Attacks on the Press 2000: Europe & Central Asia Analysis
March 19, 2001 12:10 PM ET
POLITICAL REFORMS AND ECONOMIC GROWTH, along with the advent of democratic governments in Croatia and Serbia, brightened the security prospects for journalists in Central Europe and the Balkans. In contrast, Russian's new government imposed press restrictions, and authoritarian regimes entrenched themselves in other countries of the former Soviet Union, particularly in Central Asia, further threatening the independent press.
CPJ confirmed that in 2000, five journalists were killed as a result of their reporting in Europe and Central Asia. In Russia, two journalists were killed in Chechnya, and one in Moscow. (CPJ could not confirm the motives for the killings of four other journalists in Russia during the year.) In Ukraine, the disappearance and murder of Internet journalist Georgy Gongadze highlighted the extreme vulnerability of independent journalists in that country. And in a rare Western European case, a Spanish journalist was killed in response to his coverage of the Basque separatist group ETA.
In Russia, the ascendancy of President Vladimir Putin sparked an alarming assault on press freedom (See special report ). In the name of strengthening the state, Putin imposed censorship in Chechnya, orchestrated legal cases against the country's powerful media barons, began centralizing government subsidies to regional media, issued an ominous Information Security Doctrine, and granted sweeping powers of surveillance to the security services.
While very few journalists disobeyed the government's rules, one who suffered as a consequence of doing so was Andrei Babitsky, a Russian national whose coverage of the Chechen conflict for the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) had angered the Russian military. In mid-January, Babitsky disappeared in Chechnya. Russian authorities waited two weeks to acknowledge that the journalist was in military custody, and that he had been charged with "participating in an armed formation."
This charge was later dropped. On February 3, Russian military authorities handed Babitsky over to purported Chechen rebels, whom Babitsky later claimed were loyal to Moscow. This bizarre piece of theater was apparently staged to suggest that Babitsky was a Chechen rebel sympathizer. Three weeks later, the journalist appeared in Makhachkala, capital of neighboring Dagestan. Russian authorities promptly arrested him on the charge of possessing a false Azeri passport, which Babitsky claimed had been forced on him by his Chechen captors after they took away his own documents. He was flown to Moscow and barred from leaving the country before his October trial, in which the journalist was convicted of using false documents but then amnestied by the Russian Duma.
In the Balkans, Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic waged an extraordinary campaign of police and judicial harassment against the independent Serbian media, even after losing the September 24 presidential elections. Milosevic only conceded defeat on October 7, two weeks after the election and two days after 500,000 enraged Serbs stormed the Parliament building and the state television headquarters in Belgrade. Milosevic's downfall, coupled with the defeat of the late Croatian president Franjo Tudjman's nationalist HDZ party in early 2000, drastically shifted the political landscape in Southeastern Europe.
These political changes led to a dramatic decrease in the state-sponsored harassment and abuse of independent journalists in Serbia and Croatia. Journalists investigating organized crime, government corruption, and war crimes continued to remain highly vulnerable to physical attack, however, particularly in Bosnia and Kosovo. In Croatia and Romania, far-right political activists launched attacks on journalists. Governments in Albania and Macedonia, meanwhile, struggled with fundamental regulatory issues and widespread media piracy.
In Ukraine, libel suits and physical attacks persisted against the dwindling minority of journalists willing to take the risks involved in reporting on corrupt government officials. In September, Internet journalist Georgy Gongadze, whose Ukrainska Pravda news site (www.pravda.com.ua) frequently criticized President Leonid Kuchma and other top government officials, disappeared. The retrieval of the journalist's decapitated and mutilated body in November, and the release of taped conversations in which Kuchma and top aides allegedly planned Gongadze's demise, precipitated a political crisis that was still raging as this volume went to press. CPJ also documented instances of state harassment against journalists who covered the Gongadze affair.
In neighboring Belarus, President Aleksandr Lukashenko pressed his assault on the small but active opposition media. State authorities were strongly suspected in the July disappearance of ORT television journalist Dmitry Zavadsky. Towards the end of the year, the government even seized the assets of the Magic company, the largest independent printing press in the country.
While attacks on journalists were far less common in Central Europe than in the Balkans, the police and judiciary there seemed uninterested in pursuing cases that came to their attention. As a result, the vast majority of violent attacks on the press were unsolved. And in all these countries, state media remained partisan and largely unreformed. In Hungary, for example, the ruling coalition enacted brazen legislative measures to retain its control over state-run media. Aided by massive public demonstrations, however, journalists at Czech Television successfully rebelled against the appointment of a partisan director in December.
Both Bulgaria and Croatia decriminalized their libel laws last year, making it harder and more costly for politicians to pursue libel cases. But throughout Central and Southeastern Europe, the threat of jail and costly fines associated with libel suits discouraged journalists from investigating official corruption.
On a positive note, Slovakia, Bosnia, Moldova, and Georgia all passed freedom-of-information laws in late 1999 or 2000, and parliaments in Poland and Romania will consider such laws in 2001. Greater access to government documents and information will make it easier for journalists to document the corruption and cronyism that is so prevalent in the public sector.
In Azerbaijan, President Heidar Aliyev's officials persistently harassed a robust independent press. Journalists were fined and detained. Newspapers were shut down. Television stations had their broadcast licenses revoked. In August, Rauf Arifoglu, an opposition candidate for Parliament and the editor of the opposition daily Yeni Musavat, was arrested and charged with attempted hijacking, terrorism, and illegal possession of arms for the mere act of reporting a recent hijacking in his newspaper. Three weeks later, he was further charged with calling for a coup d'état. If convicted on all counts, he faces up to 25 years in prison.
In Armenia, the few reported abuses of press freedom were largely the result of the country's bleak and impoverished conditions, although there were occasional beatings, interrogations, and criminal defamation cases. The Armenian government's near monopoly on printing facilities was broken in November, when a private publishing house opened in Yerevan.
Georgia's government struggled to cope with organized crime, separatist movements, and the war in neighboring Chechnya. Georgian officials continued to intimidate and abuse critical media outlets. In February, local politicians forced three out of four owners of Telekanal 25, the only independent television station in the autonomous Georgian region of Adjaria, which is not controlled by the central government, to sell their stake in the station.
In their zeal to suppress, imprison, or co-opt journalists, the Central Asian states of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were extreme cases in a particularly authoritarian neighborhood. Uzbekistan held three journalists at year's end, most of them serving sentences of more than 10 years in prisons where
torture, psychological pressure, and cruel and degrading treatment recall the Soviet era. In June, Turkmenistan established a Council for the Supervision of Foreigners, responsible among other things for supervising foreign correspondents in the country.
In both countries, the state exercises near-total control over the production and dissemination of both print and broadcast media, forcing all journalists to work in a climate of pervasive fear and self-censorship.
Neighboring countries showed no signs of improvement last year. Governments in Tajikistan and even Kyrgyzstan, long considered an island of democracy in Central Asia, responded to growing popular unrest or discontent with increasingly authoritarian rule. There were numerous criminal libel suits filed, while access to production and distribution facilities was restricted. In Tajikistan, there were several violent attacks against journalists.
Kazakhstan continued to wage an effective campaign of harassment, lawsuits, large fines, confiscation of assets, surveillance, and arrests against journalists who criticized government policies. In July, for example, the newspaper SolDat was unable to secure printing services in Kazakhstan due to state intimidation. When the paper resorted to publishing in neighboring Russia and Kyrgyzstan, Kazakh border guards and customs officials confiscated the printed copies. At press time, the weekly was suspended and its editor, Yermurat Bapi, faced criminal prosecution on two counts of defaming President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Governments all over Eastern Europe and Central Asia adopted different strategies in their efforts to control the Internet. The independent Serbian station Radio B2-92 aptly demonstrated the rising popularity and influence of Internet journalism in the Balkans and throughout the former Soviet Union. The Milosevic government took over Radio B2-92's Belgrade headquarters in May, but the station was able to continue broadcasting over the Internet (to a reduced audience) until Milosevic's October ouster.
Turkmenistan took a radical step in May, when the Ministry of Communication rescinded the licenses of all private Internet service providers (ISPs) in the country. In September, Kazakhstan's two main ISPs blocked access to the independent news site Eurasia (www.eurasia.ru). And in Russia, all ISPs must now route their traffic through servers controlled by law enforcement agencies.
Alexander Lupis is the program coordinator for Europe and Central Asia. Anya Paretskaya is the research associate for Europe and Central Asia and wrote the analyses of Azerbaijan, Belarus, Hungary, Moldova, Romania, and Ukraine. Emma Gray is the consultant for Europe and Central Asia and wrote the analyses of Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Joel Simon is the deputy director of CPJ and wrote the analysis of Spain.
CPJ's work in Kazakhstan was funded by a grant from the Freedom Forum.