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World: Press Institute Says Governments 'Waging War' On Media

Prague, 21 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Vienna-based International Press Institute says that many governments around the world "declared war" on the news media in 2001.

The institute, known as the IPI, describes itself as "the global network of editors, media executives, and leading journalists."

In its annual World Press Freedom Review released today, the IPI says that governments last year made unprecedented attempts to control the free flow of information and suppress the media.

The report says that in Europe, inconsistencies between law and practice continue to detract from achievements in the area of human rights. It also says the West should do more to persuade Russia to improve its human rights performance.

The IPI report's author is David Dadge. Speaking by telephone from Vienna, Dadge said that IPI's strong characterization of last year is intentional. "I think it is safe to say this was a particularly bad year with regard to the free flow of information."

He said this assessment included Europe, especially Eastern Europe. "Within Europe as well there were particular problems, particularly in Eastern Europe. [For example,] the prosecution of an editor for writing about communist affairs in the Czech Republic, or the attempted closure in Georgia of a broadcaster and also in Slovakia, as well the prosecution of a journalist for statements made about the president of that country."

Dadge said that the IPI was especially disappointed with the United States under the administration of President George W. Bush.

"The standout thing that IPI really wishes to highlight is the surprise at the way that America handled some of the problems last year. [In] particular with regard to Afghanistan -- the attempt to get the ruler of Qatar to use his influence over the independent broadcaster Al-Jazeera was a surprise to IPI, as was the interference of State Department officials in the editorial policy of the Voice of America."

The IPI editor said that the United States should understand that public apathy grows from a sense that the credibility of the press is suspect. Dadge said that a similarity of attitude seemed to be developing between the United States and Russia.

"There is also a broad parallel that you can draw here with Russia, because last year President [Vladimir] Putin actually published details of his doctrine on information, which was a broad discussion, basically saying that Russia wished to keep almost old communist[-style] control of information and the dissemination of information. And it would appear that America is thinking along similar lines."

The 2001 review has particularly strong criticism for the press situation in Russia. It says that major threats to freedom of the media that characterized President Putin's first year in power continued last year. The report says abuses of media freedom ranged from threats and libel suits to outright assaults on journalists.

It says the other threat was "what appears to be a deliberate attempt by the Kremlin to consolidate its control over all media in Russia." The IPI says Russia's leaders are doing this both by taking over outlets and by shifting power over regional media from local governors to the federal level.

The report says that Turkmenistan's news outlets continue to be among the most heavily controlled in the world. The review reads, "[the] authoritarian rule of Turkmen President Sapamurat Niyazov is harsh, even by the low standards of the region."

Elsewhere in Central Asia, the report says that the Kazakh press also is largely controlled by the government, and the situation is worsening. It says the government is expanding its use of the courts to persecute critical media. It says that President Nursultan Nazarbaev celebrated World Press Freedom Day, 3 May, by approving laws tightening government control of the media.

The IPI says that Kyrgyzstan, once considered the freest of Central Asian nations, has "increasingly started to resemble its repressive neighbors." The IPI says that the current erosion of civil and political rights in Kyrgyzstan began when President Askar Akaev launched an assault on the independent media and his political opposition prior to the October 2000 presidential elections, and the suppression has since worsened.

The often critical IPI press freedom review singles out Estonia and Albania for praise. It says that Albania's politicians continue to face a barrage of problems left by the old communist regime. However, the report says there has been, in recent years, a growing climate of "seasoned and sophisticated reporting." The IPI says that in Estonia, the media are increasing in responsibility as the country moves toward EU and, possibly, NATO membership.

Of Belarus, the IPI World Press Freedom Report for 2001 says that the country remains a pariah in Europe and has isolated itself from most of the world. It says that police and security forces regularly attack the news media and that people protesting such actions are arrested, beaten, or both.