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East: CPJ Says Kosovo, Chechen Conflicts Impede Press Freedom

Washington, 22 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and in Chechnya raised the death toll of journalists in the region last year, and prompted government crackdowns on the press.

In its annual report, "Attacks on the Press," CPJ says nine journalists in the region were killed while pursuing their professions last year. The report also said violent assaults and attempted assassinations continue to plague journalists in the region, particularly in the former Soviet Union.

CPJ says criminal-libel laws, including seditious-libel provisions, were the most common instruments used to jail and intimidate journalists in the region. The organization charged that libel actions by government officials against the press reached epidemic proportions in Croatia -- under the government of the late President Franjo Tudjman -- and in Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Ukraine.

The CPJ report accuses Uzbekistan of applying what it called Soviet-style prosecutions and sentences to quiet the few journalists who dared to report critically on President Islam Karimov. CPJ said both Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan adopted press laws that set up obstacles to true press freedom.

Here are some country highlights from the annual report. (CPJ did not prepare separate reports on each country):

ALBANIA - CPJ said that while Albania is still far from having a free press, there were no direct state attacks on independent journalists during 1999. It called this a vast improvement in a country where journalists were formerly routinely imprisoned for critical reporting.

ARMENIA - In Armenia, CPJ says the state still controls many areas essential to media production, including newsprint supply, allocation of broadcast frequencies and taxation. CPJ said that as a result, many journalists in Armenia practice self-censorship. The organization said restrictive, Soviet-era press legislation is still a problem, but it noted signs of progress too, including parliamentary elections in May that were judged free and fair by international observers.

AZERBAIJAN - CPJ contends that Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev and his government use press laws to harass and intimidate journalists. The organization alleged that the government's most effective tool is a section of the penal code that calls for up to six years' imprisonment for insulting the honor and dignity of the president. The report also noted that a number of journalists investigating Aliyev and his connections were violently attacked last summer.

BELARUS - CPJ charged that Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka resorted to increasingly crude tactics to rein in his media opponents last year. The report mentioned the case of publisher Anatoly Krasovsky, who vanished in September. Press associations, and all other non-governmental groups, were subjected to rigid new registration policies. The report also noted that government officials filed and won a number of civil libel suits against independent newspapers, placing some in serious financial jeopardy.

BOSNIA - The CPJ report said journalists in Bosnia suffered physical attacks that ranged from beatings and abduction to the car bombing of a noted Bosnian Serb editor. On the positive side, the report said that last April, six major press associations representing the three major ethnic groups approved a press code modeled on European standards.

BULGARIA - In Bulgaria last year, the CPJ said sustained press from domestic and international press freedom advocates pushed the Bulgarian Parliament to modify its press law, eliminating jail sentences for libel.

CROATIA - The report said that in Croatia, the new center-left ruling coalition has pledged to improve the country's dismal press freedom and civil rights record after a decade of alleged abuses by the Croatian Democratic Union.

GEORGIA - CPJ said that while many of Georgia's neighbors grew increasingly intolerant of independent journalism, Georgia offered its journalists good news in 1999. The report cited the repeal of libel laws from the penal code as evidence of the change. It also noted that the burden of proof in libel cases has shifted from the defendants to the plaintiffs.

IRAN - CPJ said the Iranian press in 1999 was again the main battleground in what it called a bitter power struggle between reformist president Mohammad Khatami and Iran's conservative clerical establishment. CPJ said that, in advance of last month's elections, the conservative-controlled judiciary pressed ahead with a steady campaign of repression against reformist newspapers and journalists in an attempt to stifle support for the president's agenda of political and social liberalization.

IRAQ - CPJ said that, in the ninth year of United Nations sanctions and U.S. and British air attacks, President Saddam Hussein showed little sign of loosening his iron grip on Iraqi society. CPJ said all media remained at the government's disposal, functioning as instruments of propaganda for Saddam's brutal regime.

KAZAKHSTAN - CPJ said President Nursultan Nazarbaev continued to consolidate his grip on the Kazakh press by harassing independent and opposition media, and by covertly buying out some outlets while attempting to put others out of business.

KYRGYZSTAN - According to CPJ, Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev is perceived in the West as a relatively democratic ruler in an increasingly authoritarian region. CPJ said Akaev has attempted to accommodate Western demands for improvements in the legal climate for the media. However, CPJ notes that Kyrgyzstan's small independent press is being increasingly muzzled, and journalists say the president's administration is to blame.

ROMANIA - CPJ said that in 1999, Romania again witnessed political turmoil and instability, which complicated the country's effort to join the European Union. The report said it was still unclear at year's end how the new government would deal with press freedom reforms promised by ousted Prime Minister Radu Vasile. The press reforms were mandated by the EU as a condition for membership.

RUSSIA - The CPJ report was completed before the detention and release of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Russian Service correspondent Andrei Babitsky. His treatment in January and February this year, allegedly at the hands of Russian authorities, drew widespread international condemnation of Moscow. In its report on events in 1999, CPJ noted that the government's campaign to control press coverage of its armed conflict with Chechen separatists posed the most serious threat to Russian press freedom.

SLOVAKIA - CPJ reported that Slovak media functions in an increasingly competitive market that has forced many newspapers and broadcasters out of business. The report said Slovakia's economic difficulties have put pressure on the advertising market, which is dominated by national dailies and magazines. The report said most media outlets are largely independent of the government and individual political parties, but some business interests have significant influence.

TAJIKISTAN - The report said attacks on the press slowed in Tajikistan last year. However, CPJ said the government found other means to keep a tight lid on the press. It said that throughout the year, President Imomali Rakhmanov subjected journalists to harassment, intimidation and censorship.

TURKMENISTAN - CPJ said that among all the countries of the former Soviet Union, Turkmenistan stands out as having the most repressive climate for journalists. CPJ asserts that President Saparmurat Niyazov has created what it called a cult of personality not seen since the days of Stalin. CPJ concluded that press freedom is totally absent in Turkmenistan. It also said that the Turkmen service of Radio Liberty is one of the only sources of independent news in the country.

UKRAINE - CPJ contends that over the past several years, Ukrainian press freedom has deteriorated to such an extent that Ukraine lacks any genuinely independent major news media. CPJ blamed the state of affairs on what it called the heavy hand of President Leonid Kuchma. CPJ charged that methods ranging from violent assaults to relentless bureaucratic pressure have forced media outlets into the arms of political patrons.

UZBEKISTAN - CPJ called Uzbekistan one of the most repressive countries of the former Soviet Union, where press freedom is nearly non-existent. CPJ said Uzbekistan is the only former Soviet republic to still employ Soviet-style prosecutions to imprison journalists for long periods.

YUGOSLAVIA - CPJ said President Slobodan Milosevic in 1999 first used the threat of war, then actual war, and finally international hostility toward his regime to justify the use of government censorship and crippling fines to suppress Serbia's various independent media