When an outfit calling itself the Central Asia Newswire announced it had set up shop in Astana, Kazakhstan last summer, it appeared that somebody, happily, might have figured out a successful business model for reporting on the undercovered oil-, gas-, and despot-rich region between Russia and Afghanistan.
Ah, if only. The outfit was actually the spawn of a nation-branding company employed by the Kazakhstan government and The Washington Times. CAN, as the newswire is called, listed its stateside operations in a K-Street suite offering administrative services and hourly conference room rentals to a host of clients. The company’s Astana operations were equally dubious.
When The Washington Times news editors balked at the copy coming over the wire, some saying that it was written in close coordination with the Foreign Ministry, a Delaware-listed company called Global Media LLC was created to take over the newswire, and East West Communications—the nation-branding company—sued the newspaper for breaching its contract.
How did The Washington Times, which was started by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon in the early 1980s to take a more aggressive reporting stance against the Communist scare, find itself party to a half-million dollar contract with a company representing a post-Soviet country? And why did it apparently agree to lend an air of authenticity to a subscription newswire whose only paying client, it turned out, seems to have been the Kazakhstan government itself?
Print’s decline has not spared The Washington Times, even if the newspaper is bailed out from time to time by its parents at the Unification Church. Daily circulation fell from 87,000 in 2008 to about 40,000 in September 2010, according to Ian Shapira’s reporting in The Washington Post. Preston Moon, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s oldest surviving son, assumed control of the paper in 2006. In what editorial staff described as growing bitterness between different factions of the family, the younger Moon eventually fired the publisher and president, Thomas McDevitt, and several other senior executives in late 2009. The executives, together with the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, would buy the indebted paper back a year later.
In 2008 and 2009, the Moon family rift led to the closing of the financial tap that kept the paper going, said several reporters and editors at the paper. A plan to expand coverage into Central Asia at the height of this financial difficulty was brought to John Solomon, the executive editor at the time, in the fall of 2009, according to the paper’s head of business operations, Thomas Culligan. The paper would be allowed to keep any subscription profits from the newswire. Several news editors said that they had not heard of the project before it was launched, indicating that it was something the business staff had hatched.
“The idea originated from a business partner that we had, a company called East West Communications,” Culligan said. “That’s a ‘small p’ on ‘partner’.”
East West Communications, which advises nations on their branding strategies, is headed by Thomas Cromwell, who has long been close to the Moons’ News World Communications, Inc., acting as editor and publisher of the company’s Cairo-based Middle East Times in the 1990s. (Cromwell would not comment for this article). Kazakhstan and other countries have employed East West Communications to place advertorials in The Washington Times for years. In 2010, the country hired East West Communications for more elaborate branding purposes.
The country had both a golden opportunity and a real need for high-impact public relations when it assumed the annually rotating leadership of OSCE, a regional security organization that offers a forum for political negotiations around conflict prevention, human rights, and democraticization. Through a sister organization, the group’s charges include monitoring elections in the former Soviet states. Many observers found it surprising that Kazakhstan, where Nursultan Nazarbayev has been president since the break up of the Soviet Union and there is essentially zero political opposition, could take a leadership role in an organization promoting democracy.
To raise its standing, Kazakhstan pumped more money into its D.C. lobbying and PR machine. When President Nazarbayev came to Washington for a nuclear summit in April 2010, East West Communications plastered bus stops around the city with glorifying pictures of the man. Around the same time, halfway around the world, the country’s Foreign Ministry was apparently heavily involved in the launch of CAN.
“In a way, it is a very low-rent equivalent of the Russia Today TV channel,” wrote Peter Leonard, an Associated Press reporter who has been based in Kazakhstan for the past several years. “The Kazakh government has exerted itself vigorously and invested heavily in trying to improve its international image. By endorsing a news outlet through which to present its message in what it would deem to be a more neutral fashion—while papering over its multiple shortcomings in terms of commitments on democracy and freedom of speech—it believes it can effectively portray itself as the progressive and modern nation it aspires to become. Yet while this outlet enjoys the apparent support of the authorities, media critical of the government is subject to constant harassment.”
Claude Salhani was the first reporter assigned by The Washington Times to Astana, Kazakhstan, to report for the paper and CAN. Solomon gave him the assignment after the Middle East Times, where Salhani had been editor for six years, was closed in fall 2009. (Solomon, who resigned from The Washington Times on November 6, 2009, shortly after several top executives were fired, declined to comment on the record for this article.) In January 2010, Salhani arrived in Astana, a one-time dusty transportation hub in the Kazakh steppe that the country has transformed into an elaborate, ultra-modern enigma—complete with a Las Vegas-style skyline—in an uphill battle to lure businesses, diplomats, and reporters up from the Soviet-era capital of Almaty.
The agreement between The Washington Times and East West Communications stipulated that the newspaper would staff the Astana bureau with “at least three international journalists and a translator/office manager, and use the services of at least four stringers,” according to court documents. According to a lawsuit it brought in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia in September, 2010, East West Communications paid The Washington Times $125,000 toward an agreed-upon $500,000 annual fee to set up and run the Astana bureau. In turn, The Washington Times was obligated to run the content “at the normal discretion of the editors,” and could keep any revenue it made by selling paid content subscriptions. East West Communications charged that The Washington Times breached this contract, and demanded repayment of the $125,000 with interest. The suit was still open as of late February.
The Kazakhstan government acknowledged that it paid for the newswire’s content, but it is unclear that anybody else did. Disgruntled former CAN employee Les Neuhaus said that the Kazakhstan Foreign Ministry’s head of communications, Roman Vassilenko, told him that that government was the only paid subscriber. In an interview, Vassilenko said that the ministry paid for CAN’s services, but would not say how much, noting that it paid subscription fees to more well-known Russian newswires, as well. The relationship that his ministry had with CAN was not out of the ordinary, he said.
“There are a handful of reporters here in Astana, so we work with them,” said Vassilenko. “The Foreign Ministry is the first point of call when they want to look into any story. They call us, and we try to be helpful. That is the nature of our relationship with everybody here.”
CAN editor Patrick Gilsenan did not respond to multiple e-mails asking whether there were other paid subscribers; nor did he return phone calls. It is unclear why CAN did not work more dilligently to find subscribers to their service.
With a few exceptions, Salhani’s stories did not appear in the newspaper at all, because executive editor Sam Dealey put a stop to them. And, for months, the newspaper did not send anybody out to join him. Salhani and Dealey, who was named editor of The Washington Times in late January 2010, did not see eye to eye on how Kazakhstan should be covered.
“The specifics that were asked about me was to write a story about prostitution in Kazakhstan, about corruption in Kazakhstan, about prisons in Kazakhstan,”
said Salhani, author of a forthcoming book called Islam Without a Veil: Kazakhstan’s Path of Modernization. “And my response was that those things had been written about ad nauseam in the press, and I like to write about something a little different.”
Dealey, who has spent eight years as an overseas correspondent, including for Time magazine, personally blocked a number of Salhani’s stories. He would not give his reasons on the record, but his colleagues said they knew that he had some questions about the business arrangements backing up the project.
“Sam Dealey was concerned about where the money came from. That’s really more CAN’s question than ours,” said Culligan, a top-level business side executive at The Washington Times, who left in May 2010 and was rehired after the Rev. Sun Myung Moon led a group of former executives who bought the paper for $1 plus untold debt on November 2, 2010. “The whole essence of where money came from is tricky, because we’re not Thomas Cromwell’s group.”
For his part, Salhani apparently did not think it was appropriate to question who had financed his work, much of which appeared in the Commentary section.
“I had no idea where the money was coming from,” he said. “I am an employee of the company. Where the company gets their money is none of my business.”
While in the country, Salhani was also reporting for his own book, which he continued working on after Dealey fired him.
“I know there is corruption, I know there are things that aren’t going as they should, but keep in mind that this is a young democracy, a young republic trying to be a democracy,” Salhani said. “When you know the way these new countries, these regimes are working, and then you see the Kazakh model, promoting anti-terrorism, promoting interreligious understanding, I think they were in the right direction in many ways.
“This is something I have been writing on for years now, using religion as a way to counter religious terrorism. I think Kazakhstan understands that. They are one of the few, actually, who understand that.”
At least some editors other than Dealey suspected what was happening. “I gather that the money that funded it came from the Kazakh government,” said another former editor. “My understanding is that they [CAN] were talking very regularly with the Foreign Ministry.”
“It’s certainly not Western journalism, but it is what it is. It’s a third-world subsidized news service,” this editor continued, “It’s useful because it reflects the viewpoint of the government, and tells us what the government is thinking. It’s just important not to confuse it with something that it’s not, which is an independent news organization.”
But Central Asia Newswire represents itself as just that on their website, centralasianewswire.com. The outfit lists an address at 1629 K Street Suite 300,
where lawyers, an international security company, and a for-profit scholarship company rent space for conferences by the hour or day, with shared administrative services available for an extra fee.
“It’s a virtual office,” said John H. Clarke, a lawyer who also shares the suite. “Like a time-share office.”
When The Washington Times withdrew its support for CAN in June, an opaque new company called Global Media LLC was launched from Delaware to take over the newswire. David Demiray, the lawyer for East West Communications, said that he also represented this new firm, but declined to provide any information about its ownership, including whether or not they were the same people that owned East West Communications.
“The person who has ownership interest in Global Media LLC does not want to be known right now,” said Demiray. “I can neither confirm or deny that Mr. Cromwell is an owner of Global Media LLC.”
Nonetheless, several former reporters for CAN said that they believed the owners of CAN and East West Communications had remained one and the same, despite the paper transfer.
One of the reporters who was sent to Astana by East West Communications after the falling out in June between CAN and The Washington Times was Les Neuhaus, a former U.S. Air Force security policeman who said he took the CAN job over a freelance opportunity with CNN.* He did not speak Russian when he was given the job, which he read about on journalismjobs.com.
His initial in-person interview took place at East West Communications’s D.C. headquarters, and was conducted by Cromwell and his partner at East West Communications, Savas Hadjikyriacou, along with CAN’s editor, Patrick Gilsenan. Neuhaus said he asked who the subscribers were, and did not get a straight answer.
“The way that they stated it, they were an upstart agency,” he said. But when they offered him $60,000 a year, untaxed, he leapt at the opportunity. “I really felt dumb after the whole episode.”
Shortly after his arrival in Astana in late June, he said, he began to realize that the company did not operate in a transparent manner.
“When I went to the bureau, there was nobody in there,” he said. “It’s like a ghost office, basically.”
He did find some of Salhani’s old clips lying around the old office. Unaware of Salhani’s existence, Neuhaus asked an office administrator to bring him up to speed. She told him that Salhani was a reporter who had recently been fired, and gave him his phone number. Salhani was still in the country working on his book, and happened to live across the street from Neuhaus’s company apartment.
But Neuhaus said that when he asked Gilsenan and East West Communications about Salhani, he was harshly rebuffed. Neuhaus said that this was because Salhani indicated to him that CAN was in fact owned or controlled by the Kazakh Foreign Ministry, although Salhani denies that.
When Neuhaus declined to break off communication with Salhani, with whom he had already made dinner plans, he was fired and ordered to immediately vacate his apartment.
Demiray said that he could not comment about any role he may have had in dismissing Neuhaus.
“If Mr. Neuhaus has a problem with how I treated him, he is more than welcome to contact me,” he said. “Regarding Mr. Neuhaus, we—or I can’t even say we, I—wish him the best in whatever he chooses to pursue.”
CAN is still pumping out stories. One of their most prolific staff members, Martin Sieff, worked for UPI and The Washington Times for years. Although he has written book reviews for the paper recently, his last piece on Central Asia in the Commentary section appeared on July 23, 2010. It was entitled “Losing the resources game; Distracted America is missing opportunity’s knock,” and described how Kazakhstan was eager for asleep-at-the-starting-gate America to enter into more robust competition with China for control of the wealthy country’s available resources. Oh, and Kazakhstan and other Central Asian states were tired of being lectured.
In December, following a final OSCE event, a clutch of reporters who mostly represented legitimate international media was invited into a room to have some special time with President Nazarbayev. Sieff was there, representing CAN, and asked a “sickeningly” deferential question, said a reporter from an independent news agency.
In retrospect, the problems with the CAN operation were purely logistical, according to Culligan.
“It’s eleven-hour time zones,” he said. “Very many things had to be done with cash. In other areas we are used to dealing with, we can deal with Visa or American Express. And the financial people were very concerned with just the amount of logistical complexities as well.”
Culligan, whom McDevitt rehired after the recent transfer back to the old guard at The Washington Times, did not deny that the Kazakhstan government, particularly the Foreign Ministry, tried to influence coverage through the news wire.
“That’s their job,” he said. “That’s what the Voice of America, or the White House, or anybody else does. They provide content.”
He also spoke to the sad truism that real news reporting, particularly in less well-trodden areas overseas where reporters may not speak the local language or be familiar with the culture, is expensive and even more difficult without the company of colleagues.
“It just wasn’t that sort of thing where you walk in and there’s a whole gaggle of reporters telling you what to do and where to go,” he said, insisting that The Washington Times always exercised sound news judgment in the arrangement. This judgment, of course, has incurred the financially ragged company with the untold expense of defending against a breach of contract charge filed by a major advertising agent, which is, as yet, unresolved.
Dealey was fired from The Washington Times on November 19, 2010. Culligan, meanwhile, has been holding meetings with Cromwell’s group to rebuild that small-p partnership he mentioned. He said that he planned to work with the company again on “international communication,” or advertorials. Projects like CAN are also possible, he said.
“We would look at them again if it came in, but evaluate if it would fit in,” Culligan said. “This was an interesting project, but in the end, the first test of integrity is ‘Is anybody concerned that we were writing for our advertisers or anyone with a vested interest?’”
He paused. “That was not a concern here.”
* This piece originally described Les Neuhaus as an “adventurer,” a description that, on reflection, was not the most accurate way to characterize Neuhaus’s professional background. The relevant sentence has been revised for purposes of clarity.