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Media Matters: December 13, 2007

Azerbaijan: RFE/RL Journalist Freed But Faces New Charges

RFE/RL correspondent Ilgar Nasibov

Ilgar Nasibov, a correspondent with RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, was released from prison in Azerbaijan's exclave of Naxcivan on December 10, four days after he was summarily sentenced for libeling local law-enforcement personnel.

A Naxcivan city court judge dismissed the charges and the 90-day jail sentence, which stemmed from an e-mail Nasibov sent to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev complaining that Naxcivan journalists were routinely harassed by local police.

At the same time, however, the judge handed Nasibov a one-year suspended sentence in response to a second set of libel allegations.

"The judge told me that this decision will not affect my journalism activities in the region," Nasibov said. "He said: 'This year is a probation period for you, and during this time, you can't distribute false information or be involved in any illegal or inflammatory activity. So you should work in a constructive and objective way. If you do that, you shouldn't have any problems.'"

Authorities claim that materials found on Nasibov's computer, confiscated at the time of his December 6 imprisonment, included incriminating accusations about two local professors, a businessmen, and the brother of the local police chief. Prosecutors attempted to link the apparent find to a recent newspaper article alleging that unnamed university professors were colluding with Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels. (Naxcivan shares a 13-kilometer border with Turkey.)

Nasibov's wife, Malahat Nasibova, says police confiscated her husband's computer and other work materials without a warrant. Authorities also failed to provide a copy of the indictment against him or even inform Nasibova where he was being held.

The case came amid a mounting media crackdown in Azerbaijan, and quickly drew international condemnation. The U.S. State Department said it was "deeply disturbed" by Nasibov's imprisonment, and called the case "yet another indication of the deterioration of media freedom in Azerbaijan."

Nasibov was the 10th journalist to serve prison time in Azerbaijan this year. Elman Abbasov, a fellow Naxcivan journalist, was detained on December 6 but released during the weekend.

Nasibov and his wife both report regularly on the human rights situation in Naxcivan, a remote exclave separated from the rest of Azerbaijan by Armenia. Its regional head, Vasif Talibov, is a close relative of President Aliyev's and has imposed harsh restrictions on his citizens ranging from bans on bread-making to forced weekend labor.

Oil-rich Azerbaijan ranks low in many global press-freedom rankings, and Naxcivan is considered one of its most repressive regions. The press-freedom group Reporters Without Borders has described it as a "region without rights" or freedom of expression.

(RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service)

For more on Nasibov's case and others, see Journalist Crackdown Continues In 'Azerbaijan's North Korea'

Independent Belarusian Newspaper Threatened With Closure

A Minsk court this week began hearing a defamation case that could result in the closure of one of the last independent newspapers in Belarus.

Christina Gallach, spokeswoman for EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana, told the Belapan news agency on December 5, the day the hearings began, that the bloc is concerned about the case.

"We have been following this issue very closely, and with increasing concern," Gallach said. "The importance of the freedom of the media is one of the key issues the European Union has repeatedly raised with the Belarusian authorities."

In the case, parliamentarian Mikalay Charhinets, a close associate of and possible successor to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, is seeking an unprecedented 500 million Belarusian rubles ($230,000) from the newspaper "Novy chas" and another 100 million from the author of a purportedly libelous article published in September.

Charhinets, a former senior Interior Ministry official who claims to be the author of dozens of literary works, is also the head of Belarus's official writers union. "Novy chas" publishes a monthly supplement organized by an independent writers union that was closed down by the authorities last year.

"I think that this blow has been dealt not to me but to the 'Novy chas' newspaper, which currently publishes writers who do not belong to the so-called correct union of writers," journalist Alyaksandr Tamkovich, the author of the disputed article, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service.

In a November 26 press release, "Novy chas" Editor in Chief Alyaksey Karol said the amount of damages sought is more than 20 times the amount sought against the independent "Narodnaya volya," which has been the target of similar complaints three times in recent years.

The article at the heart of the case questions Charhinets's authorship of the plays and novels published under his name and tries to connect him with the so-called Vitebsk case from the 1980s. In that case, several innocent people were convicted, under heavy pressure from Soviet authorities, in connection with a spate of killings. The article also accuses him of exaggerating his service in Afghanistan during the Soviet war there.

Charhinets also made headlines in June 2003 at the funeral of renowned patriotic writer Vasil Bykau. Charhinets attempted to remove the nationalist red-white-red flag, a historic Belarusian symbol that has been banned by Lukashenka, from the coffin during the service.

"Novy chas" began publication in March after its predecessor, "Zgoda," was closed down by the authorities last year in connection with the country's presidential election. The amount of damages being sought in the Chahinets case equals several times the paper's annual budget.

(For more on Belarus, see 19-Year-Old Activist Fights For God And Country)

Turkmenistan: A New Obstacle For Access To The Airwaves

By Gulnoza Saidazimova

Is the ban on satellite dishes only intended to beautify Ashgabat? (Chronicles of Turkmenistan)

Since taking over this year, new Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has been viewed hopefully as a possible reformer who might open up one of the world's most repressive societies. But a new order to remove all private satellite dishes from homes in Ashgabat -- which critics say could block access to independent information -- is quickly tarnishing that image.

After holding cordial talks with EU officials in Brussels in November, Berdymukhammedov returned home with a burnished image as a man the West can do business with -- a man apparently set to free up Turkmenistan after the bizarre reign of his late predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov.

But in a nationally televised speech on November 30, Berdymukhammedov seemed to take a step backward. He announced he had ordered the minister of communications to remove satellite dishes from apartment blocks in Ashgabat, the capital. In their place, he said, would go "a single powerful dish" on each building.

"Perhaps this does not pose such a big problem," Berdymukhammedov said, adding that the move was intended to remove a blight on the skyline and make Ashgabat a prettier city.

Given the country's recent history of state control and intimidation, it is unsurprising that there are skeptics who fear the real motives lie elsewhere.

While the president did not specify who would be in control of the single dishes, rights activists suspect the government will now determine what Turkmen can tune in to.

Farid Tuhbatullin, an exiled activist and chairman of the Vienna-based Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, sees Berdymukhammedov's move as a clear violation of Turkmen civil rights.

"They [satellite dishes] are the only source of information in Turkmenistan at present," Tuhbatullin says. "If they are removed or, as the president said, replaced by a single dish, it will be a violation of a right to receive free information. Not only does it violate current Turkmen legislation, but also human rights -- the right to own private property and the right to receive and choose information."

Satellite television penetration in Ashgabat is significant. With a flood of cheap, Chinese-made dishes that cost as little as $50, Tuhbatullin says almost every family in the capital of 500,000 people has at least one, maybe more. He said people in Turkmenistan can access the Hotbird or AsiaSat satellites, and that they watch mostly Russian, Turkish, and Iranian channels, as well as Western networks such as CNN and BBC. Residents of the border areas near Uzbekistan watch Uzbek television as well.

New President Loses Liberal Sheen

Berdymukhammedov, a former dentist, had given hope to many inside and outside Turkmenistan after coming to power earlier this year. For over two decades, the country lived under the rule of Niyazov, who created a notorious cult of personality. He died in December 2006.

In one of his first moves, Berdymukhammedov reinstated pensions for elderly citizens, which Niyazov had cancelled. It was welcome news in a country where nearly half the population lives in poverty despite huge fossil-fuel resources. There were also reports that traveling inside the country and in border areas with neighboring Uzbekistan had become easier in recent months.

And in a move praised by Western governments, Berdymukhammedov ordered the release of nearly a dozen prisoners, including a former chief mufti, in August. However, his amnesty of prisoners announced in early October did not include prominent political prisoners -- opponents of Niyazov's regime.

Berdymukhammedov meeting with EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner in Brussels (official site)

In the West, which hopes to gain access to Turkmen energy resources, Berdymukhammedov has also been viewed with cautious optimism. His new "multivector" foreign policy has resulted in many more contacts with Western diplomats, even taking him to Brussels in early November for landmark meetings with the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs, and Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson.

Yet his order to remove satellite dishes has drawn a cloud over this emerging positive image. Not even Niyazov, who had total control over domestic media, managed to remove satellite dishes from people's homes.

Oleg Panfilov, who heads the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, believes the real reason behind the order is not to improve Ashgabat's look, but to "deprive" the Turkmen people of independent information. "I am becoming more and more confident that Berdymukhammedov is not a liberal at all," Panfilov says. "It's clear that steps he has taken and his public statements are aimed primarily at the West. [In practice], there are no serious changes."

Panfilov speculates that Berdymukhammedov may be uneasy about the Turkmen public getting independent information via satellite because he does not feel his authority is strong enough. "Niyazov was more powerful and in control and therefore did not really impose a ban on satellite dishes in practice," Panfilov says.

Satellite dishes sprang up like mushrooms in early 1990s, when Berdymukhammedov's predecessor tightened his grip on local media and banned foreign media outlets. The situation in some ways paralleled what was happening in neighboring Iran. There, satellite dishes were banned in 1995, partly because of broadcasts by Iranian opposition groups beamed mostly from the United States.

Previous Iranian governments had rarely enforced that ban, acknowledging that the dishes would sprout back up every time authorities tried to round them up. But under the hard-line rule of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, police are instructed to crack down on independent satellite dishes and organize regular raids that may go as far as to include the use of helicopters, to locate and confiscate privately owned dishes. Owners are likely to be imprisoned and expected to pay a heavy fine.

It is yet to be seen whether Turkmen authorities will go as far as their Iranian counterparts, but the signs are not encouraging.

The Turkmen president's speech on November 30 also assumed some of the bizarre tones that characterized Niyazov's rhetoric. "Streets in the city are extremely dirty, and there are tree leaves everywhere," Berdymukhammedov said, ordering the use of recently imported vehicles to clean city streets.

He also ordered the Interior Ministry and public organizations to take measures against smokers and their litter. "One cannot go around without seeing cigarette butts everywhere in the city. Streets are full of smoking people," he said. "The problem has lasted so long because some senior officials are smokers themselves. There should not be such things at all."

The speech seemed straight from the playbook of Niyazov, who famously condemned gold-capped teeth, long hair and beards, and other seemingly personal choices. He also banned ballet, opera, a philharmonic orchestra, and a circus. The leader called Turkmenbashi -- the "Father of All Turkmen" -- believed they violated national values.

Perhaps his successor agrees.

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

Georgia: Imedi Opposition TV To Return To Airwaves

The Imedi television studio was badly damaged in a police raid on November 7

December 4, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A popular independent broadcaster shut down at the height of Georgia's political crisis last month has been given the green light to resume work.

Imedi Television, which was forcibly taken off the air on November 7, may begin new broadcasts as early as this week.

Georgian authorities shut down all private news stations after large antigovernment protests in early November prompted President Mikheil Saakashvili to impose a state of emergency.

The others have since resumed broadcasts. But Imedi -- whose founder, controversial Georgian billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili, is a vocal Saakashvili critic -- remained off the air. A Tbilisi city court ruled to suspend the broadcaster's license and freeze its assets, saying its coverage of the opposition protests amounted to incitement to overthrow the government.

The shutdown left a considerable vacuum in Georgian media. Imedi is the country's most popular broadcaster, with a 70 percent market share. The closure was also loudly lamented by the West, which accused Saakashvili of betraying his commitment to democratic principles. The fact that Imedi is partly owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp only brightened the international spotlight on the case. (Imedi also serves as an affiliate for RFE/RL radio and TV broadcasts in Georgia.)

Last month's crisis ended with Saakashvili, in an apparent sop to his political adversaries, announcing early presidential elections on January 5. The opposition quickly demanded that Imedi be restored to the airwaves before the vote.

Parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, who is serving as the country's acting president until the vote, this week defended the shutdown but said broadcasts should resume to diversify the country's media environment ahead of the vote.

"The decision to freeze [Imedi's] assets was taken in full accordance with the law, and this has been verified by the court," Burjanadze said. "Despite this, I am asking the Prosecutor-General's Office to take into consideration the significance of the special preelection period in the country." She added that the "threat" that necessitated the freezing of Imedi's assets should be "considered liquidated."

Burjanadze's announcement followed a visit to Georgia by Polish journalist and former Solidarity activist Adam Michnik, who was dispatched by the European Union, the United States, and the Polish Foreign Ministry to help resolve the Imedi standoff.

Michnik, the editor in chief of Poland's prominent "Gazeta Wyborcza" newspaper, held what he characterized as "difficult" meetings with members of the Georgian media, political opposition, and the government. He expressed confidence that the broadcasts would be resumed, but issued a stark warning to Georgian authorities, saying a failure to reopen Imedi would be "a threat to democracy in Georgia" and a sign "the Georgian government does not want pluralism in the media."

Imedi employees have been given tentative permission to return to their work premises on December 5, but it is unclear how quickly they will be able to resume broadcasts. Imedi authorities say the station sustained significant damage during the November 7 shutdown, when riot police stormed the building and smashed equipment.

The station's managing director, Bidzina Baratashvili, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service he was grateful to Michnik and others for aiding the station's return to the airwaves. "I can only thank all these organizations and individuals," he said. "But I hope that common sense also prevailed in the governmental structures. I have to acknowledge that, in the end, the government made a constructive decision, and I do not think it resulted solely from pressure."

Iran: Book Censorship The Rule, Not The Exception

By Faraj Sarkouhi

A slimmer choice: women browse a Tehran bookshop (file)

November 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The swift move by Iran's Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister to ban a newly published novel by Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez has once again put the spotlight on the phenomenon of censorship in Iran.

The ban on "Memoirs of My Melancholy Whores," published in Iran as "My Sad Sweethearts," has raised new concerns about the fate of many banned writers and hundreds of other banned books in Iran.

Censorship has intensified over the last two years, with many books appearing only in expunged versions, while others previously available -- like the Marquez novel -- have had subsequent print runs banned.

The List Keeps Growing

From the moment that Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister Mohammad Hossein Saffar-Harandi took office in 2005, the list of prohibited books in Iran started growing.

A quick look at the books on the list confirms that there has been an increase in the intensity and recklessness of censorship in all areas.

The wide range of the banned literature includes Persian classical literature and gnosticism, a wide array of academic university books, some of the best-known world literature, and books illustrating a number of famous people from the Islamic world.

In the two years since Harrandi took office, more than 70 percent of previously published books have been banned from being republished, even though each and every one of those books had initially been given permission from the pre-Harrandi Culture Ministry to be published the first time.

The Culture Ministry's "special examiners" have made decisions on the legitimacy of books based on the country's current political atmosphere and their own political, ideological, or personal interests. But their decisions have no basis in the law.

Because of this, prohibiting the publication of officially authorized books has also become a common phenomenon.

Arbitrary Censorship

In Iran, there are no clear, well-publicized rules or regulations regarding the censorship of books and publications. Yet Iranian publishers are obligated to send the first edition of a book to the Culture Ministry "examiners." If the name of the writer or his work is not on the "blacklist" of banned writers, then the book will be read and inspected.

Afterwards the "examiners" make notes and comments, suggest modifications, or sometimes even annexations and send it back to the publisher. When the required changes are made, the publisher gets permission to publish.

However, even then the publisher must send several copies of the published book to the Culture Ministry for another assessment. At this point, sometimes the ministry requires new changes or even decides on an outright ban of the work. There have been several incidents in which a book that has was initially authorized is later banned from being republished.

In the last two years, the removal of parts and whole pieces of works by well-known poets such as Souzani Samarghandi, Omar Khayam, Molana Jalaledin Rumi, Nezami Ganjavi, Abid Zakani, Iradj Mirza, and even some lexicons from Ali Akbar Dehkhoda and Farhang Moeen has occurred.

Additionally, the works of popular literature by such people as Samak Ayar and Hossein Kord Shabastri have been published only after the elimination of some of their main elements.

The main target of censorship has been some of Iran's best contemporary writers and researchers, such as Sadegh Hedayat, Sadegh Choobak, Ebrahim Golestan, Gholamhossein Saaedi, Ahmad Kasravi, Ali Dashti, Ebrahim Poordavoud, Zabih Behrouz, and others.

One on a long list: Amirhossein Cheheltan (courtesy photo)

Some of Hedayat's works were banned from being published even before this newly raised fever of censorship, but the efforts made last year by numerous publishers and family members of Hedayat regarding the republication of an uncensored version of the novel "The Blind Owl" once again failed to clear the barricade of censorship.

Approval for the republication of Hedayat's novel "The Vagrant Dog" was also denied by the Culture Ministry due to its objection of the image used on the book's cover.

Publishers' efforts to reprint some of Saaedi's prominent works have been futile and the richest part of the drama literature from the 1960s and 1970s has been banned from being republished. The approval to publish one of Golestan's longest stories and two collections of his short stories have also been barred from getting published.

One of Golestan's short-story collections has, however, been allowed to be republished under the condition that some of its stories, including "To be or the role of being and Esmat's journey," have been completely removed from the collection.

That story portrays the tragic life of a prostitute who turns to Imam Reza's shrine for repentance but ends up getting involved with some criminals involved in sex trafficking.

Not Just Racy Titles

The sharp blade of censorship has even reached the republication of Bozorg Alavi's famous novel "His Eyes." Inspired by the life of the Iranian artist Kamalolmolk during the Qadjar Dynasty, which ruled Persia from 1781-1925, the novel illustrates a 1940s romantic narrative with a slight political backdrop.

The Culture Ministry's censorship has not only targeted nonreligious writers but it has even banned the republication of Jalal Aleahmad's book "A Stone on a Grave," in which the author describes the depressing story of his own infertility.

Prominent writer Amirhossein Cheheltan refused to accept an official award in protest of the extreme censorship that has existed under Harandi. Even some of Cheheltan's novels have been banned.

The Culture Ministry has also banned two long stories by Asghar Elahi and denied approval for the republication of one of Norsrat Rahmani's books. In one book, Rahmani portrays the sad and depressed mood of a lost generation in the 1930s.

Not even an official authorization made by the Culture Ministry can rescue a writer from prison. Two works by Yaghoub Yaadali -- which were legally published -- were condemned in the city of Yaasoudj, and the writer was accused of insulting the people of Lorestan Province and imprisoned.

The expansion of censorship in Iran has gone to such an extent that even the manuscript of Tahmineh Milani's movie "Zane Ziyadi" has been banned from being published despite the fact that the movie has played in movie theaters.

Also, publication of Morteza Ravandi's first and second volume of Iran's Social History has been banned regardless of the fact that it has been published on six different occasions previously.

Foreign Authors

Within the sphere of non-Iranian writers, there have not been as many bans because Iranian publishers and translators make many books acceptable for publication by modifying them to suit the Culture Ministry. But, even though self-censorship works to a certain degree, there is still a great amount of official censorship going on.

Last year the Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry banned the republication of the books "Evelina," by Isabel Allende, and Nikos Kazantzakis's "The Last Temptation of Christ" -- which had been published in Iran four times previously. The novel "Girl With a Pearl Earring" by Tracy Chevalier, already published six times, was also banned from being republished.

Censorship has not been restricted to narrative writing. Several months ago Culture Ministry "examiners" asked Khosrow Motazed, the writer of "Olamaolsoltan Memoirs," to remove the pictures in his book. When the writer refused, explaining that they are historical records, the book was banned from being republished.

The worldwide bestseller "The Da Vinci Code," which was sharply criticized even in countries that are predominantly Christian -- particularly by the Vatican -- was not banned anywhere in the world except in Iran, where the Culture Ministry disallowed a Persian translation of the book to be published because of protests by some Iranian Christian priests.

In the last couple of months, the Persian translation of a collection of Henrik Ibsen's work has also been banned. Works by that famous Norwegian playwright have been published many times before and performed on stage in Iran since the 1940s.

The Culture Ministry has constantly ignored writers' complaints regarding their situation. A complaint made by Yazdi, a former foreign minister, was bluntly overlooked by a court.

Dan Brown's bestseller was banned (Wikipedia Commons)

Yazdi's book, "Religious Broad-Mind and Serious Challenges" has also been banned. A few months ago "Poverty and Prostitution," a book by Masoud Dehnamaki that was published earlier with the Culture Ministry's approval, was recalled and banned.

Hossein Brojerdi, the son of former army commander Mohammad Brojerdi -- whose life story and books have been regarded as a great Islamic and revolutionary model -- announced in an open letter that a book he wrote about his father has been banned from being published. According to Brojerdi, the Culture Ministry "examiners" pointed out to him 70 errors in the book as the reason for it not gaining approval.

The only survivor on last year's long list of censored books is Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani's book "Towards Destiny." In it, Rafsanjani says that during the Iran-Iraq War, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini agreed to stop using the "Death to America" slogan.

The Culture Ministry tried to ban publication of the book's second edition after objections to it were made by some conservative media in Iran, but Rafsanjani's great power and influence helped him publish the second edition of his book.

A rare success story in the black hole of Iranian censorship.

(Faraj Sarkouhi was the editor of the Iranian cultural weekly "Adineh." He was arrested in Iran in the late 1990s and sentenced to prison for "propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran." He moved to Germany following his release in 1998 and is now a regular contributor to Radio Farda with a weekly book report.)

Kazakh Journalists See Tighter Internet Control Ahead

Yermukhamet Yertysbaev (file)

November 20, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Independent journalists in Kazakhstan say authorities have signaled their desire to place domestic Internet content under stricter government regulation.

The journalists said that at recent meetings with Culture and Information Minister Yermukhamet Yertysbaev, the minister had recommended they not publish material based on audio recordings of top officials' conversations.

The meetings came after several opposition websites during the past month posted reports or audio recordings of purported phone conversations by current or former government officials that included discussions of illegal or unethical activities. The source of the recordings has not been established, although many believe they came from the Kazakh president's estranged former son-in-law and ex-national security deputy director, Rakhat Aliev.

Same Meeting, Different Versions

Yertysbaev said he called the meetings to seek consensus over the limits of free speech on Kazakh websites. He said the independent media representatives who came, whom he called "sensible people," agreed to certain rules about posting articles on the Internet.

But participants say it felt more like they were being browbeaten over what they can and cannot cover, and that Yertysbaev said authorities should more tightly regulate the Internet.

The editors of at least three opposition newspapers, "Respublika," "Taszhargan," and "Vzglyad," told their readers on November 16 that the Yertysbaev's recommendations were "an attempt to interfere in editorial policy."

The head of the Kazakh Union of Journalists, Seitkazy Mataev, said that Yertysbaev was attempting to exert "censorship" by pressuring the media not to publish materials based on "audio recordings of telephone conversations of high-ranking Kazakh officials."

"In this case, he is speaking about 'civilized regulation' and about how there should be no violation of the law on the Internet and so on and so forth," said Sergei Duvanov, editor-in-chief of the website, which was among those that carried the audio recordings.

"In fact, this is of course simply elementary demagoguery. Former Ambassador to Austria Aliev is against President [Nursultan] Nazarbaev. These events brought the authorities to the point where it is necessary [for them] to regulate or close [access to] the Internet," Duvanov told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service.

The newspaper "Kazakh Today" quoted Yertysbaev as telling journalists that the "rules of behavior in Kazakhstan's virtual space should be clearly specified."

Yertysbaev reportedly said Internet content providers should be liable to "criminal punishment."

Yertysbaev told a state-run newspaper, "Kazakhstanskaya Pravda," last week that the Internet needed to be under government regulation and that his ministry was already drafting the appropriate legislation.