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Former U.S.S.R.: Press Freedoms Far From Realized, Say Journalists

  • Lawrence Holland

Prague, 11 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Journalists and human rights activists from most of the former Soviet republics said during a conference yesterday that a free press not been firmly established in any of their countries.

The conference participants came from all the former Soviet republics except the three Baltic states to discuss press freedom in their countries. The conference was sponsored by the Czech TV Foundation and the Czech-based Center for Independent Journalism and was held at the headquarters of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) in Prague.

Discussions revealed a rather bleak picture of the media situation throughout the area.

Speakers from Azerbaijan, Georgia and Tajikistan cited a lack of financial resources to support independent publications and broadcasts. An activist from Kazakhstan mentioned a lack of well-trained and well-motivated journalists. And speakers from all newly-established countries complained about interference from officials at national or regional levels.

The scope of press freedom varies widely from one place to another, according to the speakers.

In three Central Asian countries -- Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan -- press freedoms were described as nearly non-existent.

Ashir Ioliev monitors conditions in his native Turkmenistan for the Moscow-based Central Asian Human Rights Information and Monitoring Network. He said the basic task of all mass media there is to praise President Saparmurad Niyazov.

The government imposes rigid control over foreign journalists, said Ioliev. He cited the case of a reporter from the Russian newspaper "Izvestiya" who was forced out of Turkmenistan after writing a short article about a rare anti-government demonstration.

Sotchida Tchkhfarova covers Tajikistan for the Moscow-based Central Asian Monitoring Network. She said that her native country experienced a brief period of relative press freedom after the fall of the Soviet Union. But those freedoms soon became just another victim of a civil war which erupted in late 1992.

In Uzbekistan, according to independent journalist and rights activist Vasila Inoiatova, mass media are controlled by the government. Their main job, she said, is to flatter President Islam Karimov.

Other countries were said to treat media a little better. But even in Russia, where journalists routinely challenge government pronouncements and policies, conditions were described as difficult.

Alexei Simonov, director of the Moscow-based Glasnost Defense Foundation, which provides legal support for journalists, said glasnost does exist in Russia. But he described glasnost as the ability simply to "cry out," adding that real freedom of speech does not yet exist.

And when Russian journalists who "cry out" find themselves in trouble with the authorities, Simonov said, they better have friends in foreign countries who are willing to rally to their defense. Russian journalists, he said, rarely come to the aid of their colleagues.

Marina Razorenova, an independent journalist from Georgia, , echoed Simonov�s assessment by saying that in her country there is openness but no freedom of speech. She added that the degree of openness has been recently narrowing.

Both she and another independent Georgian journalist, Giga Bokeria, said that the media are constrained by government financial control over their operations. Bokeria described the attitude of Georgian officials as, "we finance them and therefore they must spread our views."

Opposition papers, which do not receive government subsidies, are at times critical of the authorities. But, Bokeria said, these papers are small and few people read them.

The same point was made repeatedly by journalists from many other countries. A journalist with the Armenian "Noian Topan" news agency, David Petrosian, said conditions in his country are similar to those in Georgia. He said there is a real danger that independent media in Armenia will soon disappear.

Speakers from Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan said that independent media do exist in their Central Asian countries. But they said government pressure has led to widespread self-censorship among reporters.

Journalists from Ukraine and Belarus spoke of government intimidation of the media. But independent reporter Elena Stupnikova said that in Belarus, journalists are starting openly to protest policies of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.