CIS: Freedom House Sees Further Democracy Decline
The survey shows that the percentage of countries regarded as "free" has failed to increase for almost a decade, leading to a trend the authors label "freedom stagnation." The report notes the entrenchment of authoritarian rule in the majority of countries of the former Soviet Union, and gives moderately positive marks only to Georgia and Ukraine.
One of the troubling developments in 2006, the report says, is a "growing pushback against organizations, movements, and media that monitor human rights or advocate for the expansion of democratic freedom."
A systematic effort to weaken or eliminate pro-democracy forces, the report says, is most prevalent among authoritarian regimes in the former Soviet Union.
'Cleaning the Media Slate'
Russia is a stark example. Christopher Walker, one of the report's authors, says Russian authorities are showing creativity in their approach to stifle whatever is left of independent media.
Walker says in 2006 the Kremlin turned its attention to the print media, an area that in previous years it didn't bother to deal with, deeming it not really significant for public opinion.
"Over the course of 2006, there was significant attention to the print media which in large measure had been the last remaining media, albeit the weakest, to have an opportunity to talk about issues in the alternative from the Kremlin's position," Walker said. "This was one of the features of the media landscape in Russia in 2006 where papers such as "Novaya gazeta", "Nezavisimaya gazeta," and "Kommersant" all came up against, in one fashion or another, either management or ownership takeovers with Kremlin-friendly entities."
With parliamentary elections coming late in 2007 and a presidential election in early 2008, the Russian government, Walker says, is "cleaning the media slate" and has made in the past year a number of preemptive strikes to limit the freedom of expression.
"One of the worrying developments in one of the areas that had at least until recently been left unmolested, is in the cyber sphere," he says. "We saw in late 2006 a Kremlin-friendly company take over the Russian-language portion of 'Live Journal,' which was the most heavily used blogging platform in Russia. [This] has only had a negative impact on blogging activity in the country, which is very serious and very negative development."
According to some reports blogging -- particularly blogging related to political issues -- has significantly decreased in Russia over the course of 2006 because bloggers are concerned that their activities may have been secretly monitored by authorities.
As the most formidable player from the former Soviet Union, Russia sets the tone for many of the CIS countries some of which are closely following in Moscow's footsteps to quash dissent, Walker says.
"The focus on the media sector in most of the former Soviet Union has been very systematic and very intense over the last cycle," Walker says. "They've really been fine-tuning the control using legal, economic, and political means to control the media. And this is one of the features of the current wave of control and denial of freedom in the region."
The survey ranks countries according to how free they are in terms of political rights and civil liberties, giving them a score of one -- the best -- to seven, the worst.
Central Asian Police States
At the bottom of the list, as in the last few years, are Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which along with North Korea, Cuba, and Libya get the lowest possible marks for political rights and civil liberties.
The situation in Uzbekistan, Walker says, did not change significantly from 2005.
"Uzbekistan's trajectory over the last several years has eroded in large measure because the regime there has become much more repressive," he explains. "This is emblematic or at least symbolized by the 2005 events in Andijon. Uzbekistan is a highly repressive police state whose control has only increased and more negatively affected an already extremely difficult environment."
Flushed with oil money Kazakhstan fares relatively better than its more repressive neighbors in Central Asia, Walker says, but the country is clearly "not free" and has a long way to go.
"Kazakhstan certainly has the advantage of enormous energy wealth," Walker says. "Despite that energy wealth the country still is extremely restrictive in terms of political rights it affords its citizens, certainly in terms of the basic quality of the elections it holds and the opportunity for alternative political forces or voices to participate in a meaningful way, in terms of its control of the news media which is significant and also renders the news-media in the country to be not free."
The only country in Central Asia which holds the rank of "partly free" is Kyrgyzstan, but the country is going now through tumultuous political changes and the final outcome remain uncertain, Walker says.
"As a general matter what we've seen in Kyrgyzstan over the course of the last year has been a real wrestling to advance reforms," Walker says. "And on the heels of the events of spring 2005 [change of government] there's been a very unsteady effort to try to advance reform in the country. So, in a basic way the powers that have asserted themselves there have been looking to advance a host of reforms. They've met these challenges with very limited success."
Belarus is the lowest-rated country in Europe with a distinctively repressive regime, Walker says, that denies any political rights to its citizens.
"In Belarus, likewise, you have extremely difficult conditions for the citizens of the country, chiefly because they're denied any meaningful political participation," Walker says. "We've seen in response to the pushback from democratic reformers in that country, even more focused repression from the regime there, which in some ways signals their own sense of insecurity."
Afghanistan is unchanged in the listing compared to 2006, barely making the cut for a "partly free" country in the 2007 survey.
Both Iraq and Iran are considered "not free." But Iraq has fallen one step lower in 2007 -- from 5 to 6 -- in the ranking for civil liberties.
Georgia, unchanged from 2006, is ranked as "partly free," while Ukraine, also unchanged, is considered "free."
On a global scale, the report says, the state of freedom in 2006 changed little from 2005. The number of countries judged "free" in 2006 stood at 90 and represented 46 percent of the world's population.
There were 58 qualifying as "partly free" with 17 percent of the world's population. The number of countries considered "not free" stood at 45 with 37 percent of the world's population.
Laptop Project Aims To Get Poor Children OnlineJanuary 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- It has been about a year since U.S. scientists unveiled a laptop computer priced at around $100 and tailored for children in the world's poorest countries. Radio Farda correspondent Arash Alborzi recently spoke with a self-styled "laptop fiend" who is also the director of content for the laptop initiative, Samuel Klein.
Radio Farda: Could you please explain the goals of the 'One Laptop Per Child' project and tell us how long you've been involved in it?
Samuel Klein: The goal of the project is to distribute laptops to children throughout the developing world. To help both improve education in all these places and to give them tools to connect with one another and to build their own educational resources and to make their own networks with fellow students; [and] to help teachers make networks with other teachers and to give them channels for creativity. My role in the project is as director of content. I have been involved since the end of this summer (2006). I've certainly been very interested in the progress of the project and how it will impact all these schools and cultures.
Radio Farda: What organizations or companies are financing this project?
Klein: The project is being supported by a number of corporate sponsors. All of the initial onetime costs are provided by a list of major international organizations who care about the project -- they want to donate to it -- and they care about of developing the international audience of technologically savvy people: Google!, EBay, Marvell, SCS; we have partnerships with groups like the [United Nations Development Program (UNDP)]. And then when the laptops are made and distributed, the governments sign on -- become country partners and provide support and infrastructure and help with distribution in that country. And the governments end up buying the laptops for all the schools and teachers.
Radio Farda: Which group of children is the primary target for your project?
Klein: Well the targets are children [from kindergarten] through 12[th grade], but primary school more than anything. Those are really the kids for whom this is a joy, it's not a chore; they love it instantly. I think these are also the kids where we may see the greatest changes.
Radio Farda: What are the specific characteristics of the laptops that make them attractive for children?
Klein: Every part of laptop was designed with children in mind. They are designed to be colorful and engaging; they're designed to have soft edges so that they don't hurt kids; they're designed to be robust, so that they can be carried around, accidentally dropped. They're designed that they naturally connect with one another and create this environment where you're always connected to someone. So it doesn't seem unusual; it seems like the natural state for doing anything. Whatever you're working on -- if you're writing, if you're drawing, if you're making music -- it's the easiest thing in the world to imagine someone else is looking at what you're doing and can jump in and do the same thing with you.
Radio Farda: What are the first lucky countries that will get the laptops?
Klein: The countries that are going to be testing out the laptops in the next few months are Argentina and Brazil and Nigeria and Libya, and there are also laptops now in Thailand.
Radio Farda: You have been involved with other projects, such as [online] Wikipedia. What will be you next project?
Klein: I think bringing online another  billion children and giving them the tools to define what it means to be networked and what it means to work together probably means that whatever the next thing is in a few years, it will be different from what I'm thinking about now. So my guess is that there will be very strong communities of people for whom it's the most natural thing in the world to do things for themselves, to solve problems in large groups that were previously considered totally unsolvable by individuals. Education has often been a collaborative effort, so drawing that out and making this more obvious is also a huge change -- but it still was considered possible. But there are things that we've considered that people can't do on their own and they have to have large organizations do for them; and I'm not sure which of those will first be tackled by large groups of people who are able to work together, but I think that it will be exciting and very rewarding for society.
Media Groups Say 2006 Deadliest Yet For Journalists
Iraq was the most dangerous country for members of the press, but Latin America, the Philippines, and Russia also emerged as places of high risk.
The media-watchdog groups have released year-end reports that cite death tolls ranging from 55 to 155, but all agree the past year was the deadliest on record for media professionals.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, a U.S.-based group, reported that 55 journalists died in 2006 as a direct result of their work. The organization is investigating another 27 journalist deaths to determine if they were related to their professional activity.
Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based group, recorded the deaths of 81 journalists and 32 media assistants. For the fourth year in a row, it said Iraq was the deadliest reporting zone, with 64 killed, up from 29 last year.
The group's Tala Dowlatshahi says insurgents in Iraq realize that media attention for their cause will follow the abduction or killing of a media worker.
"What we're seeing now, juxtaposed against previous decades, is a long string of attacks, deliberate attacks, against journalists," Dowlatshahi said. "And these are not only journalists in the traditional sense, these are translators, these are drivers, they are stringers. Anyone affiliated with journalists in a war zone gets attacked, targeted, murdered, at higher rates."
So many deaths are occurring, she said, that most Western news companies no longer send in their own people to do reporting, but hire local Iraqis instead. It is those Iraqis, and often their families, who are being targeted in numbers so high they are often not even recorded, said Dowlatshahi.
Non-conflict zones are little safer for journalists. In many countries, reporters who criticized the government in 2006 were risking their lives. Dowlatshahi cited Mexico and Russia in particular.
"Journalists who are reporting on situations the government clearly does not support, journalists who are reporting in countries like Mexico where a number of journalists have been killed for reportedly tying the government to drug cartels, they have been murdered in very high numbers these past two years," Dowlatshahi says. "Journalists in Russia reporting on exposing [Russian President] Vladimir Putin's government and its practices involving policies in Chechnya, are being murdered."
In China, Dowlatshahi said, journalists and Internet bloggers are being snatched off the street, threatened, and often jailed for as long as 20 years for writing against the government line.
The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) says 155 journalists and media workers were killed or died unexplained deaths during the last 12 months. It calls 2006 a year of "unprecedented brutality."
The murder of Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist and Kremlin critic, and the prison death of Olgusapar Muradova, a correspondent in Turkmenistan for RFE/RL, focused attention on governments who condone or ignore violence against members of the press.
Noting that prosecutors charged Muradova with several crimes as an excuse to arrest her, the IFJ's Rachel Cohen said the fabrication of charges is a common way for governments to target journalists.
"This idea that journalists are somehow fair targets for these charges -- whether they're prosecuted for doing their jobs, or targeted with violent attacks for doing their job, or all of a sudden these other charges come out," Cohen says. "It's very troubling to us and we worry that the situation is getting worse."
On December 23, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution condemning "deliberate attacks" on journalists in conflict zones.
Roland Bless, the director of the office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, told RFE/RL the resolution is a necessary reminder of the risks journalists face and the international legal obligations governments are under to protect members of the press and prosecute their attackers.
Despite such laws, Bless said in many places there is no justice for crimes against the press.
"What we do really object to is the climate of impunity that persists in some countries, that journalists can be not only killed but intimidated or physically harassed," Bless says. "And nothing happens after that. Going after journalists is accepted practice in a given environment and this is something that we really object to. This goes beyond Russia. We have this in other countries; we had a bit of that in Southeast Europe for some time. It has improved a little bit, but we have intimidation and harassment of journalists in Western countries. We should not be pointing only in one direction here."
Bless noted the lack of pluralism in Central Asian media, which he said contributes to a tense environment for journalists. Although the situation varies among the five Central Asian republics, print and broadcast outlets tend to be controlled by the state.
By contrast, he said Russia has more media diversity and a more "mature" media environment. But the death of Politkovskaya, who was murdered outside her Moscow apartment in October by unknown assailants, is a sign that all is not well.
"The murder of a journalist has a chilling effect on the media, and that of course is the case with Anna Politkovskaya," Bless says. "And the head of this office here [OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Miklos Haraszti] has asked the Russian authorities not only to investigate this crime, which is an obligation in any rule of law environment, but also to inform the public about the results of this investigation, to also reassure the public that the government and the authorities take the protection of journalists seriously and that they really do honor their commitments to enable journalists to work in a media-friendly environment and to do their job."
Bless said so far the Russian authorities have not given the OSCE a direct answer to their request for an investigation and report of their findings.
2006 A Hard Year In Human Rights
The observance of human rights deteriorated in 2006 as a result of conflicts and political repression. In Central Asia, human rights continued to come under attack.
Few Changes In Central Asia
Conditions in Uzbekistan did not improve, according to outgoing UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. In a report, Annan said there is "ample evidence" that authorities there are still using torture.
Tom Porteous, a senior official with the Human Rights Watch organization in London, believes the international community has not been firm enough with Tashkent.
"Our main concern with Uzbekistan is that the European Union is not really following up on its actions, in the aftermath of the Andijon massacre, with a strong enough policy to really affect change in the country," he said. "As you know, the EU imposed fairly strict sanctions on Uzbekistan just over a year ago."
Turkmenistan continued its course under President Saparmurat Niyazov as one of the world's most authoritarian regimes.
September saw the death in custody of RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova. She was serving a six-year jail sentence on what Western rights organizations had described as trumped-up charges. Family members who saw her body said she had a large wound on her head. The Turkmen Helsinki Foundation described Muradova's death as a "political assassination."
Kazakhstan suffered the suspicious murder of another senior opposition figure.
On February 13, the body of Altynbek Sarsenbaev was found on the outskirts of Almaty, along with the bodies of two of his aides. He was a cochairman of the Naghyz Ak Zhol opposition party. A former ambassador to Russia, Sarsenbaev was an outspoken critic of the Kazakh government of President Nursultan Nazarbaev.
Kazakh journalists staged protests in June against a new media law that complicates the registration of media entities and increases the power of the authorities to shut down media.
Late in the year, Kazakhstan suffered a setback at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The OSCE put off until next year a decision on Kazakhstan's bid to chair the organization in 2009.
Kazakhstan And The OSCE
The bid was mainly opposed by the United States and Britain, who argued that Kazakhstan must do more to meet OSCE standards. However, in explaining the decision, U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns took a conciliatory line.
"We're Kazakhstan's strategic partner," he said. "We're a close friend. We admire the fact that Kazakhstan wants to lead this organization. You need a consensus in this organization for that to happen, and I think the decision by all of us is that it's better to wait until 2007, have the OSCE look again in 2007 at the request from Kazakhstan to take a leadership role, and make a decision then."
November saw a presidential election in Tajikistan that was boycotted by opposition parties, who alleged that a result in favor of incumbent President Imomali Rakhmonov had been fixed long before the voting.
Turning to Russia, fighting continued in Chechnya despite Moscow's assertion that the war against separatist Muslim insurgents has been won.
"The situation in Chechnya is clearly poisoning the political atmosphere in the whole of the Russian Federation," Porteous said. "The Russian government says the war in Chechnya is over. This is not really true. The war has been pushed underground and has become a very dirty war, and we have evidence that the authorities in Chechnya are engaged in very repressive practices, including the use of torture."
It was also revealed in 2006 that Chechen security forces loyal to pro-Moscow Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov have been using cell phones to record videos of themselves torturing and humiliating ordinary Chechens accused of crimes.
But the practices in Chechnya are not the only alleged Russian infringements of freedom. In 2006, as in previous years, President Vladimir Putin presided over a tightening of state control over independent media and foreign nongovernmental organizations.
"We are also worried about the suppression of civil society in the Russian Federation, particularly this year," Porteous said. "There is a requirement for NGOs to reregister, including Human Rights Watch, and we do feel this is an attack on the last [free] bastion in the Russian Federation."
Media Repression In Azerbaijan
In the Caucasus, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's government came under criticism. The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders has denounced what it calls the systematic targeting of press freedom in that country. It referred to the eviction of the independent Turan news agency and two opposition newspapers from their Baku offices.
That followed the decision to revoke the license, for alleged violations of broadcasting regulations, of the ANS independent television station, which was retransmitting BBC, RFE/RL, and Voice of America broadcasts. Elsa Vidal is a spokeswoman for Reporters Without Borders. He told RFE/RL that "The fact is that for over a month we have seen a real worsening of the situation in Azerbaijan, and the most worrying aspect was the closure of the ANS private TV channel and the relocation of many media, including the most read daily paper, 'Azadliq.' "
ANS was back on the air almost three weeks later, on December 12. The National Radio and Television Council says ANS will have to bid for a broadcasting license next year.
In Iraq, the fighting goes on, with scores of casualties daily, many of them being Shi'ite civilians targeted in suicide bomb attacks. Others are sometimes caught up in air strikes or ground fighting.
On November 29, the UN's high commissioner for human rights, Louise Arbour, described the Iraqi violence as worse than ever, and she called on the government to ensure the rule of law.
Also in Iraq, the UN Human Rights Council and Human Rights Watch declared the trial of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as having fallen far short of international legal standards. Hussein was found guilty and condemned to death on charges of mass killings.
"We feel there was a huge opportunity with the trial to establish a legal and factual record of the crimes under Saddam Hussein's regime," Porteous said. "And the fact that the trial has been so deeply flawed means that the losers are really the victims of the Saddam Hussein regime."
Worse Situation In Iran
Iran had a dark year in terms of human rights. Right groups said state censorship increased significantly, leading to an increased restriction on freedom of expression. More newspapers were closed down and journalists were intimidated.
Tehran also increased its censorship of the Internet by blocking websites, including sites belonging to domestic and foreign news organizations, political organizations, and those with information about human rights and women's issues.
Dozens of student activists were barred from classes, and a number of liberal professors were forced into early retirement or dismissed. Students reacted by organizing several protests denouncing the growing pressure on universities.
On December 11, students at Tehran's Amir Kabir University disrupted a speech by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and called him a dictator.
Bijan Pouryoussefi, a student who witnessed the unusual incident, told Radio Farda that "Polytechnic University students started to chant against the president and against the policies of the new government in universities. They chanted 'Death to the dictator! Down with oppression! Ahmadinejad is the cause of poverty and corruption,' and similar things."
In Afghanistan, many civilians fell victim to the insurgency and terrorist attacks, while others were killed during counterterrorist operations by U.S.- and NATO-led forces. Many schools were torched by the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
Concerns over the situation of women in Afghanistan also remained. In November, a conference on self-immolation was held in Kabul to bring attention to the plight of Afghan women who -- five years after the fall of the Taliban -- still face violence and discrimination.
In Europe, the UN cited Belarus and the government of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka for numerous human rights abuses, including rigged elections, the jailing of protesters, and the use of government power against opposition election candidates.
(RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari contributed to this article.)
American Writers Honor Russian Journalist's Memory
Politkovskaya's work was widely translated into English, and she was a frequent speaker at U.S. universities. On December 6, her American friends and admirers gathered in New York, the city where Politkovskaya was born, to remember her work.
Katrina van den Heuvel is the editor and publisher of the liberal U.S. magazine "The Nation." She was also an acquaintance of Politkovskaya, the 43rd journalist to be killed in Russia since 1993.
"Her manner, often quiet, often shy, belied her brave and fearless work as a journalist enraged by the injustice and corruption," van den Heuvel recalled.
"She's best-known for her fearless, courageous reporting on the abuses and crimes of Chechnya. What's forgotten is that Anna Politkovskaya started out covering orphanages and the plight of the old," she continued. "And she was -- as a close Russian friend, the head of the Russian Union of Journalists [Igor Yakovenko] wrote me just hours after learning of her murder, 'a woman who protected victims and those who suffered.' She saved literally many people in Grozny, she wrote as her soul and feeling of justice showed her, and she had nothing in common with the so-called political interest."
'Surprised To Still Be Alive'
Musa Klebnikov, the widow of Paul Klebnikov, the American editor of the Russian edition of "Forbes" magazine who was gunned down in Moscow in 2004, also knew Politkovskaya. She said Politkovskaya was a woman who understood the perilous nature of her work but refused to give it up.
"When I met Anna last year, she was surprised by her own longevity," Klebnikov said. "She said, 'Given what I do, it is in fact a miracle that I am alive today." She knew the risk, but didn't stop. Anna felt the need to establish a connection to those who are suffering regardless of their actions and circumstances. She wanted them to be seen and heard. This was her great humanistic impulse."
Kati Marton is a member of the board of directors for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) , a nonprofit U.S. institution monitoring acts of violence against journalists around the world. She said Politkovskaya typified the extraordinary bravery of journalists who put their lives at risk on a near-daily basis.
"For us at CPJ, Anna's murder was a death in the family," Marton said. "I've had the privilege of knowing a handful of journalists who were fired by Anna's kind of courage, men and women who accept that every time they leave their homes, they face the prospect of assassination. They kiss their children good-bye in the morning knowing that they may not see them again in the evening."
Celebrated Abroad, Vilified At Home
David Remnick, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and editor of the "The New Yorker" magazine, noted that her celebrated reputation in the West was a distinct contrast from her reputation at home in Russia.
"It was one of the great ironies, not unexpected under the circumstances, that she would receive all her awards that I can think of in the West, particularly in the United States," he said. "So, she had this bifurcated life of coming to the Waldorf-Astoria, whatever hotel ballroom in New York, or Paris, or London, to receive accolades for her bravery, for her prose, and her passion. And then she would return home to be vilified by her government."