Press freedom generally deteriorated in this region in 2005, with five journalists murdered because of their work (up from two the previous year) and growing repression in several former Soviet bloc countries, according to a report by Reporters Without Borders, forwarded to UNIAN. Some rulers resorted to the old methods in their efforts to silence all dissidence and working conditions for journalists worsened in Uzbekistan, Belarus, Russia and Azerbaijan, whose governments took steps to ward off the kind of uprisings seen in Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004) and Kyrgyzstan (2005).
The gloomy picture was lightened by Ukraine, where President Victor Yushchenko took office in January and seemed more in favour of press freedom than his predecessor Leonid Kuchma. The killers of journalist Georgy Gongadze, murdered in 2000, were identified and due to be tried early in 2006, but those who ordered his execution remain to be arrested and punished.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko worked to shut down his country’s few independent newspapers as the March 2006 presidential election approached, crippling them with huge fines and blocking printing and distribution. Several key papers in the capital, such BG Delovaya Gazeta, were doomed. Journalists, especially those from the Polish minority, who reported on opposition demonstrations were tried and imprisoned.
Violence against journalists in Russia was frequent and impunity prevailed in a country where news is still closely controlled by the government. Two journalists were killed and a third escaped being murdered in 2005. More than a year after the death of editor Paul Khlebnikov of the Russian edition of the US magazine Forbes, the authorities closed their investigation and said Chechen independence militant Kozh-Akhmed Nukhayev had ordered the killing. The government steadily took control of all the country’s TV stations and stepped up pressure on the few independent papers, seriously threatening news diversity. Chechnya remained a void for news and journalists could not go there freely.
Repression of independent journalists became routine in Uzbekistan after the bloody uprising in Andijan in May 2005. President Islam Karimov’s witch-hunt featured the arbitrary arrest of three opposition journalists and a broad government drive to discredit journalists. Foreign media were accused of fomenting the rebellion and some, such as the international press freedom group Internews, BBC TV and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, were forced to close their Tashkent offices.
These media working conditions moved closer to the situation for journalists in Turkmenistan, where President Separmurad Nyazov has abolished freedom of expression and installed total censorship. State media employees there are banned from having contact with foreigners and a privately-owned press does not exist. Foreign journalists were virtually banned from the country and some appeared to be on a “black list.”
Press freedom sharply declined in Azerbaijan, where the murder of independent journalist Elmar Husseynov in March 2005 illustrated the violence and threats faced by the media. Another journalist died in June, six months after police beat him up. Attacks on press freedom increased before, during and after the 6 November parliamentary elections.
More effort needed in Western Europe
Police in European Union (EU) countries, especially France, Italy, Belgium and Poland, were busy in 2005 searching journalists’ homes and demanding they reveal their sources of information. The European Court of Human Rights considers privacy of sources a cornerstone of press freedom, but several member-states stepped up their violations of this key to independent investigative journalism.
Violence against journalists remains rare in EU countries, but in France, nine were physically attacked or threatened in 2005 during a trade union dispute in Corsica and during the nationwide urban riots in November. News diversity in Italy was still being undermined by prime minister and broadcasting mogul Silvio Berlusconi’s conflict of interests (he controls the public media and much of privately-owned broadcasting) but the situation was unique in the EU.
The countries that joined the EU in 2004 have made impressive advances in press freedom. The Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Slovakia and Slovenia are havens of freedom of expression along with northern European countries. The only blot was in Poland, where a journalist could still be heavily fined, as one was in 2005, for writings deemed to offend the pope.
Serious threats to press freedom persist in the Balkans and the rest of Eastern Europe and laws in Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria (which will all join the EU in 2007) remained well below European standards. Violence against journalists has not entirely disappeared in these regions and one was murdered in Kosovo, four threatened with death in Serbia-Montenegro and one physically attacked in Albania.
Turkey, which also hopes to join the EU, amended many of its laws but some in fact increased restrictions on journalists. The vagueness of several articles of the new criminal code that came into force on 1 June 2005 left the way open to unjustified prosecutions and very wide interpretation by judges. Press freedom violations were much fewer during the year but self-censorship remained strong and some tricky topics, such as Kurdish and Armenian affairs, continued to cause legal problems for journalists who reported on them.