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East: Report Cites Numerous Violations Of Media Freedoms

  • Eugen Tomiuc

A report on media freedom in Europe has found that serious violations of freedom of speech exist in many countries, especially in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The report, presented before the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly, says that many journalists are victims of violence or homicide in countries such as Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, and Armenia, while judicial repression, which sometimes results in the imprisonment of reporters, is widespread in many countries. The document also cites state control and political interference in the media as being on the rise.

Prague, 29 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A Council of Europe report on freedom of expression in the European media warns that many problems persist and that serious abuses continue to be committed against journalists and independent media organizations.

The report, which was discussed by the council's Parliamentary Assembly yesterday, points to various forms of attack against media freedoms, ranging from physical violence and homicide to legal harassment, imprisonment, and government control.

The document, presented by Tytti Isohookana Asunmaa, the rapporteur on media freedom in Europe, covers 24 countries, including Belarus, which is not a member of the 44-member Council of Europe.

Asunmaa told RFE/RL today that the report highlights serious violations of media freedom both in former communist countries and in some Western states. "In some Eastern [European] and Central European countries, there are difficulties with physical violence, because we know that, for instance, in Russia, in Ukraine, journalists have been killed until this year, and some other forms of harassment happen constantly. In Western countries, there are the so-called new problems arising, like in Italy, because the development in the media sector has been shut, and the media concentration is growing continuously, and the connections between politicians and [the media] business are becoming very interesting," Asunmaa said.

The report also cites cases of journalists in France, Germany, and Portugal being forced by the courts to divulge their sources.

The report is the first presented to the Parliamentary Assembly after the Council of Europe, in 2001, decided to appoint a rapporteur on media freedom, and it covers events up to mid-November last year.

The document says the situation is worsening in Russia and Ukraine, calling the number of journalists attacked or killed in those countries "alarming." Six journalists were killed in Russia last year, while in Ukraine, one journalist was found hanged.

The document also calls the lack of progress in the investigation of the killing in 2000 of Ukrainian reporter Heorhiy Gongadze "unacceptable."

The report mentions recent instances of violence and homicide against reporters in Armenia, where one journalist was killed and one seriously wounded in recent months; in Georgia, where police staged an assault against journalists at a television station that had been critical of them; and in Macedonia, where a radio reporter investigating allegations of government corruption was severely beaten by unknown assailants.

The report also cites cases of journalists who have been imprisoned for their work. It points to the detention of Russian journalist Grigorii Pasko on charges of high treason after he revealed official involvement in the dumping of radioactive waste in the Sea of Japan, as well as the imprisonment of three Belarusian journalists. Pasko was released on parole from a prison in Russia's Far East last week after serving two-thirds of a four-year sentence. The report also mentions cases of prosecution against journalists in Turkey.

Legal harassment in the form of defamation lawsuits or very high fines is also mentioned as a threat to the existence of a free media in countries such as Azerbaijan, Belarus, Croatia, Russia, Ukraine, and Poland.

But the report says one of the most serious problems confronting media freedom in most countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) is tight or even total government control of television, which remains the most accessible medium in poor countries.

It points to the situation in Moldova, where the Communist government last year ignored both mass protests and the Council of Europe's recommendations and adopted a broadcasting law providing for various means of political interference. There is a similar problem, the report says, with a draft law on Azerbaijan's public television.

The document also says recent terrorist attacks have been used as a pretext for new restrictions on free access to information. It gives the example of the Russian State Duma's attempted adoption of restrictive amendments to media laws governing reporting on terrorism. But President Vladimir Putin vetoed the measures, requesting that they be reformulated.

The report stresses the need for the Council of Europe to continue closely monitoring the state of freedom of expression across the continent and to intervene when necessary.

Asunmaa told RFE/RL: "The most important [tool] is that we keep on our monitoring process system, which we have developed, and in this context we asked the Committee of Ministers to make the results of monitoring in the field of media freedom known. And the other mechanism is to organize special hearings when it is necessary, and it concerns so-called ad hoc cases, as we have already done when we spoke about the Ukrainian situation, for instance."

The report recommends the release of all journalists imprisoned for their work, removal of legislation that makes freedom of expression a crime, and the revision of media laws according to Council of Europe standards.

It also says that all forms of legal and economic harassment should stop and that the plurality of the media market should be ensured through appropriate measures.

Following the debate, the Parliamentary Assembly adopted Recommendation 1589, which was based on the findings of the report and which included its proposals.

Asunmaa also told RFE/RL that she hopes the assembly will hold an annual debate on the issue of media freedom in Europe. "I think that the discussion in the assembly is also very useful, because we need to discuss more and more about such problems and how to try to solve the problems. And [we should also] keep in our mind that promoting freedom of expression in Europe is also [helping] to improve our democracy," Asunmaa said.

Asunmaa said more intense and regular debate could also enable the body to have more immediate influence in what she called "alarming situations."