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The Freedom House report criticizes what it calls President Vladimir Putin's "complete control" of TV, radio, and print media in Russia.
WASHINGTON -- Media freedom throughout the world declined last year to its lowest point in almost a decade, according to a new report from Freedom House, a U.S.-based democracy-monitoring organization.

Releasing the group's annual "Freedom of the Press" report on May 1 in Washington, D.C., project director Karin Deutsch Karlekar said the findings showed "negative trends in most regions of the world."

North Korea and Turkmenistan tied for the title of the worst country for media freedom, with Uzbekistan and Belarus close behind.

Karlekar maintained that, although Kyrgyzstan was in the "not free" category, it has a number of independent outlets and called it a "bright spot in the Central Asia region. She also noted that Kazakhstan appeared to be heading in the wrong direction.

"Kazakhstan is also very restricted and actually this year we're highlighting Kazakhstan because of a fairly significant decline that we noted in 2012, where the space for independent voices was sort of narrowed even further," she said, making reference to the "authorities banning around 40 opposition media outlets, increasing levels of violence and [the] legal persecution of independent media and journalists."

Georgia and Armenia were praised for showing strong improvements, but Karlekar warned that Azerbaijan’s media environment had deteriorated.

"Azerbaijan is also a country of concern for us and scores quite bad," she said. "It’s similar to [the] situations in Kazakhstan and Russia."

Karlekar attributed the decline in Azerbaijan's rating to "increased violence against journalists and also legal amendments that further limited access to information."

'Big Improvement' In Afghanistan

Freedom House found the Russian government has almost "complete control over television, radio, and the print press."

Karlekar suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin used that control during last year's presidential election and in a number of other ways.

"The situation continued to be quite bad and quite restrictive in Russia and we were particularly concerned with some of the laws that were enacted during the year, particularly, on the media front, a law that basically would allow for further censorship of Internet-based content, and that law took effect in November," she said.

"And, given that the Internet is this sort of relatively open space in Russia, that was definitely an issue that caused concern during the year for us.”

Afghanistan ranked as the second-most-improved country in Asia and was considered to have been one of the year's "success stories" thanks to the decrease in violence against journalists and a reduction in the official censorship and prosecution of the press.

"Afghanistan actually showed a big improvement this year in our index," Karlekar said. "Apart from Burma, it was the country in Asia that showed the biggest improvement, and we really saw a number of positive trends in 2012, including a decrease in violence against journalists, an increase in the number of new private media outlets that were more able to freely criticize the government and other political actors, and a decline in [the] official censorship and prosecution of journalists."

Karlekar said little had changed in Iran and the Islamic republic remained ranked in the bottom eight worldwide for media freedom.

She described Pakistan as having a very vibrant media, but cited a "very high level of violence and intimidation against journalists."

U.S. Decries Religious Rights Violators

Eid al-Fitr prayers at the Muhammadiya Mosque in the Vahdat neighborhood of the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.
WASHINGTON -- A U.S. government advisory body says that Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan are among the world's worst violators of religious freedom.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom's 2013 report says the countries should be designated “countries of particular concern” by the U.S. government for “particularly severe” violations -- a designation that allows for arms embargoes and other restrictions.

The countries' violations are said to include carrying out or tolerating "acts such as torture, prolonged detention, or disappearances, or other flagrant denials of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons."

Iran and Uzbekistan, along with China, North Korea, and several other countries, have already been designated by the White House, although restrictions on Uzbekistan have been waived.

Restrictions based on the designations also expire in August if the Obama administration does not renew them.

The report also listed Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia among second-tier violators, where "at least one, but not all three, of the elements of the 'systematic, ongoing, egregious' standard" for violations is met.

The second-tier designations are meant to "provide advance warning of negative trends."

The commission, a bipartisan body, said it based its recommendations on "the standards found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international documents." The commission said it also worked with human rights groups, victims of religious persecution, policy experts, and U.S. officials and made country visits in formulating its findings.

This year's report covers from January 31, 2012 to January 31, 2013.

According to the commission, that period saw continuing deterioration of religious freedoms in Iran -- a trend it says is "likely to worsen" as the June presidential election approaches.

Alleged violations include continued imprisonment Baha’is, abuses against Christians and Sufi Muslims, and state-sponsored anti-Semitism.

The commission called on the U.S. administration to "continue to identify Iranian government agencies and officials -- including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and President [Mahmud] Ahmadinejad -- responsible for severe violations of religious freedom" and sanction them.

In Iraq, the report said religiously motivated violence by extremist groups "continues with impunity." It also said the government in Baghdad last year "took actions that increased, rather than reduced, Sunni-Shi’a and Arab-Kurdish tensions."

The report blasted Pakistan for "fail[ing] to protect members of religious minority communities, as well as the majority faith." It described sectarian violence as "chronic." It also said Islamabad's anti-blasphemy laws and related legislation "foster an atmosphere of violent extremism and vigilantism."

The three Central Asian countries listed among the report's worst of the worst were all cited for severe repression of nearly all religious activity beyond what is sanctioned by the state.

Prison terms for attending unapproved religious gatherings in Tajikistan, raids on religious communities in Turkmenistan, and state censorship of all religious materials in Uzbekistan were among the restrictions cited.

The report recommended making U.S. aid to Tajikistan contingent upon improvements, boosting U.S. broadcasting to Turkmenistan, and removing a waiver on penalties against Uzbekistan.

The U.S. waiver on penalties against Tashkent on religious freedom grounds has been in place since 2009.

This year's report said: "There is concern that U.S. policy on Uzbekistan prioritizes that nation's strategic importance as a key part of the Northern Distribution Network."

Among second-tier countries, the report decried the Afghan Constitution's "explicit fail[ure] to protect the individual right to freedom of religion or belief."

It highlighted the detention and imprisonment of "nonviolent religious activists" in Azerbaijan.

The commission said a religious registration law in Kazakhstan had led to "a sharp drop in the number of registered religious groups, both Muslim and Protestant."

In Russia, the report said that "various laws and practices increasingly grant preferential status to the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church." It also cited rampant abuses in Chechnya.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.


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