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The East: Journalists Still Face Repression

  • Julie Moffett

Washington, 25 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- An independent U.S. organization says only a handful of countries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union offered any meaningful protection for journalists and the independent media in 1998.

The conclusion comes from the annual report of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called "Attacks on the Press." The Committee 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 1998 were Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia, Croatia, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

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

The survey singled out the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Belarus as the two worst offenders of press freedoms in the region in 1998.

Ann Cooper, executive director of CPJ, told RFE/RL on Wednesday that overall, it is discouraging how little press freedom there is today in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Cooper said: "A few years ago we thought there was a lot of promise. Communism was ending and we did see the rise of independent media in many places. But what we see now is many leaders cracking down, and nowhere are they cracking down harder than in Belarus and Yugoslavia. Those are the two most dire situations at the moment in that region."

In regards to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the survey said the war in Kosovo generated a fresh wave of Serbian government repression against the independent media in 1998 that dared to "challenge the hate speech and nationalist policies of President Slobodan Milosevic's regime."

The survey also said that in September when NATO forces threatened air strikes against Belgrade to force Milosevic to withdraw his forces from Kosovo, the Serbian government turned on independent journalists with a vengeance.

The survey explained: "A series of government statements in early October accused independent journalists of being spies, and on October 5, the Serb information minister ordered independent stations to stop rebroadcasting Serb-language programs from the Voice of America and other foreign services."

The survey said that Milosevic continued to harass the independent media by tightening administrative controls, set crippling fines for violations of media laws, and eliminated the basic judicial rights for those accused of violations.

Belarus came under strong criticism as well. According to the survey, in 1998 Belarus President Alyksandr Lukashenka increased the "already onerous" restrictions on the media.

The survey explained: "With free enterprise stifled, opposition activists detained, and independent media restricted, the Soviet-style rule of President Lukashenka continued to have disastrous effects on Belarus' economic and political life."

The survey cited Lukashenka's banning of the distribution of official documents to independent media and forbade state agencies from advertising in non-state media. In May, the CPJ named Lukashenka as one of the world's 10 worst "Enemies of the Press" for the second year in a row.

Azerbaijan was seen by the survey as not having moved far from the old Soviet-era model of dealing with the media. For example, the survey said that while President Heydar Aliyev dropped formal censorship in August, officials have actually increased the use of criminal libel statutes to suppress critical reporting about the president.

In Bosnia, the survey criticized local officials for increasingly using criminal defamation laws, which permit imprisonment for up to three years as an instrument of media intimidation.

In Croatia, the survey says that in 1998, the government stepped up its already vigorous use of criminal and civil law suits to keep the independent press in check. By the end of the year, says the survey, independent newspapers in Croatia were facing more than 600 civil lawsuits, with another 300 or so criminal libel cases filed against individual journalists.

Georgia was also cited as having major problems with the media in 1998, a setback from some of the progress made in 1997. At least one journalist was killed reporting on the fighting in Abkhazia, says the survey, while other independent journalists were targets of violent attacks. The survey adds that journalists in Georgia continue to face serious obstacles to their work, including the denial of access to public information by authorities and "overzealous" tax inspections and other abuses of regulatory procedures.

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

According to the survey: "Tajikistan and the other former Soviet republics in Central Asia are ruled by men who show little interest in democratic principles or free press guarantees."

The survey went on to say that even Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev -- viewed by many in the West as progressive in the Soviet era -- has "turned on the country's independent media, apparently fearing that vigorous public scrutiny would jeopardize his re-election."

In Russia, the survey says that early promises of democratic reform remain unfulfilled for the press as for other sectors of society. The survey says that although the press is "diverse, irreverent and lively," the media is controlled largely by moguls who use these holdings to leverage political power. The result is a pattern of self-censorship among the editors of newspapers and broadcast outlets, it said.

The survey also said investigative reporting is a dangerous profession in Russia. Two Russian journalists were assassinated in 1998, both of whom were outspoken editors known for their investigative coverage of local officials.

The survey said there some improvement in Russia with no new kidnappings of journalists in Chechnya in 1998, where 21 journalists were captured in 1997.

On a positive note, the Czech Republic and Hungary were praised as offering "meaningful protection" and support to their media.

The survey concluded that by the end of 1998, at least 118 journalists were in prison in 25 countries; and 24 journalists in 17 countries had been murdered during the year in reprisal for their reporting.