Georgia: Opposition Broadcaster Shuts Down As Political Scandals Heat UpWith slightly more than a week until a presidential election, voters in many countries might well expect accusations and counteraccusations to dominate the news. But the nature of a mounting political scandal in Georgia has surprised even jaded observers and led the country's most prominent non-state broadcaster to take itself off the air.
Billionaire presidential candidate Badri Patarkatsishvili has been accused of seeking to overthrow the government by presenting evidence of voter fraud. He, in turn, has accused Georgian authorities of seeking to assassinate him in order to remove the threat that his candidacy represents.
In the midst of it all, Imedi television, which is co-owned by Patarkatsishvili, has suspended its broadcasting to protest "dirty political games" ahead of the January 5 election. Imedi television endured more than a month off the air after Georgian authorities in November accused it of encouraging the ouster of the government and forcibly suspended its broadcasts. This time, the popular opposition broadcaster has staged a preemptive blackout.
The political scandal and the Imedi shutoff come at a bad time for rivals seeking to challenge either Patarkatsishvili or the ex-president who called the special presidential election, Mikheil Saakashvili. Some of those candidates had depended on Imedi as a platform for their campaigns.
Georgi Targamadze, the director of Imedi's political programming, said the stations opted to suspend its broadcasts because employees had been subject to "official pressure and blackmail." But he suggested the move may also be an attempt by staff members to distance themselves from Patarkatsishvili.
"We'll say that this is not a closure of the TV channel, it's a suspension," Targamadze says. "In doing so, we are distancing ourselves from dirty political games." He goes on to suggest the move is "a protest against the government which did everything possible to blackmail and gain advantage over the employees, and [a] protest against the misunderstanding which is connected with participation of the owner of the channel in the election."
The past several days have witnessed a stinging volley of accusations and counteraccusations surrounding Patarkatsishvili, a billionaire who has repeatedly provoked government ire by openly opposing Saakashvili.
Patarkatsishvili describes himself as the most realistic challenger to Saakashvili in the January vote.
But Georgian prosecutors earlier this week accused Patarkatsishvili of plotting to overthrow the government in a coup d'etat. Deputy Prosecutor Nika Gvaramia said on December 25 that authorities had procured audiotapes that appear to show Patarkatsishvili offering an Interior Ministry official, Erekle Kodua, $100 million to falsely claim, one day after elections, that authorities had ordered him to stuff ballot boxes.
"According to this plan, on January 6 Kodua was supposed to participate in escalating the situation," Gvaramia said. "In particular, he publicly had to show two sacks of [fake] ballots and say that the government had ordered him to put them into ballot boxes. [According to the plan], he would refuse to do so for the reason that he is a 'real patriot.' At the same time, after the situation had been stirred up, he was meant to seize power at the Interior Ministry and neutralize the interior minister."
The tapes, which have been broadcast on state television, have not been authenticated. But they have had a dampening effect on public hopes the January vote would be free and fair.
Patarkatsishvili's campaign staff is led by Giorgi Zhvania, the brother of former Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, who died under mysterious circumstances in February 2005. Speaking on December 25, he accused government authorities of maligning Patarkatsishvili with false accusations. "The government wants to trap us in a dirty game. This is manipulation, using compromising information and propaganda," Zhvania said. "They want to present Badri Patarkatsishvili as an adventurist who has evil plans for the country [and] who is planning some kind of provocation and violence. I would like to announce with full responsibility [that] in the days ahead, everything will become clear to the public."
Patarkatsishvili, meanwhile, has offered a recording of his own that he claims shows an Interior Ministry official asking a contract killer to assassinate the Georgian billionaire in London, where he currently resides. Prosecutors in Georgia say they will investigate the claims but say Patarkatsishvili, who is wanted in Tbilisi for questioning, may be using the allegations as an excuse to avoid returning home.
Saakashvili called the early elections after a series of antigovernment protests in November, which prosecutors allege were sponsored by Patarkatsishvili.
(RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report)
Russia: Measuring Influence, Emotions Aside
That's one thing.
Second, observers in Russia will naturally view the selection as an acknowledgment of Vladimir Putin's supreme services. And this is wrong. Again, we should look at the history of the matter and turn to the source. "Time" Managing Editor Richard Stengel, announcing the decision, said Putin performed "an extraordinary feat of leadership in taking a country that was in chaos and bringing it stability." But Stengel added that "he is the new tsar of Russia and he's dangerous in the sense that he doesn't care about civil liberties, he doesn't care about free speech." In the magazine, Stengel wrote: "He is not a democrat in any way that the West would define it. He is not a paragon of free speech. He stands, above all, for stability -- stability before freedom, stability before choice." In the same text he makes a little joke about Putin, whose grandfather was a cook in the Kremlin kitchen during Josef Stalin's reign, saying that only time will tell whether Putin is "more like the man for whom his grandfather prepared blinis -- who himself was twice 'Time' Person of the Year -- or like Peter the Great, the historical figure he most admires." In 1979, Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei earned the distinction; in 1938, it was Adolf Hitler.
Stengel, as a thinking person who runs one of the most influential political magazines in the world, is posing a question. He isn't asserting anything. He says that Putin clearly is not a democrat and clearly regards stability more than freedom of speech. And that he is not worried about civil rights. But he nonetheless he leaves open the possibility that Russia under Putin, or at least following Putin's course, could somehow emerge on a more or less civilized path. However, he also affirms the possibility of a return to an epoch of repression.
If "Time" were worried about what kind of reaction its selection of Putin would produce in Russia, then it wouldn't be "Time." It has its own criteria. As Stengel wrote: "Person of the Year is not and never has been an honor." It recognizes the influential role of the person selected -- and it isn't even worth discussing whether Putin plays an influential role in Russia or whether Russia plays an influential role in the world. In 1979, when the magazine picked Ayatollah Khomenei, it came under sharp criticism. It was more than just disagreement -- it was a major scandal. In 1999, when "Time" picked its "Person of the Century," there were leaks that Hitler had been selected. Again, it would be hard to argue with the thesis that Hitler had major influence on the course of the 20th century. But critics were taking into account considerations that "Time" does not consider. The magazine merely recognizes influence; it doesn't matter whether that influence is good or bad. But the public wants to see something good, so "Time" took another look and selected Albert Einstein. But, in general, the magazine's decisions reflect total journalistic and ethical independence.
It is worth noting that a little more than six months ago, in May, "Time" published its list of the 100 most influential people in the world. And there were two Russians on the list: Not Putin, but opera singer Anna Netrebko and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov. This list was a nod to people who are transforming our daily lives. Millions of girls around the world want to be like Anna Netrebko and have been inspired to study music. And that is a positive influence. "Time" doesn't have anything to say about Putin's positive influence. It just talks about his enormous influence.
(Peter Vail is the managing editor of RFE/RL's Russian Service)
Russian Group Storms Onto Kazakh, Uzbek TV Scenes
Russia's CTC Media recently announced a deal to buy one of Kazakhstan's most popular television channels and to register a new television company in Uzbekistan. Although the two acquisitions are markedly different, both are seen as "tasty morsels" picked up at bargain rates and likely to generate large profits in the two countries, which have a combined population of some 42 million people. But beyond commercial considerations lies a host of possible political implications.
CTC Media's plans to buy Kazakhstan's fourth-biggest television station, Channel 31, came as a surprise to many in that country. That's because CTC Media is seen as a "purely entertainment" group, while the Kazakh station is a "business-oriented media outlet with a strong information core," according to Viktor Klimov, a producer at Channel 31.
As a result, Klimov and others have voiced concern that there will be major changes in Channel 31's programming -- changes that would boost Russian influence in the energy-rich country, which under President Nursultan Nazarbaev has sought to pursue a multivector foreign policy friendly to Moscow, China, and the West.
Viewer Discretion Is Advised
To be sure, Russian broadcasts have remained popular across Central Asia since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. That's due to historical and cultural ties as well as the higher production quality and content of their programming. Nonetheless, the latest moves by CTC Media are raising concerns.
"The issues of redistribution of the information space concern not only business, but also national security," said Rozlana Taukina, who heads the Kazakh nongovernmental group Journalists in Trouble.
Taukina sees Russian media expansion into Central Asia as part of a Kremlin policy aimed at restoring its influence in the post-Soviet space. Calling CTC Media's moves "a threat to Kazakhstan," Taukina told RFE/RL that her concern is that some 70 percent of the country's population watches foreign broadcasts rather than Kazakh television.
"It is the Russian programs that the Kazakh people watch today," she said.
"Tomorrow, it will be Chinese. And what about the day after tomorrow? Will some other foreign powers broadcast their programs in Kazakhstan?" Taukina asks.
Like every other media outlet in Kazakhstan, Channel 31 -- which is legally obliged to broadcast half in Russian language and half in Kazakh -- has never criticized Nazarbaev, his family and friends, or their controversial involvement in state-owned businesses.
But viewers say it has offered professional programming that included analytical and political shows through 11 regional branches and 60 affiliates.
Now, reports say the new deal with CTC Media will affect Channel 31's daily analytical show, Informbureau. Klimov, a general producer of Informbureau, says he was told that the program's time and format were going to change.
But Armanzhan Baitasov, the head of Channel 31, said the station would maintain its "brand" while becoming richer in content. However, he added that the channel would start producing soap operas and other such programming.
"It's an absolutely new business in Kazakhstan," Baitasov told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. "We are positive that with [CTC Media's] entry into our company, our ratings will soar because there will be many new shows, films, and soap operas. We are also confident that a new competitive environment will emerge, and that it will have a positive impact on the whole media industry."
In Uzbekistan, meanwhile, CTC Media's new target for acquisition is perhaps less surprising.
The Russian group recently announced a deal with the Uzbek media company Terra Group, reportedly controlled by Uzbek President Islam Karimov's eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova. The two sides are due to set up a new company -- divided into 51 percent Russian and 49 percent Uzbek stakes -- that will broadcast on Channel 30, a Terra Group holding that has recently been redubbed Markaz TV. Channel 30 is currently a purely entertainment channel broadcasts mostly youth-oriented fare such as music videos. News segments are limited to cultural tidbits. It is also a major venue for promoting the activities of Karimova, whose father is considered the most authoritarian leader in a region brimming with autocrats.
It's a format familiar to CTC Media, which has become one of Russia's top broadcasters with a nationwide audience of some 100 million. Its two Russian channels -- CTC and Domashny -- are overwhelmingly entertainment stations, with Domashny targeting a "mostly female audience," according to a company profile.
With CTC Media set to secure a reign of fluff on the airwaves in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, not everyone sees overt political motives behind the deals.
Initial reports put the price of Channel 31 at $130 million-$150 million, but some sources said CTC Media paid just $65 million -- about half the market price. The independent Kazakh weekly "Respublika" and freeas.kz speculated the rest was or will be paid "under the table." Channel 31 reportedly belonged to Nazarbaev's chief of staff, Bolat Utemuratov, before it was acquired by CTC Media.
The Ukrainian website prschik.com recently quoted CTC Media's CEO, Aleksandr Rodnyansky, as saying that his company's new channels in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are projected to generate some $460 million-$480 million in first-year revenues. That is likely to grow as television enjoys a lion's share of both advertising markets, growing by 40-45 percent annually in Kazakhstan compared to 25 to 30 percent in Russia.
Yuri Mizinov, a popular Kazakh Internet journalist who runs the independent website zonakz.net, says the profit motive is indeed driving the deals, although he acknowledges Kazakh viewers are unlikely to profit. "I would not say CTC Media has a very high-quality content, unlike some other Russian television channels," he said.
As for viewers' opinions, one Uzbek youth wrote on a readers' forum (doda-forum.uz) that CTC Media's is a good move because Uzbek television stations are some 30 years behind Russian ones in terms of technology and content. Another wondered if the content will be different from other Russian programs and if it will take into account the "local mentality." He said he hopes it does not as he is "fed up" with Uzbek programming.
But a visitor to one Kazakh forum (zakon.kz) wrote recently that CTC Media would simply bring "dumb humor and endless soap operas." He suggested that Kazakh viewers, rather than being better informed, would be flooded with Russian fluff.
(RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report)
Iran: Internet Cafes Shut Down In Drive Against Un-Islamic Behavior
Iranian state media quote the police as saying that in the past few days, they have closed down 25 Internet cafes and given warnings to 170 cafe owners for "using immoral computer games and storing obscene photos," and for the presence of women without "proper hijab" on the premises.
At least 23 people -- including several women -- have been detained for similar reasons.
The owner of one of the Tehran Internet cafes that was inspected and temporarily closed down by police, who gave his name as Hessam, told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that police started questioning him when they found some family photos -- with a female member of the family among them -- on a computer.
"We had a few family photos in our system. They asked, 'Who is this girl that is sitting close to you?'" Hessam said. "Just because of those private photos, they closed this place for three or four days. [The police pressure] has reached that level! It has become a headache, a problem for everybody. We don't know what to do."
The Internet, and Internet cafes, have become increasingly popular in Tehran and other Iranian cities in recent years.
According to official state figures, 60 percent of the country's population has access to the Internet. However, independent sources say that figure is exaggerated, given the fact that many Iranians villages do not even have electricity. International estimates say that some 20 percent of Iranians have access to the Internet.
Most of the customers at Internet cafes are young people who come to play computer games, check their e-mail, or take part in website chat rooms and blogs.
Some Iranian journalists describe the latest campaign as an attempt by the authorities to limit access to a major source of alternative news and information and restrict Iranian's intellectual and social freedom.
Badrolsadat Mofeedi, an independent journalist and a campaigner for media rights, told RFE/RL from Tehran that the latest assault on Internet cafes is no surprise. Mofeedi said that "in addition to a crackdown on independent media, every now and then the Iranian authorities put pressure on all other sources of news and information, such as satellite dishes, the Internet, and even bookshops."
In October, several Tehran bookstores were given a 72-hour ultimatum to close down coffee shops that were operating inside their stores. Amaken-e Omomi, a state body that controls retail trade, said that operating a cafe inside a bookshop is an "illegal mixture" of trades.
"Some Internet sites have been filtered. A variety of measures has been taken to restrict the political and social atmosphere for those who are involved in the distribution of the information," Mofeedi said.
The Iranian authorities say they have blocked access to "immoral websites" such as pornographic sites.
According to Iranian independent journalists, however, many political websites -- including personal weblogs or blogs -- and many independent news sources are blocked with a filter so that Iranians cannot access them. Those sites includes radiofarda.com.
Hassem, the Internet-cafe owner, says the "heavy filtering of the websites has slowed down the Internet in Iran, reducing its speed by almost 50 percent."
The clampdown has coincided with the ongoing police campaign against anyone who violates a strict Islamic dress code.
The police have even installed mobile stations on Tehran's busiest streets to stop women who disobey the dress code, for instance by wearing a hat instead of a head scarf or by tucking their pants inside of their boots.
Isa Saharkhiz, an independent journalist and a member of the Association for Press Freedom in Iran, told RFE/RL from Tehran that enforcing these restrictions -- on everything from dress to the Internet -- has been part of the Iranian government's policy since President Mahmud Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005.
Saharkhiz said the closure of the cafes was partially aimed at preventing young people and intellectuals from getting together, as well as trying to restrict the free flow of information.
"None of these practices brought any results in the past," Saharkhiz says. "No one is able to put barriers on news and information and, especially, no one can shut down the Internet -- in Iran or elsewhere in the world."
Cafe owner Hassem said that no matter how hard the authorities try to block access to websites, young Iranians will succeed in circumventing the filter and find their way to the prohibited sites.
(RFE/RL's Radio Farda correspondent Sariborz Soroosh contributed to this report.)