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East: Media Freedom Decreasing

The U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe held a hearing in Washington yesterday about what it called the deteriorating freedom of media and speech in the former Soviet republics and other post-communist nations. The panel's chairman, Congressman Christopher Smith, said independent journalists are threatened, assaulted, and even killed. RFE/RL President Tom Dine, who was among several witnesses to appear, said media freedom is under serious threat in a number of countries facing transition to democracy. RFE/RL's Senior Correspondent Frank T. Csongos reports.

Washington, 5 April 2000(RFE/RL) -- The chairman of a bipartisan U.S. human rights panel says there is a growing threat to freedom of media and speech in many post-communist countries.

Congressman Christopher Smith (R-New Jersey) said Tuesday at a hearing held by the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe that independent journalists often face harassment, physical assault and kidnapping. He said some journalists even lose their lives while covering stories.

Smith, who chairs the panel that is also known as the Helsinki Commission, said that criminal laws which remain on the books have been widely used against the press in countries ranging from Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Croatia to Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Ukraine.

"About one-third (10 journalists) of the 34 journalists who lost their lives during 1999 were killed in the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) region, and nearly a quarter of those imprisoned were in Turkey, Uzbekistan, and Yugoslavia."

Smith said that in Russia, the case of RFE/RL journalist Andrei Babitsky has sent a chilling message to journalists who wish to report truthfully.

"Mr. Babitsky disappeared in Chechnya in early February after Russian authorities had seized him and then exchanged him to Chechen forces in return for some Russian prisoners of war. Eventually, he was freed and taken to Daghestan. He is now back in Moscow and under threat of criminal prosecution."

Smith said Babitsky's real crime seems to be that he was broadcasting the truth from inside Chechnya, rather than relying on official military communiques.

David Yang, the U.S. State Department's senior coordinator for promoting democracy, told the commission that free access to information is essential to the health of a democracy. He said without it, citizens cannot make informed choices.

"Governments continue to use a variety of means to silence independent voices. These include censorship, licensing, taxation, jamming of airways, limits on access to newsprint and printing facilities, control over advertising, and vague or punitive libel laws that can be readily exploited by prosecutors."

Yang singled out Serbia as a country in which the region's worst violations of media freedom occur.

In Belarus, Yang said the government has stepped up its campaign of harassment against he independent media. He noted that state-controlled Belarusian television maintains a monopoly as the only nationwide station.

In Russia, he said, not infrequently journalists have been attacked physically. Yang also mentioned the Babitsky affair as deeply disturbing.

RFE/RL President Tom Dine appeared before the commission to discuss the role of international broadcasting to the region.

Dine said RFE/RL's task today is both different and larger than it was in the past.

He said that until the late 1980s, the radios broadcast to a region under tight communist and Soviet control and performed as a surrogate broadcaster to countries whose populations lacked a free press.

Dine said RFE/RL's mission would not be over until it helped the nations of the east establish self-sustaining free media and hence self-sustaining free societies.

"In recent years, we have acquired two additional roles: as a kind of insurance policy for countries making the first halting steps toward democracy and a free media and as a model for how journalism should be conducted."

Dine said that the path toward human freedom has never been without its twists and turns, pledging that RFE/RL will continue the fight for truth and democracy.