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Four years ago, Kurt Wimmer, a partner at Washington, D.C.-based Covington & Burling, took his first trip to Bulgaria. It was a journey he would probably like to forget. Wimmer’s mission was to advise members of the Bulgarian parliament about a press freedom law that they were considering. It was a good draft, he had concluded, but it had some problems. First, he found that several sections of the law violated the country’s own constitution. He also noted that the bill would conflict with the European Convention of Human Rights, which Bulgaria has signed. Additionally, Wimmer objected to a provision that would allow the Bulgarian equivalent of the Federal Communications Commission to be dominated by a single political party. He believed he had made a solid analysis. But then he had to face Georgi Avramov, the chairman of the committee charged with drafting the law — a man Wimmer describes as an intense, young Fidel Castro lookalike. Wimmer had eased into his introduction when Avramov cut him off suddenly. “I wrote the Constitution, I know this is constitutional, so what is there to talk about?” he barked. Though Wimmer objected, through a translator, Avramov refused to stand down. The law passed shortly thereafter. “It was sort of an off-putting way to start,” recalls Wimmer, “and sort of an intimidating way.” But Wimmer got the last laugh when the bill was quickly struck down by the Bulgarian constitutional court. A second measure drawn up immediately afterward was also killed, this time by a veto from President Petar Stoyanov. Finally, a bill responding to many of Wimmer’s concerns passed in 1997. It resolved the constitutional conflicts and established a licensing committee that was politically neutral. For Wimmer, 38, it was an exercise in persistence, patience, and compromise. It was also a crash course in Eastern European politics and culture that he would have to use over and over again. Bulgaria was just the first of many countries the communications specialist has visited in his crusade to ensure protections for a free press in Central and Eastern Europe. His effort has taken him and his supporting crew of Covington associates to such troubled spots as Bosnia, Slovakia, and Belarus, where they advise journalists and media associations on their rights and meet with lawmakers to try to change restrictive media laws. Wimmer’s team, which includes associates Erin Egan, Margaret Grebe, and Ellen Goodman, is the driving legal force behind the Professional Media Program, a D.C.-based media rights group administered by an educational nonprofit called the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX). Funded by a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development, ProMedia’s main objective is to foster independent media in Eastern and Central European nations, including Albania, Belarus, Croatia, and Ukraine. Mark Pomar, who chairs IREX, says Wimmer’s work with ProMedia “has helped journalists on the ground understand the legal environment in which they operate.” The free-press issue is in Wimmer’s blood. His grandfather ran a small printing press in Luxembourg before the outbreak of World War II, and in his spare time published a weekly newspaper that was critical of Adolf Hitler. When Luxembourg fell to the Nazis, his presses were seized and his son, Wimmer’s uncle, was sent to a concentration camp. Fortunately, he survived the war. FROM JOURNALISM TO LAW Wimmer, a Wichita, Kan., native, attended the University of Missouri School of Journalism. During the summers, he held a string of newspaper jobs, including a stint as a photographer for the Kansas City Times and another as a copy editor for his hometown paper, the Wichita Eagle-Beacon, as well as freelance work for the Associated Press and United Press International. Journalism seemed to be his calling. But in his last year of college, he enrolled in a communications law class and completely changed his direction. Wimmer ended up attending Syracuse University Law School while completing a master’s degree from Syracuse’s S.I. Newhouse School of Communications. His background has served him well. In his nine years at Covington, he has represented old and new media companies, telecommunications groups, and various high-tech ventures. He says his work experience, which often requires distilling pages upon pages of terse legalese, has come in handy in his pro bono efforts. “A journalism background has helped enormously, especially at the very beginning,” he says. “As a reporter, you have to take something complex and organize it into something simple to understand and organize it logically.” Last year, Wimmer spoke to the Slovakian parliament on adopting a media law that would guarantee free speech and pave the way for a freedom of information law. In Bosnia, Wimmer and ProMedia have helped journalists’ associations begin drafting a media law that would benefit all ethnic groups. But Wimmer works hard not to be perceived as a shoot ‘em up American who arrives uninvited in foreign lands, claiming to know how to do things better than the locals. He goes only where he’s asked, and he knows his clients may very well choose to ignore his advice. Egan, a Covington associate also in the firm’s D.C. office, went to Sofia last September to speak to Bulgarian officials as part of an international panel of media experts and says she found people to be receptive. “They appreciate it so much,” she said, “and that’s what keeps us going.” Wimmer and his colleagues recognize that the laws and procedures in these countries bear little resemblance to the American system. In fact, ProMedia executive director Nancy Hedin says Wimmer’s greatest strength lies in his ability to scrutinize media laws within the framework of each country’s constitution and other regulations. Just as the success in Bulgaria is the shining light of the ProMedia program, Serbia may well be its dying star. “It’s the closest I’ve seen to a Nazi approach to shutting down the media,” says Wimmer. The story of Slavko Curuvija, the publisher of a banned daily newspaper in Serbia, is a graphic illustration. Curuvija visited the United States in December 1998 to seek support from lawmakers and IREX for the independent Serbian media, which had come under fire from Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic’s regime. Wimmer requested and got a meeting with Curuvija, not only because he wanted to educate himself on the political climate in Serbia but also because he wanted to help Curuvija begin printing again. At the time, the publisher was considering circumventing the ban by publishing his Dnevni Telegraf in neighboring Montenegro and smuggling copies into Belgrade on produce trucks. Wimmer was immediately drawn to Curuvija. “It was one of those times when you have brief contact with a person, but what they’re displaying is so incredibly powerful you feel changed,” he says. “It sent chills down my spine.” Wimmer and Curuvija agreed to keep in touch, but they would never talk again. Months after returning to Serbia, Curuvija was gunned down on his way to church on Easter Sunday. His assassins were never apprehended or even identified. But says Wimmer, “the implication is that it was part of the regime.” Currently, under the auspices of the United Nations, Wimmer is concentrating on passing a media-friendly libel law in Bosnia. He will continue the project even as he moves to take on one of the most important professional posts of his life as co-managing partner of Covington’s London office. His commitment to ProMedia and to working for press reforms, he says, is unwavering. Gerard Waldron, the D.C.-based head of the firm’s communications practice, says Wimmer’s pro bono work probably benefits Wimmer’s paying clients as well as promoting a free press abroad. “Dealing with other countries’ media laws makes you see your own media laws in a better light,” says Waldron. “The pro bono work he does makes him a better media lawyer.”
Cyberspace, Privacy and the First Amendment. October 24-November 6.

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