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East: Belarus, Ukraine, Russia Still Lag On Press Freedoms

Washington, 23 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The advocacy group Freedom House says press freedoms around the world improved overall last year, but it remains concerned about developments in some countries, including Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia.

The New York group's annual report on press freedom during 2001, made public yesterday, also found some positive developments for the news media in the former communist world, particularly in the Yugoslav federation of Serbia and Montenegro.

The survey also found that the U.S.-led war against terrorism did not lead to widespread limitations on the press, as the organization had expected after the 11 September attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. It said some countries had limited the media's access to information, but had not restricted press freedom as a whole.

Freedom House expressed particular concern about press freedoms in Belarus. The survey found that state-run media are directly subordinate to Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and that his administration decides who will run them.

The study notes that by law in Belarus, there can be no media coverage of any organization that has not been registered with the state, and that Minsk closely limits the media's ability to criticize public officials. It says harassment of news enterprises, including raids, are common, and that many journalists have been arrested. It notes that one photojournalist has been missing since July, the height of Lukashenka's campaign for re-election.

Karen Karlekar, the research coordinator for the survey, says this period was the worst for journalists in Belarus last year.

"There was systematic suppression of the media throughout the year [in Belarus], particularly during the presidential election campaign. This included the government confiscating equipment, trying to seize copies of newspapers, denying access to Internet users -- websites which were covering election issues. So it's quite a serious situation."

The survey also had critical words for Ukraine. It cites a report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that says it is difficult for Ukrainian news media to maintain independence because they are owned either by the state or by leading financial and political interests. Meanwhile, it says, the state controls all printing presses and paper supplies.

Freedom House also cites the killing of Ukrainian journalist Heorhiy Gongadze in 2000, which it notes still has not been solved. It also says the government, controlled by President Leonid Kuchma, is not aggressive about investigating the Gongadze slaying. And Karlekar adds that Gongadze's case is not unique.

"There is recurring violence directed against other journalists as well [in Ukraine], which is rarely prosecuted. So it wasn't just sort of a 'one-off' case. It's sort of part of a much wider pattern. And there have been other cases of violence -- people being shot, people being attacked, harassed -- I guess sort of harassment by police and security forces. There's also been legal harassment of the media through the court system."

A free press also was not a reality in Russia during 2001, according to Freedom House. The news media are subject to what the group calls legal harassment, and it notes that the Media Ministry says it plans to enforce a law requiring all print media to be licensed by the state.

The survey paid particular attention to last year's purchase of the independent media group Media-MOST by the state-owned gas company Gazprom. And it noted that Media-MOST's previous owner, Vladimir Gusinsky, was the subject of tax raids, which President Vladimir Putin said were part of his campaign against corruption.

Freedom House says some journalists who reported on corruption faced harassment, including assault, during 2001. It says one of these journalists died as a result of a beating, and that the director of the independent radio station Vesna was shot to death, evidently because of the station's corruption reports. And the group accuses the government of pressuring broadcasters to cancel programs critical of state officials.

But not all former communist countries had a bad press-freedom record last year, according to Freedom House. It said one, Yugoslavia, showed dramatic improvement after voters ousted Slobodan Milosevic as the federation's president in the September 2000 general elections.

Karlekar characterized the situation this way: "I think things are looking very good in Yugoslavia. There are some worries with several journalists being killed in the last year in Kosovo and in Montenegro, but the media situation has really opened up for journalists much more than it ever has been."

Freedom House surveyed 186 countries during 2001. Of these countries, the organization found that 75 have a free press; 50 are partly free with some restrictions; and 61 are not free, with state control or similar limitations on a free press. The organization surveyed 187 countries the year before. That study found that 72 were free, 53 were partly free and 62 were not free.

(The complete Freedom House survey can be found at