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World: Analysis From Washington -- Victories And Defeats On The Media Front

Washington, 4 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- After a year in which there were both significant victories as well as major defeats on the media front, more than two-thirds of the people of the world still do not have access to a free press. As 1999 begins, the French media watchdog group Reporters sans frontiers said last week, more than 2 billion people live in 30 countries where there is no media freedom at all, and some 2,000 million more live in 65 states where the authorities routinely restrict or harass journalists.

But despite this finding -- one which runs counter to assumptions about the impact of new media technologies and the spread of press freedom since the collapse of communism in Europe in 1991 -- Reporters sans frontiers suggested that events in 1998 gave some basis for optimism.

During 1998, only 19 journalists were killed while doing their work, continuing the downward trend since 1994 when 103 journalists were murdered on the job. And the number of journalists in prison remained relatively constant -- 90 now as compared to 93 a year ago.

But despite the drop in the number of journalists killed, Reporters sans frontiers pointed to a dangerous new trend: ever more journalists -- 11 of the 19 -- were killed while attempting to investigate government corruption and collusion between politicians and criminal groups.

The Paris-based group cited the case of Russian journalist Larisa Yudina as typical: Yudina, the editor of the daily newspaper Sovyetskaya Kalmykia Segodnya, was murdered on June 8 while investigating allegations of embezzlement by Kalmyk President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov.

And this mixed picture -- some advances toward greater press freedom and other retreats from it -- is repeated in the overall assessment by Reporters sans frontiers of the state of the media in various countries.

In several countries, the media situation dramatically improved. Following the resignation of Indonesia's repressive President Suharto in May 1998, the press blossomed in that country, and the government has pledged to adopt a law guaranteeing media freedom.

And in Nigeria, a country with a truly sorry record in dealing with the press, the government released most of the 13 journalists who had been in prison following the death of the country's president, Sani Abacha, in June.

But in many other countries, the situation has remained bad or become even worse. In addition to communist regimes like China and Cuba and repressive states like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Reporters sans frontiers focused particular attention on three countries:

The media in Pakistan are increasingly caught between the influence of the Taliban militia in the north and a government affected by Islamic fundamentalism in the south.

In the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, President Slobodan Milosevic has staged a crackdown on the independent media, closing three newspapers and two radio stations and introducing a harsh new law restricting the ability of journalists to do their jobs.

And in Iran, radical supporters of the country's spiritual leader Ali Khamenei, are believed to have been behind the murder of a number of intellectuals, including journalist Mohamad Mokhtari, and behind the intimidation of many others.

This daunting diversity in the way in which governments and others deal with the press would seem to preclude any general conclusions about the state of media freedom in the world today.

But there are clearly three that can be made.

First, the state of media freedom in the world remains much worse than many have thought.

Second, all too many governments are inclined to restrict press freedom when it is directed against them.

And third, and most important of all, there are no final victories or final defeats on the media front but only the prospect of a continuing struggle to gain and protect the right of every human being to have access to a free press.