A report by the U.S.-based watchdog Freedom House says the global financial crisis is having a negative impact on freedom of the press.
The 2009 Freedom of the Press Index, released ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, indicates that while press freedom in open societies is being affected mostly in terms of decreased funding, in countries with oppressive governments, the crisis is providing new tools for further strengthening the leadership's grip on the media.
According to the index, which rates 195 countries worldwide, the biggest drop in press freedom was witnessed in Central and Eastern Europe, in addition to most of the former Soviet Union.
The Freedom House index assesses the countries included in the survey by measuring the degree of print, broadcast, and Internet freedom available through a single calendar year. It provides numerical rankings and rates each country's media as "Free," "Partly Free," or "Not Free."
According to the report, which summarizes countries' performances during 2008, concluded that 56 percent of people living in the combined region of Central and Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union (FSU), excluding the Baltic States, live in media environments that are "Not Free."
But while the countries in the region share a common history of communist oppression, the trajectory of countries in the FSU diverged significantly in 2008 from that of Central and Eastern Europe in terms of respect for fundamental political rights and civil liberties.
The press freedom ratings for these sub-regions reflect a similar divergence.Repressive Governments
Christopher Walker, Freedom House’s director of studies and one of the authors of the index, tells RFE/RL that former communist states in Central Europe such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland are clearly designated as “Free” and have remained so throughout the crisis.
But in Eastern Europe, and particularly in the countries of the FSU, where press freedom has been experiencing a slow but steady decline for years, the economic turmoil has exacerbated the trend.
All in all, the system isn’t enabling a meaningful discussion of alternative issues in Russia
“The ongoing trajectory of media freedom in the region suggests that there’s been a consolidation of unfree media environments in the former Soviet Union," Walker said.
"And this has significant implications at a time when the global economy is playing a role in the health of independent media... In already vulnerable media environments there are even larger questions about independent media’s ability to function in the former Soviet Union.”
In more repressive settings, Walker says, authorities have always enjoyed near-complete control over allocating resources and using the legal system to manipulate media.
Now, with funding drying up, it is even easier for repressive governments to reward complacent media outlets on the one hand, and penalize dissenting voices on the other. Russia Downturn
Russia continues to be the media-crackdown leader among the FSU countries, and has passed the trend on to a number of neighboring states.
Russia has been on a gradual decline in media freedom since 2003, when it was downgraded from a “Partly Free” to a “Not Free” country.
“What we’ve seen is really a systematic and consistent constriction of Russia’s media over the last several years, including last year, where Russia also underwent a slight downturn for a number of reasons -- including the absence of independent judiciary to ensure that media freedoms are upheld, and ongoing self-censorship, which has been a growing problem over the course of recent years," Walker said.
"All in all, the system isn’t enabling a meaningful discussion of alternative issues in Russia.”
Ten out of 12 of the non-Baltic post-Soviet states are ranked as "Not Free." Three of the world's 10 worst press-freedom abusers -- Belarus, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan -- are found in the former Soviet Union.
Azerbaijan is another country which attracted significant media attention in 2008 because of several cases when journalists have been imprisoned for their work but then released.
Walker of Freedom House notes this as a “positive development,” but says it’s insufficient to indicate major change in Azerbaijan's continued clampdown on the media, which last year included a ban on foreign broadcasters, including the BBC, Voice of America, and RFE/RL.
“One of the things that we cited in our review of Azerbaijan, as part of the larger pattern of media suppression, were the steps taken to remove a number of international broadcasters from the airwaves in Azerbaijan," Walker said.
"So, if we look at the broader picture of media freedom in Azerbaijan, the release of journalists that’s just occurred in the larger institutional picture are a small but positive step in an otherwise highly repressed media environment.”
Central Asia has been for years one of the weakest regions for free media, and 2008 was not an exception, says Walker.
While it comes as little surprise that frequent human-rights and press-freedom abusers like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have again been given the lowest possible rankings, Kyrgyzstan, one of the brighter spots in Central Asia, underwent a two-point decline in 2008.
“That was principally a result of its decision to remove Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty from the state broadcaster, but it follows a larger pattern of pressure that we’ve seen on independent media outlets in the country,” Walker said.
Lack of an independent judiciary and the inability of the judiciary to protect journalists remains a serious concern in many of the FSU states, where reporters continue to put their personal safety at risk.