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Watchdog Says Prosperity No Guarantee Of Press Freedoms

Activists protest against abuses of press freedoms outside the Turkmen Embassy in Paris in September
Activists protest against abuses of press freedoms outside the Turkmen Embassy in Paris in September
Advocacy group Reporters Without Borders has found that peace and "the spirit of democracy" -- and not simply prosperity -- are reliable guarantors of media freedom.

In its 2008 Press Freedom Index, the group, known by its French initials RSF, saw little improvement in media freedoms this year compared with 2007, especially in some former Soviet countries. In fact, Turkmenistan, along with North Korea and Eritrea, remains part of what RSF calls "the infernal trio" at the very bottom of the press-freedom rankings.

Russia and Belarus are also low on the list, ranked 141st and 154th, respectively, compared to Turkmenistan's third-to-last position at 171.
Slovenia and Bosnia are ranked ahead of the United States, while Iceland tops RSF's list.

The reasons for these rankings are not dependent on economics, RSF concludes. While it may be convenient for a news organization to be able to afford good equipment and talented reporters, money isn't as important as a stable, peaceful, democratic environment.

"When a country is at war, its whole structure has destabilized and it finds itself on the defensive, which leads to eroding the space for freedoms," said Elsa Vidal, the head of RSF's desk concerned with Europe and the post-Soviet countries. "Countries that are poor in terms of economics can have high performance in terms of freedom. So freedom is not clearly related to economic growth; it's rather bonded to peace and stability."

Vidal said that peace alone won't guarantee a free press. What's also important, she says, are strong democratic aspirations, and not merely the trappings of democracy.

"Imparting democracy is not sufficient to build a real democracy," she said. "And what we need is not only to impart institutions and laws. What these countries are lacking is the will to impart and implement the spirit of democracy, and the unavoidable necessity to have lively civil society."

No Pressure On Ashgabat

For example, Turkmenistan has an extremely negative reputation for press freedoms because of its authoritarian leadership, and too little external pressure is being put on its government to reform, according to Vidal. In fact, she says, European nations are so eager for Central Asian energy reserves that they have put negligible pressure on Turkmen authorities on human rights issues.

"The European policy toward Central Asia will not be demanding enough from the Turkmen authorities since the European Union seems to be looking for [an] alternative source of oil and gas," Vidal said. "And we pretty much call on them not to deal press freedom and [other] human rights for oil and gas."

Afghanistan, unlike Turkmenistan, is a country at war, but like its Central Asian neighbor, its residents are often deprived of the full story.

However, reporters from Europe and the United States have better access to events in Afghanistan and can keep their readers, viewers, and listeners informed, according to Vincent Brossel, head of RSF's Asia desk in Paris.

Ironically, Afghan reporters are caught in the middle. "The journalists in the war areas are very much affected because they have to work under the pressure of both sides," Brossel said. "First of all the Taliban, who do not respect their work and are trying to put pressure on them, and sometimes they have been destroying equipment and trying to prevent [journalists from covering] what is going on in the provinces. But the journalists also have to face more pressure from the [Afghan] authorities, who feel that they are losing ground."

Brossel says these problems, like the war itself, bleed into neighboring Pakistan. Not only are Pakistani reporters the targets of assassins for various political factions in much of the country, but they also face the same obstacles as Afghan reporters in the tribal region of Pakistan near its border with Afghanistan.

Brossel welcomed one bright note from Afghanistan: the news that an appeals court in Afghanistan has commuted the death sentence previously imposed on student and part-time journalist Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh.

Kambakhsh, who is 23, was arrested a year ago for allegedly distributing an Internet article suggesting that the Prophet Muhammad ignored women's rights. Kambakhsh denied responsibility for the article, and some said his prosecution was the result of a local warlord's vendetta.

Although the appeals court overturned Kambakhsh's death sentence, it handed down a 20-year prison term.

"We feel shock that they passed a 20-year sentence," Brossel said. "Of course we are satisfied that there is no more threat that he can be executed for this so-called crime. But how can the appeals court say that he should be sent to jail for 20 years when they don't have any sort of evidence that he committed a blasphemous act. It's very unfair."