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Russia/CIS: WAN Official Sees Little Press-Freedom Improvement

Kajsa Tornroth (UNESCO) MOSCOW, June 6, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Hundreds of media bosses from around the world are currently in Moscow to attend the World Association of Newspapers' (WAN) annual congress. Addressing Russian President Vladimir Putin at the opening conference on June 5, WAN chief Gavin O'Reilly painted a bleak picture of the Russian media. But what does the media landscape look like in other former Soviet countries? RFE/RL correspondent Claire Bigg asked Kajsa Tornroth, WAN's press-freedom director.

RFE/RL: Yesterday at the opening of the congress, WAN President Gavin O'Reilly voiced serious concerns over press freedom in Russia. Are there other former Soviet countries that WAN is particularly worried about?

Kajsa Tornroth: Belarus is obviously a country that we are greatly worried about, in particular after the massive clampdown on the independent press following the presidential election in March. Now the latest news is the eviction of a newspaper from the city of Minsk simply because its editor in chief was arrested during the protests. Also in Belarus, foreign journalists have been harassed. There were a few Polish journalists who wanted to enter the country in connection with the 20th anniversary of the Chornobyl accident and who were turned away at the border. Other countries would be Turkmenistan, where there's virtually no free press at all, Uzbekistan with the uprising in Andijon last spring, where the situation was already very worrying before and has become even worse today.

RFE/RL: WAN today protested the media clampdown in China, Eritrea, and Belarus. What did this protest involve?

Tornroth: This protest was a resolution issued by our board, which comprises editors and publishers from a number of different countries. What we focused on in this resolution was the continued clampdown on the independent press in Belarus and the fact that the situation is definitely not changing for the better and that [Belarusian] President [Alyaksandr] Lukashenka continues to hold the media in an iron grip in order to silence any voice that might be critical of him.

RFE/RL: Over the past few years, three former Soviet countries -- Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan -- have seen popular uprisings that ushered Western-leaning leaders into power. Have you noted positive developments in these countries with regard to press freedom?

Tornroth: Of course there are moments of hope as in Kyrgyzstan last year, but according to our latest report nothing has really changed for the independent press in Kyrgyzstan even if for some months the independent press there voiced hopes that things were actually going to change. In Ukraine, even if there are people who today say that the situation hasn't maybe improved that much, I think that even before the revolution there were media that were doing a fabulous job. So the situation there hasn't improved radically but we don't see Ukraine as a problem area. In Georgia, I would also say there are some improvements, there are small steps, there are some independent publications that have been able to build their editorial policy and their right to freedom of expression. So I definitely think there are positive changes, but quite often, unfortunately, in most of the former Soviet republics it's only individual newspapers that manage, thanks to their devoted staff, to operate quite freely.

RFE/RL: The Internet remains the news platform least subject to censorship and state control. What role can the Internet play in fostering independent, free journalism in this region?

Tornroth: Internet can play a decisive role in fostering a free press and freedom of expression. However, the problem in the former Soviet republics, as in many other places in the world, is that not many people actually have access to the Internet or even if they have access necessarily know how to access the information that would be of interest to them. So I think there is an enormous potential in the Internet, but as it is, it doesn't play a major role.

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