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Watchdog Says Media Freedom Situation 'Bleak' In Post-Soviet Space

Belarusian journalist Henadz Barbarych sits in a courtroom in Minsk last April after being arrested for disobeying the police at a rally to mark the anniversary of the Chornobyl nuclear disaster.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says the situation with freedom of information in the former Soviet republics is getting "bleaker every year."

On February 12, the Paris-based group published its annual "World Press Freedom Index," measuring the level of freedom of information in 180 countries.

The head of RSF's Eastern Europe and Central Asia Desk Johann Bihr told RFE/RL that authorities in Russia, which came 148th in the survey, have chosen repression with more and more draconian laws being adopted, and are exporting their model throughout the region.

"2013 has been marked by a cascade of repressive laws in Russia which have narrowed the scope of free information more and more," he said. "For instance, traditional values are used to justify new restrictions, including the criminalization of homosexual propaganda or the ban on blasphemy. Journalists are being detained in connection with their work."

In Belarus, which came 157th, RSF says journalists who cover street protests are "routinely detained," and authorities often use "combatting extremism" as a pretext for silencing those who refuse to toe the official line.

Ukraine ranks 127th, but RSF says the political crisis that began in December 2013 and the government’s adoption of "very repressive policies" came after the period covered by this year’s index.

WATCH: By The Numbers: Journalists Targeted In Ukraine
By The Numbers: Journalists Targeted In Ukraine
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Bihr says both Kazakhstan (161st) and Azerbaijan (160th) are "on the verge of suppression of any media freedom."

RSF says television stations in Azerbaijan are under government control, while recalcitrant journalists and bloggers are exposed to physical attacks, death threats, and abduction.

And freedom of information in Kazakhstan is in "free fall," according to Bihr.
RSF's Johann Bihr
RSF's Johann Bihr

"Kazakhstan closed all its national opposition media outlets in early 2012.," Bihr said. "Since then, all the critical media outlets still existing at the local level or trying to exist at the national level have been routinely prosecuted under trumped-up charges under various administrative pretexts."

In Tajikistan (115th), the report says coverage of the 2013 presidential election campaign was "openly skewed" in favor of the incumbent, Emomali Rakhmon, while the arbitrary blocking of independent news websites has become "common."

Strict censorship also prevails in Uzbekistan (166th), where "no fewer than 10 journalists and netizens are currently detained."

At the bottom of the ranking, RSF says Turkmenistan (178th) continues to be a "news and information black hole" and a "living hell" for journalists.

Some Bright Spots

The region's four best-placed countries are Moldova (56th), Armenia (78th), Georgia (84th), and Kyrgyzstan (97th).

"In these countries, there is a significant degree of pluralism and there is relatively little state censorship, but of course it doesn't mean that challenges have disappeared," Bihr said. "The considerable social polarization is [especially] reflected very much in the media [and] the independence of editorial teams remains a very harsh challenge for these countries."

Elsewhere, RSF says continued violence and religious tension in Iraq (153rd) are having a negative impact on the safety of journalists and the independence of the media.

In Iran (173rd), the Paris-based watchdog says coverage of the Syrian civil war is "closely watched" by the regime, which cracks down on "any criticism" of its foreign policy. By the end of 2013, 50 journalists and Internet activists had been detained.

In Pakistan (158th), seven journalists were murdered in connection with their work last year. RSF denounces a "lack of interest" in the country in finding those responsible for the killings. It also describes Pakistan as a country where the government "seems powerless against armed groups and the military."

In neighboring Afghanistan (128th), Bihr says that despite widespread violence, the situation remains quite satisfactory with regards to media pluralism.

The report also criticizes democracies such as the United States and the United Kingdom for not setting good examples in 2013, relying on "overly broad and abusive" interpretations of national security needs. The United States fell 13 places to 46th as it aggressively pursued whistleblowers and the sources of leaks. The United Kingdom. fell three places to 33rd amid its own "disgraceful" persecution of whistleblowers.
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