Former Soviet Union Media Still Under Assault -- Freedom House

Created: 29.04.2006 14:04 MSK (GMT +3), Updated: 14:04 MSK

MosNews

Independent media in the countries of the former Soviet Union have
come under further assault over the course of the last year, Freedom
House said in its annual report. The political, legal, and economic
environments in most of the non-Baltic former Soviet countries remain
distinctly inhospitable to independent journalism, Christopher Walker,
the organization's director of studies, wrote in an article for Radio
Liberty's web-site.

Of the 12 non-Baltic former Soviet states only Georgia and Ukraine,
which are categorized as "Partly Free," escape the Not Free
designation. No country in the region achieves the designation of
"Free." The degree to which each country permits the free flow of
information determines the classification of its media as "Free,"
"Partly Free," or "Not Free."

The downward trend was particularly evident in countries with
regimes that place a premium on controlling the airwaves. Among
the Not Free states, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Russia, Tajikistan, and
Uzbekistan experienced declines. Uzbekistan and Russia suffered the
most dramatic backslide.

Russia slipped due to the Kremlin's ongoing obstruction of journalists
from reporting on sensitive topics and its tightening of control
over news sources. According to this year's report, the Russian
"authorities continued to exert direct influence on media outlets and
determine news content, as the state owns or controls the country's
three main national television networks --- Channel One, RTR, and
NTV." In 2005, Russian journalists continued to be subjected to
detention or physical attack, ostensibly from coverage of sensitive
topics such as corruption. The Russian government's posture toward
the media has also led to increased self-censorship.

Critical coverage of the Kremlin on national broadcast media is
virtually nonexistent today.

The government in Uzbekistan, which has crushed independent voices
throughout society, paid particular attention to the elimination of
independent media. The Uzbek press freedom rating for the last year
dropped accordingly.

The Andijan massacre, which occurred one year ago, was the trigger
for the further crackdown on the media in Uzbekistan. In the
immediate aftermath of the events in Andijan, the regime of President
Islam Karimov instituted a news blackout, preventing virtually any
information about the violence in the eastern Uzbek city from reaching
wider audiences.

Western-funded media in Uzbekistan drew particularly intense attention
from the government. The Karimov regime refused to renew the agreement
that allowed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to operate a bureau in
Tashkent. It likewise forced other international news and media support
organizations, including the Institute for War and Peace Reporting
(IWPR) and Internews, to close their operations in the country.

Manipulation of television news content in Uzbekistan, as in a number
of neighboring repressive countries, reached new heights over the
last year. The television medium was a favored tool in regime security
efforts. The report on Uzbekistan in this year's press-freedom survey
cites the September trial of 15 men accused of involvement in the
Andijan unrest, where "prosecutors charged that the BBC, Institute
of War and Peace Reporting, and RFE/RL had advance knowledge that
violence would break out in the city.

State-controlled media gave prominent coverage to these unsubstantiated
charges."

In Belarus, the autocratic government of Alexander Lukashenko
intensified its control over the country's media, at least in part
due to elections taking place this spring. Last year, among the
measures taken by the Belarusian authorities was passage of broadly
defined legislation that makes it a crime punishable by up to two
years in jail to "discredit Belarus" in the eyes of international
organizations and foreign governments. The same prison terms apply
to those convicted of distributing "false information" about Belarus'
political, economic, social, or international situation.

Among the regulatory tricks relied upon by media-unfriendly regimes,
the Belarus press-freedom report relates a May 2005 decree issued
by Lukashenko that banned all privately owned, but not state, media
from using the words "national" or "Belarus" in their names, forcing
a number of publications to reregister.

In a region where good news on the news media is hard to come
by, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan were the only countries to register
improvement. In Kyrgyzstan, given the larger questions concerning the
country's overall political direction, the durability of the positive
press-freedom change was far from certain, however.

Kyrgyzstan remains in the Not Free category.

Ukraine enjoys a wide range of state and private television and radio
stations, as well as print and electronic news outlets. While Ukraine's
media ownership is diverse, it still confronts the challenges that
accompany oligarchic ownership structures.

Nevertheless, since the end of 2004 the media in Ukraine, while today
still designated Partly Free, have achieved a degree of pluralism
and independence that would have been unthinkable in the pre-Orange
Revolution era.

Ukraine, now with the strongest press-freedom rating among the former
Soviet states, therefore remains a critical media case study. Just 1.5
years ago, the country suffered from many of the same pathologies that
continue to confront most of the media in the region today. In the
run-up to Ukraine's pivotal 2004 elections, for example, "temnyky" -
editorial theme directives from the president's office -- were standard
operating procedure. This practice was purged from the Ukrainian media
landscape but remains a blight on many other former Soviet states'
media systems.

The significant yet incomplete progress in Ukraine should serve as
a reminder that overcoming deeply entrenched Soviet-era habits and
practices will be a trying, long-term effort for reform of the media,
as well as for other key institutions that form the building blocks
of democratic societies.