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East: News Advocacy Group Says Media Constrained In Former USSR

  • Andrew Tully

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said today that 2004 was the deadliest year for the news industry in a decade. The organization's annual report, issued at a news conference in Washington, said 56 journalists were killed. Some died while covering dangerous stories, such as wars, but the majority were murdered. The CPJ said journalists also felt other pressures, and it singled out Russia and the other former Soviet countries, accusing them of using a variety of ways to keep news from their peoples. The only exceptions in the region were Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, which the CPJ says have established "strong press-freedom traditions." It also says the recent developments in Ukraine are hopeful signs that it, too, will shift from repression to candor.

Washington, 14 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The CPJ report said it found abuses of the news media in virtually all parts of the world, including the Philippines -- where eight journalists were killed; China, where 42 were jailed; and Iraq, where 23 died.

Special attention was paid to Russia and the other former Soviet states. At the news briefing, Alex Lupis, the CPJ's specialist for Central Asia and Europe, summed up the status of the news media in the region.

"Their secretive, centralized governments aggressively suppressed all forms of independent activity, from journalism and human rights monitoring to religious activism and political opposition," Lupis said. "Threats to the press came in the form of covert bureaucratic controls, lawsuits, hostile corporate takeovers, and aggressive harassment by security services. Their goal has been to consolidate control over the broadcasters and instill self-censorship in the print media."

Lupis said that in Russia, the government removed independent news programming from the once-independent television network NTV. He said coverage that is friendly to the Kremlin has helped President Vladimir Putin easily win a second term a year ago and implement undemocratic changes in the political system.

Ann Cooper, the CPJ's executive director, who also attended the news briefing, pointed out that Russians get most of their news from radio and television, which leaves them with less information than they were getting when Mikhail Gorbachev was the leader of the Soviet Union.

"While you can find a handful of pretty feisty newspapers or print publications, they don't have much circulation, they don't have much impact outside of Moscow. So the effect really is that people have -- in Russia, they have less access to independently reported news than the kind of stuff that they were getting during the glasnost period at the end of communism," Cooper said.

The CPJ report said balanced news also is not widely available in Belarus and many areas of Central Asia. Cooper said people living in these regions are resorting to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and shortwave news broadcasts, just as they were during the Cold War.

In Central Asia, the report said, the governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan were aggressive in impeding the work of news-oriented websites as well as newspapers. And, it said, Uzbekistan remained the leading jailer of journalists in the former Soviet Union, with four behind bars by year's end.

In the Caucasus, press freedoms in Georgia have improved since the change in government a year ago, but journalists there still face what the report called indirect pressure.

As for neighboring Azerbaijan, Lupis said, the situation was much worse. "Azerbaijan joined the 'imprisoned list' in 2004 after the editor in chief of the opposition newspaper 'Yeni Musavat' was arrested during a broad government crackdown on opposition journalists and political activists," Lupis said. "Rauf Arifoglu was sentenced in October to five years in prison for allegedly organizing antigovernment riots after a flawed presidential election held in October 2003."

The CPJ said it is too early to rate the status of press freedom in Ukraine. During the presidency of Leonid Kuchma, it said, the news media faced strong state pressures, and the killings of at least two opposition journalists have been blamed on the government.

But now that Kuchma has retired and his hand-picked candidate for president has been defeated, it said, there is hope that journalism in Ukraine will become more free.

(The CPJ's overview for Europe and Central Asia can be found at, which includes links to individual countries. RFE/RL's Amy Modzelesky contributed to this report.)