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World: Former Soviet Republics Lead World In Press Censorship

CPJ says Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov is one of the world's worst press censors (file photo) (ITAR-TASS) In the 15 years since the end of the Cold War, several former Soviet-dominated states have worked to establish liberal democracies. Others lag far behind, based on several criteria. One such yardstick is press freedom. Today -- the eve of World Press Freedom Day -- the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based group that advocates press freedoms, issued a report on the "10 Most Censored Countries." Among them are three former Soviet republics: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Belarus. CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper in New York spoke with RFE/RL.

WASHINGTON, May 2, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The CPJ says the 10 countries cited in its report suppress the truth in a variety of ways and to a variety of degrees. But all share several patterns of behavior.

In most cases, the report says, their governments are controlled by autocrats who impose total control over what their citizens learn about their country and the world in general. And they promote what's known as the "big lie" -- permitting only good news about their countries and forbidding any critical reporting or other "bad news."

Speaking by phone from United Nations headquarters in New York, where she released the report, Cooper says forbidding the reporting of bad news can have a direct impact on the country's population.

"It means that really important issues are often not reported on at all. North Korea, for example -- the state media there -- they really didn't acknowledge that there was a terrible famine in the 1990s that affected millions of people,” Cooper said. “At some point the censorship begins to have an impact on the public welfare of citizens in these very censored countries."

Flattering Turkmenbashi

The top five on the list of the "10 Most Censored Countries" are North Korea, Burma, Turkmenistan, Equatorial Guinea, and Libya. The remaining five are Eritrea, Cuba, Uzbekistan, Syria, and Belarus.

In Uzbekistan, the government of President Islam Karimov uses Soviet-style intimidation to keep the local media from covering the country's Muslim opposition, and the police torture to maintain rigid order.

Among the former Soviet republics, CPJ says Turkmenistan is the worst offender in censorship. Not only does the state own all domestic media, but it also forbids the importation of foreign sources of news.

The report says the Turkmen media not only deny their consumers the news they need, but also covers President Saparmurat Niyazov with exaggerated flattery, supporting the personality cult in which he has proclaimed himself "Turkmenbashi," or the Turkmens' father.

Cooper says public reaction to such fawning coverage is anyone's guess.

"How do people [in Turkmenistan] really feel about this? It's very hard to know because media is so tightly controlled and all expression is extremely controlled in Turkmenistan,” she said. “People don't dare speak their minds. They wouldn't dare tell you what they thought of their autocratic leader because of fear of the consequences."

Three Media Groups Forced To Close In Uzbekistan

The CPJ says that in Uzbekistan, the government of President Islam Karimov uses Soviet-style intimidation to keep the local media from covering the country's Muslim opposition, and the police torture to maintain rigid order.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov (file photo, epa)

Specifically, the report accuses Karimov's government of mounting a huge crackdown on journalists for foreign media reporting on the Andijon massacre of May 2005.

"There was a handful of journalists there [in Uzbekistan] who filed eyewitness reports to the world that were very much in contrast to the rosier picture of things that was put out by the government,“ Cooper said. “And for their trouble of reporting truthfully on the Andijon massacre, those journalists have all had to flee the country. So pressures in the wake of Andijon have certainly increased dramatically in Uzbekistan."

In addition, the report says, RFE/RL, the BBC, and the Institute for War & Peace Reporting had to close their Tashkent bureaus.

Meanwhile, it says, Uzbekistan also has more journalists behind bars -- six by the end of 2005 -- than any other former Soviet republic.

Legal Techniques To Stop The Presses

As for Belarus, it is often referred to as "the last dictatorship in Europe," and its press freedoms -- or lack of them -- support this portrayal, according to the CPJ. The report says the media there are nominally independent, but they're careful to avoid reporting on what Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka doesn't want his people to hear.

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (file photo, AFP)

Cooper says Lukashenka's government uses what she calls "legal and administrative techniques" to keep the press under his control.

"Some of the techniques he [Lukashenka] relies on are ordering printing presses to not print those newspapers or the post office to not deliver them,“ she said. “So they [the newspapers] may technically still be in business, but they can't get their news out to the people. So that's a less dramatic form of censorship, but it's still an extremely effective one, because it means that the people ultimately are deprived of that independent reporting."

Cooper says censorship in former Soviet republics is not confined to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Belarus. She tells RFE/RL that the problem exists to some extent in virtually all of them.

"Unfortunately what we've seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, there's -- at the beginning -- something of an opening for press freedom, but in more recent years a closing down [of press freedoms] in most of the former Soviet countries."

In determining the "10 Most Censored Countries," the CPJ said it based its conclusions on 17 criteria including formal censorship, an absence of independent media, jamming of foreign news broadcasts and interference with publication. The group said all the countries on the list met at least nine of those criteria.

According to Cooper, the report on the "10 Most Censored Countries" is not one of a series of annual reports. She says the CPJ marks each World Press Freedom Day with a different report on threats to the media. Last year, for example, the group issued a report on the most dangerous countries from which to report the news.

Press Under Assault

Press Under Assault


BREAKING THE NEWS: Press freedom is under assault in virtually all of the countries of the former Soviet Union. Independent media confront enormous challenges in providing citizens with the independent information that can help advance democratic reforms. On May 2, RFE/RL's Washington office hosted a roundtable briefing that gave an overview of media developments in the CIS and discussed the connections between press freedom and future democratization. The briefing featured Freedom House Director of Studies CHRISTOPHER WALKER, American University Associate Research Professor ROBERT ORTTUNG, and RFE/RL Central Asia analyst DANIEL KIMMAGE.


Listen to the entire briefing (about 90 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media

RFE/RL's Press Freedom Day stories:

Iraq: Covering The Most Dangerous Beat On Earth

Afghanistan: Women In Journalism Battle Restrictions, Threats

Iran: State Maintains Tight Control Over Information

CIS: Press Freedom In Former Soviet Union Under Assault

Central Asia: Bureaucratic Obstacles Hinder Journalists

Central Asia: Governments Wary Of Independent Media

Central Asia: Journalists Still Face Harassment, Threats

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."

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