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World: Press Institute Says 1999 'Bleak Year' For Media Freedom

  • Don Hill

The International Press Institute in Vienna has issued what it calls a bleak report on the status of freedom of the press in the world last year. It says military conflicts in Kosovo and Chechnya are cancers eating at the soul of independent journalism, and adds that there is little to celebrate elsewhere. Correspondent Don Hill turns a spotlight on the institute's findings in the nations of Eastern and Central Europe and their neighbors.

Prague, 17 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- From Africa to the Caucasus and from Russia to the Balkans, world press freedom is taking a beating.

The Vienna-based International Press Institute, or IPI, a private watchdog agency, finds the situation so abysmal that it is moved to black prose-poetry. In a report this week, it says this, referring to Chechnya and Kosovo: "Military conflict remains the cancer that eats the soul of independent journalism."

Peter Goth, who edited the press review, says 1999 was a particularly difficult year for the world's press, with 87 journalists killed while working and more than 200 in prison. One factor in the deaths, he says, is that new technologies make it easier for reporters to penetrate to the front lines of conflict -- and thus to become targets.

"This tends not to suit the parties, who tend to like to control and contain information. So what they're trying to do is suppress the information. They do not like the fact that it can be published. They want to manipulate it in their own favor."

The International Press Institute lined up scores of independent media watchers around the world to take long, critical looks at the state of press freedom, country by country. It published their findings in its 1999 World Press Freedom Review.

Here's a sampling for the post-communist region and the Middle East:

(Russia and Eastern Europe)

The IPI says Russia, "continues to be an intensely dangerous place to work as a journalist." It cites murders, violence and intimidation, corruption and cronyism. It says the murderers of journalists are rarely apprehended.

The report says that dozens of journalists were killed or wounded last year in Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya, some by the impersonal dangers of combat and some by the directed hostility of combatants.

Even where news media are competitive, they are not free, the report says. It says their Russian industrialist owners -- the oligarchs -- use them to promote propaganda.

The IPI finds press freedom moribund in Belarus and Ukraine, as well. It says that in Belarus, a wide variety of innovative government fiats and press-licensing devices have long ago crushed independent broadcasters, and abuses against independent print media continue. The report says the Ukrainian government kept constant pressure on news outlets throughout last year.

(Balkans)

The 1999 press freedom report says Serbian troops and militia and NATO bombing virtually wiped out news media in Kosovo. It says that as soon as NATO air strikes began, Serbian reprisals took journalists as principal targets. The IPI says that after the Serbian withdrawal from Kosovo, the OSCE -- Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe -- set up a media department to help rebuild news structures. But promised international aid has been slow in coming, and Kosovo's people are becoming disillusioned.

Of Serbia proper, the review says this: "The independent media in Yugoslavia entered 1999 with the most restrictive media law in Europe." At least one editor is known to have been murdered, at least one missing, and repression is endemic. The report says NATO bombing killed 16 workers in a single raid on the state radio-television building and destroyed broadcast equipment worth nearly $100 million.

Since the report was written, the crackdown on independent media has continued in Serbia. This past week alone, six independent television stations have been shut down.

(Caucasus)

IPI's press report says the Azerbaijani government continues to repress news media and their employees by violent attacks and intimidation. President Heidar Aliyev abolished official censorship in 1998, but officials now use court actions under the veil of law to muzzle reporters and editors. The government says these lawsuits are not repression tactics but are the instruments of citizens seeking to defend their own honor and dignity.

Armenia is also employing defamation suits to stifle the press, the IPI says. In Georgia, restrictions on the press are lessening, but a lack of financing and training limits news organizations.

(Central Asia and Afghanistan)

IPI observers find that in the countries of Central Asia, press freedom concerns fade under the burden of human rights concerns generally. Neither press freedom nor human rights constitutes a recognized value in most of the area. The report says Kazakhstan is increasing censorship, Uzbekistan's president denies the importance of human rights issues, Kyrgyzstan ignores its own liberal press laws, and Turkmen officials call democratic reforms alien to their historical tradition. The IPI says Tajikistan has competitive news outlets but lack of resources render them impotent.

In Afghanistan, where there is no explicit ban on independent journalism, the IPI says state-owned publications dominate, and foreign journalists commonly suffer harassment.

(Central Europe) The 1999 World Press Freedom Review found press freedom issues in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia in the nature of specific problems rather than endemic suppression. In Slovakia, since the demise of Vladimir Meciar, it says, press freedom is developing but concerns remain.

(Baltics)

The same is true in the Baltics. The IPI finds that, in general, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have addressed free-press issues in the decade since they regained their independence from Russia. The IPI report expresses concern for the Russian-speaking minorities in these countries. All, however, are racing to harmonize their laws with the requirements of the European Union.

(Iraq)

The IPI opens its report on Iraq by saying that the Iraqi constitution provides for freedom of expression and the press. It adds that the state ensures the considerations necessary to exercise those liberties. And then it says: "In essence, [such freedom] does not exist."

(Iran) On Iran, IPI's observers write, as they put it, "The media landscape in Iran is uneven. With a population of 65 million, it has 1,000 publications, reaching a total circulation of 2 million people." The report quotes the pro-reform English daily "Iran News" as saying this: "Instead of holding festivals, press officials should institutionalize the legal position of the print media so that the weakest political turbulence would not inflict such grave damage on our press."

The IPI report does not find fault only with underdeveloped countries and those in transition from communism. IPI editor Peter Goth says that Belarus may be a leader in innovating press control methods, but that Europe -- led by Turkey -- also is developing ever more subtle ways to suppress the free flow of news:

"We see this across Europe to a lesser extent, where authorities are using clauses such as criminal defamation and privacy clauses and -- particularly in countries like Turkey -- national security clauses to silence reporting, which will be critical on sensitive issues."

In addition to producing its world press report, the IPI intervenes actively in press freedom issues. It joined in international protests over the Russian detention in Chechnya of RFE/RL correspondent Andrei Babitsky. Recently, the IPI protested to Russian acting President Vladimir Putin against government declarations forbidding the broadcasting of interviews with Chechen rebel leaders.

(Full reports on individual countries available at IPI website: http//www.freemedia@archive97/world.html)

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