Attacks on the Press 1999: Europe & Central Asia Analysis

By Chrystyna Lapychak 
Wars in Yugoslavia and Chechnya dominated regional and international headlines in 1999. The conflicts raised the journalists’ death toll in the region and prompted crackdowns, as governments blocked access to war zones and engaged in propaganda campaigns.

Of the nine journalists in the region that CPJ confirmed were killed in the line of duty last year, all except one were victims of military attacks on civilian targets. This list does not include the sixteen Radio-Television Serbia (RTS) employees who died in NATO’s April 23 bombing attack on the RTS studios in Belgrade. After a thorough investigation, CPJ concluded that RTS’ programming, and the role that the station played in inciting ethnic violence throughout the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, disqualifies the network’s employees as journalists, according to CPJ’s definition. It does not disqualify them as civilians under the Geneva Conventions, however, and NATO has yet to provide convincing evidence to support its contention that RTS was a legitimate military target.

Russian leaders viewed NATO’s Kosovo air campaign as a green light to launch indiscriminate air attacks during their military crusade against Islamic separatists in the breakaway region of Chechnya. Three Chechen journalists were killed by air raids while attempting to cover the impact of the conflict on Chechen civilians.

In both conflicts, local governments have attempted to control press coverage of the fighting by denying visas to foreign correspondents and restricting access to targets, casualties, or the front lines. The Milosevic regime practiced outright military censorship, while Russia’s strict rules against broadcasting interview footage of rebel leaders are tantamount to censorship.

Both governments clamped down on domestic criticism, retaliating harshly against local journalists who attempted to provide independent coverage of the conflicts. In the Russian media case, however, there has been minimal resistance to the Kremlin’s official line. This is in stark contrast to the Russian press’ vocal opposition to Moscow’s failed Chechen offensive in 1994 – 96.

Many Kosovar Albanian journalists were forced into exile, where several resumed publication, with the help of Western donors, for a readership of refugees. Journalists were able to return to Kosovo when Serbian forces withdrew in June, and began to rebuild. There, as in Bosnia, the issues of hate speech and the threat of violence from local extremists were of central concern. As in Bosnia, the international community tried to keep the peace by imposing media regulations, including sanctions for hate speech.

Although eight journalists were killed in crossfire while covering military operations in Chechnya and Yugoslavia last year, CPJ confirmed only one case of a journalist who was assassinated in retaliation for his work. On April 11, two masked gunmen shot Slavko Curuvija, publisher of the Yugoslav daily Dnevni Telegraf, in central Belgrade while he was walking home with his wife. All available evidence suggests that the Milosevic regime was responsible for Curuvija’s death.

However, violent assaults and attempted assassinations continued to plague journalists across the region, especially in Russia’s various regions and republics, many ruled by unaccountable local autocrats. Across the former Soviet Union, journalists investigating official corruption were particularly at risk.

In Kazakhstan and Ukraine, increasingly dictatorial leaders led parallel crusades against ex-premiers who threatened their hegemony over domestic affairs, especially the press. Both Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Ukraine’s President Leonid Kuchma (CPJ named the latter to its list of the press’ ten worst enemies last year) used privatization and deregulation to enlarge their powers and enrich their friends. Through covert buyouts and bureaucratic harassment, Nazarbayev and Kuchma have ensured that all major national media in their countries are loyal to them, if not directly controlled by relatives or close associates. Thanks to their efforts, independent news is a scarce commodity in both countries.

Criminal libel laws, including seditious libel provisions, are the most ubiquitous instruments used to jail journalists throughout the region. With some support from Western governments and private institutions, journalists and press freedom advocates across the region lobbied hard to reform local press laws last year. Their efforts bore fruit in Georgia, and to a lesser extent in Bulgaria, where both parliaments agreed to modify their penal and civil codes to protect journalists against libel suits and prosecutions. But libel actions against the press reached epidemic proportions across the region, notably in Croatia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Bosnia.

For the most part, judges seemed to dole out short-term suspended prison sentences aimed at discouraging muckraking journalists. Uzbekistan was an exception to this trend, preferring to apply Soviet-style prosecutions and long-term sentences to weed out the few journalists who dared to cross President Islam Karimov. In 1999, Samarkand radio reporter Shadi Mardiev served the second year of an 11-year prison term as his health continued to deteriorate. And two exiled journalists with the opposition newspaper Erk were extradited from Ukraine to Uzbekistan. Having been tried and convicted of charges that included slandering the president, participating in a banned political organization, and attempting to overthrow the regime, they received 14- and 15-year jail sentences respectively.

Meanwhile, the parliaments of Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and even the relatively liberal Czech Republic debated new media laws whose first drafts contained blatant restrictions on press freedom. In response to criticism from domestic and international press freedom advocates, all three bills were amended to eliminate some of the worst provisions. However, the final versions of new media laws adopted by both Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan still set up troubling obstacles for independent journalism. The Czech Republic’s controversial media bill was due for further debate in the new year.

Chrystyna Lapychak is program coordinator for Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics.

Fred Abrahams, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, wrote the Albania analysis.

Judith H. Blank is CPJ’s communications director.She wrote the analysis of Poland.

Jerome Aumente is professor and founding director of the Journalism Resources Institute at Rutgers University. He wrote the analysis of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Stewart Chisholm is research assistant for the Europe program at CPJ. He did extensive research for this section and wrote the Bulgaria, Romania, and Kyrgyzstan analyses.

Ann Cooper, CPJ’s executive director, wrote the analysis of Georgia.

Paul Legendre, Europe Program Coordinator at the International League for Human Rights, wrote the Armenia, Slovakia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan analyses.

Claudia McElroy is CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, and a former free-lance reporter in Tajikistan. She wrote the Tajikistan analysis.

Joel Simon, CPJ’s deputy director, wrote the analysis of Yugoslavia.

CPJ’s work in Europe was funded in part by a grant from the Freedom Forum