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The East: Greater Freedom Has Not Brought A Free Press

  • Julie Moffett

Washington, 27 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- An independent U.S. organization says that despite greater freedom in Central Europe and the republics of the former Soviet Union, the press in many countries in the region is still subject to censorship and government pressure.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) made the comment Thursday in Washington during a press conference to present its annual survey of attacks against journalists and the media. The organization is a private, non-profit group dedicated to promoting freedom of the press worldwide and protecting journalists.

According to the CPJ survey, among the worst offenders against the press in the region during 1997 were Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia, Croatia, Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

All of these countries are cited by the survey for practicing censorship and enacting or maintaining restrictive legislation against the press. The survey also charges many of these countries with officially sanctioning arrests, beatings, detentions, bombings, arson and financial pressures as means of intimidating journalists.

Belarus was the most harshly criticized by the survey. According to the survey, in 1997, President Aleksander Lukashenko waged an "all-fronts war" on the press.

Says the survey: "In his relentless crackdown on Belarus independent and opposition media, President Lukashenko detained, arrested, expelled, disaccredited, and finally banned journalists and news outlets. Conditions for the press are worse than in the final years of the Soviet Union."

Armenia is criticized by the survey for maintaining a "Soviet-era media law" which regulates journalistic freedoms.

Azerbaijan's media is "routinely confronted" with official censorship and harassment, says the survey. Journalists continue to suffer beatings and violent threats, adds the survey, and are more likely to practice self-censorship in order to protect themselves from harm.

In Bosnia, the survey says ruling nationalist factions in each ethnic community exercise direct or indirect control over local news and broadcasting. Beatings and harassment of journalists were common, says the survey, and censorship was practiced in practically every medium of the press.

In Croatia, the survey says President Franjo Tudjman was able to consolidate his control over the media after landslide presidential elections in June ensured his party's control over the appointment of executives and editors in the state-dominated media. The survey also says in 1997 Tudjman exerted pressure on the independent media by permitting hundreds of libel suits to be filed against journalists.

In the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, President Slobodan Milosevic is criticized for shutting down 77 independent radio and television stations last summer after announcing new "convoluted" frequency licensing procedures.

The five Central Asian nations -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- were all cited for government censorship and intimidation and harassment of journalists.

Ukbekistan's record on freedom of the press in 1997 was called "abysmal" while Kyrgyzstan was considered to be the least restrictive of the five countries, despite troubling developments.

Like many of the other countries in the region, Bulgaria was cited for several incidents where journalists had been beaten, harassed and served with lawsuits or fines in 1997.

But on a positive note, the survey says at least a debate over the creation of a privately owned national television station in Bulgaria took place in 1997 after the March elections brought a new party majority into parliament.

Georgia was also mentioned positively by the survey, and was said to have had a "progressive trend toward press freedom" in 1997, even though it concluded that journalists still face obstacles to practicing their profession freely.

The survey praised the legal victory of Rustavi-2, the leading independent television station in Georgia, which got its broadcast license back after it had been revoked by the Ministry of Communications. The survey also considers it a "positive achievement" that Security Minister Shota Kviraya, who had ordered the tapping of opposition journalists' telephones, was dismissed from his post.

Romania was seen by the survey as having made some progress on press freedoms in 1997, despite some disturbing incidents.

Of greatest concern, says the survey, is the conviction of Marius Avram, a reporter for the newspaper Stirea. Avram was charged with slander against the mayor of Cluj under a law that makes it a crime to criticize public officials.

On a positive note, the survey praised Romania for permitting private newspapers to flourish and allowing a large number of private television and radio stations to exist.

Says the report: "Compared to other countries in the region....Romania has made significant strides in achieving pluralistic and diversified media."

Russia was seen as having made progress on some issues concerning a free press, although beatings, harassment and intimidation of journalists is still considered a serious problem, says the report.

Overall, Chechnya is listed as the most dangerous area in the entire region for journalists due to an epidemic of kidnappings of foreigners by armed bands seeking ransom.

But the survey says the biggest problem in Russia today regarding a free press is that government monopolies over the media have been replaced by new private moguls who are battling for control of important media apparatus.

Says the report: "The war over media properties by Russia's top bankers and industrialists had a pervasive effect on Russia's press throughout the year. Editors, reporters and foreign observers agree that press freedom has been the loser as frenzied battles for ownership and control of influential media outlets led to the resignation or dismissal of a number of prominent editors and columnists, and to the muting of criticism of certain public officials."

Slovakia also had troubles with press issues in 1997, says the report.

According to the survey, Slovakia only superficially maintained "the appearance of growing democraticization" in regards to free press issues. Instead, the survey says that last year, Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar boosted the government's efforts both overtly and subtly, to "subdue independent and opposition media."

In Ukraine, the survey says press freedom has gone from "promising to precarious, if not dangerous."

The survey cites a rising tide of violence against journalists in Ukraine including threats, beatings and murders. Investigations into these in incidents, says the survey, are poorly conducted and generally go unsolved and unpunished.

The survey also charged the Ukrainian government with attempting to consolidate its control over the press.

Says the survey: "Although the number and variety of media outlets has continued to grow, attempts to manipulate their content by the administration of President Leonid Kuchma, his political rivals, local officials, and related business interests have caused a profound erosion of press freedom in the country."

The survey concludes that by the end of 1997, at least 129 journalists were in prison in 24 countries and 26 journalists were murdered for practicing their profession. Hundreds more were attacked harassed, fined or intimidated simply because of their work.