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U.S.: Media Monitor Alarmed By World 'Press Freedom Crisis'

  • Jeffrey Donovan

According to a report issued today in New York, 2001 was an "annus horribilis" -- a terrible year -- for press freedoms around the world, as repressive nations took advantage of the war on terrorism to crack down on independent media. Russia, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan are listed as among the worst offenders.

Washington, 26 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- An American organization that monitors press freedom worldwide says 2001 was one of the worst years in memory for the media.

In a widely respected annual survey released today, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) documented more than 500 cases worldwide in 2001 where journalists were harassed, censored, beaten, tortured, or killed. Among the worst offenders were the governments of China, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Uzbekistan, and Iran.

The war in Afghanistan also claimed the lives of eight reporters. Altogether, the CPJ found that 37 reporters were killed on the job worldwide, up from 24 in 2000. The CPJ report says most of the killings were not the result of covering conflicts but reprisals for what reporters had written.

And after four years of decline, the number of reporters in prison jumped 50 percent to 118 in 2001, compared with 81 in 2000. Most of the arrests were in China, which jailed 35 journalists, followed by Eritrea and Nepal.

For the first time, the CPJ included an American on its list of imprisoned journalists. Vanessa Leggett, a free-lance writer in Texas, was jailed for contempt of court for refusing to turn over her notes to a grand jury investigating a 1997 murder. The CPJ said Leggett's detention sent the wrong signal to authoritarian governments, "who may now show even less restraint in using state power to restrict press freedom." Leggett was released on 4 January after more than five months in jail. Leggett is believed to have served more time in jail than any journalist in U.S. history.

Ann Cooper is the executive director of the CPJ. Cooper, a former correspondent in Moscow for U.S. National Public Radio, tells RFE/RL that many governments in 2001 used the U.S.-led war on terrorism to crack down on the media, citing "national security" reasons. Others, such as Nepal and Eritrea, simply used the distraction of the war to carry out large-scale repressions.

"After 11 September, we saw many negative repercussions for press freedom around the world. By the end of the year, I think we could very clearly say that there is a global press freedom crisis."

Cooper says the U.S. government itself did press freedom in many countries a disservice in October when it asked the government of Qatar to "rein in" coverage of the war in Afghanistan by Al-Jazeera, an Arab-language satellite television network. The CPJ report also mentions U.S. State Department efforts to persuade Voice of America not to broadcast an interview with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

Cooper says these incidents send the wrong message to repressive governments worldwide, who could point to U.S. behavior in the face of critical media coverage as a way to excuse their own tough policies.

Cooper believes the U.S. later adopted a better approach, having key officials such as Secretary of State Colin Powell grant interviews to Al-Jazeera: "If you're not happy about coverage, the way to deal with it is not to act to restrict it -- or ask somebody else to restrict it -- but to make yourself available and get your side of the story out."

As for Russia, today's report says President Vladimir Putin's administration was involved in a host of repressive cases, such as the closing of independent television stations NTV and TV-6; exerting pressure on independent radio station Ekho Moskvy; and for increasing state surveillance of Internet activity. In May, the CPJ named Putin to its annual list of the 10 Worst Enemies of the Press.

It also says Russia's Media Ministry accused several newspapers of legal violations after they published interviews with Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov. The newspapers included "Nezavismaya gazeta," "Kommersant" and "Novaya Gazeta."

The arrest of Russian military journalist Grigorii Pasko was also condemned. Pasko was sentenced to four years in prison last December for "treason in the form of espionage." He had reported on environmental damage caused by the Russian Navy for his newspaper "Boyevaya Vakhta" (Battle Watch).

In Uzbekistan, the report says journalists are regularly jailed and tortured in what it called "systematic repression" by the "brutal regime" of President Islam Karimov, who has become a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism.

Cooper says the Uzbek approach to the media is largely shared by its Central Asian neighbors: "Central Asia has been very repressive towards any attempts at independent media. It's a terrible situation. It was a terrible situation. And we're fearful that it could become worse."

Indeed, Cooper is worried that the West could turn its back on human rights and press freedoms in Central Asia: "The fact that Uzbekistan is now critical to what is happening in that region and the fight against terrorism -- is that going to mean that Western governments take some of the heat off of Uzbekistan for its human rights and its press freedom record? We would insist that that should not happen at all."

Meanwhile, Cooper says she remains dismayed by the lack of progress in the case of Ukrainian journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, who was murdered in late 2000 in a scandal that allegedly involved President Leonid Kuchma.

Gongadze's widow, Myroslava, called for the creation of a special international commission to investigate the case, a request that was supported by the CPJ, as well as by the Council of Europe. The Ukrainian government has not responded, and in May of last year the Interior Ministry blamed the murder on the Mafia.

The CPJ report also voices concern about the "assault" on press freedom in Belarus and says there is credible evidence that high-level government officials were involved in the 2000 disappearance of Russian television cameraman Dmitry Zavadsky.

Cooper says the media in the entire former Soviet region is under fire, a situation that only complicates the democratic transition. She says freedom of the press is key to any real democracy and a good measuring stick by which to judge human rights standards in any country.

"Freedom of the press is really at the heart of democracy. You can't have a competitive election, a democratic election, where people can get to know candidates and make a choice, unless you've got free media that can cover the election campaign and write about the candidates, write about whoever's elected and their performance on the job. That's just so fundamental to the democratic political process. It's fundamental to the discourse that any society needs to have in order to solve its problems."

Cooper suggests that 2002 can be a better year for freedom of the press, but only if the U.S. and Western countries make it a central issue in their relations with the world's most repressive nations.

(The full CPJ report can be found on the Internet at http://www.cpj.org/)

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