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The East: Press Freedom Said To Decline In 1998

  • Jeremy Bransten

Washington, 29 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The degree of press freedom around the world declined in 1998 and most of the countries which emerged from the former Soviet Union continue to censor journalists and limit their citizens' access to information.

These are the conclusions reached by Freedom House, in its 21st annual media study, issued today (Thursday) ahead of World Press Day on May 3rd. The U.S.-based organization has been monitoring civil and political rights worldwide for 58 years.

The 1998 survey, says author Leonard Sussman, paints the bleakest picture in five years. Sussman, a professor at New York University, says investigators looked at four basic categories to evaluate a country's degree of press freedom.

First, they examined laws which govern the press in a particular country and how those laws are administered. Second, the study's compilers looked at the degree to which political influences affect news content. Third, they examined the degree to which economic influences affect news content and lastly, they looked at the number and kinds of actual press freedom violations in individual countries -- from the harassment of reporters, to the closing down of newspapers or even the murder of journalists.

Sussman told RFE/RL that in the post-Communist countries of East and Central Europe, the situation is the most positive. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, for example, rapidly moved to a free press after the fall of Communism ten years ago. But at the other end of the spectrum, in the states of Central Asia, the press is continually hounded and journalists frequently persecuted.

"There certainly have been major changes since the fall of the Berlin Wall in East and Central Europe and Central Asia. Most of the changes have shown some improvement in the level of press freedom -- particularly in those countries that have had some history of democratic backgrounds -- for example in the Czech Republic and Hungary, in Poland -- there we find a free press in all three countries. They came very quickly out of the Communist era into this new and brighter period. Not so for some of the other countries in East and Central Europe and particularly in Central Asia where we find just about the doldrums with respect to press freedom - Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan. There is a complete lack of press freedom in these countries and no sign of a change in the immediate future in any of them. And Belarus would be included in that."

Tajikistan receives one of the worst scores in the Freedom House report. The survey notes that in that country, most Soviet media laws still apply. All opposition media are banned and all local radio and television stations are operated by the state.

In Turkmenistan, the report notes that despite a relatively liberal media law adopted in 1991, the government completely controls print and broadcast media. Libel is a criminal offense punishable by hard labor and journalists, both foreign and domestic, are regularly intimidated by the security forces.

The situation, says Freedom House, is not much better in Uzbekistan. Although recent laws provide for press freedom and free access to information, most media are state owned and all newspapers, radio and television programs are subject to editorial constraints.

In Kazakhstan, the situation is marginally better, says the survey, but press freedom is limited. Although there are a number of independent newspapers, Freedom House notes that they are subject to controls and a law banning the incitement of ethnic conflict -- which is often interpreted very broadly. Another law against insulting the president and against "irresponsible" journalism is often invoked by the authorities to prosecute journalists -- leading to much self-censorship to avoid suits.

Much the same situation exists in Kyrgyzstan, where several journalists have been fined or jailed for allegedly defaming state authorities.

Sussman says that in Russia, the picture is mixed -- neither as stark as in Central Asia nor as free as in Central Europe or the Baltics:

"Russia itself is a very mixed bag in this sense and a very important one to examine, particularly from the press freedom standpoint, because it did show, immediately after the opening of the country, in the early-Gorbachev, late-Yeltsin period. The press was highly diversified, highly active, very diverse in many respects. But in recent months, or even in the last year, year-and-a-half, the movement has gone in the other direction in Russia, mainly because of the great influence of the industrialists who've taken over and bought newspapers, who've bought up television and who essentially use them to advance their other industrial interests."

What all these countries have in common, even in some of the free press countries of Central Europe and the Baltics, is a government inclination to use anti-libel laws to protect officials and prosecute journalists. The report notes that in Latvia, for example, the press is free. Nevertheless, the government brought several libel charges against prominent journalists in 1998.

"What we have also found this year, looking at the full year of 1998, was the trend downward, by use of the rule of law, as an exploitative way of controlling or influencing journalists -- mostly by stealth as we've said, to govern the source of information, the degree to which journalists can use information and finally to intimidate journalists, very often by increasing the use of what are called insult laws -- that is condemning a journalist for libel, for defamation of the ruler of the government, of the government itself and the applying very serious penalties in many cases -- everything from imprisonment to other kinds of penalties, which, in the final analysis, produce the result of self-censorship."

An argument frequently made by the leaders of the countries mentioned, as well as the presidents of Azerbaijan and Belarus, to cite recent examples, is that censorship and control over the media are necessary to maintaining stability. Just this week, Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov said the Western model of democracy was not compatible with the Turkmen mentality. He argued that maintaining censorship was essential to avoid discord among his country's many ethnic groups. But Sussman says arguing that democracy and a free press are Western models not suitable for other countries is misleading. The better solution, says Sussman, is for the government to allow citizens free access to information and then use its power of persuasion and its actions to earn genuine support:

"In a mature society, and certainly in a democratic society, press freedom ought to be a given. It ought to be part of the accepted role of leadership in the society. In other words, rather than expect the ruler to control the words or the pictures, he or she should indeed be expected to allow a delivery of information that's diversified and able to make choices and then to develop the leadership that by its own manner of effective performance, is able to persuade people the goals and objectives of that society."