2007 Annual Report on press freedom in Europe and the former Soviet Union Bloc
Moves to censor or self-censor appeared, sometimes violently, concerning religious topics. The range of subjects that can be covered freely also shrank, with harming the reputation of the state and denying or mentioning historical events drawing threats or legal action.
Today the Reporters Without Borders have issued the 2007 Annual Report on press freedom in Europe and the former Soviet Union Bloc. According to the report, forwarded to UNIAN, the law-enforcement organization believes that the year 2006 was a very worrying year for press freedom in Europe, not just in countries whose governments naturally caused anxiety but also in European Union (EU) member-states.
Moves to censor or self-censor appeared, sometimes violently, concerning religious topics. The range of subjects that can be covered freely also shrank, with harming the reputation of the state and denying or mentioning historical events drawing threats or legal action. The banning in three countries, including Turkey, of the January- February 2007 issue of the magazine Historia about religious fundamentalism is the most recent example.
Western Europe, and also Turkey, were frequently tempted to ban some topics from public discussion.
The row over a Danish paper’s September 2005 publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed and the reprinting of them in solidarity in several countries spread across Europe and beyond. Supporters of freedom of expression faced those who said religious feelings should be respected. French newspapers France Soir and Charlie Hebdo, which both reprinted all 12 cartoons,were legally challenged by the French Muslim Council.
French philosopher Robert Redeker was threatened in southern France for a very critical article he wrote about Islam. A leading opera house in Germany cancelled performances of Mozart’s opera Idomeneo for fear of Muslim reaction. Other concerns were a new law in France banning denial of the 1915 Armenian genocide and Turkey’s frequent use of article 301 of its criminal code to prosecute journalists and intellectuals mentioning the genocide.
The situation was grim in Russia, where campaigning reporter Anna Politkovskaya became the third journalist to be murdered during the year on 7 October, after Yevgeny Gerasimenko and Ilya Zimin, Moscow correspondent for the nationwide NTV network. Twenty-one journalists have now been killed since President Vladimir Putin came to power in March 2000. New media takeovers by firms close to the Kremlin and lack of broadcast news diversity showed Putin’s determination to increase his control of the media.
Five journalists were murdered in the former Soviet bloc countries in 2006, including leading investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, showing the problems this region has in shaking off its authoritarian past.
Greater press freedom since the 2004 “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine was offset in 2006 by physical attacks on journalists and failure to satisfactorily resolve the murder of journalist Georgy Gongadze.The campaign for the November presidential election in Tajikistan saw websites shut down and very unequal media access for candidates.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was reelected with 80% of the vote in March in grim conditions, having virtually eradicated the independent media since coming to power in 1994 and returned the country to the era of clandestine publications.Violence and physical attacks on journalists and hounding of the opposition press also made it a dark year in Azerbaijan.
Things did not improve either in Central Asia. The regime in Uzbekistan maintained pressure on independent local and foreign media. The Kazakh government stepped up legal harassment of opposition media and a young French journalist was murdered.
In Turkmenistan, which has the world’s worst press freedom record along with North Korea, the local correspondent for Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty died in prison while serving a six-year sentence for working with foreign media.Two other journalists were given similar sentences for the same reason on 25 August and have not been heard of since. The death of “President-for-Life” Separmurad Nyazov in December raised hopes for liberalisation of one of the world’s most oppressive regimes.
As for Ukraine, political instability plagued 2006 due to tension between pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko (elected after the 2004 “Orange Revolution”) and his rival Viktor Yanukovich, who returned as prime minister after the breakup of the ruling coalition.
The greater press freedom achieved in 2005 was reduced by physical attacks on journalistsand failure to complete the trial of the killers of journalist Georgy Gongadze.
The home of Lilia Bujurova, editor of the weekly Pervaya Krimskaya and president of the Crimean Association of Independent Journalists, was set fire to in the Crimean capital of Simferopol in the early hours of 1 March 2006. She blamed the attack on her publication of a list of crime-linked candidates in the 26 March Crimean parliamentary elections.
Other journalists were threatened or physically attacked during the year.Volodymyr Katsman, editor of the paper Stolichnye Novosti, was badly beaten up in his apartment building on 8 April by two thugs with sticks and hospitalised with serious head and arm injuries.The paper received an envelope contained white powder and a note on 8 June. Someone claiming to be one of the attackers threatened his colleagues, especially investigative journalist Sherhy Kovtunenko, warning that they would have no protection and that calling in police would not help. The official probe into Katsman’s beating has made no progress and the paper has asked for police protection for the two journalists.
Margarita Zakora, editor of the weekly Dzerzhynets in Dniprodzerzhynsk, was wounded personally and by legal officials over several months. The paper, launched in January 2006, had become popular with a campaign against corruption among regional officials, who filed 19 almostidentical lawsuits against Zakora. Shots were fired at her apartment in June after the paper had criticized a businessman, Aleksander Spektor. After a second critical article, Spektor distributed pornographic leaflets about her and her 20-year-old daughter, including their addresses. Zakora asked for police and court protection but despite solid evidence of this harassment, no action was taken.
Vladimir Lutiev, editor of the weekly Evpatoriskaya Nedelia, was sentenced to eight years in prison on 12 July for alleged corruption after being held since June 2005 when former Crimean MP Nikolai Kotliarevsky accused him of attempted murder. Lutiev had often criticised him in print for electoral fraud and corruption and Kotliarevsky is being prosecuted in two criminal cases.The court trying Lutiev refused to hear defence witnesses or evidence, according to his lawyer, Viktor Oveshkin, who said the journalist was being hounded by former local officials because he had accused them of corruption.
Five organisers and triggermen accused of killing Igor Alexandrov, head of the TOR TV station in the Slaviansk region of Donetsk, in 2001 were sentenced to between two and a half and 15 years in prison on 7 June by an appeal court in Lugansk after a two-month trial.The journalist had been beaten with a baseball bat on 3 July 2001 and died of head injuries four days later in hospital. In autumn 2003, the public prosecutor’s office announced the killers had been identified and members of a criminal gang charged.
The most important trials
A court in Kiev resumed hearings on 14 September in the trial of the accused killers of journalist Georgy Gongadze, editor of Ukrainskaya Pravda, two days before the sixth anniversary of his disappearance. Neither his mother Lessia nor his widow Myroslava were present and the countless obstacles in the case increased fears that those really responsible would never be brought to justice. The “Melnichenko tapes” disclosed by the media indicated that the decision to get rid of Gongadze was made at the highest levels of government, but despite the change of regime and promises by President Yushchenko, who opened the trial to the public, the investigation has made no progress.
Yushchenko said the day the trial resumed that Gongadze’s name had become “a symbol of political change and freedom of expression” in Ukraine. But the constant problems with the case do not bear out this optimism and more and more people accuse prosecutor-general Oleksandr Medvedko of trying to slow down the investigation and influence its outcome. Gongadze’s widow said in mid-August she would sue the prosecutors. Hearings since then have involved contradictory evidence on the two key questions of whether Gongadze was killed because of his journalistic work and whether his work threatened the then President Leonid Kuchma or one of his aides.