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A man holds a banner during a rally to mark World Press Freedom Day in Tbilisi on May 3.
Afghanistan has climbed 22 places in this year's Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

However Johann Bihr, head of RSF's Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, tells RFE/RL that the country continues to face many challenges.

"The rise of Afghanistan is indeed mostly linked with the fact that no journalists were killed due to their journalistic activities in 2012, and arrests of media workers declined. But by no means does this mean that Afghanistan is now in a perfect situation,"

"The country remains ranked 128th out of 179, and obviously it will face fresh challenges with the withdrawal of foreign troops from the international coalition and the deteriorating situation in neighboring Pakistan."

Bihr says that in neighboring Pakistan (159th), the high level of violence against journalists and Internet users last year had a significant impact on the country's poor performance.

The Paris-based press watchdog says Iran (174th) imprisons journalists and Internet users and also harasses their relatives.

Neighboring Iraq placed 150th.

In Southeastern Europe, Serbia (63th) has climbed 17 places. The country is followed by Croatia (64th), Bosnia-Herzegovina (68th), Kosovo (85th), and Montenegro (113rd).

RWB says Macedonia (116th) has fallen 22 places following the "arbitrary withdrawal of media licenses and deterioration in the environment for journalists."

In the former Soviet Union, Bihr says Russia (148th) has lost six places because of stepped-up repression there.

"It has been a bad year overall for Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Overall, the region is really sinking downwards towards the real bottom of the index," Bihr notes.

"Russia has set a tone of increased repression in the former Soviet Union by cracking down on the opposition protests; by adopting fresh repressive laws impacting freedom of information such as recriminalization of defamation; the creation of a blacklist of filtered websites on the Internet; not to mention the provisions criminalizing the activities of some NGOs."

Ukraine was placed 126th and Belarus 157th.

In the Caucasus, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia ranked 156th, 100th, and 74th, respectively.

In Kyrgyzstan, the best performer of Central Asia, Bihr says difficulties remain:

"Kyrgyzstan now ranks 106th in the Press Freedom Index, which is by far the best performance of Central Asia, but of course difficulties still remain for independent journalists, especially the independence of media outlets remains under question," he explains

"The politicization and polarization of the media landscape is high. There are still worrying issues with hate speech, especially directed at ethnic minorities."

Bihr says Tajikistan (123rd) "still has, to some extent, some degree of pluralism." But he adds that the country is "struggling to catch up with its neighbors in terms of cybercensorship."

According to Bihr, Kazakhstan (160th) is the Central Asian country that has been "characterized by the worst trend" last year. He says President Nursultan Nazarbaev appears to be moving "closer and closer to the ultraauthoritarian rule of his Uzbek neighbor."

In Uzbekistan (164th), Bihr says, the regime of President Islam Karimov has "tightened his grip on the Internet."

Turkmenistan (177th) remains this year one of the world's three worst offenders in terms of press freedom.

Bihr says no independent or opposition media is allowed in the country, where "journalists and bloggers continued to be able to report independently only under cover."

With reporting by Daisy Sindelar
Azerbaijani police haul away protesters in central Baku on January 26.
Human rights watchdog Amnesty International has called for the Council of Europe to stand up for the right to protest peacefully in Azerbaijan, after dozens of nonviolent demonstrators were detained and later charged in Baku on January 26.

The protests came just days after the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) failed to pass a resolution on political prisoners in Strasbourg. Some delegates at the meeting voiced doubts about the resolution's usefulness, citing persistent ambiguities surrounding the definition of a political prisoner.

In Baku on January 26, hundreds of people gathered in a central square to express solidarity with recent protests in the central town of Ismayilli. Riot police moved in, detaining about 80 participants, including prominent blogger Emin Milli, human rights defender Malahat Nasibova, and investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova.

According to RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, three of those were later given jail time. Activists Abulfaz Qurbanli and Turkel Azeturk were sentenced to 13 days, while Milli was given 15 days. Milli previously spent 17 months in prison after making and posting a satirical video critical of the government.

In addition, 18 protesters were given fines ranging from 300 to 2,500 manats ($382 to $3,185). Gozel Bayramli, deputy head of the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, was fined 2,000 manats and youth activist Turgut Qambar, who is the son of opposition Musavat Party head Isa Qambar, was fined 2,500 manats. Ismayilova was fined 400 manats.

"Just days after PACE rejected a resolution on politically motivated arrests, the prosecution of these 30 individuals demonstrates how far the issue is from being resolved," said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's director for Europe and Central Asia.

"The PACE co-rapporteurs responsible for monitoring Azerbaijan's obligations to the council, Pedro Agramunt and Joseph Debono Grech, opposed the resolution on political prisoners proposed by German MP Christoph Strasser, stating they would address the problem of political prisoners themselves," Dalhuisen continued.

"Having taken on this responsibility, they must now intervene to ensure the sentences of those imprisoned or fined for taking part in Saturday's protest are overturned."

Ismayilova, a journalist with RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, described her trial as a "comedy."

She told Amnesty: "I entered the room where two men were sitting on the defense's place. I asked who they are and the judge said they were my lawyers. I said: 'I don't know these people, I don't trust them and I refuse. I want my own lawyers.' I didn't know that in fact my lawyers were outside of the building and were not allowed in. The judge said I can't have my own lawyers as they are not here."

-- Dan Wisniewski

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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