Saturday, June 19, 2004


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By William Fisher

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Ronald Reagan famously exclaimed back in 1987.

Thankfully, that wall came down.

But today, another kind of wall is rising inside the former ‘evil empire’. It is a wall constructed by Vladimir Putin to separate the Russian people from their basic human rights. Over the past few years, Mr. Putin has been taking his country backward to a time reminiscent of the Czars. His increasingly authoritarian rule – known as ‘managed democracy’ -- has resulted in limitations on press and religious freedom, selective prosecutions, and a new wave of what Human Rights Watch calls ‘spy-mania’.

Current examples:

This week, a Moscow court upheld a ban on the Jehovah's Witnesses. The ruling arose from a Russian law that allows courts to ban religious groups that are considered to be inciting hatred or intolerant behavior. A Jehovah's Witnesses spokesman said the decision will prevent the group from renting space for worship, holding bank accounts or otherwise supporting its religious activities. "Religious freedom has just turned back to where it was in Soviet times," said the organization's lawyer. There are about 10,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in Moscow and 133,000 nationwide, according to the group. Russia's 1997 religion law enshrines Orthodox Christianity as the country's predominant religion and pledges respect for Buddhism, Islam and Judaism -- called traditional religions -- but places restrictions on other groups.

Also this week, the trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former head of Yukos oil company and reportedly Russia’s wealthiest man, opened in Moscow. With another shareholder, he faces charges of tax evasion, fraud and embezzlement and a 10-year prison sentence. Many believe Khodorkovsky is an oligarch who pilfered the country to create his oil company, and welcome the case as a display of President Putin’s resolve to tackle economic crime. Others see Khodorkovsky as one of the rare Russian entrepreneurs to establish a transparent and socially responsible business, and are convinced that his case is a politically motivated show trial.

Show trial or not, if it’s anything like most trials in Russia, it is unlikely to showcase the judiciary’s independence. More likely, defense arguments will be downplayed, most of its motions overturned, and the outcome will have little to do with the hearing and a lot with executive will.

Press freedom has also been a victim of President Putin’s ‘managed democracy’. Under different pretexts, all of Russia’s nationwide television channels—ORT, NTV, TV6 and TVS were either shut down or effectively taken over by the state. After the newly compliant media played its part in the run-ups to parliamentary and presidential elections, Russian authorities moved forward in taming the press and disposing of intractable journalists. A heavy blow was the sacking of NTV’s most famous show host Leonid Parfenov and the cancellation of his popular analytical program. Parfenov was fired for making public an overt act of censorship — his NTV bosses, at the request of the security services, ordered him not to broadcast an interview with the widow of a Chechen separatist killed in Qatar.

Russian non-governmental organizations and human rights groups have also been frequent targets. In his last state-of-the-union address in May President Putin launched an attack on human rights groups, accusing them of “receiving financing from influential foreign foundations and serving dubious groups and commercial interests,” and of forgetting “about some of the most acute problems of the country and citizens.”

Just days after the address, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused humanitarian organizations in Chechnya of using their missions as a cover for anti-Russian activities. One of the central TV channels, TVC, devoted an hour-long primetime program to denouncing the work of human rights groups, accusing them of what the presenter called their “hatred” for Russia. Along the same lines, a Kremlin political adviser, Gleb Pavlovsky, rebuked rights activists for being "engrossed" in Western ideals. Masked intruders ransacked and smashed the office of the Human Rights Center in the city of Kazan in central Russia. According to the center’s leader, the intruders were citing the President’s state-of-the-nation address.

Nor has freedom of assembly gone unchallenged. Over the last two months police and security guards have violently dispersed at least three public rallies. For example, on June 2, police broke up a rally organized by the political party, Yabloko, and Communist Party members, to protest new laws on referendums and rallies, and arrested three Yabloko activists.

Spy-mania has become the latest source of abuses. According to Human Rights Watch, “Since the collapse of the Soviet Union Russia’s security service has tried to reassert its dominion over certain spheres of sensitive information. In doing so, it has, among other things, pressed dubious espionage charges against about a dozen scientists, journalists, and environmentalists—a phenomenon dubbed “spy mania” by rights activists.” Academics have been accused of working with foreign contacts on issues that, in Soviet times, were under the security service’s exclusive control, such as nuclear waste dumping, environmental degradation, and military technology.

The case of arms researcher Igor Sutyagin is an example. As of April 2004, Sutyagin had spent over four years in detention while his case was investigated and tried. That month, after a trial marred by violations of fair trial standards, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison, the longest prison term for high treason since Soviet times. The case served as a clear warning to other academics, journalists and other specialists doing research on sensitive issues.

Nor have Russia’s worst ingrained human rights problems improved under “managed democracy.” Police torture, coerced confessions and convictions on trumped-up charges remain rampant. The conscript army is corroded by violent hazing, ill-treatment, poor nutrition and lack of medical care. And xenophobia, extremism and discrimination against ethnic minorities are growing at an alarming rate.

Putin’s team presents all these developments as a reasonable price to pay for restoring order and stability. But the Russian people deserve better – an independent media, an end to selective prosecutions, accountability for abuse, and transparency in governance.

Moreover, Russia’s backsliding from democracy in domestic affairs will ultimately affect its foreign policy. So Russia’s partners need to send an unequivocal signal that they will not be “managed” by the Kremlin.


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By William Fisher

The ‘good news’ from Iraq – which George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld accuse the Western media of not reporting – is usually about schools opened, hospitals and clinics running, oil flowing, and suchlike. But there is little discussion of what is arguably a far more significant development: the emergence of a censor-free, vigorous and lively press.

Before the US-led invasion, Iraq had four daily newspapers, and a few state-run TV and radio outlets, all owned or tightly controlled by Saddam Hussein's eldest son, Uday. Today there are about 100 often highly politicized newspapers and magazines, and a number of independent radio and international satellite TV stations. Print media ranges from slick-looking and professionally produced to amateurish and rudimentary. And political views cover every conceivable position from full support for the US invasion and occupation to calls for jihad against the Americans.

The widely respected Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) has collected recent editorials from the Iraqi press. These illustrate the diverse points of view of the new media. For example:

Al-'Adala (published by the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq) asks, "When will the Iraqis get the chance to realize their security?" The paper maintains that the American Civil Administration "is dealing with the situation in Iraq as if it is dealing with a 'Banana Republic.' It postpones what does not serve its interests and promotes what does." The paper says one of Paul Bremer's highest priorities since his arrival in Baghdad has been "to sign contracts with American companies that contribute to President Bush's re-election fund…”

An editorial in the weekly Al-Muwatin Al-Hur ("The Free Citizen,"), official organ of the Free Iraqi Society, urges Iraqis to serve their country and contribute to its reconstruction, stating that Iraqis should… participate actively and voluntarily in the country's re-construction… and not become a spectator expecting foreigners or even friends to support our country financially and morally…"

According to the independent Al-Yawm Al-Aakher there has been a proliferation of Western and Asian prostitution rings in Iraq, especially women who are infected with AIDS. The paper reports, "This is exactly what young Israeli women have done in the past in Sharm Al-Sheikh, Egypt. Young men of Iraq, beware."

Commenting on the security situation, the independent weekly Nidaa Al-Umma asks, "Where do we start? It is a question that we have to face ourselves if we want to come up with solutions…" One of the main causes of instability is the problem of unemployment and declining standards of living. If these problems are not resolved, the security problem will persist…"

The Iraqi daily Al-Shira', an independent daily, says that "the main covert battle in Iraq now, in which domestic and regional elements are taking part, aims at undermining the unofficial vital alliance that exists between the Americans and the Shi'ite leadership, and to turn the overt and covert cooperation between them into an armed confrontation which will lead to the eruption of widespread Shi'ite resistance in Iraq…"

On the significance of the new transitional Iraqi government, the daily Al-Manar (independent) says "the new government represents all political and religious affiliations and will operate until the anticipated general elections, when our nation will express its will…although the government is new… it has the capacity and competence to realize the aspirations of the Iraqi masses in this new era of democracy, freedom, justice, and equality in all walks of life…"

Addustour, an independent daily, writes: “The announcement issued by the office of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani warning about the resolution to be issued by the Security Council is an intelligent step, for he paid heed to a mean attempt to pass an unfair plan which aims…to partition Iraq…The Security Council is determining our destiny according to their own way.”

Al-Taakhi, a daily published by the Kurdistan Democratic Party, writes, “The people of Iraq need to understand the Kurdish call for getting a constitutional guarantee, and one which is necessary for the Arabs as well…Successive Iraqi governments did not keep their promises to the Kurds, in addition to the explicit call made by Shia religious circles rejecting any guarantee for the Kurds…If there were the least amount of trust and reliability in Iraqi society, the Kurds would not have needed an international guarantee.”

Al-Mashriq, a daily published by the Al-Mashriq Institution for Media and Cultural Investments, writes, “We now have two dissolved bodies: the Ba’ath party and the Governing Council. And it seems both will be equal regarding what is going on in Iraq. The proof lies in the Governing Councilors, who were excluded from the new government and who attacked it with accusations of illegitimacy due to being appointed by the Americans…What is the difference then between the GC and the government? In their view the two are the same. The GC and the government both are foreign-made.”

Addaaw, a daily issued by the Islamic Dawa Party, chaired by Ibrahim al-Jafari, a member of the former Governing Council, editorializes, “Despite our reservations regarding the way the new government was formed, this does not prevent us from dealing with it…We do not want to pass early judgments on it. Rather, we will keep observing and criticizing its performance. We also have the same demands which were declared by the supreme religious authority in Najaf…”

Al-Bayan, a tri-weekly, is also published by the Islamic Dawa Party. It writes, “The UN Security Council resolution has many positive points such as emphasizing Iraqi sovereignty, control of revenues, and a schedule for the withdrawal of multi-national forces... As to legitimacy, whether political, economic, or otherwise, it is that of the people of Iraq alone. Iraqis' call for help from national organizations and other friends is not a concession of their right to legitimacy…”

The London-based Azzaman, a daily published by Saad al-Bazaz, writes, “The new government deserves people's trust…The behavior of the president and prime minister indicates they have no love of power. The heavy duty they shoulder requires people's support to pass through this sensitive period. We have to distinguish between the Governing Council and the government. Azzaman and others have always called for correcting the mistake on which GC had been built. Azzaman believes the government is not an extension of the GC. Hence, it needs support to exploit the precious chance for Iraq to stand up.”

Al-Mutamar, the daily of the Iraqi National Congress, reports that “former Governing Council member and head of the Iraqi delegation to the Arab Women's Forum, Rajaa al-Kuzai, visited Abu Ghraib prison after the scandal of the abuse of the detainees there. She found only five women who spoke well of the treatment there and who said they had not been abused in contrast with what the former regime practiced against women detained there…”

Al-Sabah al-Jadeed, an independent daily, writes, “Weapons are still being handed over for money in Najaf. Thousands of people are reported to be coming daily to the weapons delivery centers, bringing different types of armaments, and waiting for hours in long queues. Al-Sabah witnessed some people with heavy guns and weapons being carried in their cars. Some smugglers buy the weapons from the people and sell them to the US forces. A police officer said they had delivered tens of mortars and more than 500 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, along with many quantities of ammunition, grenades and Kalashnikov assault rifles.”

Political cartoonists also have enjoyed relatively unfettered freedom of expression. For example, a cartoon in Asharq al-Awsat, shows a man personifying "the Iraqi government" being undercut by two saws: "occupation" and "resistance". The cartoon suggests that while the resistance is trying to destroy the government, the occupation is trying to destroy the resistance, and is thus destroying the government indirectly. After all, the occupation saw is the one cutting the larger circle. In another cartoon, in Al-Mada, a swimmer, identified as Iraq, has broken free of the Ba’ath, but is still held back by terrorism.

Iraqis have also opened many Internet cafes, online chat rooms, and web logs. There is lively dialogue not only within Iraq, but also between Iraqis in Iraq and Arabs elsewhere, and between Iraq and the Iraqi Diaspora in many parts of the world.

As part of its fight to win ‘hearts and minds’, soon after the fall of the Hussein regime, the Coalition set up a media group of its own, the Iraqi Media Network (IMN), including the daily paper Al-Sabah and the radio and TV station Al-Iraqiya. These media outlets are not generally believed by Iraqis to be independent.

The Coalition Provisional Authority has been accused by some of acting with a heavy hand on press freedom. For example, it banned Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera, among the most popular TV stations in Iraq and the region, for allegedly encouraging "political violence." (At the same time, CPA spokesmen regularly appeared as interviewees on these channels in their effort to reach Arab audiences inside and outside Iraq.) US forces closed the newspaper of the Iraqi Turkmen Front for inciting violence against Americans, and the offices of firebrand Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s newspaper, Al-Hawza, for publishing articles containing false information and seeking to “disturb public order and incite violence.” Many Iraqi newspapers criticized the closures. Al-Hawza is reportedly being published and circulated ‘underground’.

The bad news is that many of these newspapers, magazines and other new Iraqi media are in poor financial condition, and their prospects for survival are far from encouraging. As sovereignty returns, there is bound to be a shakeout among the media, if for no reason other than financial.

Nonetheless, the astonishingly rapid proliferation of media outlets reflects Iraqis’ strong convictions about the future of their country and their deep hunger for uncensored information. That should be encouraging to Messrs. Bush, Rumsfeld, and Blair.