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Media Matters: April 25, 2008

Russia: Journalists Union Meets Amid Media Crisis

Igor Yakovenko, general secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists (file photo)

The convention of the journalists union of Russia is taking place in Moscow amid troubled times for Russian reporters.

The independent reporting that thrived in the 1990s following the Soviet collapse has sharply declined under President Vladimir Putin's eight-year tenure. These changes are being felt acutely by the largest society of independent reporters in the country, the Russian Union of Journalists.

Igor Yakovenko, the society's general secretary, says the current media crisis is topping the agenda of the union's annual convention.

"We need to understand how the Russian Union of Journalists can overcome the crisis in which Russian journalism finds itself," he says. "This crisis manifests itself in a deterioration in quality, declining trust, a reduction of the role of journalists in society, and shrinking media freedom in our country. This is happening in other countries, too, but it's particularly acute in Russia."

Editor In Chief Fired

The gathering comes just days after a Moscow tabloid, "Moskovsky korrespondent," was suspended for publishing a report alleging that Putin secretly divorced his wife and plans to wed a 24-year-old former champion gymnast.

After Putin firmly dismissed the rumor, the management of "Moskovsky korrespondent" fired the editor in chief and suspended publication of the newspaper. A senior executive at "Moskovsky korrespondent" said the daily will return, but with reduced political coverage.

The Russian Union of Journalists has remained strongly critical of the Kremlin's crackdowns on independent media. And its defiance has earned it some trouble. The union fought off a government eviction notice last year, which came just days before the World Congress of Journalists gathered in Moscow.

Oleg Panfilov, who runs the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, says the union faces an uphill battle.

"Everything was done to turn the independent press into propaganda," Panfilov says. "Authorities are not interested in journalists defending their rights and therefore are not interested in the creation of a good trade union for journalists. Authorities have absolutely no interest in professional [journalistic] education either, because obedient propagandists are more useful than independent journalists."

Quit In Protest

The Kremlin's aggressive measures to curb media freedoms has done much to harm the credibility of Russian journalism. But the union last month was accused of discrediting itself by admitting pro-Moscow Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has been widely criticized for overseeing a regime guilty of numerous human rights abuses.

Investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya, who was slain in Moscow in 2006, was one Kadyrov's harshest critics.

A number of journalists quit the union in protest, following which the union withdrew Kadyrov's membership.

RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report

Tajikistan: Government Shuts Down Independent Radio Station

By Farangis Najibullah
Tajik authorities have taken the independent Imruz (Today) radio station off the air, citing "technical problems."

Since it began broadcasting last summer, Imruz had become the most popular FM station in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, and the surrounding area. Among the locals, Imruz was known as a "serious radio station." It broadcast news and reports focusing on Tajikistan's political and social sphere, as well as music.

The radio's bosses and editors have been reluctant to talk to the media since the decision was made on April 8.

"The motives are still unclear," says Rustami Joni, the head of radio Imruz. "I don't think the decision [to stop the radio] has anything to do with the Tajik government."

Joni added that a few days before the radio's closure "officials" were checking the content of the radio station's reports from early April, but he stopped short of saying who "the officials" were.

Unlike many other local radio stations, Imruz did not avoid criticizing the country's political scene. All politicians, including opposition leaders and critics of the government, have had access to the station. One of its recent guests was Rahmatullo Zoirov, the leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party and an outspoken critic of Tajik President Emomali Rahmon.

Avoid Direct Criticism

Fearing pressure and reprisals, most local media outlets in Tajikistan try to avoid direct criticism of the government and top officials, and decide to self-censor their work.

A few days before being shut down, Imruz reported on a planned public protest in the eastern city of Khorog, saying that the local people were increasingly dissatisfied with their low and often unpaid wages, as well as with the growing food prices.

The same day, the radio station aired a commentary on the country's rampant unemployment -- one of the biggest problems in Tajikistan -- and the plight of Tajik migrant laborers in Russia. The commentary made a gloomy prediction, saying that in the next few years half of Tajikistan's population will turn into seasonal workers in Russia.

The radio station also covered Tajikistan's admission that it had lied to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), with the IMF demanding $46 million in loans back.

Independent journalist Rajabi Mirzo says that so far only Russian-language media in Tajikistan would dare to take such a critical tone.

"Tajik-language media have much more influence and impact in Tajikistan and therefore they could become more dangerous [for the government]," Mirzo says. "Radio Imruz was the first local FM station to broadcast its programs entirely in the Tajik language. It focused on subjects that so far have only been covered by Russian-language radios. So it wasn't acceptable for many people [in the government]."

Criticizing Rahmon's government is a rare occurrence among Tajik media. Those who have dared to do so have been penalized. Almost all independent publications that have been critical of the government or the president, including the dailies "Ruzi nav," "Odamu olam," and "Nirui sukhan" have been shut down in recent years. Even the BBC was removed from the FM band more than two years ago.

Back On The Air?

Many Tajiks say the authorities should focus on solving the country's social and economic problems instead of shutting down media outlets that criticize the current situation.

It remains unclear when Imruz will get permission to broadcast again. Some people predict it will come back on the air, but that it will be much more cautious after getting what amounts to a rebuke from the government.

It is not the first time that Imruz has been taken off the air. It was shut down in February by the authorities but was back on the air less than three days later.

Imruz's listeners have one more reason to hope that their favorite FM station will return to the airways soon. The radio indirectly belongs to the Tajik president's influential and wealthy brother-in-law, Hasan Sadulloev. Sadulloev is the head of Orien Bank, one of the biggest in the country, which owns Imruz as a part of its so-called media-holding group.

The closure of Imruz shows that even some of the closest people to President Rahmon must exercise caution when it comes to criticizing his government's policies or problems in the country.

RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report

Azerbaijan: Opposition Journalist Says He Is Victim Of Vicious Smear Campaign

By Daisy Sindelar

In the video, a man indentified as Sergei Strekalin (pictured) says he stabbed Xalil in a jealous rage

An Azerbaijani journalist who was seriously injured in a knife attack says prosecutors investigating the assault have launched a smear campaign against him.

The developments come amid growing criticism of Baku's press-freedom record and concerns the country's October 2008 presidential elections will see the muzzling of all nonstate media.

Aqil Xalil, a 25-year-old correspondent with "Azadliq," Azerbaijan's largest opposition daily, was hospitalized in March after being stabbed in the chest. "Azadliq" editors say the stabbing -- the second time Xalil had been attacked in less a month -- was tied to his work investigating corruption in major land deals in Baku.

Prosecutors opened an investigation into the stabbing after Xalil's case raised an outcry from Western officials and press-protection groups. But instead of tracking down the people responsible for the attack, Xalil tells RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, investigators have focused their efforts on blackmailing him into offering a false confession.

"They gave me three options," Xalil says. "I could say that I was stabbed by one of my colleagues, or I could say that I stabbed myself. Otherwise, they said they would produce a video saying that I had been attacked by a man who was in a homosexual relationship with me, and then air it on state TV. So they said if I didn't want to be embarrassed, I would have to choose from one of these options. I was shocked."

Televised 'Evidence'

Xalil alleges prosecutors made the threats after forcing him to leave his parents' home in the Kurdamir region, where he was still recovering from his knife wound, and report for questioning in Baku on April 3. What ensued, says Xalil and his lawyer, was a daylong interrogation which included physical and psychological coercion and ran until 2 a.m.

During that time, Xalil says, an ethnic-Russian man was brought into the room with two men acting as witnesses. Prosecutors said the man, identified as Sergei Strekalin, claimed to be Xalil's homosexual lover, and confessed to having stabbed the journalist in a jealous rage.

Xalil speaks with reporters from his hospital bed after the stabbing (RFE/RL)

Xalil adamantly denies the allegations, and says he had never met Strekalin. Nevertheless, footage of the two men in the prosecutor's office was later presented as video evidence of the men's illicit relationship -- and broadcast repeatedly on all state-run television channels.

Despite purporting to identify Strekalin as Xalil's attacker, the true target of the video, which has headlined television news programs since April 7, appears to be Xalil himself.

Many of Strekalin's claims about his friendship with Xalil appear to be false. He alleges the two men met in the autumn of 2005; at that time, however, Xalil had been enlisted for military service and was not living in Baku. Strekalin speaks of offering cigarettes to Xalil, who does not smoke. Moreover, Strekalin speaks no Azeri, while Xalil speaks no Russian.

The video also includes "testimony" from two additional men who claim to have had sexual relations with Xalil. Although the footage is peppered with images of the journalist and references to "Azadliq," no mention is made of Xalil's investigative reporting or the paper's allegations that the attack was tied to his work.

Shock Tactics

The video has caused a sensation in Azerbaijan, a traditional Muslim country where homosexuality is considered a taboo and deeply shameful subject. Xalil's lawyer, Elcin Sadigov, has complained that Azerbaijani law prohibits the public release of evidence in an unsolved case, and says he will press charges against the Prosecutor-General's Office for what he calls a blatant violation of privacy.

Elsa Vidal of the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders press-rights group says the video is a blatant attempt to compromise Xalil for his reporting work.

"The means that are used to discredit one journalist -- to say that he's a homosexual -- are just shameful," she says. "There is no justification to use that kind of method. His credibility as a journalist is not affected by whether he is straight or a homosexual. We know that the journalist has been threatened and blackmailed. The real reason is not his purported homosexuality; the real reason is because he is a threat to the authorities."

It is not the first time that the specter of homosexuality has been raised by authorities in connection with a public controversy.

Ahead of the 2005 parliamentary elections, a number of state-run media outlets carried stories insinuating that a popular opposition candidate, Popular Front party head Ali Kerimli, was gay.

In 2000, John Elvis, a U.S. citizen who worked as a programs coordinator for the International Republican Institute, was killed in Baku. Authorities claimed at the time that his death was tied to a homosexual affair. The case has never been solved.

The Xalil video scandal comes as Azerbaijan prepares to enter a critical election season, with the dynastic incumbent, Ilham Aliyev, looking to secure a second term in October. Press watchdogs say authorities have intensified their crackdown against the nonstate media as the election nears.

Prime Target

Nowhere has the clampdown been more evident than at "Azadliq," which has been a target of the authorities' ire for years. The newspaper, an outlet for some of the most critical reporting on the ruling regime, was evicted from its offices in 2006; subsequently, it was fined more than $100,000 for technical violations.

Xalil's stabbing came less than a week after the editor of "Azadliq," Qanimat Zahid, was sentenced to four years in prison for "aggravated hooliganism" and assault and battery in connection with a 2007 incident in which he was accosted by a stranger.

Zahid's brother, Mirza Sakit, an "Azadliq" correspondent, is currently serving a three-year jail term on similar charges. He has been on a hunger strike for the past week.

Press defenders say the international community has failed to adequately censure Baku for its campaign against the media, saying many Western officials have turned a blind eye to free-speech violations in Azerbaijan because of the oil-rich Caspian nation's growing importance as an energy supplier.

In fact, authorities in Azerbaijan often appear to act with impunity. State TV first broadcast the Xalil video even as Miklos Haraszti, the special representative on press freedom for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, was visiting Baku for a trip that included visits with Xalil, Zahid, and Sakit.

In a press conference in Baku on April 9, Haraszti called on authorities to stop what he called the propaganda campaign against Xalil, saying he had complained to state prosecutors about the video.

"I'm calling on them to stop it on many counts," Haraszti said. "It's practically illegal -- or should be, in a country which conforms to the rule of law -- because it's a violation of personal rights. But equally important, for me at least, is that it's also unethical to deny the role the media should play in society by gleaning the facts. Instead, they're making the facts unavailable."

Azer Ahmedov, the technical director of "Azadliq," says the video campaign against Xalil appears to be the latest attempt to silence one of the last critical voices left in Azerbaijan.

"All of this shows that the government wants to destroy the 'Azadliq' newspaper once and for all, before the presidential elections, and to use the example of our paper to deny the people of Azerbaijan access to free speech," says Ahmedov. "The beating and stabbing of Aqil Xalil is an integral part of this plan."

Russia: Ex-Kremlin Journalist Talks From U.K. Asylum

By Chloe Arnold

Yelena Tregubova in an undated publicity photo for her book "Tales Of A Kremlin Digger"

Five years ago, she was the talk of the Russian publishing world: a sassy young reporter unafraid of spilling the beans about what really goes on behind the walls of the Kremlin.

Today, Yelena Tregubova lives in a secret location in the United Kingdom, where she fled after her writing made her many new enemies.

It's been just a week since her asylum application was accepted, and the former "Kommersant" reporter has been told not to reveal her address -- even to her family in Russia.

"I feel huge relief, as you can imagine, because for a year I was living with this massive uncertainty" as U.K. authorities processed her asylum request, Tregubova says. "That's to say I hoped against hope, but couldn't be 100 percent sure, that it would be approved. The British government could just have decided to wash their hands of this matter, they could just have said, 'Why would we want to get involved with this journalist and her problems? Let's just keep on good terms with the Kremlin and forget about her asylum application.'"

Tregubova's asylum victory comes at a critical time in British-Russian relations. Some say the relationship is at its most strained since the Cold War. Russia has refused to extradite the man wanted in Britain for the murder of Aleksandr Litvinenko -- a former security service agent-turned-British citizen, who was poisoned in London in 2006.

Russia, in turn, accuses Britain of harboring wanted men, including business tycoon Boris Berezovsky, a vocal critic of the Kremlin, and Chechen separatists, including Akhmed Zakayev.

Both Russia and Britain have expelled diplomats. More recently, the British Council has been forced to close its doors in Russia. Last month, Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) raided the Moscow offices of the British oil major BP.

'Kremlin Digger'

For Tregubova, however, Britain has become a refuge, and her home for the foreseeable future.

"I think that while the current regime is in power -- the one created by [President Vladimir] Putin, as the [former] head of the secret services -- I won't be able to return to Russia," she says. "The door is closed for me, because I would be in mortal danger [if I went back]."

Tregubova's troubles began after the publication in 2003 of her hugely successful "Tales Of A Kremlin Digger," a book that dished the dirt on life in the Kremlin. There is the story of an intimate lunch with Putin, then head of the FSB, at a sushi bar in downtown Moscow. "I couldn't tell whether he was trying to recruit me, or chat me up," she writes.

Tregubova recounts the bungling attempts of factory bosses to impress the president on regional tours, and presidential blunders that his PR men try to cover up.

But as sales of the book skyrocketed, Tregubova lost her job, was thrown out of the Kremlin reporters pool, and started to receive death threats. An explosion went off outside her door that she says was certainly intended to kill her. Then, a year ago, she got another threat.

"I was abroad at the time, and I got information [that] I would be in mortal danger if I returned to my homeland," she says. "Of course, I knew that there was a difference between bravery and suicide. I'm not a kamikaze."

She confesses that "frankly, I didn't think that when my book was published these nasty goings-on would go so far. Who would have thought that people would go to such lengths for revenge?"

Journalist Deaths

An alarming number of journalists in Russia have learned the hard way just how strong the opposition to their work can be. Since Putin came to power in 2000, more than a dozen journalists have been killed in contract killings -- the most recent occurring just last month, and the most sensational being the slaying of investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya in 2006.

Forty-seven journalists have been killed in the line of duty since 1992, according to the international Committee To Protect Journalists, while reports of beatings and intimidation are common.

Often enough, the government plays a prominent role in the pressures faced by the media.

Natalya Morar, a correspondent for the weekly "Novoye vremya" who has Moldovan citizenship, was barred last month from entering Russia for a second time. She was prevented from entering Russia in December on national-security grounds after writing articles about alleged corruption within the Kremlin.

And as of April 7, accredited journalists have been barred from open access to the Russian White House, the main government office complex in Moscow. All official press communications will be distributed by fax and e-mail and published on the government's official website, ending the need for journalists to physically enter the building except for official events.

Tregubova says she despairs of the current state of the media in Russia.

"It's probably not very ethical for me, sitting so far away, in a civilized European country, where human rights are guaranteed, where freedom of speech and freedom of the press are taken for granted -- it wouldn't be ethical for me to criticize those colleagues of mine still in my homeland," Tregubova says. "But frankly, I think that what's going on there is less like journalism than some sort of harem."

The New 'Samizdat'

She says even the boldest of her Kremlin-reporter friends have been reduced to writing flattering anecdotes about the president. No one dares to criticize or write anything different today, she says, because they fear the consequences.

As for television, she says, it has become a "nightmare similar to what was shown in Communist Party leader Leonid Brezhnev's era." Russia's three main television channels are either state-controlled or owned by Kremlin-friendly enterprises, which means you never see news that's critical of the government, Tregubova says.

What is interesting, she says, is that samizdat -- the illicit reports published during the Soviet era that were critical of the regime -- have started to reappear, but in a different format.

"In fact, the strange thing today is that the Internet is playing the role of publisher of samizdat," Tregubova says. "I think that the future journalism textbooks will reflect this. Have a look, for example, at the website -- content-wise it is human rights-oriented per se. In fact, this is just what existed before -- underground 'chronicle of the current events' or chronicle of what was going on during the pre-reform times in the Soviet Union."

Recently alarms have been raised that the government -- after becoming wary of modern methods of disseminating information -- has stepped up efforts to monitor and control electronic communications and the Internet. In addressing a recent Internet forum, President-elect Dmitry Medvedev reportedly told the audience that the government must consider "the delicate question of the relationship between freedom of speech and responsibility."

"I'm afraid that the Russian media must go through the very same difficult path it went through [at the collapse of the Soviet Union]," Tregubova says. "Just as when Yeltsin's reforms began, we built journalism with our own hands, we started a new style, we tried to study western journalism -- so the next generation will have to do the same thing in 10, 15 years' time, when the current regime has gone."

Today, Tregubova is writing another book about her experiences. It keeps her busy, she says, and stops her thinking about the things she misses about Russia: "so many things, it's too painful to talk about them."

But what she doesn't miss is the way that the country is run today.

"I just think it's very sad that the history of reform in Russia, the attempt at liberalization -- it's all over. This great historical opportunity has been lost," Tregubova says. "Russia has gone back to being a colony for former KGB agents, who've changed in name only -- a fuel-rich colony for a small group of oil and gas merchants who give nothing of their riches to anyone living outside the capital."