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World: Press Freedom Group Finds Limited Improvement In 2000

The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists, a leading advocate of press freedom, today issued its annual survey of the dangers that journalists face around the world as they try to keep people informed. The report finds some reason for hope, particularly in parts of Eastern Europe. But RFE/RL correspondent Andrew Tully notes that several countries, including Russia and Ukraine, are being accused of interfering with freedom of expression, just as they have in previous years.

Washington, 19 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A new survey on international press freedom finds much of the world is still a dangerous -- even lethal -- place for journalists. During 2000, 24 journalists were killed around the globe and 81 were imprisoned for their work.

These chilling figures come in a 550-page report, entitled "Attacks on the Press in 2000," released today (19 March) at a Washington news conference held by the Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ. The report cites not only killings and imprisonments, but also harsh conditions that even hamper reporting the news over the Internet.

The CPJ survey says that of the 24 journalists killed last year, 16 were murdered. The organization notes that government officials rarely investigate such cases vigorously, and that Russia and Ukraine are among the most prominent offenders in this regard.

The CPJ says the number of journalists in prison throughout the world as of the end of 2000 was smaller than a year earlier. But it says that in some areas -- particularly in Eastern Europe -- governments have resorted to subtler methods of controlling free expression. They include costly libel suits and taxation as well as advertising boycotts.

Journalists in many countries have used the Internet to bypass restrictions on more traditional media like broadcast and print. But the CPJ survey finds that governments sometimes respond with violent, even lethal, attacks. The organization cites the case of independent Ukrainian journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, whose website "Ukrainska Pravda" was often critical of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma.

Gongadze disappeared in September, and a headless corpse -- since officially identified as Gongadze's -- was discovered two months later. The CPJ says there is evidence linking Kuchma and his senior aides to the journalist's disappearance.

The CPJ report says that the number of journalists killed last year -- 24 -- is lower than the 34 killed during 1999. But Ann Cooper, the CPJ's executive director, says that the 1999 totals included 10 killed in the fighting in the Sierra Leone war alone. She notes that 26 journalists were killed worldwide in 1996 and in 1997, and 24 were killed in 1998. Therefore -- excluding the deaths in Sierra Leone in 1999 -- she sees little improvement in the past five years.

Cooper says three countries tend to have the most killings of journalists year after year: Russia, Colombia, and Sierra Leone. She notes that three journalists were killed in each of them during 2000. Cooper told RFE/RL that CPJ understands why these countries tend to have a high number of such slayings.

"One of the common threads in most of these places is: Journalists get killed and no one is brought to justice, or almost never is anyone brought to justice. So in a place like Russia, people have learned if you kill a journalist, you can get away with it."

While the CPJ survey finds no meaningful decline in killings, Cooper points to the number of journalists jailed in 2000 as lower than in 1999 -- 81 compared with 87. She attributes this drop at least in part to protests from around the world from governments and organizations like hers. She told our correspondent governments that still routinely imprison troublesome journalists rule over states which traditionally ignore outcries from the international community.

A human rights analyst, Arthur Helton, says the current leaders of former communist-ruled countries of Eastern Europe tend to be more responsive to world outrage -- and therefore to accept journalistic criticism -- because they have too much to lose if they do not. Helton, the director of Peace and Conflict Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank, tells RFE/RL:

"The trend is to accept the legitimacy of the work of journalists in these emerging, formerly closed, now opening societies."

Another analyst, Barbara Cohen, explains that Eastern governments desperately need membership in the European Union (EU) to bring their nations' economies successfully into market capitalism. Cohen -- a specialist in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank -- says that these countries would not have a chance at EU membership if they continued with such human rights abuses.

"To get into the EU, they have to embrace these kinds of freedoms, and press freedom is a very important one."

In its survey of 2000, the CPJ paid particular attention to the case of RFE/RL correspondent Andrei Babitsky, whose coverage of the Chechnya conflict angered Moscow. Babitsky was detained for 40 days by Russian military officials and eventually was tried on a charge of using false travel documents.

Here are other highlights from the CPJ survey:

-- Kazakhstan, under President Nursultan Nazarbayev, struck back at press criticism by filing lawsuits, levying huge fines, confiscating property, and arresting journalists.

-- In Belarus, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka continued to harass opposition media. The CPJ says government officials are suspected in the July disappearance of television journalist Dmitry Zavadsky. And the government seized the assets of Belarus' largest independent printing press.

-- The press in Azerbaijan is independent, but this does not stop President Heidar Aliyev from trying to stifle it, the report says. During the year, the government arrested and fined journalists, shut down publications, and revoked broadcast licenses.

The news about journalists worldwide was not all bad. The CPJ finds that Slovakia, Bosnia, Moldova, and Georgia passed freedom of information laws in late 1999 or early 2000. The parliaments in Poland and Romania are considering similar legislation. Meanwhile, Bulgaria and Croatia decriminalized libel last year.

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