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CIS: Freedom House Sees Further Democracy Decline

Moscow demonstrators in June 2006 protest the government's "information blockade" (ITAR-TASS) NEW YORK, January 17, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Systematic efforts to control media in countries of the former Soviet Union have intensified in 2006 indicating further erosion of civil liberties. That's the conclusion of the new "Freedom In The World" report by Freedom House, a U.S.-based organization that promotes democracy.

The survey shows that the percentage of countries regarded as "free" has failed to increase for almost a decade, leading to a trend the authors label "freedom stagnation." The report notes the entrenchment of authoritarian rule in the majority of countries of the former Soviet Union, and gives moderately positive marks only to Georgia and Ukraine.

One of the troubling developments in 2006, the report says, is a "growing pushback against organizations, movements, and media that monitor human rights or advocate for the expansion of democratic freedom."

A systematic effort to weaken or eliminate pro-democracy forces, the report says, is most prevalent among authoritarian regimes in the former Soviet Union.

'Cleaning the Media Slate'

Russia is a stark example. Christopher Walker, one of the report's authors, says Russian authorities are showing creativity in their approach to stifle whatever is left of independent media.

Walker says in 2006 the Kremlin turned its attention to the print media, an area that in previous years it didn't bother to deal with, deeming it not really significant for public opinion.

"Over the course of 2006, there was significant attention to the print media which in large measure had been the last remaining media, albeit the weakest, to have an opportunity to talk about issues in the alternative from the Kremlin's position," Walker said. "This was one of the features of the media landscape in Russia in 2006 where papers such as "Novaya gazeta", "Nezavisimaya gazeta," and "Kommersant" all came up against, in one fashion or another, either management or ownership takeovers with Kremlin-friendly entities."

With parliamentary elections coming late in 2007 and a presidential election in early 2008, the Russian government, Walker says, is "cleaning the media slate" and has made in the past year a number of preemptive strikes to limit the freedom of expression.

Targeting Cyberspace

"One of the worrying developments in one of the areas that had at least until recently been left unmolested, is in the cyber sphere," he says. "We saw in late 2006 a Kremlin-friendly company take over the Russian-language portion of 'Live Journal,' which was the most heavily used blogging platform in Russia. [This] has only had a negative impact on blogging activity in the country, which is very serious and very negative development."

Even blogs have come under Russian government scrutiny (ITAR-TASS file photo)

According to some reports blogging -- particularly blogging related to political issues -- has significantly decreased in Russia over the course of 2006 because bloggers are concerned that their activities may have been secretly monitored by authorities.

As the most formidable player from the former Soviet Union, Russia sets the tone for many of the CIS countries some of which are closely following in Moscow's footsteps to quash dissent, Walker says.

"The focus on the media sector in most of the former Soviet Union has been very systematic and very intense over the last cycle," Walker says. "They've really been fine-tuning the control using legal, economic, and political means to control the media. And this is one of the features of the current wave of control and denial of freedom in the region."

The survey ranks countries according to how free they are in terms of political rights and civil liberties, giving them a score of one -- the best -- to seven, the worst.

Central Asian Police States

At the bottom of the list, as in the last few years, are Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which along with North Korea, Cuba, and Libya get the lowest possible marks for political rights and civil liberties.

The situation in Uzbekistan, Walker says, did not change significantly from 2005.

"Uzbekistan's trajectory over the last several years has eroded in large measure because the regime there has become much more repressive," he explains. "This is emblematic or at least symbolized by the 2005 events in Andijon. Uzbekistan is a highly repressive police state whose control has only increased and more negatively affected an already extremely difficult environment."

Flushed with oil money Kazakhstan fares relatively better than its more repressive neighbors in Central Asia, Walker says, but the country is clearly "not free" and has a long way to go.

"Kazakhstan certainly has the advantage of enormous energy wealth," Walker says. "Despite that energy wealth the country still is extremely restrictive in terms of political rights it affords its citizens, certainly in terms of the basic quality of the elections it holds and the opportunity for alternative political forces or voices to participate in a meaningful way, in terms of its control of the news media which is significant and also renders the news-media in the country to be not free."

The only country in Central Asia which holds the rank of "partly free" is Kyrgyzstan, but the country is going now through tumultuous political changes and the final outcome remain uncertain, Walker says.

"As a general matter what we've seen in Kyrgyzstan over the course of the last year has been a real wrestling to advance reforms," Walker says. "And on the heels of the events of spring 2005 [change of government] there's been a very unsteady effort to try to advance reform in the country. So, in a basic way the powers that have asserted themselves there have been looking to advance a host of reforms. They've met these challenges with very limited success."

Belarus is the lowest-rated country in Europe with a distinctively repressive regime, Walker says, that denies any political rights to its citizens.

"In Belarus, likewise, you have extremely difficult conditions for the citizens of the country, chiefly because they're denied any meaningful political participation," Walker says. "We've seen in response to the pushback from democratic reformers in that country, even more focused repression from the regime there, which in some ways signals their own sense of insecurity."

Afghanistan is unchanged in the listing compared to 2006, barely making the cut for a "partly free" country in the 2007 survey.

Both Iraq and Iran are considered "not free." But Iraq has fallen one step lower in 2007 -- from 5 to 6 -- in the ranking for civil liberties.

Georgia, unchanged from 2006, is ranked as "partly free," while Ukraine, also unchanged, is considered "free."

On a global scale, the report says, the state of freedom in 2006 changed little from 2005. The number of countries judged "free" in 2006 stood at 90 and represented 46 percent of the world's population.

There were 58 qualifying as "partly free" with 17 percent of the world's population. The number of countries considered "not free" stood at 45 with 37 percent of the world's population.

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.

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