convicts in line with a massive amnesty on the occasion of the "Night of Omnipotence" during the holy month of Ramadan. Many are hopeful that all journalists, prisoners of conscience, and human-rights activists currently imprisoned in Turkmenistan will be released.

Elsa Vidal, the head of the Europe desk at RSF, said in commenting on a letter sent by RSF Secretary-General Robert Menard to Berdymukhammedov on August 17 that: "The important thing for us is that we need to show that we are closely witnessing what is happening in Turkmenistan and that we want to bring support to any step Mr. Berdymukhammedov is willing to take to change the regime into a more democratic sort of state."

Never Forgotten

Muradova was a brave woman who dedicated her life to the struggle for freedom of expression. And her name will not be forgotten. In May, RSF and the mayor's office of the French town of Bayeux inaugurated a memorial for journalists killed on the job. Muradova's name was engraved on the stone pillar next to the names of other journalists killed in 2006.

RFE/RL Director of Broadcasting Michele DuBach, who attended the ceremony, remembered Muradova by saying, "Ogulsapar Muradova wanted to make difference. She was a journalist, a mother, and a grandmother. Indeed, [her reporting] did make a difference in Turkmenistan, but she paid a price."

Kazakhstan: Writer Charged For 'Insulting, Hateful' E-Mails

September 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Nurlan Alimbekov, a self-described philosopher and political analyst in Kazakhstan, is facing criminal charges that include inciting religious and ethnic hatred for e-mails he sent and received.

Alimbekov's e-mails brought Kazakhstan's National Security Committee (KNB) to his home in Shymkent in South Kazakhstan Province, where he was detained by KNB agents.

Alimbekov now faces charges under Kazakhstan's law on mass media, in the first such case to be applied to the use of email. He has been in custody since August 16 and -- according to at least one source -- could soon be transferred to a psychiatric center.

Little is known about the content of 23 e-mails purportedly found in Alimbekov's e-mail outbox. Relatives and friends contacted by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service could not say exactly what was in the messages.

A KNB official, Nurlan Balgimbaev, suggested the suspect had "insulted" Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev and "encouraged religious hatred and enmity."

Human rights activists say at least one referred to a "Putin-Nazarbaev KGB-Gestapo."

Arrested For His Beliefs

Rozlana Taukina, the head of the Almaty-based Journalists in Trouble Foundation, says that no matter what was in the e-mails, the charges against Alimbekov have no legal basis.

"We express our protest in connection with the arrest [of Alimbekov] and with the fact that -- on ideological motives, for the man's beliefs, for his viewpoints, for his subjective opinions -- they oppress him and have fabricated two criminal suits against him," Taukina said.

The suspect's brother, Oraz, told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service on September 4 that KNB agents, accompanied by a senior investigator, beat Alimbekov when they came to detain him.

"They did not show any warrant when they arrested him. They forced him into the car and beat him [while he had] handcuffs on. Senior investigator Turmanov was present when they were kicking and beating my brother," Oraz Alimbekov said. He said that his brother suffered a broken rib and several broken teeth. " I managed to speak to him yesterday [September 3] -- he told me he had not been able to eat for two days," he said.

News agency Interfax-Kazakhstan first reported on Alimbekov's case on September 4, nearly three weeks after he was detained. The agency quoted Nurlan Balgimbaev, a former prime minister who heads the South Kazakhstan region's KNB. Balgimbaev alleged that Alimbekov's e-mail messages violate Kazakh media laws because he was sending e-mails to multiple addresses -- including to foreign diplomatic representations in Kazakhstan.

Balgimbaev also said a psychiatric evaluation of Alimbekov was done because he "did not behave himself adequately." Balgimbaev said the "experts" who conducted those tests suspect Alimbekov is psychopathic, although no final conclusions were reached. He added that Alimbekov will undergo further psychiatric analysis in Almaty.

No Isolated Case

The case is likely to spawn considerable private debate in Kazakshtan, which has a history of using the legal system to silence government critics.

Theater director Bolat Atabaev, who has been following the case along with the rest of the public, told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that everyone has a right to express his opinion on the current state of society.

"If they kill politicians, if they kill normal people -- the cream of society -- why should he keep silent?" Atabaev said.

It is perhaps too early to say whether Alimbekov's case will set a precedent. South Kazakhstan KNB chief Balgimbaev said security forces violated no laws on privacy by detaining Alimbekov for his e-mails, since the messages had been forwarded by recipients to law-enforcement agencies.

But Alimbekov's case raises questions about free speech -- and the distinction between private materials and mass-media publications.

(RFE/RL Kazakh Service Director Merhat Sharipzhan contributed to this report)

Russia's 'Nezavisimaya Gazeta' Is Worth Watching Again

By Robert Coalson
September 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Throughout the era of President Vladimir Putin, Russian media have been dominated by a trend toward bland, state-dominated homogenization.

Inexorably, the media have fallen under the control of the state, state-controlled structures like Gazprom, or holding companies controlled by Kremlin-connected business figures. As the country enters an election season that will stretch into March 2008, the media can be relied upon to help ensure a carefully scripted process and to turn a blind eye to the manipulations of the courts and election commissions that may prove necessary for the Kremlin to achieve its aims.

At first glance, the story of the highbrow daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" fits this scenario. Once a darling of the late-perestroika and post-1991 media scene, the paper was taken over by then-oligarch Boris Berezovsky in 2001 (who had been financing it since 1995) and began a precipitous decline. The paper's founder and long-time editor, Vitaly Tretyakov, was dismissed, and "Nezavisimaya gazeta" became known for giving acres of front-page space to Berezovsky's tendentious diatribes.

Remchukov said he does not view criticism of the authorities as the primary task of his newspaper, although he is ready to speak out when "it is necessary to criticize."

In 2005, as part of a sweeping process by which the disgraced Berezovsky was divested of his properties, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" was sold to Konstantin Remchukov (technically, the paper is owned by his wife, Yelena) for a rumored $3 million (according to "Vremya novostei" and others). Around the same time, metals magnate Alisher Usmanov picked up Berezovsky's "Kommersant" group. Both men entered the decidedly political realm of Russian media making pronouncements about how they intended to place profits above politics.

But the story of "Nezavisimaya gazeta" may yet turn out to be an anomaly in Russia's Putin-era media environment.

'The Leading Political Newspaper'

Remchukov, 52, has impressive credentials. In the mid-1980s, he pursued graduate studies at Pennsylvania State University, later working as Russia program director for the Scandinavian Management Center in Stockholm and as a visiting professor at Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tennessee. In 1997, he became a consultant for the Siberian Aluminum group, which is part of Oleg Deripaska's holdings. He held a variety of positions in Deripaska's organizations at least through 2001. In 1999, he joined the political council of the Union of Rightist Forces political party and was elected to the State Duma on the party list later that year. While in the Duma, he served as deputy chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, apparently while simultaneously working for Deripaska.

Konstantin Remchukov (RFE/RL file photo)

In 2001, he began working in the government, first as a presidential adviser on matters relating to Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization and, since 2004, as an adviser to Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref.

In an interview with Radio Mayak in July, Remchukov said, "I bought ["Nezavisimaya gazeta"] simply because I needed something to do after I stopped being a deputy and left business." Nonetheless, the media at the time were full of speculation that Remchukov made his move at the behest of Deripaska, who in turn was acting on behalf of the Kremlin. Remchukov steadfastly denied these rumors.

In February, Remchukov took the bold step of appointing himself editor in chief of "Nezavisimaya gazeta" and taking over day-to-day operations of the paper. He has told journalists that he personally writes the paper's unsigned editorials and that his goal is to make the daily "the leading political newspaper in the country." He told Radio Mayak that he wants "Nezavisimaya gazeta" to be "the paper that is in the offices of company executives," and that achieving this goal will make it attractive to elite advertisers.

Criticism 'When Necessary'

Since Remchukov took on this active role, the paper has maintained a line that is best described as principled liberalism. It has not shied away from criticizing government policies or individual officials (including Putin), but it can hardly be described as an "opposition" paper. Remchukov told "Novaya gazeta" in February that he does not view criticism of the authorities as the primary task of his newspaper, although he is ready to speak out when "it is necessary to criticize." In April, he launched a weekly supplement called "NG-Politika," which he introduced as an effort to counter the widespread notions that "there are no politics" in Russia and that everything political begins and ends with Vladimir Putin.

In particular, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" has criticized the Kremlin's tightening control over the Central Election Commission and the Academy of Sciences. Remchukov has also assailed the administration for damaging Russia's image abroad through, among other things, a confrontational approach, the use of "energy expansionism," and the poor handling of the investigation into the poisoning death in London of former Russian security official Aleksandr Litvinenko.

On the other hand, in June, Remchukov penned an article that was generally favorable toward presidential aide Vladislav Surkov's pronouncements on "sovereign democracy." He noted that Surkov has succeeded in building a political system, while "none of his opponents have offered us such an independent reading of the fundamental problems of freedom and democracy in Russia." Tellingly, Remchukov offered up the pages of his newspaper for a discussion of this theme and in recent weeks the paper has published several articles from across the central portion of Russia's political spectrum.

Although Remchukov has expressed some personal support for the presidential ambitions of First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (who is reportedly supported by Deripaska as well), "Nezavisimaya gazeta" has been evenhanded in its coverage of the successor speculation, publishing long articles in recent months about First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Naryshkin, and Rosoboroneksport head Sergei Chemezov.

No Political Pressure

In May, Remchukov was among the civil-society representatives who met with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. "I told the secretary that, as the owner and editor of a print-media organ, I have never come across pressure from the authorities," Remchukov was quoted by as saying after the meeting. "Not when I was buying the paper and not since I have been working there have I received a single phone call."

However, like all media in Russia, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" works under the sword of Damocles of the state, which controls printing and distribution, is able to exert massive pressure on advertisers, and controls an arsenal of state agencies from the fire brigade to the tax inspectorate. These potential pressures and the lack of protections against them must qualify any Russian media outlet's claims of independence.

The "Nezavisimaya gazeta" print run is less than 50,000 copies per issue and Remchukov reports the paper's website has about 70,000 daily visitors. It is a serious outlet aimed at an elite audience. The paper bears watching, especially as the election season unfolds and, as seems likely, the policies of sovereign democracy come into conflict with the principles of liberalism. At this point, though, it seems the daily offers a promising media model that is somewhere between direct state control and the self-serving irresponsibility that characterized the era of Berezovsky and fellow media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky. As Remchukov told Rice in May, "Freedom of the press is guaranteed by private owners and the more of them there are, the greater the guarantee of objective discussion in society."