While the countries that once made up the Soviet bloc now enjoy much greater freedom than they did a decade ago, the status of press freedom and working conditions for journalists in the region vary greatly.
With some notable exceptions, overt institutional censorship has largely disappeared, private media have proliferated, and journalists have founded associations to defend their rights. Yet across the region, to varying degrees, journalistic standards are lacking, the role of the media remains ill-defined, and news organizations are still manipulated by and subjected to pressure from governments and burgeoning business interests.
Countries such as Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, which have progressed the most in reforming their political and economic systems, have successfully fostered vibrant, diverse, and free media climates. In some places—Russia is the most important example—government or state monopolies have been replaced by new private media monoliths battling for control of the airwaves. The competition among a handful of powerful media moguls has often proved dangerous, because they still use their media outlets as direct instruments of political power. In many countries in the region with developing market economies, the lines between political and business interests are blurred.
In Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the media have remained concentrated in the hands of authoritarian rulers, and there are few if any alternative media outlets. Other countries in the region with autocratic regimes, such as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, have developed vibrant and varied independent media, which manage to function despite official harassment.
The most alarming trend across the region remains the persistence of violence against journalists, particularly murders linked to their publications or broadcasts. While the overall number of killings, most of which occurred in war zones, has declined since the end of the conflicts in Tajikistan, Chechnya, and the former Yugoslavia, murders and beatings of journalists in nonconflict areas have become routine in such places as the Russian Federation and Ukraine.
Last year, CPJ investigated 10 suspicious deaths of journalists in the region, yet was only able to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that one journalist, Borys Derevyanko of the Ukrainian daily Vechernyaya Odessa, was murdered directly as a result of work. Murky circumstances and contradictory evidence made it difficult to verify the motives in the deaths of two other journalists, Petro Shevchenko of the daily newspaper Kievskiye Vedomosti in Ukraine and Valery Krivosheyev of Komsomolskaya Pravda, a daily newspaper in Russia. After thoroughly investigating seven other deaths, CPJ concluded that the deceased were evidently victims of crime, accidents, fatal illness, or could not be described as journalists at the time of their deaths.
The number of confirmed assassinations is not the only barometer to measure risk. In and around Chechnya, an epidemic of kidnappings of foreigners, including journalists on assignment, by armed bands seeking ransom have made it the the most dangerous place for journalists in the region. Few if any foreign or Russian journalists venture into the area, which has contributed to its deepening isolation and created a virtual information blackout.
Beatings, death threats, detentions, bombings, arson, and financial pressures have become routine means of intimidating the press, particularly independent and opposition media, across the region. A building housing the state news agency in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, was bombed, as were the editorial offices of an alternative newspaper in the Serb-controlled area of Bosnia. Bosnian journalists fear crossing borders between the Serb, Croat, and Muslim-controlled areas because they are still often harassed by local police from the other entities, particularly the allies of Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb opposition leader who is wanted by The Hague Tribunal for initiating wartime atrocities.
Karadzic’s hand has been weakened, however, by the loss of control over most of the Bosnian Serb airwaves. In September, NATO returned a confiscated television transmitter to Karadzic’s allies on the assurance that they would allow opposition groups to use it. But in Ocober, in a move that sparked international controversy, NATO troops seized four television transmitters from Karadzic’s supporters on the grounds that they had violated the Dayton Accords by airing anti-NATO broadcasts. The newly confiscated equipment was then turned over to Karadzic’s rival, President Biljana Plavsic (see "Bosnia").
News media and journalists were also targets of violent attacks and enforced censorship in Albania during riots protesting the collapse of government-backed pyramid investment schemes. The offices of the opposition newspaper Koha Jone were torched, and many journalists were beaten and harassed by police while covering the disturbances. Reporters covering anti-government demonstrations in Bulgaria and Serbia early in the year were also subjected to detentions, beatings, and other forms of intimidation.
Journalists pursuing investigative stories on corruption and organized crime have found themselves at greatest risk across the region, but especially in Russia and Ukraine, where beatings have become routine. These physical assaults have had the expected chilling effect on investigative journalism, frightening some reporters into self-censorship or even quitting the profession, while many have resorted to using pseudonyms. Short-term detention of reporters covering public protests was another ubiquitous means of intimidating them from pursuing such stories. Death threats were used against journalists in Russia, Ukraine, Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Croatia, and Albania.
In his relentless crackdown on Belarus’ independent and opposition media, President Aleksander Lukashenko detained, arrested, expelled, disaccredited, and finally banned journalists and news outlets. Conditions for the press are worse than in the final years of the Soviet Union. Lukashenko concentrated his wrath on journalists from Russian television companies whose broadcasts reach a large portion of Belarus. After expelling Aleksander Stupnikov, a correspondent for Russia’s independent NTV, he arrested and tried a crew from the Russian ORT company on charges of illegally crossing an unguarded section of Belarus’ border with Lithuania. Lukashenko detained and expelled another ORT crew and refused to give anyone from the company accreditation in Belarus. In the fall, the populist leader finally moved to shut down Svaboda, a popular opposition newspaper that had endured much official intimidation. His campaign to stamp out all critical coverage culminated in the adoption by his rubber-stamp legislature of new amendments to the country’s press law which give him near-total control over the media.
National elections in Yugoslavia and Croatia prompted the leaders of both countries to step up pressure on the independent media. Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic shut down 77 independent radio and television stations in July and August after announcing new and completely convoluted frequency licensing procedures. The stations went back on the air temporarily during elections for the Serbian Parliament only because several political re-alignments at the time seemed to ensure his left-wing coalition would retain dominance. The leaders of Tajikistan and Kazakhstan similarly used their countries’ regulatory systems and broadcast licensing procedures to harass independent broadcasters.
Despite a landslide election victory in June, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman continued to exert pressure on independent media, such as the Feral Tribune and Globus weekly newspapers, with hundreds of seditious, criminal and civil libel suits filed against them by officials.
Although many countries in the region have adopted constitutional guarantees
against censorship, their constitutions, media legislation, and criminal
codes limit criticism of government officials by penalizing so-called false
and dishonoring comments, insults, and criticism of the president. Criminal
libel statutes are frequently misused by public officials to suppress journalistic
investigation and shield themselves from public scrutiny.
There are also many contradictions and restrictions within national media legislation throughout the region that effectively limit press freedom. Many countries have incorporated Article 10 of the European Convention on Human rights guaranteeing freedom of expression, but not without qualification: The constitutions and media laws of many countries, from Armenia to Ukraine, list vague restrictions on free expression in the interest of national security, public order, and the protection of reputations which are open to broad interpretation and abuse.
Chrystyna Lapychak, program coordinator for Central
and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republics, has more than 10 years’
experience covering the region as a journalist and analyst.
Irina Kuldjieva-Faion, research assistant for Central and Eastern Europe, provided extensive assistance for this section and prepared many of the country summaries.
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick, former program coordinator for Central Europe and the former Soviet Union, also contributed to the preparation of this section and authored a number of country summaries.
CPJ’s work in Central and Eastern Europe and the republics of the former Soviet Union was funded in part by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Open Society Institute.
CPJ is grateful for the cooperation of a number of press freedom and human rights groups, professional journalists associations, news organizations, and individuals across the region. These include: the Glasnost Defense Foundation, Internews, the National News Service (NNS), Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe, the Belarusian Association of Journalists, the Ukrainian Media Club, the Croatian Association of Journalists, Yeni Nesil of Azerbaijan, the Human Rights Center of Azerbaijan, the Yerevan Press Club, the Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights, the Bishkek Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, and others.