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Free Press Remains Elusive In Ex-Soviet States

The State on every channel?

The State on every channel?

WASHINGTON -- It's been more than 15 years since the fall of the Iron Curtain, and several states that once were firmly in the Soviet sphere of influence are now members of the European Union and NATO.

But people living in many of the former Soviet republics still face challenges, including getting access to the news that's taken for granted in the West. That's according to Christopher Walker, the director of studies at Freedom House, the New York-based human rights advocacy group. He spoke about this persistent problem with RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully.

RFE/RL: What is the state of the media in former communist countries?

Christopher Walker: In the non-Baltic former Soviet Union, Freedom House findings overall are quite grim. Nevertheless, there are some distinctions among the countries in the region. You have on the weakest end of the scale some of the world's worst-performing countries. These are retrograde regimes that have not pursued really any meaningful reforms: Turkmenistan, Belarus, and Uzbekistan. And they are among the world's worst performers, let alone the region's worst performers.

At the same time you have countries that perform poorly in our analysis, but nevertheless have economic-modernization ambitions. And in this category you might find countries such as Russia and Kazakhstan. And here the question is whether regimes that have economic-modernization ambitions can advance their objectives while suppressing the development of a healthy and mature media sector. And that's one of the quandaries they confront.

I think what you see is differentiation among the countries in the region, but by our measures you have -- just looking at our global press freedom analysis, you'll find only two countries that are in the "partly free" category, and those are Ukraine and Georgia. The rest of the countries in the non-Baltic former Soviet Union -- the other 10 -- are rated as "not free."

Methods Of Control

RFE/RL: Can you give our readers an idea of the methods used in the region to hamper the free flow of information?

Walker: The sorts of controls that you'd find in the "not free" countries run from the sorts of intimidation that all authoritarian governments would rely on. This would be physical abuse in some cases and impunity, where you have brutality against journalists. This sends a very clear message that there are real red lines that can't be crossed in investigative reporting.

At the same time you also have more sophisticated methods of control today in a number of countries. This would include Russia, where state-managed or state-owned commercial enterprises are now taking control of media enterprises, which then enable dominant power holders to keep their fingers on the management and editorial lines of the news entities that they bring into the fold (under the control of the owner). So this gives another line of control that's emerged in recent years.

Most of the authorities in these countries have an enormous advantage in making sure that controls are firm by having pliant judiciaries, so that libel laws can be applied generously -- in the worst form of that word. Azerbaijan stands out in this respect, where libel laws are being used excessively to bring suits against journalists.

So you really see a variety of tools that are pulled out of the toolbox to keep journalists in check -- a very comprehensive, and right now a very effective mix of tools.

RFE/RL: What are the more subtle forms of information repression?

Walker: I think the economic levers are used with greater sophistication and nuance certainly in the countries that are enjoying greater wealth today. And at the top of the list in the former Soviet Union you'd find countries that are benefiting from vast amounts of energy wealth. So Russia, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan would be examples.

What you've seen is economic levers being used to control editorial lines to quietly or behind-the-scenes manipulate editorial coverage so that serious investigative issues aren't pursued, so that the authorities aren't scrutinized in a meaningful way. That would probably be one of the principal, more nuanced methods for controlling the media today.

Fighting Corruption With Blunt Tools

We keep seeing reports out of countries such as Russia in which average citizens express a lack of concern for their government's human rights record, arguing that they're more interested in stability imposed today by a strong leader and are willing to wait a while for a government that's more responsive to its people. Does this attitude include a lack of concern for a free press?

Walker: There are very practical reasons why these societies desperately need a greater media freedom. And the issue that's at the top of the list is corruption. And it's difficult to imagine how any of these [governmental] systems can start to make meaningful headway on corruption, absent a more open and vibrant media. It's a critical linchpin for making progress against corruption in all of these settings.

If you look at Russia today, the leadership in the country has put corruption way up the agenda. [But] how this is brought under control, absent an opening in the media and having a more meaningful discussion of government policies and government behavior is very difficult to envision. And I think in a very practical way having a more vibrant and open media is a critical "sine qua non" for making headway on the corruption issue, and I think also, more fundamentally, on having more responsive governance.

RFE/RL: Yet after the earthquake in China, when many children were crushed in the collapse of shoddily built schools, the people publicly berated Communist Party leaders whom they held responsible. And yet China is a country whose people, like many Russians, tend to put up with an authoritarian government for the sake of stability. In a sense, aren't they crying out for more information?

Walker: I think the common thread in the issues you just described is when issues of corruption touch people's lives in a real way. And certainly the school-construction issue in China has done exactly that. People take notice, and in these instances people are hungry for more rather than less information. And, in fact, in that case the Chinese journalists courageously reported on these issues against the edicts of the central government.

I think what you see in these authoritarian settings, where such a premium is placed on controlling the media, is that at the top of the issue list that they seek to control are issues relating to corruption, environmental degradation -- things that touch people's lives on a day-to-day basis. That suggests that, at root, ordinary people really do have a desire and a hunger for meaningful information on issues that touch their lives, and it's information they should have.