RFE/RL On Front Lines Of Press Freedom
RFI's Baghdad bureau was damaged by a bomb blast in November 2005
May 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Official harassment, threats, even death. Every day, journalists in the world's hotspots face risks and dangers while doing their jobs. And correspondents for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty are no exception.
Two were killed or died in the line of duty in the past 12 months, another was injured, and others have been arrested or harassed by authorities.
Iraq remains the most dangerous place in the world for journalists; more than 40 of them were killed there last year alone.
Last month, RFE/RL staff joined that grim list, when Radio Free Iraq correspondent Khamail Khalaf was found dead in Baghdad
Shut Down, Harassed, Threatened
Journalists with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan have been threatened by the Taliban, and put under pressure from all sides.
A correspondent for the Turkmen Service, Ogulsapar Muradova, died in jail last year in unclear circumstances.
For several months now, RFE/RL has been asking the Iranian authorities to allow one of Radio Farda's correspondents to leave the country.
Parnaz Azima, who's also a well-known translator of books, had her passport confiscated when she traveled to Tehran in January. At one point, she was asked to cooperate with Iranian intelligence services:
And for the past year and a half the Uzbek Service has been without a bureau in Uzbekistan, after authorities shut down its operations there. Nosir Zokirov, a former correspondent, continued to face official harassment after his release from jail last year.
As nations mark World Press Freedom Day on May 3, senior broadcasters from some of RFE/RL's language services have told of the challenges and dangers faced by their staff.
Press Freedom Under Threat In Russia
By Chloe Arnold
Russia's three main television channels are controlled by the Kremlin
MOSCOW, May 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Russia is among the top three nations where press freedom has deteriorated the most over the last five years.
A new report, compiled by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists to mark World Press Freedom Day today, found that almost a dozen journalists in Russia have been murdered since 2002.
The report focuses on the 10 countries where press freedom has most deteriorated. Russia stands in third place, below Ethiopia and Gambia.
Andrei Lipsky, the deputy editor of the "Novaya gazeta" newspaper, says three of his journalists have been killed in the last seven years.
"In the oval room, where we traditionally hold our planning meetings, there hang the portraits of three journalists [who lost their lives]. In principle, the price we pay for freedom of speech is rather high," Lipsky says.
For Lipsky, the report comes as no surprise. Being a journalist in Russia today, he says, is a dangerous job.
"Of course it is very difficult for us to get over all these incidents. We still haven't got over the stress of losing our colleague, Anna Politkovskaya," Lipsky says.
"But the question is one of professional choice. If you want to be involved in honest journalism, you know what you are getting yourself into. And in terms of fear and of pressure, there's simply nothing you can do about it."
Anna Politkovskaya, an investigative journalist who wrote for "Novaya gazeta," was gunned down outside her home in Moscow in October 2006. Her death is widely believed to have been a contract killing -- the result perhaps of her critical reports on the Russian government and the behavior of the Russian security forces in Chechnya.
Politkovskaya is the most high-profile journalist to lose her life in Russia in recent years. But the Committee to Protect Journalists lists 11 journalists murdered in Russia over the last five years. None of the cases have so far been solved.
Mikhail Melnikov, an analyst at the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations in Moscow, says lack of freedom in the Russian press is a result of the strong influence that government bodies and municipal authorities exert.
"This pressure can be both open and concealed. And this pressure directly reflects on the work of journalists and editors, and prevents them from carrying out their jobs properly," Melnikov says.
Since Russian President Vladimir Putin came to power, the state has tightened its grip on the media. Television -- the primary source of information for most Russians -- is almost entirely under the thumb of the government: the three main television channels are all now state-owned.
Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down last year
In the run-up to election season to parliamentary elections in December and a presidential election in March 2008, radio stations have been asked not to run interviews with members of the opposition.
Melnikov says newspaper journalists regularly face harassment and attacks for delving into links between state organs and organized crime.
"We put out a bulletin every week called 'Journalism -- A Dangerous Profession.' And in practically every edition we have new incidents of direct or indirect pressure on newspapers and on specific journalists.... There are very many, hundreds of incidents every year. Journalists no longer take any notice of threats, of severely critical remarks about their work. They've got used to them," Melnikov says.
But at "Novaya gazeta," Andrei Lipsky says he still has hope for press freedom in Russia:
"The flow of young people who want to be involved in quality, honest journalism has not been stopped," he says.
"And that just shows that they aren't afraid, they know what happens at our newspaper. And even though people say: 'Oh look, here's the new generation, they're so pragmatic, they're so restrained, so cautious,' nevertheless they come here to work, regardless of the low wages."
Two other reports have criticized press freedom in Russia this week. The U.S. based NGO Freedom House puts Russia near the bottom of a list of 195 countries, falling six places from last year to the 165th position. It has the status of "not free."
And on April 30, the U.S. State Department issued a report that identified Russia as one of the worst violators of media freedom, together with Afghanistan, Egypt, Lebanon, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Venezuela.
CIS: Behind An 'Information Curtain'
By Christopher Walker
A Russian woman watches President Vladimir Putin on state television
May 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- In a historic March 1946 speech, Winston Churchill painted the stark image of an "iron curtain" descending across the European continent.
On the far side of that Iron Curtain, a closed and repressive system of governance was rapidly taking hold, in which dissent was ruthlessly suppressed, economic life rigidly managed by communist authorities, and media used exclusively as an instrument of the state. It took decades for the Soviet experiment to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, in an economic and political meltdown that ended the Cold War and brought the promise of greater freedom and openness to tens of millions of formerly captive peoples. Hopes ran high that these openings would permit all of the fundamental freedoms to emerge and flourish, including freedom of the press.
In fact, in the period immediately preceding the Soviet collapse and in its immediate aftermath, the flowering of open expression and a nascent independent press suggested a durable and institutionalized Fourth Estate might materialize.
Freedom House's most recent findings show that 10 of the 12 CIS states are ranked "Not Free," indicating these countries do not provide basic guarantees and protections in the legal, political, and economic spheres.
The Soviet era's waning days saw the exertion from below of significant pressure for greater freedom of expression and a diverse and independent reporting of news. In most of the former satellite countries of Central Europe a free press rose from the ashes of what for 40 years had been known as the Eastern bloc. For the former Soviet republics, however, with the exception of the Baltic states, the promise of the opening in the late 1980s and early 1990s was short-lived.
New Methods To Achieve Old Results
Across most of the former Soviet Union today, an "information curtain" has descended that in some aspects differs from that of the Soviet era, but in important ways is imposing a no less repressive news-media environment.
Gone is the smothering, all encompassing ideological control across wide swaths of Europe and Eurasia. A more geographically circumscribed area -- Russia and most of the countries on its periphery -- now lies behind a new curtain that effectively shuts off the majority of people in these lands from news and information of political consequence. Today, methods for dominating news media are different, based on state-enabled oligarchic control, broadcast monopolies of presidential "families," and mass-media manipulation intended to create a veneer of democratic practice without its substance.
Putin (right) meeting with leading Russian newspaper editors in June 2006 (epa)
Unlike the Soviet era, some intrepid journalists now do manage to report independently. However, absent the rule of law and meaningful legal protections, the former Soviet Union is today one of the world's most dangerous places for journalists. Reporters willing to investigate issues such as political and corporate corruption are confronted by powerful vested interests that strive to muzzle news professionals. Intimidation, physical violence, and even murder of reporters and editors have become commonplace.
Journalists in virtually every former Soviet republic have been victims of contract killings or otherwise met death under suspicious circumstances. Russia, for example, has been a deadly place for journalists in both the Yeltsin and Putin eras. Since President Vladimir Putin assumed office seven years ago, at least two dozen journalists have been killed, including Paul Klebnikov, editor of "Forbes-Russia," who was shot nine times with a semiautomatic weapon on the street outside his Moscow office in July 2004; Anna Politkovskaya, an investigative journalist who wrote for "Novaya gazeta," who was executed in the elevator of her apartment building in October 2006; and Ivan Safronov, a defense correspondent for the "Kommersant" newspaper, who in very unclear circumstances plunged to his death from his apartment building in Moscow in March. Rarely are serious investigations pursued or perpetrators brought to justice. Impunity is the standard.
To ensure regime security and shield from public view all-pervasive official corruption, the post-Soviet authorities seek to limit scrutiny of their decisions and activities by silencing the independent press.
Entertaining, But Not Informative
This modern variant of media control is a more sophisticated, distant cousin of the raw and overweening institutional censorship of the Soviet era. The stodgy, Soviet era broadcasting diet has in large measure been cast aside. Today, modern media fare, rich in entertainment and news programming of high technical quality and production values are staples, especially in Russia. While the contemporary media menu in Russia offers a wide assortment of entertainment options, it for the most part excludes alternative views and analysis on news and public affairs, particularly where it counts most, on national television broadcasts, from which most citizens continue to get their information.
All of Russia's major national television channels -- RTR, Channel One, and NTV -- are now effectively state controlled. Commenting on the troubled condition of Russia's news media, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev observed: "The one thing I can say is that it's pointless today to watch television [in Russia]."
Putin's tenure has seen a systematic muzzling of independent reporting. Current methods of news media control rely on the imposition of state ownership on media companies whose editors are replaced by Kremlin supporters. Gazprom-Media, an arm of the state-controlled gas behemoth, has taken control of a number of previously independent news outlets and either closed their doors or summarily abolished independent reporting. Today, journalists at the Russian News Service, Russia's largest nonstate radio network (owned by businesses close to the Kremlin), work under a "50 percent rule" imposed by station management to ensure that at least half of the network's total reporting on Russia is "positive."
The repressive media landscape in the former Soviet Union is illuminated by findings from "Freedom Of The Press 2007," Freedom House's annual survey of global media independence. The Russian authorities are not alone in forging a media environment that filters out critical voices. The survey's most recent findings show that 10 of the 12 CIS states are ranked "Not Free," indicating these countries do not provide basic guarantees and protections in the legal, political, and economic spheres to enable open and independent journalism.
Moving In The Wrong Direction
Of the 10 Not Free countries, none is moving in the direction of more freedom and most have a decidedly downward trajectory. Of the 193 countries examined in the survey, three of the 10 worst press-freedom abusers --Belarus, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan -- are in the former Soviet Union.
An Internet user in Minsk (bymedia.net file photo)
The Internet has emerged as the principal alternative and challenger to media hegemony in the former Soviet Union. Despite the authorities' dogged efforts to control it, the Internet and other news media set today's Soviet successor states apart from their Cold War ancestor. Blogs are stimulating debate and discussion, and domestic and foreign news websites offer an alternative to state-controlled or -influenced news outlets. However, while the Internet holds further promise and connectivity is growing at an impressive rate, it remains a medium through which only a small fraction of news is obtained. It is also fast becoming a target of greater interest for new regulatory intervention by the authorities.
Through a revitalized crackdown on press freedom, post-Soviet leaderships have managed to draw the media back under control. Only a decade and a half after the end of the Cold War, freedom of the press for tens of millions of people across the former Soviet Union has come nearly full circle. In post-Soviet states that suffer from ill-conceived policies, entrenched corruption, and unaccountable governance, denial of the indispensable role played by the free press in allowing critical scrutiny is bound to delay, possibly indefinitely, progress toward true and vibrant democracy.
Christopher Walker is director of studies at Freedom House. Freedom House's annual survey of global media independence, "Freedom Of The Press 2007," was released on May 1.
Threats To Press Freedom Growing More Severe
By Heather Maher
Georgian journalists at work in the South Ossetia conflict zone (file photo)
WASHINGTON, May 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Once again, the slain Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya has served as a symbol of the kind of danger journalists around the world live with every day.
"Journalists like Anna are on the frontline of human freedom," U.S. Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes told a conference in Washington on May 1. "Yet while her story is perhaps the best known and most widely reported, she is unfortunately not alone. In every region of the world, journalists are under siege."
Hughes was the keynote speaker at the conference co-sponsored by the Broadcasting Board of Governors and Freedom House.
In front of a packed hearing room at the U.S. Capitol, Hughes said that never before in history have journalists been more important to the development of democracy and at no time have they been more under threat.
"Media groups -- including the World Association of Newspapers, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Reporters Without Borders -- have been speaking out and protesting to governments with admirable resolve," U.S. Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes said.
A Threat To Civil Society
"Journalists expose corruption and crime," she said. "They shine a spotlight on human rights abuses around the world, and perhaps for those very reasons, we are living in a time of great danger for journalists around the world. They're at greater risk than ever of being threatened, jailed, or killed."
In Latin America and Africa, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, and Eurasia, Hughes said more than 130 journalists were imprisoned last year for doing their job. China currently has the most journalists in prison, some for simply posting material on the Internet.
Belarus is fast becoming the country with the worst censorship, Hughes said, and she also criticized Kazakhstan for passing a media law that asserts tighter government control.
"These worldwide threats to free press should be of great concern to all of us and to the family of nations," she said. "They threaten not just individual journalists, but civil society itself. Silencing journalists, whether they write from Internet cafes or in literary journals or newspapers or report on radio and television has a chilling effect."
Hughes said killing reporters who investigate the drug trade spreads crime, imprisoning reporters who write about health threats like AIDS and bird flu keeps epidemics secret and endangers public health, and assassinating journalists who investigate corruption enables it to grow and impact businesses and people.
The most effective answer to the repression of journalists and the media, Hughes said, is to shine a spotlight on it.
"Media groups -- including the World Association of Newspapers, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Reporters Without Borders -- have been speaking out and protesting to governments with admirable resolve," Hughes said. "The linkage between a free press and democracy and development has been gaining more attention in international bodies such as UNESCO, the WTO, and the World Bank, and an even stronger focus is warranted."
Continued Press-Freedom Erosion In Russia
The media situation in Russia was described in greater detail at the conference by Peter Baker, a former Moscow bureau chief for the "Washington Post" newspaper. Baker worked in Russia from 2000-05, and with his wife, a fellow journalist, co-authored the book "Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin's Russia And The End Of Revolution."
Baker said the erosion of media freedom in Russia over the past seven years has been "profound," but the West has been preoccupied with the war in Iraq and therefore has taken little notice.
Muscovites demonstrate against press restrictions in October 2006 (RFE/RL)
The past few years, he said, have been marked by the forced closure of almost all independent news outlets, the murder of several journalists, and the purchase of newspapers, television, and radio stations by companies closely tied to the Kremlin.
Baker's first big story as head of the Moscow bureau, he said, was the January 2001 takeover of the independent television station NTV. It turned out to be a sign of things to come.
"Ever since then, what we've seen has been a succession of NTVs," Baker said. "We've seen attempts to start new, independent television stations shut down. We've seen the television stations that existed -- all three of the national networks -- increasingly under the control of state officials or people who are afraid of state officials."
Baker said the only television network that showed news of the bloody 2004 siege of a school in Beslan, Ingushetia, was CNN. Russian television showed soap operas and movies.
The media climate in Russia today is one in which journalists are finding it increasingly hard to practice their craft and get independent, opposition voices out, he said.
Baker added that, although efforts by the United States and other countries to encourage a free press in Russia are helpful, the situation isn't likely to improve until Russians demand it themselves.
"The real problem is that the Russians themselves are very conflicted about this," Baker said. "Until they themselves demand a free-speech society, a media that serves their interests, there's only so much anybody else can do. When NTV was taken over in 2001, there was a poll taken by a Russia firm. It said 57 percent of Russians support censorship. And these are people who had lived through it, come out of that era, and in theory, wanted to go back."
The Iranian Blogosphere
In Iran, the media climate became extremely restrictive following a crackdown on the press in April 2000, according to Afshin Molavi, a journalist who has covered Iran for the "Washington Post."
Now with the Center for a New America policy studies center, Molavi recalled what a prominent Iranian journalist once told him:
An Internet cafe in Tehran (epa file photo)
"I always remember the comment that Mashaallah Shamsolvaezin, a prominent Iranian journalist, told me," Molavi told the conference. "He said, 'We don't have a problem with freedom of expression in Iran. We have a problem with freedom after expression in Iran.'"
Molavi said Internet blogs are changing the media landscape in Iran because they permit people to criticize -- and read criticism -- of society and government, anonymously.
For example, on May 1, he said, the No. 1 issue in the Iranian blogosphere was a crackdown on women who violate the Islamic dress code. There was also commentary about government action against teachers and news of a bus workers' strike.
He said that this kind of information is never published in Iranian media and noted that international media are difficult to access in Iran.
"When I was covering the July 2003 student protests, on that day of the morning that the protests were to take place, there were satellite dishes in the middle of squares that were cracked and broken into several pieces," Molavi said. "And it was not a subtle message. The message was do not listen to what the satellite television stations have to say."
Representative Tom Lantos (Democrat, California), a U.S. immigrant who was born in Hungary and joined the anti-Nazi underground when the German Army occupied his country in 1944, quoted Thomas Jefferson, who served as U.S. president from 1801-09, to illustrate the long history of press freedom in the United States.
"Media freedom has been recognized as precious in this country ever since Thomas Jefferson observed, 'Were it left to me decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer newspapers without a government,'" Lantos told the conference.
Press Freedom Suffers Continued Decline
Demonstrators in Moscow in June 2006 protest against the 'death' of independent media
NEW YORK, May 1, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Press freedom suffered continued global decline in 2006, with particularly troubling trends evident in Asia, the former Soviet Union, and Latin America. This is the main conclusion of a survey released today by Freedom House
, a U.S.-based nongovernmental institution measuring freedom around the world. RFE/RL correspondent Nikola Krastev spoke with Christopher Walker, Freedom House's director of studies.
RFE/RL: What are the distinctions between the 2006 and 2007 reports regarding the countries of the former Soviet Union?
Christopher Walker: The 2007 press freedom report for the 12 former Soviet republics showed a continuation of a worrying trend over the last several years. We've seen a continued erosion of press freedoms in the political, legal, and economic spheres in a number of countries. There've been a number of countries from the 2006 report that are doing worse today than they were doing then -- and these include Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Russia.
So we see a number of countries take a downward slide and, more importantly, this is a continuation of a trend that started several years ago. If one looks, for example, to the report we issued in 2004 -- nine of the 12 former Soviet republics have continued to do worse and are doing worse today than they were doing then. You must bear in mind that this is also a region whose press-freedom performance is extremely poor in global terms as a general matter. So, this decline really points to some serious, systemic issues in the media sector throughout the former Soviet Union.
RFE/RL: Which particular types of media are affected the most by the increasing freedom limitations?
Walker: In Central Asia, the key to the media is the television media and in every case you have either direct state control or effective state control through, for example, the media holdings of associates or family members of the presidents in these countries. This means in a very basic way, information of political consequence does not reach the vast majority of people in these countries.
We've seen an intensification of the efforts to control mass media. At the same time there've been indications in a number of countries that the regimes and the authorities are looking to assert even greater control over other media. So, there've been efforts to put greater pressure on newspapers, which tend to have smaller audiences but nevertheless have been important sources of independent information in a number of countries in the region. One possible explanation for this renewed attention to newspapers may be that the authorities are recognizing the ability of information from newsprint today to make its way onto the Internet and to be available to far larger audiences through the web.
RFE/RL: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia are all countries with booming economies and at the same time, press freedom there is deteriorating rapidly. Isn't there a contradiction here?
Walker: I think if you look at the cases of Russia, Kazakhstan, and perhaps even Azerbaijan, they have rather unique and interesting profiles in that these are all resource-rich states. Paradoxically, it's precisely in these sorts of systems and settings where a free press is essential for variety of reasons. One, of course, is to ensure that there's an ability to scrutinize the decisions of the authorities as regards the enormous energy wealth that they are responsible for using, to ensure that these are used for wise public purposes.
Christopher Walker (RFE/RL file photo)
There's, of course, enormous corruption in these countries and press freedom is one of the critical ingredients for ensuring that corruption can be tackled. And I think, what we've seen is a very concerted and determined effort by the authorities to restrict press freedom.
RFE/RL: Are there any indications that the press freedom landscape in Turkmenistan may be changing after the death of the president Saparmurat Niyazov in December?
Walker: Turkmenistan is among the worst performers in the entire survey of all the world's countries we evaluate. The death of the president certainly opens the door for possible change, but given the country's track record and given the extremely repressed environment, it's very hard to judge to what degree there will be a meaningful opening there. Of course, increasing the flow of information and enabling more press freedom would be a very important and critical step for a country that is as impoverished and closed as Turkmenistan is.
RFE/RL: Russia and Venezuela are listed in the report as the two countries that have gone through the most appalling deterioration of press freedom in 2006. What is the basis for such a comparison?
Walker: We listed the countries in order to show two of the countries that underwent the most profound change. [These are] energy-rich states -- which seems to be a common denominator in many of the countries that show these sorts of steep declines in press freedom. And, of course, in Russia's case the decline has been exceptional over the course of the last seven years certainly. We've seen Russia drop very precipitously, and this is really a result of a comprehensive and systematic campaign of oppression to muzzle independent voices. It cuts across virtually all media in the country, certainly television, radio, and, to a large degree, more and more print media, which is a very worrying trend because there have been a number of highly valued newspapers that produced independent information, and that resource has been shrinking largely due to efforts of the authorities -- either through Kremlin friendly businesses that are taking over newspapers or other methods of intimidation or to assert control.
That [is] coupled with the degree of violence that is experienced by journalists there -- there have been an extraordinary number of deaths of journalists either through contract killings or otherwise suspicious circumstances -- and no action has been taken in any of these cases, certainly in the last seven years more than two dozen journalists have been murdered.
Activist Arrested In Belarus For Advertising RFE/RL Frequencies
Uladzimir Shulzhytski at a Chornobyl demonstration in Minsk today
April 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Police officers in the northern Belarusian city of Smarhon detained on April 24 an 18-year-old activist, Uladzimir Shulzhytski, who was advertising the frequencies of RFE/RL radio broadcasts.
Shulzhytski faces trial on charges of using obscene language in public -- a common tactic of Belarusian authorities looking to prosecute political opponents of the ruling regime or people who are simply deemed officially objectionable.
Shulzhytski produced, and inserted into mailboxes, homemade advertisements featuring the radio frequencies and times of RFE/RL's Belarusian-language broadcasts.
Shulzhytski also included his phone number on his ads, asking potential listeners to get in touch with him if they have problems tuning in to the broadcasts.
The telephone number, he told RFE/RL's Belarus Service, enabled police to lure him into a simple trap by pretending to need help with the broadcasts.
"They phoned me as I was going out for work, and I made an appointment with a man for 6 p.m. He gave me an address," Shulzhytski said. "I went to that address, and there at the very door, my district police officer and some other policemen were waiting for me."
At the police station the policemen drafted a protocol of detention, in which they charged Shulzhytski with swearing in public. He spent the night in custody and was asked to appear in court today.
RFE/RL President Jeffrey Gedmin condemned Shulzhytski's detention and the charges leveled against him
"This kind of development is deeply disturbing," Gedmin said. "I want to make very clear that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty supports the free citizens of Belarus and, in particular, the listeners of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, who simply want to exercise the most basic of political rights and civil liberties. These people, these listeners, have our deepest respect, admiration and solidarity."
Shulzhytski's leaflet with information about RFE/RL's broadcasts in Belarus (RFE/RL)
Shulzhytski told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that he was distributing the homemade RFE/RL ads because he wanted to inform people in his city about an alternative source of independent information.
"I simply don't see any other way in which people could obtain free information," he said. "I think [RFE/RL] is a fairly democratic media outlet, and it can successfully compete with the state propaganda."
During today's trial, Shulzhytski objected to the choice of presiding judge, Mikalay Shelyah. Shulzhytski accused Shelyah of issuing a number of politically motivated verdicts last year.
The trial was then adjourned for an indefinite period until another judge can be appointed. Shulzhytski was told to expect a new summons when that judge is named.
(RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this report.)