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CIS: Press Freedom In Former Soviet Union Under Assault

By Christopher Walker Independent newspapers in Belarus have struggled to get printed, let alone distributed (RFE/RL) Independent media in the countries of the former Soviet Union, already operating under extreme duress, came under further assault over the course of the last year. The political, legal, and economic environments in most of the non-Baltic former Soviet countries remain distinctly inhospitable to independent journalism.

This reality is reflected in "Freedom Of The Press 2006," the latest edition of Freedom House's annual global survey of media independence. Ten of the 12 Soviet countries are ranked "Not Free" in the new edition of the survey. Of the 10 Not Free countries, five saw a further erosion in their performance over the course of last year.

Of the 12 non-Baltic former Soviet states only Georgia and Ukraine, which are categorized as "Partly Free," escape the Not Free designation. No country in the region achieves the designation of "Free." The degree to which each country permits the free flow of information determines the classification of its media as "Free," "Partly Free," or "Not Free."

The downward trend was particularly evident in countries with regimes that place a premium on controlling the airwaves. Among the Not Free states, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan experienced declines. Uzbekistan and Russia suffered the most dramatic backslide.

Self-Censorship, Obstruction In Russia

Russia slipped due to the Kremlin's ongoing obstruction of journalists from reporting on sensitive topics and its tightening of control over news sources. According to this year's report, the Russian "authorities continued to exert direct influence on media outlets and determine news content, as the state owns or controls the country's three main national television networks -- Channel One, RTR, and NTV."

In 2005, Russian journalists continued to be subjected to detention or physical attack, ostensibly from coverage of sensitive topics such as corruption. The Russian government's posture toward the media has also led to increased self-censorship. Critical coverage of the Kremlin on national broadcast media is virtually nonexistent today.

Andijon Fallout In Uzbekistan

The government in Uzbekistan, which has crushed independent voices throughout society, paid particular attention to the elimination of independent media. The Uzbek press freedom rating for the last year dropped accordingly.

The Andijon massacre, which occurred one year ago, was the trigger for the further crackdown on the media in Uzbekistan. In the immediate aftermath of the events in Andijon, the regime of President Islam Karimov instituted a news blackout, preventing virtually any information about the violence in the eastern Uzbek city from reaching wider audiences.

Western-funded media in Uzbekistan drew particularly intense attention from the government. The Karimov regime refused to renew the agreement that allowed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to operate a bureau in Tashkent. It likewise forced other international news and media support organizations, including the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) and Internews, to close their operations in the country.

Manipulation of television news content in Uzbekistan, as in a number of neighboring repressive countries, reached new heights over the last year. The television medium was a favored tool in regime security efforts. The report on Uzbekistan in this year's press-freedom survey cites the September trial of 15 men accused of involvement in the Andijon unrest, where "prosecutors charged that the BBC, IWPR, and RFE/RL had advance knowledge that violence would break out in the city. State-controlled media gave prominent coverage to these unsubstantiated charges."

Regulatory Tricks In Belarus

In Belarus, the autocratic government of Alyaksandr Lukashenka intensified its control over the country's media, at least in part due to elections taking place this spring. Last year, among the measures taken by the Belarusian authorities was passage of broadly defined legislation that makes it a crime punishable by up to two years in jail to "discredit Belarus" in the eyes of international organizations and foreign governments. The same prison terms apply to those convicted of distributing "false information" about Belarus' political, economic, social, or international situation.

Among the regulatory tricks relied upon by media-unfriendly regimes, the Belarus press-freedom report relates a May 2005 decree issued by Lukashenka that banned all privately owned, but not state, media from using the words "national" or "Belarus" in their names, forcing a number of publications to reregister.

Good News A Rarity

In a region where good news on the news media is hard to come by, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan were the only countries to register improvement. In Kyrgyzstan, given the larger questions concerning the country's overall political direction, the durability of the positive press-freedom change was far from certain, however. Kyrgyzstan remains in the Not Free category.

Ukraine enjoys a wide range of state and private television and radio stations, as well as print and electronic news outlets. While Ukraine's media ownership is diverse, it still confronts the challenges that accompany oligarchic ownership structures. Nevertheless, since the end of 2004 the media in Ukraine, while today still designated Partly Free, have achieved a degree of pluralism and independence that would have been unthinkable in the pre-Orange Revolution era.

Ukraine, now with the strongest press-freedom rating among the former Soviet states, therefore remains a critical media case study. Just 1 1/2 years ago, the country suffered from many of the same pathologies that continue to confront most of the media in the region today. In the run-up to Ukraine's pivotal 2004 elections, for example, "temnyky" -- editorial theme directives from the president's office -- were standard operating procedure. This practice was purged from the Ukrainian media landscape but remains a blight on many other former Soviet states' media systems.

The significant yet incomplete progress in Ukraine should serve as a reminder that overcoming deeply entrenched Soviet-era habits and practices will be a trying, long-term effort for reform of the media, as well as for other key institutions that form the building blocks of democratic societies.

(Christopher Walker is director of studies at Freedom House)

Media In Central Asia

Media In Central Asia

Ukrainian journalists trying to cover Kazakhstan's presidential election being expelled from the country in December 2005

MUZZLED MEDIA: Below is a brief overview of key media issues in each of the five Central Asian countries. (prepared by Daniel Kimmage)

Although Kazakhstan has seen the harassment of journalists and media outlets that fall afoul of the state, the larger problem is one of access -- both to sensitive information and to the larger public.
Asked whether freedom of the press exists in Kazakhstan, Darigha Nazarbaeva -- the daughter of President Nursultan Nazarbaev and a media magnate in her own right -- said recently that one need walk only five minutes in Almaty to find a publication that elaborates "what a bad president we have and how I've monopolized the entire press." And she's right -- an opposition press exists.
But national television, with its enormous potential to shape popular opinion, remains either state-controlled or subordinate to allied interests -- as witnessed by a strict taboo on investigations of alleged corruption in the Nazarbaev family.

Nowhere in Central Asia has the fate of the media reflected political upheaval as strikingly as in Kyrgyzstan of late. The true fall of President Askar Akaev in March 2005 took place not when he fled the seat of government before an advancing crowd, but when opposition leaders later made an impromptu appearance on state television. A heady period ensued, with revelations of Akaev-era skullduggery suddenly front and center in national media. But the honeymoon proved short-lived.
A post-Akaev political morass deepened through 2005 and early 2006 amid high-profile contract killings and frustrated expectations of political and economic reform. And the media environment followed suit, with initial gains eroded by renewed state interference in television, salaried partisanship in the print media, and the rising influence of organized-crime groups.

Tajikistan's media environment has seen no such political upheavals. President Imomali Rakhmonov could rule through 2020, as long as he continues to secure reelection. He has consolidated his power in recent years -- seemingly with that aim in mind.
The media have also felt the consequences. As the country nears the end of its first decade since the 1992-97 civil war, the state maintains a firm grip national television and politically relevant print outlets. Meanwhile, a handful of tiny independent newspapers fight an increasingly uphill battle for access to printing facilities and readers.

The case of Turkmenistan speaks eloquently of a total stifling of media under blanket state control. News outlets trumpet the cult of President Saparmurat Niyzov and tout the purported glories of Turkmenistan's golden age under his rule. This reduces them to little more than a peephole on an otherwise sealed regime.
The media unfailingly broadcast Niyazov's pronouncements and feast on the latest official to fall from grace. On April 24, for example, former Prosecutor-General Gurbanbibi Atajanov, who recently stepped down after a decade of dispatching onetime colleagues to unenviable fates, begged for mercy on the evening news as the president vilified her for corruption. Those same media outlets ignore whatever fails to fit the script of the decreed golden age.

President Islam Karimov insists that Uzbekistan's media are at war. What foreign media reported as evidence of a massacre in Andijon in May 2005, the president and officials have described as an "information attack" intended to undermine Uzbekistan's stability and sovereignty. Print and broadcast outlets, controlled either directly or indirectly by the state, are required to fight off this alleged assault by detailing extremist threats and foreign plots. They are also tasked with explaining the country's shift of geopolitical allegiance to Russia and China.
What space remains goes to a sanitized portrayal of Uzbek reality, with some warts left in -- local corruption and economic difficulties -- to lend credence to the grand official narrative espoused by slogans such as "Uzbekistan, a country with a great future."

Of Related Interest:

Turkmenistan: RFE/RL Journalists Given 15-Day Sentence

Uzbekistan: New Media Resolution Tightens The Screws

Central Asia: Internet Fills Void Left By Media On Religious Freedom Issues

Central Asia: RFE/RL Speaks With Media Monitor About Press Freedom

THE COMPLETE STORY: To view an archive of RFE/RL's coverage of media-related stories, click here.

For regular news and analysis on media issues throughout RFE/RL's broadcast area by e-mail, subscribe to "RFE/RL Media Matters."