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East/West: Council Of Europe Media Report Sees Serious Threats

The Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly has adopted a report saying that media freedoms continue to be under threat in several of its member states, most of them in the former Soviet bloc. The report notes that censorship is exercised through violence, trial and imprisonment, or economic harassment. In accepting the report, the assembly said that media freedom is an essential indicator of the maturity of democratic society. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reviews the issues.

Prague, 25 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Parliamentary Assembly of the pan-European Council of Europe has denounced what it calls serious and unacceptable breaches by many European countries of media freedom of expression and information.

The assembly particularly singled out for criticism Azerbaijan, Turkey, Ukraine, and Russia. At a session in Strasbourg yesterday, the assembly noted that the breaches of media freedom have occurred despite commitments by all 43 members of the Council of Europe to respect freedom of opinion.

The assembly said the weapons used to muzzle journalists and the media include censorship, the use of libel laws, the arbitrary closure of media operations, police searches, administrative harassment, and excessive fines. The result, according to the assembly, is that the media can no longer fulfill their role as watchdogs for society.

Delivering his report to the assembly, rapporteur Gyula Hegyi of Hungary referred to the case of murdered Ukrainian journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. He said:

"There are cases in which there is an abuse of censorship and there is censorship through violence. All of us heard the very sad story of Mr. Gongadze from Ukraine, and we still wait for a proper answer about that case from Ukraine, and from the president of that republic."

The report adopted by the assembly notes that journalists continue to pay with their lives for doing their jobs by trying to denounce corruption, financial scandals, drug-trafficking, terrorism, and ethnic conflict. In Russia, the report says, more than 120 journalists have been killed since the end of 1991.

In accepting the report, the Parliamentary Assembly expressed its concern over the recent seizure of Russia's only independent nationwide TV channel, NTV, the closure of the newspaper "Segodnya" and the sacking of the journalists of the weekly "Itogi."

It said these attacks on freedom of expression and mass media in Russia, undertaken with the participation of the authorities, run counter to the basic principles of the Council of Europe and constitute a significant violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In his remarks to the assembly, Hegyi referred explicitly to Central and East European countries:

"In many Central and Eastern European countries, ladies and gentlemen, there is a very strange practice that the government will accept the independence of the private radio and television channels, but they still have a temptation to rule the public TV. I think it is a very bad temptation and the governments should be cured of the disease. And how can they be cured? I think that [there can be] protests, from inside and outside, as it happened, for instance, in the Czech Republic and as it happened in Bulgaria."

In Hungary, Hegyi's report says, only the ruling parties are represented on TV and radio boards, despite the constant complaints of two opposition parties.

The Parliamentary Assembly called for a number of legislative and other measures to assist governments to ensure respect for freedom of expression. It said freedom of expression and information remains a major challenge for democracy in Europe. For this reason, it said, the Council of Europe must "bring moral and political pressure to bear on governments which contravene freedom of expression."

In singling out Azerbaijan, Russia, Turkey, and Ukraine, the assembly said those are the countries where the greatest number of journalists have been subject to physical aggression over recent years. It said that scores of Turkish journalists have been jailed, with most accused of having links with terrorist groups. Also, it underlined the importance of fair and transparent broadcast licensing procedures, citing problems that private broadcasters in Azerbaijan are now facing.

The report goes on to say that in some Council of Europe member-states access to official information is mostly left to the discretion of the authorities. It calls "particularly unacceptable" the restrictions imposed on journalists in areas of armed conflict such as Chechnya, despite many assembly appeals to the Russian authorities to guarantee free access to journalists. It also cites lack of access for journalists to regions officially declared to be under a state of emergency in Turkey. Finally, it cites some aspects of NATO's information policy during the 1999 Kosovo conflict with Yugoslavia as also deserving criticism.

Among recommendations made by the assembly to the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers was one to establish a more efficient system of defending freedom of expression and information in Europe. The assembly said all relevant sectors of the Council of Europe dealing with this issue should work together to increase pressure on governments.