Today is the UN-declared World Press Freedom Day -- a day to remember the importance of a free press for building civil societies. But recent reports from international media watchdogs paint a depressing picture of freedom of expression in the Middle East and the countries of the former Soviet Union. The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists said that worldwide last year, murder was the leading cause of job-related deaths among journalists and that Iraq occupied second-place and Russia fifth-place on its list of most murderous countries. Two other media watchdog groups, Freedom House and the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres, have issued similarly gloomy reports as they look back at the past year.
Prague, 3 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- None of the reports to mark World Press Freedom Day found much to celebrate over the course of 2004.
There was some marginal improvement in Ukraine, following the Orange Revolution and the subsequent easing of central control over news and information.
But elsewhere, with the exception of Georgia, the countries of the former Soviet Union and the Middle East continue to pack the ranks of the least liberal regimes in the world.
There were more journalists in prison in Iran in 2004 than in any other country in the region.
Pascale Bonnamour, who heads the Europe desk at Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) in Paris, says the media environment in Central Asia became worse after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the March events in Kyrgyzstan.
"I think the situation is becoming worse and worse because of the geopolitical situation," she said. "Especially at the end [of 2004], there was a big tension in the countries of the former Soviet Union [because of the revolutions in nearby countries]. Press freedom is very precarious. Many opposition journalists were arrested, some journalists were beaten up. We can speak about brutal repression of independent media."
The most disturbing findings came from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), whose report is based on five years of research.
The CPJ said the biggest danger was not death while covering dangerous assignments but premeditated murder. Of the 190 journalists killed on duty worldwide since 2000, 121 were murdered. In most cased, the killers have not been found.
The violence in Iraq claimed the lives of more journalists than anywhere else. But in Russia, the reports say, it is contract-killings that pose the greatest threat. Most of these killings were of print journalists investigating organized crime and government corruption.
All three reports noted the strengthening of state control over the media in Russia and the frequent censorship of news and information, in particular in the coverage of the war in Chechnya and the hostage crisis in Beslan, in which more than 330 people are estimated to have died.
The Freedom House report, which ranks 194 countries according to the degree of media freedom they enjoy, described the situation in Georgia and Ukraine as "partly free." All other countries of the former Soviet Union, it said, were "not free." Worst of all were Belarus and Turkmenistan.
RSF was particularly critical of the regime of President Saparmurat Niyazov in Turkmenistan. There, it said, "journalism amounts to blatant propaganda for the dictatorship based on a cult of personality around Niyazov."
The situation was little better in Uzbekistan, RSF said. The government there was using the fight against global terrorism to step up its crackdown on the independent media, and had implemented news blackouts after a series of bombings in March 2004.
The government "has no qualms about using illegal methods to silence dissidents," imprisoning journalist and human rights campaigner Ruslan Sharipov for homosexuality, the group said.
Elsewhere, the Middle East rivalled, if not exceeded, the former Soviet Union in its disregard for press freedom.
RSF says that 21 journalists were killed in the Middle East in 2004, 19 of them in Iraq.
Government repression in many countries increased and many journalists were arrested and imprisoned on charges such as defamation, insulting the head of state, and insulting Islam.
RSF press spokesman Reza Moini told Radio Farda that there were more journalists in prison in Iran in 2004 than in any other country in the region.
"In this region the situation is deplorable; it can be explained in a few words; first of all Iraq with the [high] number of dead. Then we can point to pressure and censorship and jailing of journalists. In this region during the last year 27 journalists were arrested and about half of the arrests took place in Iran."
Things are little better in neighboring Afghanistan where, despite the recent elections, journalists are still threatened by local warlords.
The French media watchdog did, however, suggest that the removal of Ismail Khan as governor of the Western province of Herat might lead to positive change. It was also a good sign, it said, that a press law had been adopted in March 2004.
But while this provided Afghanistan a relatively liberal framework for freedom of the media and information, RSF also noted that it still gave the government authorities a degree of control over the press.