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Press Freedom In Decline in Most Former Soviet States

(Washington, DC -- May 11, 2006) In observance of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, RFE/RL held a roundtable discussion in which three experts gave their assessments of the media in post-Soviet countries. All three agreed that press freedom in this region, with only a few exceptions, has declined in the past year.

Chris Walker, Director of Studies at Freedom House, noted that "independent media [in the former USSR] is under assault." Press freedoms in this region, in general, have eroded, Walker said, citing the results of a recently-released Freedom House survey that found the media in 10 of 12 countries of the former USSR to be "not free." Five of these saw further erosions of press freedom in 2005 -- and only two, Georgia and Ukraine, improved enough to be categorized as "partly free," according to the annual "Freedom of the Press" study. Walker called for "keeping lifelines open," to help journalists who are "under siege" in these countries.

RFE/RL analyst Daniel Kimmage said that the key problem in Central Asia is "distribution and access to information" by non-state media. According to Kimmage, the worst media environments are found in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, where the government controls all local media. The situation is only slightly better in the remaining three countries. In Kazakhstan, independent media exists, but has little penetration outside the capital. In Tajikistan a small group of independent newspapers exists, but the state controls all television broadcasts. In the wake of the Tulip Revolution, Kyrgyzstan's media experienced a degree of liberalization, Kimmage said, but such freedoms have since eroded.

Robert Orttung, Associate Research Professor at the Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at American University, said that "broadcast media at the national level in Russia shows increasing state control." Using the state energy monopoly Gazprom, Orttung said, the Russia government is increasingly taking ownership of media outlets. News and information programs have been replaced with entertainment, and Orttung noted that an "informal self-censorship" now exists -- "journalists know what the lines are." Three state-controlled television networks supply the news to 79 percent of the Russian population, according to Orttung, who noted that "A weekly meeting in Moscow provides guidance" to the networks in their coverage and that the "Chechen war is the most sensitive [topic]." The press and radio enjoy "some independence," said Orttung, who added that there is still a "variety of coverage" by media at the regional level -- a situation Orttung expects will change as Russia's 2007-2008 election cycles approach.

Each of the speakers noted the growing influence of the Internet throughout the post-Sovieet countries. In Russia, "with ten percent of the population on-line," blogging has opened up new avenues for civic participation at a local level, according to Orttung. Despite the fact that Internet usage remains relatively low, particularly in Central Asia, Kimmage says that the Internet is the "primary alternative media for Central Asia."