Russia's journalists
by Joel Simon

International Herald Tribune
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
May 5, 2008

President-elect Dmitri Medvedev of Russia will have many advantages when he takes the reins from Vladimir Putin this week. Bolstered by record oil prices, the country's economic outlook is fairly upbeat. Popular support for the new government is high, thanks largely to Putin's legacy.

But in at least one area Russia's record is abysmal: bringing the killers of journalists to justice. Fourteen journalists were murdered during the eight years that Putin held office. Justice has been served in only one of the cases, and although five men were convicted in the murder of Novaya Gazeta's Igor Domnikov, the mastermind of the killing is still at large.

This dubious record helps explain why Russia earned a top ranking on the Committee to Protect Journalists' Impunity Index, a new study released on April 30 at the United Nations in New York. It is a ranking of the countries where the killers of journalists go free.

Many of the countries on the list are engulfed by war - countries like Iraq, Somalia and Sri Lanka. But in Russia, a country that likes to tout its democratic credentials, journalists are gunned down far from any war zone.

The climate of violence has contributed to an atmosphere of fear among the few remaining media outlets that continue to publicly challenge the government. Reporting on the conflict in Chechnya has all but disappeared since the murder of the Novaya Gazeta investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya in 2006.

In his annual press conference in February, Putin for the first time praised Politkovskaya's journalism and promised to bring her killers to justice. Now, it appears he will step down as president without achieving this goal.

Thus it falls to Medvedev to reverse this legacy. He can do so by demonstrating a firm commitment to pursuing justice and ensuring the prosecutors do not receive mixed messages about the importance of these investigations.

With 13 unsolved murders, Russia currently ranks ninth of CPJ's Impunity Index. There is only one way for Russia to reduce its ranking, and that is by bringing the killers of journalists to justice. CPJ will be publishing an updated version of the Impunity Index in 2009. We hope we see progress.

Joel Simon,
New York Executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists

 

© 2008 The New York Times Company. All Rights Reserved.

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Watchdog warns of risks to media, Chinese staff

June 5, 2008

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Foreign journalists covering the Beijing Olympics must take care to avoid placing Chinese assistants and news sources at risk of arrest when covering sensitive topics, a U.S. watchdog group said on Thursday.

The Committee to Protect Journalists also called on the International Olympic Committee to press China to honor promises of press freedom for the more than 21,500 foreign reporters covering the August 8-24 games -- a pledge it said authorities ignored during recent unrest in Tibet.

"Past experience has shown that China tends to err on the side of heavy-handedness when it comes to media control and threats to the country's image as a unified nation," said the New York-based committee in a report.

"Reporters traveling to China should be aware of the risks to people they interview or hire, as well as the dangers they face themselves."

The report -- "Falling Short" -- said a 2001 pledge to impose no restrictions on foreign media, which helped Beijing win the right to host the 2008 Olympics, was not being upheld.

"Even at this late date, insist that the Chinese government fully meet its promises of press freedom for the 2008 Olympic Games," the committee advised the IOC.

The promised press freedoms in China -- which do not apply to domestic media and expire after the Olympics -- were widely ignored during political unrest in Tibet in March, when scores of journalists were turned away by authorities, it said.

The report said foreign reporters who run afoul of Chinese authorities faced "more inconvenience than hardship" and generally few long-term repercussions.

But ethnic Chinese and other Asian reporters had been treated harshly in some cases and Chinese translators or other helpers asked to work on sensitive topics could face trouble, it said.

"Reporters who ask Chinese hires to arrange meetings with activists or to organize a visit to an AIDS village must realize that they could be putting their Chinese colleagues at risk," it said.

"These assistants might not be punished until after the Games, when the world's attention has moved on."

The report listed as examples of sensitive topics problems associated with the Olympics, the Buddhist Tibet or Muslim Xinjiang regions, protests over social or environmental issues, HIV/AIDS patients, crackdowns on North Korean refugees and everything involving the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual group.

© Reuters, 2008



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Covering the Beijing Games? Expect to be Censored

by Bob Dietz

Huffington Post
June 10, 2008

Despite China's initial openness to reporters in the days and weeks following the devastating earthquake in Sichuan province, anyone who thinks China is going to be warm and friendly towards the media during the August Olympics should do a reality check. In the last few days about six foreign reporters were hauled away from a demonstration of angry mothers, demanding answers to why their children had died in what appears to have been poorly constructed schools. Foreigners say they are beginning to have a hard time getting permission to travel to the affected areas, and there has been a change in attitude on the part of local authorities.

Back in 2001, when China beat out four other cities to host the Games, the Chinese specifically promised that "there will be no restrictions on journalists in reporting on the Olympic Games." There were plenty of skeptics at the time, but there was also reason to expect some significant improvement. Chinese leaders, under then president Jiang Zemin, looked like they were moving toward freeing up media, and incoming President Hu Jintao had a reputation as being slightly more liberal than Jiang. Coupled with the rapid commercialization of the media that had been going on for more than a decade, a freer media in China by the time the Games rolled around looked like a possibility, though admittedly a long shot.

The bet didn't pay off -- Chinese media is arguably more restricted now than it was when China was awarded the Games and it is not realistic to expect that to change before August 8, when the Games start. China is still the world's largest jailer of journalists -- 26 behind bars as of today. But even more significant is the increasingly sophisticated censorship and content control system that has evolved. Mainstream Chinese reporters and their editors know just how far to push stories. And to make sure they don't go too far, they are at the receiving end of a daily, sometimes hourly, stream of directives from the Central Propaganda Department -- that's its name translated from the Chinese. In English the government calls it the Central Publicity Department.

Except for the main government-controlled newspaper and TV stations, Chinese media are competitive -- they need viewers and readers and advertisers to survive just as their Western counterparts do. Initial coverage of the May 12 earthquake in Sichuan is a great example of that. Chinese and foreign reporters descended on the scene in the same way Hurricane Katrina was covered here, and the reporting was so energetic and firsthand that censors were unable to keep up with the flow of information. For weeks they were outstripped by reporters' zeal. As the dust has settled and the inevitable political recriminations of shoddy construction and corruption and favoritism in aid distribution have become part of the story, the censors have reasserted their grip.

It is easy to see why: The anger of grieving mothers can easily grow into expressions of dissatisfaction with other government policies. China's economy has been growing at phenomenal rates for decades, and the social disruption that comes with such growth making the transition from a rural life to a free market, particularly in the country side makes places like Sichuan a tinderbox of social unrest.

In Tibet and adjoining regions in March, censors were under no illusions about what had to be done: Beijing clamped down on all coverage of the demonstrations and subsequent ethnic rioting, shut down virtually all access for foreign reporters and allowed all media to only use reporting for the official Xinhua (New China) News Agency.

So what should foreign reporters expect when they go to cover the Games? When sensitive stories arise -- Falun Gong demonstrations, angry AIDS sufferers calling for recognition in Tiananmen Square, pro-democracy activists sitting in front of a Western embassy, pro-Tibetan demonstrators unfurling banners whenever they see a western camera crew on the street -- reporters can expect to be met with a hostile security response. Foreign reporters say the experience of being hauled away and detained usually lasts for a few hours and hardly ever turns physical. Recommended responses vary from being combative, calling your embassy and making a stink, to just rolling with the situation and being polite, shrugging it off and getting back to the job.

Last year CPJ published a reporter's guide and China backgrounder called Falling Short. We released an update version yesterday. The report expresses our greater concern: While we don't want to sound blasé, we are not as concerned with foreign journalists' safety as much as the safety of the people they interview and the young Chinese staff they will hire to act as assistants, fixers, translators and runners. Many will be young and enthusiastic, and not as knowing of the way the media game is played by Chinese journalists, who have learned to protect themselves and not to jeopardize their sources.

Given that the International Olympic Committee has been reluctant to pressure the government in any significant way, the reality is that China has not and shows no intention of meeting its 2001 promises of freeing up local or foreign media. The government has made a commitment to carrying off a perfect Olympic Games, and the pattern in the past for such high-profile events is for the government to clamp down hard to ensure that things go smoothly. The 25,000 or so journalists expected in Beijing should resign themselves to pretty much being on their own in covering an economically vibrant country saddled with an authoritarian government.

Bob Dietz is the Asia Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, www.cpj.org

 


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Mugabe's media war
by Tom Rhodes

The Guardian
June 25, 2008

Zanu-PF's intimidating grip on national and international media effectively quashed the opposition MDC's campaign

There was one simple reason Zimbabwe's opposition party withdrew from run-off elections this week: they couldn't campaign in the first place. The ruling Zanu-PF party made sure that no pro-opposition material was aired by the state broadcasters, effectively blocking any country-wide campaign coverage. The private press could not fill the gap. After years of government harassment, the small, beleaguered independent press faced great restrictions in the run-off election period.

A western diplomat described the opposition leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Morgan Tsvangirai, as a "prisoner of Harare". MDC campaign rallies were banned, police arrested Tsvangirai five times, and roadblocks ensured that the campaign bus, the Morgan Mobile, stayed stationary. That left campaign ads via state broadcasters – the only ones allowed in the country – as one of the main means of outreach to Zimbabwe's rural areas.

But the ruling party tightened its grip on the media to ensure no MDC coverage leaked out to the rest of the country, the Committee to Protect Journalists found in a special report, Bad to Worse in Zimbabwe. In May, the government dismissed Henry Muradzikwa, chief executive officer of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, and gave "forced holidays" to seven ZBC employees for allegedly defying orders to suppress favorable opposition coverage. Soon after, presidential spokesman George Charamba instructed all state media outlets to block MDC campaign advertisements and pro-opposition editorials. The newly appointed state media CEO, Happison Muchechetere, a staunch Mugabe loyalist, then made sure the airwaves were filled with pro-Mugabe programs and jingles.

According to the Electoral Act and guidelines set by the Southern African Development Community, all political parties are entitled access to the state broadcaster. But Muchechetere managed to defy this by claiming MDC material contained prohibited hate language, such as the words "political terrorism", according to the Media Monitoring Project, a nongovernmental group analysing election coverage. This, however, did not stop the state broadcaster from airing vitriolic Zanu-PF rhetoric, the group found.
Ironically, opposition party leaders had called the run-up to the March 29 election the freest and fairest since the MDC's 1999 inception. Confident of victory, Zanu-PF allowed state media to broadcast opposition campaign material and election results to be announced in vernacular languages to reach a wider audience. But after losing the March 29 elections, Mugabe started cracking down on anyone considered sympathetic to the opposition – including the private press.

Never a friend of the independent press, Mugabe's government has closed several publications during his tenure, leaving only two independent weeklies printed in the country. According to one of those weeklies, the Standard, the government decided in June to obstruct newspaper dealers in three Zimbabwean towns from distributing its paper.

Private papers printed outside the country faced similar problems. The June 19 issue of the private weekly the Zimbabwean was impounded by the government. This comes on the heels of a newly imposed government import duty for foreign papers that costs the Zimbabwean £8,900 per shipment. The government also used a less nuanced approach: suspected security officers beat up two truck drivers carrying The Zimbabwean and burned the vehicle with 60,000 copies inside.

The two private radio stations that broadcast into parts of Zimbabwe, the London-based SW Radio and Washington's Voice of America (VOA) have not fared any better. The signals for both stations are periodically jammed and one civilian now faces court charges of "committing criminal nuisance" by listening to the VOA programme in public. Even satellite dishes that occasionally pick up South African and Botswanian broadcasts were removed by pro-government militias in southern Zimbabwe, so citizens would not be subjected to "misleading reports".

Has Mugabe's media strategy worked? One local journalist told CPJ "if you live in the country where you can only hear the state radio and they have been playing the same propaganda for the past six years – it's bound to have an effect." At the same time, however, only 2,000 Zanu-PF supporters attended what was supposed to be one of Mugabe's biggest rallies this week in Bulawayo. And local journalists told CPJ that many closet opposition supporters wear Zanu-PF T-shirts – just to avoid getting beaten.

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008
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Putin's Broken Promise
by Nina Ognianova

Huffington Post
February 14, 2008

Russia's Vladimir Putin held his last press conference as president today in front of hundreds of journalists in the Kremlin's Round Hall. But instead of giving him a Valentine--like one journalist did-- reporters should have reminded Putin about a promise he made last year in the same room.

In 2007, Putin acknowledged the fact that journalists in Russia face serious threats and promised to protect them. For the first time, the president complimented deceased investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya as a "sharp critic of authorities," adding, "and this is good"--words in sharp contrast to his initial reaction to her murder in October 2006, when he described Politkovskaya's impact on political life as "minimal."

Back then, the president's remarks gave hope that Russia might begin to mend its record as the world's third-deadliest country for journalists, and allow the press to carry out its role as a watchdog of power. But research by the Committee to Protect Journalists shows that in the year since, Putin's pledge to protect the press has been seriously undermined by his own actions and those of his government.

In March, a few weeks after the presidential press conference, prominent military correspondent Ivan Safronov of the business daily Kommersant plunged to his death from an upper-floor window in his Moscow apartment building. Despite numerous unanswered questions, authorities shelved the case as a suicide in September, saying that Safronov took his own life for unspecified "private reasons," without ever mounting a thorough investigation into his journalism as a possible murder motive. Days before his "suicide," Safronov had returned from a reporting trip to the United Arab Emirates, where he had obtained sensitive information about Russian arms sales to Syria and Iran that would be embarrassing for the Kremlin. He told colleagues he had been warned not to publish it. He did not leave a suicide note.

Another murder--that of U.S. editor of Forbes-Russia Paul Klebnikov--remains unsolved three-and-a-half years later, as one of two suspects in the killing went missing in March. Without a key defendant, the Moscow City Court trial has been indefinitely postponed. Justice is suspended in limbo.

In the months leading up to Russia's December general election, authorities harassed media outlets and journalists who tried to cover rallies organized by Other Russia--the opposition coalition led by former chess champion Garry Kasparov and nationalist writer Eduard Limonov. In March, police detained nine journalists covering a Dissenters' March in the city of Nizhny Novgorod. In April, police in St. Petersburg seized thousands of copies of an opposition paper meant for distribution in the capital ahead of an upcoming demonstration. And in May, police detained three foreign journalists at a Moscow airport as they prepared to fly to the city of Samara to report on a similar rally.

In a disturbing move that cemented a restrictive trend, Putin signed into law a second set of amendments to Russia's criminal code in July. Ostensibly designed to counter extremism--including the growing nationalist and neo-Nazi movements--the package expanded the definition to include even public discussion of such activity and gave law enforcement broad authority to suspend noncompliant outlets. (Putin had signed a similar set of measures the year before, criminalizing criticism of public officials.) The law's vague language invites authorities to interpret it as they please, contracting the boundaries of acceptable reporting. Analysts and press freedom advocates interviewed by CPJ compared the measures to "a cold shower on political journalism" and "a surgical scalpel" to be used selectively against power's critics. The outcome of passing these measures is simple--it chills critical reporting and inspires self-censorship among journalists further still.
As for those willing to test the limits of the Kremlin's tolerance, the consequences may be serious. Just ask political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky--his is the first case to be tried under the newly amended law on combating extremism. In September, Russian prosecutors brought charges against him in connection with his 2006 political diary Unloved Country--a collection of essays critical of Putin and his policies. The same month a court ordered the book to undergo a linguistic analysis to determine whether it carries extremist messages. Piontkovsky--currently a visiting scholar at the Hudson Institute in Washington--faces up to five years in prison if convicted. He denies the accusation. At least two regional papers have been placed under similar investigations; one still faces a possible closure.

In another sign of the Kremlin's lower-than-ever tolerance for opposing views, even the unshakeable radio station Ekho Moskvy--a broadcaster that for 17 years had enjoyed an extraordinary by Russian standards editorial independence--felt a shudder of apprehension in the run-up to the December 2 general vote. By midyear, the station had received a series of letters--15 in all--from various state agencies, including the Federal Security Service and the prosecutor-general's office after it gave airtime to opposition leaders Kasparov and Limonov. The agencies warned Ekho that its programming was being investigated for "public calls to extremism." Radio host Yulia Latynina, one of Russia's sharpest political commentators, was under investigation as well, the letters said.

Putin may not be personally responsible for his government's hostility, repressions and harassment toward the press, but one thing is certain--he has not lived up to his pledge to protect journalists and he is accountable for maintaining an environment increasingly intolerant of critics, including the media.
Sadly, against the past year's backdrop, it came as no surprise when Putin told Time magazine in December: "...Ms. Politkovskaya did not play any meaningful role in Russian political life. She was no threat, no danger whatsoever. Her murder was a provocation against authorities, I believe." And then, the newly named "Person of the Year" made another pledge: "Still, we'll do whatever it takes to complete [her murder] investigation to the successful end." We certainly hope that the president keeps that promise; his record, though, does not bode well.

President Putin's seventh and final annual press conference as head of state gathered more that 1,300 journalists, including 200 international reporters, and lasted a record four hours and forty minutes, according to the Kremlin's official Web site. Putin answered around 90 questions; not one of them was about press freedom.

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The drug war just across the border
By Clarence Page

Chicago Tribune
June 29, 2008

As if our military didn't have its hands full in Iraq and Afghanistan, the head of the Minuteman Project border security group seems to think Minutemen might make good narcotics cops.

Minuteman co-founder Jim Gilchrist suggested in recent radio interviews that the U.S. give Mexico 12 months to corral its criminal drug cartels and rising violence, particularly in border towns such as Juarez and Tijuana—or deploy the U.S. Army to do the job.

That's the Minutemen. Their remedies for the drug war next door sound simplistic, but at least they're paying attention.

While most of us north of the border have been absorbed with our presidential sweepstakes and other happenings, our southern neighbor has exploded into the full-scale drug violence previously associated with Colombia or Peru.

For now, we're not sending troops, just money. The Senate last Thursday approved a $1.6 billion, three-year package of anti-drug assistance to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Known as the "Merida Initiative," it includes $400 million for military equipment and technical assistance for Mexico's anti-drug fight. The bill was passed earlier by the House and President Bush is expected to sign it.

Mexico's government cheered the bill because it waters down proposed restrictions that would have required Mexico to change the way it handles allegations of human rights abuses by its military. Mexican leaders threatened to reject the money if there were too many restrictions on their sovereignty.

But the omission brought jeers from Amnesty International and other human rights organizations, such as the Friends of Brad Will, founded in the name of a freelance New York journalist who was shot and killed while shooting video of a teachers strike in Oaxaca two years ago. A native of Chicago's North Shore, Will was 36.

His final video shows protesters hurling rocks and captures the sounds of gunshots, along with a shout: "Stop taking photos!" A shot is heard whizzing toward Will. He was struck in the abdomen and once in the right side.

Within days, state authorities took two men into custody, a local town councilor and his security chief. But they were released less than two months later. A state judge ruled that they were not close enough to have shot Will.

No further suspects were brought in. Publicity eventually helped nudge federal authorities into taking the case over, but they have not made much more progress. Capturing his own killing on video did not save Will from becoming one of thousands of casualties related to drugs or politics in Mexico in recent years.

Twenty-one journalists have been killed in Mexico, seven of them in direct reprisal for their work, since 2000, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, of which I am a board member. Seven others have disappeared in the last three years.

"Mexico is not at war," said Joel Simon, executive director of CPJ. "And yet it is one of the world's most dangerous countries for the press."

But that's only a sliver of the thousands of drug-related murders of non-journalists in Mexico. By various counts, more than 4,000 people—including some 500 local, state and federal police officers—have been killed in the 18 months since President Felipe Calderon launched his campaign against the drug gangs.

Gang wars have escalated in recent years over smuggling routes to the United States and over control of local police forces. Among other particularly grisly touches, drug gangs in the northern state of Durango recently have left severed heads with warning notes attached in coolers by the side of the road.

Journalists such as Francisco Ortiz Franco, co-editor of the Tijuana newsweekly Zeta, have been killed for aggressively covering corruption and drug trafficking. At age 50, Franco was fatally shot in front of his children on a downtown Tijuana street.

Cases like his led to a meeting between President Calderon, who has sent federal troops in to bring peace to some towns, and CPJ board members, including me, in Mexico City June 9. Among other press freedom reforms, Calderon agreed to work toward laws that would protect speech and press freedoms at the federal level, not just the states, where corruption is more rampant.

With hundreds of millions of Washington anti-drug dollars still pending at the time, Calderon had ample reason to speak in glowing terms about human rights reforms. Now he needs to follow his talk with action—and Americans need to keep an eye on how well our money is being used.

Clarence Page is a member of the Tribune's editorial board. E-mail: [email protected]

Copyright © 2008, Chicago Tribune

 

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A voice for moderation, perhaps. But oppressive and intolerant nonetheless

By Joel Campagna

St. Paul Pioneer Press

July 22, 2008

http://www.twincities.com/opinion/ci_9962056


U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum's recent visit to the North African nation of Tunisia hardly made headlines in Minnesota. But in Tunisia the state-run media hailed her visit as a success for U.S.-Tunisian relations, citing the congresswomen's praise for Tunisia as a "voice of moderation and wisdom in the world."

Tunisia, a close friend of the United States, also happens to be a police state intolerant of free speech and a free press. Tunisia is the Arab world's leading jailer of journalists, and it actively targets the few courageous individuals who attempt to speak critically of the government with imprisonment, police surveillance and violent attacks.

Disappointingly, McCollum did not raise any of that during her trip. "The premise of her visit was security," said the congresswoman's chief of staff, Bill Harper, explaining that Tunisia, while cooperating with the United States in the war on terror, opposed the Bush administration's intervention in Iraq. It was in that context that McCollum called the Tunisian leadership moderate and wise, he added.

The nation's president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, is a dictator who has been in power for 21 years. His government has long welcomed U.S. congressional delegations to the sunny capital of Tunis, where they

record, or the first to allow the Tunisian state-controlled press to exploit her visit for propaganda.

Just before McCollum's visit I witnessed Tunisia's repression firsthand while leading a 10-day fact-finding mission to Tunis for the Committee to Protect Journalists. There, I met Delinda Boukhdir, the young wife of Slim Boukhdir, an Internet journalist at the time serving a one-year jail term on trumped-up charges of insulting a public employee.

The real reason Boukhdir was in jail was his harsh criticism of Ben Ali and his family. Boukhdir published online articles — such criticisms are unpublishable in the country's Soviet-style print press — accusing them of corrupt financial practices.

Until his welcome early release on Monday — the result of an intensive international campaign waged by journalists and press freedom groups — Boukhdir had endured difficult prison conditions that included a cramped cell with no running water and occasionally threatening cellmates. He had contracted scabies due to unsanitary prison conditions.

Through overt surveillance, Tunisia's omnipresent secret police frequently intimidated Delinda Boukhdir and her family. When I unsuccessfully attempted to visit Slim Boukhdir in prison, I saw how a dozen plainclothes police menacingly tracked Delinda and me through the streets of Sfax, Tunisia's second-largest city, on foot and in cars in a clear show of force.

Being subjected to such crude harassment is the norm for the country's small group of outspoken independent journalists, who are forced to write mostly online or for very small-circulation opposition papers. These critics have been placed under surveillance, assaulted by plainclothes police, had their phone and Internet lines cut, and been prevented from leaving the country.

Tunisia has enamored its supporters in the United States with its strong economic growth, its support for women's rights and its overall political stability. But these notable gains have come at the same time the nation has withheld basic rights such as free expression.

Some have argued that Tunisia is among the best-suited Arab nations to make a transition to democracy. Tunisia boasts the region's largest middle class; unlike many of its neighbors, it has no history of political or sectarian violence. To help Tunisia embark on a process of democratic reforms, we need to support the brave Tunisians risking their own livelihoods in pursuit of basic freedoms.

McCollum and her colleagues on the Tunisia Caucus could use it as a forum not only to strengthen bilateral relations, but to also speak out in support of democratic reforms. The caucus should start by expressing concern for the troubling state of media freedoms in Tunisia and the government's insidious harassment and censorship of independent journalists. Such a stand would also help set the record straight on where McCollum really stands on Tunisia — and not let the Tunisian state media do it for her.

Joel Campagna is senior program coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). CPJ is a New York-based, independent, nonprofit organization that works to safeguard press freedom worldwide. For more information, visit www.cpj.org.

 


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All at sea in the Caspian
In a country where critical journalism is silenced, President Aliyev of Azerbaijan can be sure of his 're-election'

by Nina Ognianovna
guardian.co
September 17, 2008


Preoccupied with the Georgia-Russia crisis and the old fears it has resurrected, the world risks missing another important story unfolding in the Caucasus – that of Azerbaijan. The oil-rich Caspian Sea nation is going to the polls a month from now to vote for its president, but calling the process "an election" would be a stretch.

The incumbent Ilham Aliyev – the authoritarian leader who practically inherited the presidency from his father, Heydar Aliyev, in 2003 – is expected to win the ballot in a landslide and remain in office for another five years. The opposition – fragmented, embattled, and disillusioned – announced it would boycott the vote after parliament passed restrictive amendments to Azerbaijan's election law that eliminated even the appearance of a fair process. The amendments cut the campaign period to 75 days before the vote, eliminated state television free air-time for candidates, and denied the opposition equal representation on election commissions – a key prerequisite to prevent or at least minimise the possibility of fraud. 

Several opposition politicians later reconsidered and enlisted to run but the key prospective candidates did not. As a result, on October 15, Aliyev will face six virtual unknowns and win without a doubt. Azerbaijanis' "choice" will only be a nominal one.

In his five years in office, Aliyev Jr has consolidated his position as a supreme executive – maintaining authority over the cabinet, legislature, the military, and the judiciary. Externally, his centralised regime has been bolstered by the global demand for oil and the west's need for a partner in anti-terrorism. Azerbaijan has strategic importance for both the United States and Europe – oil in the Caspian Sea provides an alternative to Russian and Persian Gulf supplies, and the west needs a stable partner along Iran's border. These interests have muted international reaction to Azerbaijani authorities' human rights abuses at home. Domestically, critics have been silenced through imprisonment, violence, and intimidation.

In a new report titled "Finding Elmar's Killers", the Committee to Protect Journalists finds that Aliyev's success is built to a large extent on his administration's crackdown on the independent media. Television – the most influential news medium in the country – is under the administration's control either directly or through pro-Aliyev owners. Low-circulation print media have more editorial freedom, but their impact on public opinion is small. And with the authorities clamping down on critical journalists, fewer reporters are willing to cover sensitive topics, the most dangerous of which is reporting on the president and his family. Disgruntled officials use criminal defamation charges agaisnt journalists frequently, demanding imprisonment and high damages. Compliant courts usually rubberstamp those demands. The government has resisted persistent calls by international organisations, including the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, to decriminalise libel. 

When Azerbaijan jailed 10 reporters for their work in 2007, it became Europe and Central Asia's leading jailer of journalists, according to CPJ research. Several were later released through a pardon but the most critical ones remained in jail. Those include Eynulla Fatullayev, editor of the now closed independent weekly Realny Azerbaijan, and the brothers Sakit and Genimet Zakhidov with the pro-opposition Azadlyg newspaper. The journalists are serving jail terms on trumped-up charges such as hooliganism, drug possession, and terrorism. CPJ has found those charges to be fabricated and politically motivated.

The imprisonment of Eynulla Fatullayev is emblematic of the lengths to which Azerbaijani authorities have gone to stifle independent reporting on sensitive topics. Following his own dogged investigation into the contract-style murder in 2005 of his former boss and mentor, Elmar Huseynov, Fatullayev was slammed with a series of spurious charges – the heaviest of all being terrorism – and imprisoned for eight-and-a-half years. Fatullayev had angered the authorities by questioning their will to solve the murder, and reportedly finding and interviewing one of Huseynov's alleged killers.

With Fatullayev behind bars, there is no current scrutiny of the official investigation into Huseynov's assassination. The crime remains unsolved and Huseynov's killers are still at large.

Following Huseynov's murder, the authorities in Azerbaijan have also failed to investigate severe attacks on at least eight journalists. CPJ interviewed the victims during a week-long trip to Baku in May, recording their disturbing accounts of government indifference, neglect, and, in at least one case, perceived complicity in the attacks. 

Huseynov's family members spoke to CPJ of their own disappointment with the official conduct, calling the investigation confusing and secretive at best. Indeed, Azerbaijani authorities have been opaque about their progress towards finding Huseynov's killers. Lately, they have publicly ascribed primary responsibility for arresting the two alleged suspects – ethnic Azeri Georgian citizens Tair Hubavov and Teymuraz Aliyev – to Interpol. But the public record does not support that claim, CPJ research found. An official with Aliyev's administration assured CPJ that Azerbaijan remains "fully committed" to solving Huseynov's murder. But the public record does not support that assertion either. 

The international community is busy – and rightly so – moderating the Georgia-Russia crisis and the east-west diplomatic rift it has caused. But we should not forget about Azerbaijan and we should call its government to account on its human rights record. Azer Akhmedov, the acting editor of Azadlyg newspaper told CPJ: "You know, in a perfect world, it is logical for people to be happy when they have an energy resource. But in Azerbaijan, we say the opposite – we would be better off if we didn't have oil."

Akhmedov, whose editor, Genimet Zakhidov, is in jail for "hooliganism", told CPJ Azerbaijan is "cursed" with by its oil resources and geographic position close to Iran. "We're stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea," he told CPJ. "We are faced with the reality that human rights are low down on the West's agenda." The international community should work to prove Akhmedov wrong – by demanding the release of all imprisoned journalists, the decriminalisation of libel, the timely and thorough investigation of violence against reporters, and calling on the Azerbaijani government to allow the press to do its job without fear of reprisal.

Nina Ognianova is Europe and Central Asia Programme Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

 

 

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/16/world/europe/16russia.html?hp=&pagewanted=print

October 16, 2008

Toxic Pellets Found in Russian Rights Lawyer’s Car

By MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ and ALAN COWELL

MOSCOW — French police are investigating the discovery of toxic mercury pellets in the car of a human rights lawyer who was taken ill in Strasbourg on Tuesday, a day before pretrial hearings in Moscow into the killing of one of her best-known clients, the journalist and Kremlin critic Anna Politkovskaya.

The case recalled events almost two years ago when Alexander Litvinenko, a former K.G.B. officer and a vocal critic of Vladimir V. Putin, died after ingesting a highly radioactive toxin, polonium 210. Scotland Yard said he had been murdered.

 

 

 

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Andrew Levinson

Communications Assistant

The Committee to Protect Journalists

www.cpj.org

212-465-1004 ext.124

 

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