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East: Rights Group Sees Press Freedom Improvements

  • Kevin Foley

The international human rights organization Freedom House says there was substantial progress in press freedom in the world last year, but in this report by RFE/RL correspondent K.P. Foley, the organization also has some concerns about press freedom in the former Soviet Union.

Washington, 1 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- An international human rights group says there was "substantial progress," in press freedom last year in the Balkans, but the group also says it is concerned by trends in parts of the former Soviet Union.

The New York-based organization Freedom House Monday (30 April) released its annual "Survey of Press Freedom" in the world. The survey was timed to coincide with the annual commemoration of World Press Freedom Day on 3 May (Thursday).

Kristen Guida, a Freedom House analyst who helped prepare the report, told RFE/RL that "significant improvements during 2000 outweighed significant declines."

"More countries rated in the free category this year than at any time since we started doing the survey. That's thanks to changes in government in a lot countries, including a lot of smaller countries."

She cited Croatia, where a reform government took office in January 2000, and Yugoslavia, where the authoritarian regime of Slobodan Milosevic was toppled last fall, as countries where significant progress in press freedom was made. Using the standards of evaluation set by Freedom House, both nations moved from the "not free" to the "partly free" categories.

In Yugoslavia, Guida noted that independent journalists were instrumental in the ouster of Milosevic last October. She said that despite intense government harassment, independent radio, television, and newspapers publicized allegations of official corruption and human rights abuses and covered the student protests that followed the presidential elections in September.

While there was progress in the Balkans, the analyst said there are some troubling trends in parts of the former Soviet Union.

"However, toward the end of last year and even in the beginning of this year we've seen some problems, some real crackdowns in countries that are bigger countries, more strategically important countries, such as Russia and China and even Ukraine."

Russia and Ukraine, she said, remain just short of the "not free" category. According to Guida, "independent media in Russia faced an onslaught of harassment, including prosecution, threats, and physical assaults, particularly for reporting on corruption or the war in Chechnya."

She said that in Ukraine, "the government of (President) Leonid Kuchma has led an increasingly severe campaign against the media." The campaign included the alleged harassment of opposition newspapers and censorship of some television broadcasts. There is also concern, she said, over allegations of Kuchma's possible involvement in the murder of Heorhiy Gongadze, a journalist critic, an allegation that Kuchma has condemned.

In the Middle East, Freedom House says that only Israel has a free media and only Jordan and Kuwait are in the "partly free" category.

Freedom House conducts a number of educational and other programs intended to advance the cause of freedom throughout the world. It has done a survey of press freedom since 1979. This year's survey covered 187 countries.

Guida said the organization uses several measures to judge the state of press freedom in a nation.

"We look at print and broadcast media separately and then we look at four separate criteria: the first being the laws and the administrative environment that affects the media; the second being political pressures that affect media content; the third being economic pressures on media content or economic influence; and the fourth thing is sort of a discretionary category that deals with actual violations against journalists, kidnappings and censorship and things of that sort."

The analysts assign points for each measure and the sum of the points determines the category of freedom. For example, a score of 0-30 puts a nation in the "free" category. A score between 31-60 places a nation in the "partly free" category and any score greater than 60 relegates a nation to the "not free" category.

The information used in the survey, said Guida, comes from the Freedom House staff, press freedom organizations throughout the world, journalists who visit the United States, and other private and public sources of information.

The survey is designed to be used by academics, other human rights groups, and by policymakers.

(The survey is available at