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Media Matters: March 20, 2008

Iranian Magazines Shut Down Over 'Immoral' Coverage Of Hollywood Celebs

By Farangis Najibullah

Entertainment magazines on the shelves in Tehran this week

Iranian authorities have closed down nine, mostly lifestyle, magazines this week for publishing photos of "immoral" Western celebrities and reporting about their private lives.

Thirteen other publications were warned to avoid printing similar photos and stories -- or face losing their publishing licenses.

The Culture Ministry announced the closures, accusing them of publishing stories about "immoral and corrupt" Hollywood stars and for promoting "superstitions."

"Sobh-e Zendegi," "Havar," "Donya'e Tasvir," "Baznegari," "Talash," "Haft," "Neda’e Iran" and "Be Sooye Eftekhar" were among the magazines whose publishing licenses were revoked by the ministry.

"Sobh-e Zendegi" had recently published photos of actresses Angelina Jolie, Cameron Diaz, and Naomi Watts with short reports about their lives.

The foreign movie stars were pictured without head covering but all were wearing long sleeves and loose clothes -- the practice tolerated in some Iranian state media.

Most of the magazines generally shy away from politics, and mostly focus on lifestyle, celebrities, cinema, and family issues. The only exception is "Havar," a magazine published in Kurdistan Province, which covers political and social issues.

Mashaollah Shamsolvaezin, spokesman for Iran's Association for Press Freedom, tells RFE/RL that although the publications do not cover politics, their closures were politically motivated.

"The government of [President Mahmud] Ahmadinejad interferes with everything; it doesn’t have to be only politics," Shamsolvaezin says. "The authorities want literary and cultural publications to follow the government's line. These publication were closed down because they did not follow the Ministry of Culture's policies."

On its website, the ministry says it banned the magazines for using photos of artists "as instruments [to arouse people's desire], publishing details of their decadent private lives, propagating medicines without authorization, promoting superstitions."

The ministry's Press Supervisory Board, a body controlled by hard-line conservatives, did not elaborate about the magazines' alleged practice of promoting superstitions. The publications often run advertisements for vitamins and remedies, including pills to treat impotence.

Chilling Effect

The magazines, including "Haft" and "Talash," have been popular among Iranian youth. Some news agencies have argued that their ban will not have a significant effect on young people because similar information about celebrities, cinema, and culture is available elsewhere, including on the Internet.

However, Shamsolvaezin says the magazines' closures will have an impact on Iranian journalists, driving them to self-censorship to keep their jobs and prevent similar bans on their publications.

"As a result, hundreds of journalists lose their jobs, they are forced to change their profession or go abroad. Journalists working for other publications [will] practice self-censorship," Shamsolvaezin says. "These are direct impacts. It also has an indirect impact on public opinion. People want to have their favorite publications but the government deprives the public of their right to have such publications."

More than 50 pro-reform publications have been closed down and dozens of journalists and editors have been jailed in Iran on vague charges since 2005.

Most recently, "Zanan," a monthly publication that has covered women's issues for the past 16 years, had its license revoked. "Madrasseh," "Sharqh," and "Karnameh" are among many other publications that have been shut down by the authorities.

Many Iranian journalists have come under pressure for working for independent and pro-reform publications.

According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF,) a Paris-based group that advocates media rights, dozens of Iranian journalists have been imprisoned "just for doing their jobs."

Reza Moeni, who is in charge of affairs in Afghanistan, Iran, and Tajikistan for RSF, tells RFE/RL that two female Internet journalists -- Jelveh Javaheri and Maryam Khosseinkhah -- were recently arrested in connection with their professional activities. Both were subsequently released after paying heavy bails, but many other journalists are still serving their sentences.

"We call Iran the 'biggest prison for journalists in the Middle East' in recent years because it has the biggest number of imprisoned journalists," Moeni says. "Last year, more than 50 journalists were detained, arrested, and sentenced. The sentences range from three months in prison to the death penalty."

Iranian journalists Hassan Falahizadeh and Kaveh Javanmard have been serving prison terms for the past two years, while Mohammad Siddigh Kabud-Band has been detained without charges.

The spokesman for Iran's Association for Press Freedom says it is unlikely that the nine magazines would be able to reinstate their licenses to publish. The association also questions the Press Supervisory Board's right to shut down the magazines, arguing that it "does not have the legal authority to make such decisions."

Armenia: Censors Block Printing Of Opposition Newspapers

The clampdown on the media followed protests against alleged election fraud

Armenian journalists muzzled by President Robert Kocharian's March 1 state of emergency and the accompanying media blackout were hoping today would mark the return of many nonstate publications to the newsstands.

Instead, many say they are witnessing the return of Soviet-era censorship after a central publishing house in the capital, Yerevan, blocked the printing of any newspapers featuring content seen as critical of the government or favoring the opposition.

Aram Abramian, the editor in chief of the "Aravot" independent daily, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that the Tigran Mets publishing house refused to print the March 14 edition of the newspaper after hastily commissioned censors objected to coverage of a press conference held by opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrossian.

"A KGB censor was sitting in the room. They said they were from the National Security Service," said Abramian, referring to Armenia's KGB successor agency. "My deputy was there; I didn't go. They closed the door and started calling one of their higher-ups. Then the officer told my deputy that [the article on] Levon Ter-Petrossian's press conference contains obviously false news and that the paper couldn't be printed."

Free To Print, With Conditions

Under the 20-day state of emergency imposed on March 1, Armenian media could only cite the government and law-enforcement bodies when covering national politics.

More than a dozen independent and opposition newspapers and online news services were forced to suspend their operations as a result.

Kocharian appeared to reverse course on March 13, saying journalists could resume their work. But he added a caveat: "obviously false or destabilizing information" about domestic political affairs was forbidden, as were calls for Armenians to participate in unsanctioned demonstrations.

In so doing, the outgoing Armenian leader evidently hoped to prevent a continuation of the mass public protests that followed the controversial election, in which the president's ally, Serzh Sarkisian, won a contested victory over Ter-Petrossian.

The demonstrations ended in violence on March 1, when eight people were reported killed in clashes between protesters and police.

Journalists on March 13 were critical of Kocharian's new conditions, saying they may serve as a smokescreen for government censorship.

Mesrop Harutiunian of the Yerevan Press Club, an independent media watchdog, said the terms could be used "for muzzling the independent and opposition press," and suggested that any report containing views differing from the official line could be construed by authorities as "obviously false."

'Dictatorship' Condemned

Haik Gevorgian, the deputy editor of the popular opposition newspaper "Haikakan Zhamanak," was among those to have his publication rejected by the Tigran Mets censors.

"The National Security Service officer was sitting there," Gevorgian told RFE/RL. "He was happy to see us. He smiled. We made some jokes. He looked at the paper and then he reported by phone to wherever it was necessary to report. And as a result, the paper wasn't published in the morning."

Employees from at least 13 leading independent and pro-opposition newspapers and Internet news sites today signed a petition condemning the new media restrictions. An accompanying statement accused the Armenian authorities of seeking to "prolong dictatorship."

Most Armenian Internet sites remain blocked despite Kocharian's new measures. Armenian Internet service providers said they are waiting for clearance from the National Security Service to allow the sites to go back online.

Azerbaijan: Investigative Journalist Hospitalized After Stabbing

Aqil Xalil in a hospital after being attacked

A reporter with Azerbaijan's largest opposition newspaper has been hospitalized after he was attacked and stabbed by two assailants.

The attack is the latest incident appearing to target members of the nonstate media in Azerbaijan, and comes just days after the U.S. State Department's annual human rights report noted "significant deterioration" in the country's media freedom environment.

Aqil Xalil, a 25-year-old correspondent with the “Azadliq” daily, sustained a deep chest wound after being stabbed with a knife on the evening of March 13. Azer Ahmedov, the newspaper's technical director, said Xalil had been seriously injured, but was not in danger of dying.

The newspaper claims the attack is tied to Xalil's work investigating possible corruption in land deals in Baku.

In late February, Xalil was beaten by two men while attempting to photograph the destruction of a public olive grove, which was allegedly being cleared at the behest of a local businessman looking to use the land to build a private villa.

Ahmedov says the correspondent began receiving threats after filing a complaint with local police.

"For the past 10-15 days, Aqil had been receiving phone calls from people threatening him or attempting to blackmail him," Ahmedov told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service. "He was also being followed. He told us, after he was attacked, that he recognized one of the assailants."

Sadiq Gezalov, a spokesperson for Azerbaijan's Interior Ministry, says a criminal case has been opened into the attack.

'Heinous Crime'

Anne Derse, the U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan, visited Xalil in his hospital room, saying she was "shocked and appalled at this heinous crime."

"This terrible attack and other violent attacks against journalists have created a climate of fear in an apparent effort to silence critical voices in Azerbaijan," Derse said.

Azerbaijan, which is fast accumulating regional influence and energy wealth, has seen a steady crackdown on independent media in recent years. Numerous opposition papers have been closed and journalists have been beaten or jailed for incidents they say are related to their work.

Azerbaijani authorities have denied any connection to the attack on Xalil, and allege the case is being used as part of an antigovernment smear campaign.

"The stabbing of a journalist is another provocation against Azerbaijan and was intended to create a myth regarding the problems of freedom of speech and press in the country," lawmaker Ali Ahmadov, executive secretary of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, told the Trend news agency.

Xalil's stabbing comes less than a week after “Azadliq” editor Ganimat Zahidov was sentenced by a Baku court to four years in prison for "aggravated hooliganism" and "assault and battery" in connection with an incident in 2007 in which he was accosted by a stranger. (Zahidov's brother, an “Azadliq” correspondent, is currently serving a three-year jail term on similar charges.)

The press watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) criticized Zahidov's sentence as "shocking and extremely severe," adding: "We have every reason to suspect that the incident was contrived from the outset with the sole aim of silencing an opposition journalist."

RSF said the verdict "says a lot about how authorities plan to approach the presidential election" in October, when incumbent Ilham Aliyev will seek a second term.

State-Controlled Media Coverage Under Fire Ahead Of Elections

By Farangis Najibullah

Reformist leaflets are distributed in Tehran on March 13

Iranian law requires state-run television to provide equal airtime to all political groups during the run-up to elections. But many opposition politicians allege that has not happened ahead of the March 14 parliamentary elections.

Political opponents of the complain that state-controlled media -- and television in particular -- have not been objective in covering the ongoing parliamentary election campaign, clearly favoring the ruling conservatives and marginalizing reformists.

Isa Saharkhiz, an independent journalist and a member of Iran's Association for Press Freedom, tells RFE/RL that while state television offers reformists their "rightful airtime," television authorities usually schedule such broadcasts so that television appearances by opposition politicians reach as few people as possible.

The Guardians Council, a 12-member body that answers to Iran's supreme leader, has already eliminated hundreds of reformist candidates from running in the polls, mostly because they are deemed unfit to continue the work of the Islamic revolution. But Saharkhiz says the opposition's chances are also hurt by television, which "draws a negative portrait of reformists and -- directly and indirectly -- encourage people not to vote for them, and at the same time promote the conservatives."

"In various television and radio programs -- including news, reports, and other programs -- we can see some kind of double standards: undermining one side and promoting and supporting the other side," Saharkhiz says. "The airtime that is provided by the law is very short. It's probably not even 1 percent of programming."

Critics cite an example of state television bias on March 10. Some 170 well-known figures from Iranian cinema, theater, and television issued a statement stating their support for the Reformist Coalition inspired by former President Mohammad Khatami.

Yet the statement did not appear in state-controlled media. Soon afterward, the semiofficial Fars news agency published an urgent report saying that most of the performers whose names appeared on the statement had denied ever signing it.

But some independent journalists claimed that television employees who signed the statement were put under pressure to either reject the document or terminate their employment with state-run television.

Mostafa Tajzadeh is a member of Islamic Revolution Mojaheddin Organization, a political group that, along with nearly 30 other factions and parties, forms the Reformist Coalition. Tajzadeh accused state-controlled media of violating the election law by openly supporting some political groups while creating restrictions for the others.

"We, the reformists, do not have a publication, do not have a newspaper," Tajzadeh said. "All those state-run newspapers -- including, 'Iran,' 'Jam-e Jam,' 'Hamshahri' and 'Kayhan' -- have been acting against the law by promoting conservative movements."

The Reformist Coalition claims that state-controlled television has sought to set various reformists groups against one another.

For example, last week, after Khatami reportedly refused to give an interview to state television, the network swiftly aired an interview with Mehdi Karoubi, the leader of another reformist coalition, the National Confidence Party.

Karoubi happily thanked the station: "We thank this television and radio station for their efforts to rally political forces. We are grateful."

But journalist Saharkhiz said that no matter how hard the Iranian authorities tried, they could not prevent the free flow of information and keep Iranians in total darkness.

There are still a number of independent publications in Iran -- including, "Etemad-i Melli," which belongs to Karoubi's group -- as well as foreign radio and television targeting Iranian audiences as well as the Internet with hundreds of blogs produced both inside and outside Iran.

Nonetheless, authorities routinely block and filter websites, and access to the Internet is still limited beyond cities.

Ironically, Saharkhez thinks state media's perceived bias during the election campaign may work to their own disadvantage.

"People have realized that the state-run media is biased and that it does not offer the information they need," he said. "As a result, people's interest in independent publications, blogs, and foreign radio stations has increased in Iran suddenly over the past few weeks."

RFE/RL's Radio Farda contributed to this report

Russia: Kremlin Moves To Rein In Last Media Refuge

By Brian Whitmore

The Internet has been an oasis of freedom, but that looks set to change

One new bill proposes tighter state control over Russian online news sites. Another restricts foreign ownership of Internet service providers (ISPs). And a new government decree compels ISPs to allow the authorities to read their clients' e-mails.

As censorship of the traditional media increased under President Vladimir Putin, the Internet quickly carved out a niche as a rare bastion of dissent and free expression for Russians. With its lively blogs and chat rooms, the Russian Internet has become the 21st-century equivalent of Soviet-era samizdat and hushed, kitchen-table political discussion.

Are the bureaucrats and government censors finally preparing to stifle this last oasis of media freedom?

According to Oleg Panfilov, a free press advocate who heads the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, the Russian authorities have been wary of the Internet's growing importance for years.

"They are afraid. This fear of the Internet emerged about four years ago when the Kremlin saw how it became the main source of information during the Orange Revolution," Panfilov, who himself writes a popular blog on the website "LiveJournal," says.

Buyer Beware

A decree from the Information Technologies and Communications Ministry, made public on February 26, requires all telecommunication companies and ISPs to allow the Federal Security Service (FSB) unrestricted monitoring of all communications -- phone calls, text messages, and e-mails.

Telecoms and ISPs are also required to install, at their own expense, equipment allowing the FSB to monitor communications at any time without the provider's -- or the user's -- knowledge. The equipment costs as much as $100,000. The decree is related to a program called SORM-2, which was introduced in 1998 to allow the FSB to monitor the Internet.

Separately, a provision in a new bill on investment working its way through parliament would forbid foreigners from acquiring majority stakes in ISPs without express government permission.

Insiders say the legislation is likely to face strong opposition from within the industry.

"I don't think it is very realistic to pass such a law, because there is a strong lobby against it. There are already a lot of companies that have a high level of foreign shareholders," Aleksandr Militsky, who runs a website that monitors ISPs, tells RFE/RL's Russian Service.

While state-controlled television and most print media dutifully reported the government line with fawning coverage of Putin and his chosen successor, Dmitry Medvedev, blogs like "LiveJournal" and news sites like were critical, animated, and irreverent.

Robert Amsterdam, an attorney on jailed former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky's international defense team and the author of an influential blog on Russian affairs, says the emerging trend toward greater state control reflects an entrenched Kremlin view that managing the media is an important aspect of defending national security.

"This is all going in one direction," Amsterdam says of the emerging Kremlin strategy. "One of the things I don't think any of us understand well enough is the extent to which the Russians view this as part of their security -- the securitization of media. And this comes under this whole format of seeing free communications as somehow being a security threat. My view is that they have been late jumping on the Internet bandwagon and they are going to continue this under [President-elect] Medvedev. At least that is how it appears."

'Responsible' Journalism

In March, Putin established a new federal agency to regulate media and the Internet and oversee content. A month later, authorities used loopholes in the law to shut down the Siberian online publication "Novy Fokus" for failing to register as a news organization despite the fact that Russian law does not explicitly require online news sites to register.

Vladimir Slutsker, a member of the Federation Council, the upper house of Russia's parliament, is now seeking to make registration mandatory. Slutsker recently told the daily "Kommersant" that legislation was needed to stop "irresponsible journalists from spreading rumors and hiding behind anonymous websites."

After a website published rumors linking Slutsker and his wife to criminal activity, he introduced legislation requiring all websites with more than 1,000 hits a day to register with the government as media outlets. If Slutsker's bill becomes law, Russia's popular blogs and news sites would need to apply for licenses and be subject to the same regulations as print and broadcast media.

Analysts have labeled Slutsker's bill impractical given the sheer volume of websites and the difficultly tracking them, adding that the time when the authorities could realistically control the Internet is long gone.

"This attempt to register websites like mass media is stupid," Panfilov says. "It is simply not possible. It is just the desire of a couple of deputies, but it won't happen. Just imagine, how do you register blogs? Also, the meters monitoring web traffic in Russia all give different information."

Panfilov adds that a system similar to what exists in China, where the state controls the Internet and blocks websites it deems subversive, is not possible in Russia today. He notes that unlike in China, most Russian ISPs are privately owned and more difficult to control.

"They needed to do this 10 years ago," Panfilov says. "Then they could have controlled it. Now it is practically impossible. Now enough people know how to use satellite servers, they know how to access the Internet via mobile communications, they know a lot. And to isolate Russia from the Internet is not possible."

'Great Firewalls'?

Some Russia watchers say the Kremlin isn't interested in Chinese-style controls. Amsterdam points out that Russia's media control strategy -- which allows for opposition newspapers like "Novaya gazeta" and radio stations like Ekho Moskvy -- is more sophisticated than that.

"You're missing the boat if you don't think they can control it," Amsterdam says. "What we need to understand is that they are not trying to, and don't have to control 100 percent of it. One of the things that the survival of 'Novaya gazeta' and [radio station] Ekho Moskvy shows is that they are very happy for liberals to talk to liberals. They just don't want liberals talking to anybody else."

Amsterdam adds that a combination of intimidation, selective use of libel laws, cooptation, and other means has been very effective in controlling the print and broadcast media.

And there are indications that such time-proven mechanisms can be of use to the authorities in the modern media environment as well.

Recent charges against blogger Savva Terentyev for allegedly "inciting hate" against police officers through his "LiveJournal" posts serve as one example. Terentyev faces a possible $4,000 fine or up to two years in prison.

"The attack on the Internet can be this subtle incremental attack," Amsterdam says "Let's be clear, it's multidimensional. Look what they have done to the regular press. Look what they have done to television. They have been so successful with a mixture of cooptation, which is having rich friends buy assets, with the incremental intimidation of self-censorship which is done very well, that they probably don't feel that they have to [control it entirely]."

Russia: NTV's Past Points Toward REN-TV's Future

By RFE/RL analyst Robert Coalson

Medvedev has been a dominant presence on most Russian television networks

When independent experts this week released their assessment of media coverage of the Russian presidential election, there were few surprises. On Channel One, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev got 32 percent of election-related airtime; on Rossia, he got 26 percent; on TV-Tsentr, he got 35 percent; and on NTV he got 43 percent.

The other three official candidates all got single-digit coverage on all four national networks, with figures ranging from 6.8 percent to 0.1 percent, according to figures released by the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations. Also unsurprisingly, President Vladimir Putin -- who isn't running, of course -- got more airtime even than Medvedev, ranging around 50-60 percent.

The one oddity in this bland picture, however, was REN-TV, a small, but still-private national network. REN-TV's figures are truly startling: 31 percent of the airtime went to Putin, followed by 21 percent for Medvedev, 22 percent for Liberal Democratic Party of Russia head Vladimir Zhirinovsky, 21 percent to Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov, and 6.3 percent to Democratic Party head Andrei Bogdanov.

Such even-handedness is unheard of in Russian national media these days. The reduced percentage to Bogdanov can easily be justified by the facts that his support consistently polls at about 1 percent, that his party received less than 1 percent of the vote in the December Duma elections, and that his candidacy is widely seen to be a Kremlin-inspired stratagem to create the impression that at least one liberal politician is in the race.

The contrast between REN-TV and NTV is particularly noteworthy. NTV, it should be recalled, is the once-private and once-respected national television network that was taken over by Gazprom in 2000-01 as one of the first major steps in Putin's dismantling of civil society. At the time, Gazprom claimed the takeover was merely a business dispute and senior managers pledged endlessly the network would be sold off in short order.

Now, seven years later, Medvedev is the chairman of Gazprom's board of directors and that channel is outdoing even the formally state-controlled Channel One and Rossia in violating the law ensuring equal media access to all candidates and in contributing to what the liberal-posing Medvedev has eloquently described as "legal nihilism."

In an interview with "Kommersant" on February 21, Gazprom-Media head Nikolai Senkevich said that Medvedev pays personal attention to this part of the vast conglomerate's empire and confirmed that close Medvedev allies from St. Petersburg -- Anton Ivanov, Mikhail Krotov, and Konstantin Chuichenko -- have worked in the media holding (although Ivanov and Krotov have since moved into high positions in government). Senkevich said Gazprom-Media "has the warmest memories and greatest gratitude" for the work Medvedev and his associates did for the holding.

In 2000, NTV was the odd man out on the Russian media scene. Now, REN-TV is. And its future doesn't look bright.

REN-TV is a network of 864 stations across Russia, the Commonwealth of Independent States, and the Baltic states. As of December 2006, 51 percent of its shares are held by a company called Abros, while 30 percent are held by the Luxemburg-based RTL Group, part of the Bertelsmann media conglomerate. Abros also controls 35 percent of the Peterburg television company, which runs the St. Petersburg-based Channel Five. Channel Five, it should be noted, was granted federal status by Putin in November 2007, opening the way for massive expansion.

Abros is part of a complex corporate chain at the top of which sits Yury Kovalchuk, co-owner of the Rossia bank and a close personal friend of President Putin. Kovalchuk's bank came to prominence during the 1990s by handling most of the finances for the St. Petersburg municipal external-relations committee, which was then headed by Putin. Journalists and analysts over the years have repeatedly claimed that Kovalchuk is Putin's personal banker, managing a fortune that some have estimated is worth billions of dollars. Abros, it is worth noting, also owns a major stake in a company called Sogaz, which is major owner of a company called Lider, which in turn manages Gazfond -- the huge pension fund of Gazprom. Sogaz also owns 10 percent of the Peterburg television company.

Kovalchuk's media ambitions extend much further. All the major newspapers in St. Petersburg -- "Smena," "Nevskoye vremya," "Vecherneye vremya," and "Vecherny Peterburg" -- are also considered part of his group, as they are controlled by long-time business ally Oleg Rudnov. Rudnov's media projects have been financed by Gazprom, which is the major advertiser of all of his newspapers. In addition, Gazprom-Media head Senkevich confirmed in his "Kommersant" interview that a deal has been struck (but not implemented) to sell control of the national daily "Izvestia" to Sogaz, which would place it inside Kovalchuk's media empire as well.

In a recent report summing up the results of Putin's eight years in power, former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov and former Deputy Energy Minister Vladimir Milov drew particular attention to Kovalchuk's emerging media empire. They describe it as a "powerful political resource," potentially more influential than anything ever controlled by former oligarchs Vladimir Gusinsky or Boris Berezovsky.

According to "Moskovsky korrespondent" on February 15, Kovalchuk plans to combine his media holdings into a single company called the National Media Group, a name that reflects his ambitions. According to the report, the new holding company will be headed by Sergei Fursenko, the brother of Science and Education Minister Andrei Fursenko. Reportedly, Kovalchuk has been friends with both Fursenko brothers since grade school. The same report asserts that Lyubov Sovershayeva, a former deputy presidential envoy to the Northwest Federal District, sits on the boards of directors of both REN-TV and the Peterburg television company.

"Gazeta" reported earlier this month that Kovalchuk has created a new public advisory board to oversee REN-TV. The board will most likely eventually oversee the entire National Media Group. The board will include well-known cultural figures, artists, politicians, and businesspeople, the daily reported, and will be headed by Unified Russia Duma Deputy and former rhythmic gymnast Alina Kabayeva. Kabayeva is also believed to be a friend of Putin's.

What this all means for REN-TV's admirably even-handed election coverage remains to be seen. But political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin is skeptical: "The channel will become controlled and managed," he told "Gazeta." "Everything will happen gradually, just as it did with NTV."

Kazakhstan: One Of Few Remaining Independent Newspapers Faces Closure

By Bruce Pannier

Most Kazakh newspapers are controlled by the government and its allies

An Astana court has ordered the independent newspaper "Law and Justice" to be closed, alleging that errors were made when the newspaper was registered.

But the newspaper's owners allege that the decision has nothing to do with their registration -- and everything to do with shutting down an independent media outlet that reports on corruption within Kazakhstan's judiciary.

The newspaper has appealed the court's ruling, announced on February 14.

Tokbergen Abiev, the owner and editor in chief of the newspaper, tells RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that the court decision aims to intimidate the independent media in Kazakhstan. "This is pressure against the media through the judicial system," he says.

Abiev also says the Astana interregional economic court made its decision based on a mix-up between two different companies under the same name. "The foundation of the newspaper 'Law and Justice' is completely different from this other company that is also called Law and Justice," Abiev said. "We will contest this verdict and take it to the Supreme Court, and we are going to stick to our position."

Abiev says that while his newspaper is not the organization that had factual errors in its registration, he is sure the court knows that and that the decision was intentionally aimed at his newspaper. The newspaper was targeted for closure, he says, because "we always report about the activities of judges, about illegal rulings, and violations of the rights of citizens."

One of those named in the "Law and Justice" stories was Saylaubek Dzhakishev, the chairman of the Astana City Court.

Zhumabike Zhunusova, a journalist at another independent newspaper, "Svoboda slova," says if the judges implicated in the "Law and Justice" reports feel they have been unfairly targeted by the stories, then they should themselves resort to the court system for redress. "This is not slander, this is criticism," Zhunosva said. "If this was slander, why didn't [the authorities] bring a case to court? This is an example that shows that freedom of speech is under fire in this country."

"Law and Justice" is the first independent newspaper to face closure in more than a year in Kazakhstan. That does not mean that the Kazakh government has given the press free rein, but rather that the authorities have already closed most of the critical media outlets in the country. The majority of the media that remains is state-owned or controlled by friends or supporters of President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

The newspaper has already suffered through one crisis. In March 2007, one of its journalists, Oralgaisha Omarshanova, traveled south to the Almaty area to cover ethnic unrest in a small town. The 39-year-old Omarshanova disappeared before reaching the town. She has not been heard from since.

There is no date set for when a court will hear "Law and Justice's" appeal to remain open.

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