Accessibility links

Former USSR: Free Press Attracts Violent Enemies, Report Says

  • Kevin Foley

Washington, 14 March 1997 (RFE/RL)- A new report by an independent organization says the growth of a strong free press in the former communist societies of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union has made more enemies for journalists, and violence has become a method of censorship,

Government officials in the region and media scholars abroad generally feel that conditions are freer than they have ever been," says the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, "but the effects of this growing press freedom on working journalists' safety are often paradoxical."

The conclusions are contained in the Committee's annual report called "Attacks on the Press." It is a review of press freedom and the treatment of journalists around the world. The Committee is a private, independent organization that seeks to protect journalists from violence and censorship. Its members are prominent American journalists, editors and publishers and others sympathetic to the cause of a free press.

The annual report says that in 1996, significant privatization of the press throughout the region and the rise of an independent and professional press corps "even in the harshest climates mean that comparisons with the communist past are misleading."

A journalist's work has become more hazardous than it has been in decades, says the report.

"The threat of physical harm is considered part of the job description in many areas," the report says. "The region's treacherous conflict zones, the explosion of mafia-style organizations, the unraveling of the old security and intelligence apparatuses, and the disintegration and corruption of the military-industrial complexes have all contributed to making journalism a most hazardous profession."

Virtually every post-communist country heavily regulates the media with press laws, the Committee says. A growing number of countries have given up exclusive state ownership of electronic media and the use of prior censorship or anti-state laws to punish dissident writings. However, the report says brutal and long-term shut downs of independent news outlets to maintain authoritarian control are still common in the Russian Federation, the Caucasus and Central Asia, but less so in Central and Eastern Europe.

"The stakes are higher when the monolithic communist bureaucracies are no longer the known enemy, and threats come from their rogue remnants as well as many other reporters," the report says. "Killings, beatings, anonymous threats, and bankrupting libel lawsuits are unanticipated consequences of more freedom."

According to the Committee, the greater the free flow of information, the harder it is to stop it. "Those who would try to suppress the news must either resort to brute violence or to increasingly devious and subtle methods," the report says.

Of the ten killings of journalists in the region last year, the Committee says nine remain unsolved. They took place in Russia, Tajikistan and Ukraine. The Committee says 56 journalists have been killed in the former Soviet Union since 1993.

Many reporters suffered serious injuries in 1996 from police assaults, the Committee said. This was especially true in Albania, Belarus, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Russia and Serbia. The assaults were often the result of covering rallies where demonstrators were attacked by police riot squads.

"Security forces often deliberately targeted journalists, sometimes after a rally or far from the action, with accompanying confiscation of film or destruction of equipment," the report said.

The Committee also noted that, even when democratically elected, some presidents in the region had more power than communist party leaders. It said these presidents who had amassed great personal power are among the greatest threats to press freedom. It cited examples of excessive presidential interference with the press in Russia, Belarus, Croatia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Serbia and Turkmenistan.

The report said that in countries where the people still rely heavily on state-dominated television for information, foreign broadcasting sponsored by the United States and Western European governments continues to provide a valuable service.

"The American-funded Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty and Russian public and private television are still vital to the free media mix in the former Soviet Union and Eastern and Central Europe," the report said. "The battle for possession of broadcasting frequencies is likely to post the greatest risk to media freedom in years to come."