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DUMA TO FORM RUSSIA-UKRAINE-BELARUS SUPPORT GROUP. The Duma voted on 15 February to charge its CIS committee with developing proposals for the creation of an interfactional support group "For the Union of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia" (ZUBR), ITAR-TASS reported. Unity deputy Sergei Apatenko said that the idea for the organization had come from Ukrainian parliamentarians. In another move, the Duma approved a modification in legislation governing the import and export of rare metals, giving the Kremlin greater leeway in deciding what will be permitted, Interfax-AFI reported. PG
CIVIC INITIATIVE WANTS TO SUE UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT FOR SLANDER. Lawmaker Serhiy Holovatyy told journalists on 15 February that the National Salvation Forum Civic Initiative intends to sue President Leonid Kuchma, parliamentary speaker Ivan Plyushch, and Premier Viktor Yushchenko for slander, Interfax reported. Holovatyy was referring to the statement of the three leaders in which the Forum was described as a group seeking salvation "for themselves from political bankruptcy and oblivion...[and] criminal responsibility" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February 2001). The Forum currently unites 63 representatives of political parties and public organizations. Prosecutor-General Mykhaylo Potebenko said the previous day that the Forum was created in "an unconstitutional way." JM
INTERNATIONAL GROUP ASKS UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT NOT TO FORGET GONGADZE... "The murder of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze may not be further ignored," Robert Menard, head of the Reporters Without Borders organization to protect journalists, said in a letter to President Kuchma, Interfax reported on 15 February. Menard added that if the Gongadze case is not clarified in the next few weeks, his organization will ask the Council of Europe to suspend Ukraine's membership, and will request the EU "to make all necessary conclusions regarding its political and economic relations with Ukraine." JM
...WHILE GONGADZE'S WIFE APPEALS ONLY FOR TRUTH. Myroslava Gongadze, wife of the missing journalist, told the Ekho Moskvy radio station that she only wants to learn the truth about her husband's fate, Reuters reported on 14 February. "Being at the center of these events is terrifying for me, but we must have an impartial investigation," Myroslava Gongadze said. She added that the blame for the current political unrest in Ukraine "lies solely with the investigative organs: their complete inactivity." According to her, the refusal of Ukrainian officials to unambiguously identify the headless body found near Kyiv and believed to be her husband's signals that they are covering up his murder. "There is only one explanation: if there is no crime, then there is no perpetrator of the crime," she said. JM
UKRAINIAN STUDENTS STAGE RALLIES OVER MISSING JOURNALIST. Some 100 students, led by the "For Truth" youth group, handed over a petition to the U.S. embassy in Kyiv on 15 February, asking the U.S. government to use its influence to solve the mystery of missing journalist Gongadze, Interfax reported. The group also asked for an expert assessment in the U.S. of the tapes that allegedly prove President Kuchma's complicity in Gongadze's disappearance. Another 50 students picketed the Education Ministry the same day, demanding that the educational authorities reinstate students from Rivne who say they have been expelled from their college for taking part in anti-Kuchma protests. JM
UKRAINE, RUSSIA, MOLDOVA DISCUSS TRANSDNIESTER PROBLEM. The foreign ministers of Ukraine, Russia, and Moldova -- Anatoliy Zlenko, Igor Ivanov, and Nicolae Cernomaz respectively -- met in Kharkiv on 15 February to discuss the settlement of the situation in Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region, ITARTASS reported. "We are interested in Moldova becoming a stable state, and in all existing questions being resolved by political means so as to promote stabilization of the situation in the country," the agency quoted Ivanov as saying. Cernomaz said Moldova wants to preserve its independence and territorial integrity, adding that "there [should] be a special status of Transdniester within this frame." JM
HUNGARIAN TV SIGNAL BLOCKED. Julijana Teleki told the Vojvodina Provincial Assembly on 6 February that Most and Palma TV stations block Hungarian TV and prevent Vojvodina Hungarians from watching its shows, "Madjar so" reported on 7 February. The federal minister replied that many TV stations operate without licenses or had obtained their licenses for being allied to government circles. He promised regulation of the television system and said that the provincial secretariat would soon launch an initiative to permit Vojvodina to regulate such issues on its own territory. (ANEM Weekly Media Update, 8 February)
CONFERENCE ON MINORITIES IN YUGOSLAVIA. The Yugoslav minister for national and ethnic minorities, Rasim Ljajic, announced a series of bills to improve minorities' position in Yugoslavia. During a two-day conference entitled "Development of Multiethnic and Multinational Society," he said a minority rights law was being drafted and added that the federal and republic local government laws would also be amended. The Democratic Union of Roma copresident asked for funding and equipment to enable Romany publishing and also called on electronic media to make time in their broadcast schedules for Romany-language programs. The acting editor in chief of the Radio Novi Sad program in Ruthenian recalled that the station's long tradition of broadcasting programs in Serbian, Hungarian, Slovakian, Romanian, and Ruthenian and later in Ukrainian and Romany. The conference marks the first official cooperation of state and non-governmental organizations. Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica and his ministers sat at the same table with the Fund for Open Society and the Bujanovac Board for Human Rights Protection. (ANEM Weekly Media Update, 4 February)
MARCHERS PRESS UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT TO STEP DOWN... Some 5,000 people marched through Kyiv on 11 February demanding that President Leonid Kuchma resign over allegations that he plotted the disappearance of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, Reuters reported. Many people held banners reading "Kuchma Kaput!" and "Ukraine Is a Police State." This was the second such protest in the past week. Meanwhile, a group of Ukrainian lawmakers and opposition politicians on 9 February set up a Forum for National Salvation Civic Initiative with the main goal of deposing Kuchma and transforming Ukraine into a parliamentary-presidential or parliamentary republic. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 12 February)
...WHILE HE DENIES ROLE IN JOURNALIST'S DEATH... Kuchma told London's "Financial Times" on 10 February that he had no role in the death of independent journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. "I can swear on the bible or on the constitution that I never made such an order to destroy a human being. This is simply absurd," he noted. Kuchma said the tapes provided by his former bodyguard, Mykola Melnychenko, were a montage of different conversations recorded "probably" in his office. "Maybe the name Gongadze came up in conversations, I don't remember. But I give you my honest word, I did not even know this journalist," Kuchma said. He said the tape scandal was staged by a "well-organized force" with "a great deal of money and capabilities," adding that "I completely reject the idea that this was done on the level of states, that it was the Americans or the Russians." ("RFE/RL Newsline," 12 February)
LAWMAKER SENDS MELNYCHENKO'S TAPES ABROAD. Legislator Serhiy Holovatyy said on 8 February he has sent the "original recordings" made secretly by former presidential bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko in President Leonid Kuchma's office to the International Press Institute in Vienna, Interfax reported. Holovatyy said he had transferred Melnychenko's recordings onto compact disks. Legislator Viktor Shyshkin added that one set of Melnychenko's recordings will remain in the possession of parliamentary commission for the examination of the disappearance of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, while another will be handed over to the Prosecutor-General's Office. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 9 February)
REPORTER ATTACKED IN KYIV. "Izvestiya" correspondent Yanina Sokolovskaya was assaulted in Kyiv on 30 January, receiving minor injuries. The victim told the Interfax-Ukraine news agency that a man entered the building with her as she was returning home. He pressed a knife to her throat and said: "You've done it, haven't you?" "I tried to break free and he said 'Don't scream, you'll make it worse,'" recalls Sokolovskaya. She managed to push the knife away, broke free, and rang the bell of an apartment on the ground floor. She says she has deep cuts on her hand and minor facial injuries. (Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, 12 February)
PROTEST OVER INTERFERENCE WITH DONETSK BROADCASTS. On 30 January, the "Mass Media Independence" initiative group asked the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine to persuade Ukrainian authorities to stop interfering with broadcasts by the Vechernaya Svoboda regional radio station. Journalists said that on 23 January the radio station was prevented from going on the air because it had announced an interview with former Vice Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko. (Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, 12 February)
A press freedom organization has issued a pamphlet on how to identify and fight one of the more insidious threats to media freedom around the world: "insult laws" which allow governments to intimidate or silence journalists who report anything that offends officials.
The U.S.-based World Press Freedom Committee, an umbrella coordination group for national and international news media organizations, this week released a booklet entitled "Hiding from the People: How 'Insult' Laws Restrict Public Scrutiny of Public Officials."
The 20-page pamphlet argues that insult laws, which have their original in medieval rules against insulting the monarch, are used "to stifle the kind of reporting and commentary about claimed official misconduct or corruption that it is precisely the responsibility of the press to disclose."
In some countries, these laws are a survival from the past, but in others, they are a recent innovation, used by governments that want to portray themselves as democratic but which in fact remain highly authoritarian, the committee says.
Such regimes choose to use these laws because they appear to be simply an extension of the universally recognized right of individuals and officials to sue for defamation when media outlets or others make false assertions of fact. But in reality, insult laws prohibit the reporting of anything that leaders believe offends their "honor and dignity" regardless of whether it is true.
Sometimes the existence of such laws and the threat that they will be used are enough to intimidate journalists. But at other times, the governments may take the journalists or news outlets to court and fine them sufficiently heavily to force them out of business. Among post-communist countries whose leaders have made use of such legislation, the pamphlet says, are Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Ukraine and Croatia.
But recognizing the threat, the World Press Freedom Committee says, is only the first step. Then, both domestic and international groups concerned about media freedom and all the other freedoms it makes possible must strive to overcome these laws.
And the pamphlet provides five arguments for those who seek to do so. First, such laws are unnecessary because libel and slander legislation already protects officials and others from false reports. Second, public officials by the nature of their work "deserve less -- not more -- protection from reporting and commentary than ordinary citizens."
Third, "democracy and economic prosperity are not possible without public accountability of leaders, transparency in transactions, and vigorous public discussion of issues and choices." Fourth, "press freedom cannot be said to exist in a nation where journalists are jailed for their work. And without press freedom, no nation can call itself a democracy."
And fifth, the committee says, "full participation in the international political and economic community is not possible as long as a nation fails to abide by the principles of good governance accepted by that community. All nations are bound by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and its broad call for the free flow of information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."
Sometimes, this battle can be fought in the courts, sometimes in legislatures, sometimes in the public, and sometimes in the international arena, the pamphlet says. And it notes that there have been important victories in the fight against this threat to a free press: 11 countries have repealed or invalidated insult laws in the last decade alone.
But the struggle must continue, the pamphlet concludes, because "in free and democratic societies, the journalist, as surrogate for the people, must be a watch dog -- not a lap dog."