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World: Press Freedom Still In Jeopardy In Many Countries

Prague, 10 October 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russian journalist Pavel Sheremet's release from a Belarusian prison this week eases months of international tension between Belarus and Russia, but for many journalists there and elsewhere, reporting the news still isn't a free profession.

Voices from both the West and Moscow have criticized Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenka recently on his human rights record and intimidation of foreign and domestic news organizations.

A recent report by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) says that authorities in some countries continue in what the report calls "systematic persecution of the independent press."

Lukashenka ordered Sheremet's release after relations between Russia and Belarus became strained over Sheremet's arrest. Sheremet, who works for Russia's ORT television channel, had been in jail since July. Authorities accused him of trying to cross the border with Lithuania illegally while he filmed a report on smuggling there.

Despite Sheremet's release, journalists in the former Soviet republic say the press still isn't free in Belarus. In August more than 2,000 people rallied for press freedom in Minsk. In April dozens of journalists were beaten as they picketed the Foreign Ministry office.

And in an international retaliation against Lukashenka's stance on the media, Russian President Boris Yeltsin snubbed Lukashenka last week by refusing to allow Lukashenka's plane to land in Russia.

Belarus Foreign Minister Ivan Antanovich said that Minsk is drafting a new law on the press. He said the new rules could strip journalists of their accreditation and forbid citizens of Belarus from working as foreign correspondents.

The situation in Belarus is not unique, says Cathy Fitzpatrick, the Central European coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Fitzpatrick says that even as countries like Russia adopt more openly-democratic governments, journalists face increased danger from other governments and radical extremist groups.

"When blanket suppression is lifted in countries like Russia, the only tools governments have against journalists are libel charges -- which are way overused -- verbal attacks and violence," she said.

In countries like those in parts of former Yugoslavia, there's often a fine line between the exercise of press freedom and hard-line propaganda. This week NATO troops seized four transmitters in Pale, silencing Serb Radio Television (SRT), which was fiercely loyal to nationalists led by indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic.

Bosnian Serb journalists staged a protest and demanded the right to resume broadcasting, but NATO's envoy there said that the journalists were broadcasting direct lies. Fitzpatrick says that in cases like the Pale dispute, international agreements from the Dayton Accords must rule potentially-violent situations.

"In Bosnia, one man's misinformation is another man's opinion. But an international community has agreed to the Dayton Accords and has to enforce it," said CPJ's Fitzpatrick.

Watchdog groups like CPJ, Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) and the Freedom Forum monitor countries around the world for press freedom violations. In its spring report, CPJ published its list of the top 10 enemies of the press. Along with Lukashenka, Algeria's Antar Zouabri, head of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), China President Jiang Zemin, Turkey Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan and Albania President Sali Berisha topped the list.

In other parts of the world, countries like Argentina still are struggling to make reporting the news a safe profession. Earlier this year, Argentinean photographer Jose Cabezas, was handcuffed, beaten, shot in the head and set on fire. Prosecutors have implicated police officials and a business tycoon close to President Carlos Menem in the murder. RSF has launched a letter-writing campaign and petitioned Menem for further investigation into the Cabezas case.

In recent years Menem has tried to get Congress to pass legislation that critics say would intimidate the press from investigating government corruption.

In Egypt this month, government censorship drove the Cairo newspaper, El Shaab, to publish its news in the pages of a sympathetic rival. Journalists in Egypt are discouraged from writing about officials in the highest government posts. Recently authorities sentenced a journalist to jail for reporting on President Hosni Mubarak's sons.

Fitzpatrick says when watchdog groups launch campaigns to improve media conditions in countries like Argentina and Egypt, the campaigns are effective to a point. Campaigns in more advanced countries, she says, often have good results for journalists. But in smaller countries like Kazakstan, advocacy often entails a long-term commitment.

"In smaller communities it's more complex. There you need to lobby parliaments and courts through peaceful, quiet but strong advocacy. It's a holistic mixture of different forces."