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East: Democracy Setbacks, Energy Gains, Take Toll On Press Freedom

"No to censorship" says sign at demonstration in Moscow (ITAR-TASS) In its annual press-freedom survey, the U.S.-based rights watchdog Freedom House noted a decline in media environments around the globe. Nowhere is the trend more evident than in the former Soviet Union, where fading democratic movements and a mounting energy fixation have combined to see a near-total downturn in the Freedom House ranking.

Ten of the 12 non-Baltic former Soviet states are currently categorized as "not free" -- the bottommost tier of the Freedom House survey, which ranks 195 countries and territories worldwide according to the degree of legal, economic, and political freedom they offer to the media. Freedom House issued its annual survey on April 29, just ahead of the commemoration of World Press Freedom Day on May 3.

The countries at the bottom of the list are not surprising. Turkmenistan (96), Uzbekistan (92), and Belarus (91) are all frequent low-shows on global surveys, and, in the words of Freedom House's director of studies, Christopher Walker, "three of the most repressive media environments in the world" -- on a par with countries like North Korea, Burma, and Cuba. (In the Freedom House survey, 100 is the worst possible score.)

Colored Revolutions

What is more surprising -- and part of what Walker calls a "profoundly troubling trend" in the region -- is the steep decline visible in countries like Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, whose so-called colored revolutions in 2003 and 2005 were hailed at the time as setting them on an inexorable path toward democracy.

"Georgia has wrestled with consolidating press freedom since the Rose Revolution, and last year was a particular stress, in our view, on the media landscape," says Walker, noting the country's precipitous drop from a 54 in 2004 to a 60 in 2007.

The low point came in November, when opposition protests prompted President Mikheil Saakashvili to impose a state of emergency that included a blackout on all nonstate media. The dip sent Tbilisi -- currently categorized as "partly free" -- to within one point of the "not free" ranking.

Kyrgyzstan, which reached a high-water mark of 64 in 2006, this year dropped back to a 70. Only the third colored-revolution alumnus, Ukraine, has managed to hold steady at the top of the regional list with a "partly free" ranking of 53.

"Part of the explanation for Ukraine's resilience is that the democratic sinews that existed in the country at the time of the democratic opening at the end of 2004 were stronger than the other two countries," Walker says. "What we've seen in Georgia, and to a more pronounced degree in Kyrgyzstan, is that the roots for media freedom were not grown as deeply, and they're being tested in a real way now."

The Resource Factor

As the pro-democracy wave appears to be at risk of subsiding in the former Soviet Union, a new, equally threatening influence seems to be on the rise -- the influence of energy wealth.

The region's three energy powerhouses -- Russia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan -- are also among those who have seen the sharpest drop in their press-freedom ratings during the past five years. (Azerbaijan from 71 to 77; Kazakhstan from 74 to 78; and Russia with an dismaying freefall from 67 to 78.)

The trend, Walker says, "confounds the assumptions" that economic strength begets better opportunities for media independence. "Despite more money flowing into these countries and having more economic wherewithal, that hasn't resulted in greater media freedom," he says.

Nor is it likely to anytime soon. Russia's decline, in particular, appears to be the product of a move away from "defensive" media restrictions to a more "offensive" strategy that uses the media to advance the interests of the regime, Walker says.

"In 2007, you could see the sort of slanted coverage that led up to the December parliamentary elections, and the generally slavishly favorable coverage of the authorities," he says. "We also saw journalists facing dozens of criminal cases, hundreds of civil suits."

Meanwhile, the murders of dozens of journalists remain unsolved -- most prominently that of Caucasus expert and vocal Kremlin critic Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot dead outside her Moscow flat in October 2006. Such cases, says Walker, suggest a "consolidated environment of impunity" in Russia.

A Month In The Media

A Month In The Media

The battle for media freedoms is waged daily, where governments resort to a variety of methods to undermine the independent press. But while reports of beatings or even the murders of journalists often reach the outside world, other less-sensational tactics are commonly employed at the state and local levels. The following examples are culled from the month of April, 2008:

  • the Russian tabloid closed down after reporting on Putin's alleged affair
  • the Bosnian editor who received threats against his family members
  • the foreign correspondent interrogated in Chechnya
Read more

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