Attacks on the Press 2001: Europe & Central Asia

The exhilarating prospect of broad press freedoms that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union a decade ago has faded dramatically in much of the post-communist world. A considerable decline in press freedom conditions in Russia during the last year, along with the stranglehold authoritarian leaders have imposed on media in Central Asia, the Caucasus, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova, has put journalists on the defensive across the region.

Even in the Balkans, press freedom gains have remained modest despite the election of reformist governments in Croatia, Serbia, and parts of Bosnia. Interethnic tension, political extremism, official corruption, organized crime, and weak government institutions ensure that journalists remain highly vulnerable. In Central Europe, journalists work in a relatively safe environment yet must still contend with politicized state broadcasters, as well as with threats and legal intimidation from politicians. Criminal libel laws and monopolies over media ownership afflict most of Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

In May 2001, CPJ placed Russian president Vladimir Putin on its annual Ten Worst Enemies of the Press list. Throughout 2001, his government imposed censorship on journalists covering the conflict in Chechnya, legally harassed private media outlets, and granted sweeping powers of surveillance to security services. Despite Putin’s professed goal of imposing the rule of law, numerous journalists across Russia have been violently attacked with impunity. Russia has one jailed journalist, Grigory Pasko, who was sentenced in December 2001 to four years in prison on spurious treason charges.

In an ominous and dramatic move in April 2001, the state-run Gazprom corporation took over NTV, Russia’s most prominent independent national television network. At the same time, Gazprom took over the Sem Dnei Publishing House, which owned a prominent Moscow daily and a prestigious newsweekly. Within days, the new Gazprom management had shut down the newspaper and ousted top journalists at the weekly.

Despite Gazprom’s insistence that the changes were strictly business, the main beneficiary was Putin himself, whose primary critics were silenced. The government wrested even more control from media when a January 2002 court ruling ordered the liquidation of the parent company of TV-6, an independent national television network that has criticized the Kremlin.

While many former Soviet republics have used naked repression to muzzle their journalists, the takeover of NTV and the liquidation of TV-6 marked the debut of a more refined technique of political action disguised as capitalism. These developments provoked anxiety among journalists in neighboring former Soviet republics. Many fear that their own governments will follow Russia’s precedent by orchestrating the state takeover of independent media and then calling it a business dispute.

Press freedom conditions along Russia’s southern periphery in Central Asia, where journalists continue to struggle under the harshest of conditions, were even grimmer. Authoritarian leaders either strengthened their hold on the few remaining independent media outlets or reinforced their complete control over media.

In both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the government aggressively kept local independent and opposition media from publishing. The Kazakh government used pliant judges, the tax police, and other economic levers to convict or impose fines on prominent opposition journalists. Press freedom in Kyrgyzstan, meanwhile, suffered major setbacks as politically motivated civil libel suits filed by government officials resulted in heavy damage awards, forcing newspapers such as the independent weekly Res Publica and Asaba, the country’s oldest and most popular Kyrgyz-language publication, to either shut down or operate on the brink of bankruptcy.

Tajikistan continues to suffer from the aftermath of its civil war, which ended in 1997. Local journalists work in dire conditions of instability and poverty, exacerbated by stifling restrictions from President Imomali Rakhmonov. Turkmenistan, meanwhile, remained completely isolated under President Saparmurat Niyazov’s totalitarian cult of personality, and the state retained control over all publishing and broadcast licenses.

President Islam Karimov’s brutal repression of all domestic dissent continued in Uzbekistan. The July dismissal of Alo Khodzhayev, the increasingly outspoken editor-in-chief of the Russian-language daily Tashkentskaya Pravda, and the decision of Shukhrat Babadjanov, director of the independent TV station ALC in Urgench, to flee the country for fear of his life, ensured that the government’s control of the media, including the Internet, remained all but absolute. Uzbekistan also remains the region’s most active jailer of journalists. Despite the release of radio journalist Shodi Mardiev in January 2002 under an amnesty, three other journalists continued to serve long sentences.

Following the September 11 attacks on the United States, some Central Asian leaders were eager to utilize the “war on terrorism” as an excuse to stifle domestic dissent further. Even in Russia, there was anxiety that political leaders might harness the crisis for their own advantage. Aleksei Pankin, a media analyst with The Moscow Times, wrote that “here in Russia the authorities are always most eager to borrow from the worst elements of Western experience.”

Most state-run or pro-government independent media outlets in Central Asia downplayed the war in Afghanistan and the presence of U.S. troops in the region in an effort to quell potential anti-Western and anti-government sentiment. Wherever possible, local residents turned to Russian television channels and Western radio broadcasts in Russian and other Central Asian languages for news.

In the Caucasus, press freedom conditions continued to stagnate under the weight of widespread poverty, polarized politics, corruption, and political instability. Dire economic conditions proved to be the greatest obstacle for independent media outlets in Armenia, where self-censorship and reporting in exchange for financial support from wealthy patrons undermined journalists’ independence.

In Azerbaijan, the government of President Heydar Aliyev continued to crack down on independent and opposition media through state-sponsored harassment, defamation lawsuits, financial pressure, imprisonment, and physical assault. Courts forcibly closed the independent weeklies Milletin Sesi and Bakinsky Bulvar, for example, after high-level government officials sued the papers. A government-mandated switch from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet and licensing problems placed additional financial burdens on the Azeri media.

Rampant corruption, organized crime, and political instability in Georgia ensured that journalists who dared to cover the country’s volatile politics and influential criminal gangs faced reprisals, often from President Eduard Shevardnadze’s strong-armed government. In late October, agents from the National Security Ministry raided the headquarters of the independent television station Rustavi-2, sparking large anti-government demonstrations and a political crisis that only subsided after Shevardnadze dismissed his entire cabinet.

Along Russia’s western periphery, press freedom in Moldova, Ukraine, and Belarus remained under fire and showed no significant signs of improvement. Government pressure on Moldovan media outlets increased following Communist Party victories in parliamentary and presidential elections.

In Ukraine, President Leonid Kuchma’s government stepped up its habitual censorship of opposition newspapers and increased attacks and threats against independent journalists, earning Kuchma a spot on CPJ’s annual list of the Ten Worst Enemies of the Press. The disappearance and presumed murder of Internet editor Georgy Gongadze in late 2000 brought the plight of Ukrainian journalists into sharp focus. Allegations that Kuchma himself may have ordered Gongadze’s murder sparked a political crisis that threatened to bring down his government.

The July murder of Igor Aleksandrov, director of the independent television company Tor, and the unsolved Gongadze case highlight a pattern of Ukrainian police stalling criminal investigations and claiming attacks are unrelated to journalists’ work. As a result, violence against journalists continues with impunity.

President Aleksandr Lukashenko continued his assault on the independent and opposition press in Belarus. Lukashenko managed to cling to power in September 9 presidential elections amid charges of human rights violations and electoral fraud. The government made little progress in the case of Dmitry Zavadsky, a cameraman who disappeared in July 2000, while independent publications faced harassment, censorship, seizure, and closure for criticizing the regime.

Following the demise of the Milosevic and Tudjman regimes, press freedom in the Balkans showed only modest improvement under reformist governments in Serbia, Croatia, and parts of Bosnia, where fragile ruling coalitions often sought to co-opt state-run and independent media outlets.

Unresponsive police forces, particularly in Serbia and Bosnia, ensured that journalists reporting on organized crime, official corruption, and war crimes continue to be intimidated, beaten, and murdered with impunity. Simmering interethnic tensions in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia also inhibited the ability of journalists to move freely and securely within their own countries

In Macedonia, journalists faced harassment and assault as the conflict between state security forces and ethnic Albanian rebels escalated throughout the year. Widespread poverty, weak government institutions, and faltering political and economic reforms inhibited free expression throughout much of the Balkans, particularly in Romania and Albania.

Central European countries pressed ahead with political reforms in their efforts to join the European Union (EU). But in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and elsewhere, powerful officials wielded criminal libel charges and other aggressive tactics to intimidate critical journalists in both state and public media.

On the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, which is also in line for EU membership, opposition media outlets in the northern Turkish-occupied sector, such as the daily Avrupa, faced harassment, intimidation, and violence in retaliation for criticizing Rauf Denktash, leader of the breakaway northern Cypriot regime.

In Western Europe, sectarian violence and political protests posed significant risks for both journalists and media executives. The Basque separatist group ETA continued to target media outlets in Spain in retaliation for their news coverage. In 2001, ETA maimed Basque journalist Gorka Landaburu with a letter bomb on May 15 and killed newspaper executive Santiago Oleaga Elejebarrieta on May 24.

Two months later, in late July, journalists covering the Group of Eight summit of the world’s industrialized nations in Genoa, Italy, suffered brutal attacks from police officers and demonstrators. A parliamentary commission created to investigate allegations of police misconduct released a report on September 14 that praised the police for keeping order and blamed the violence on the protesters.

In 2001, seven journalists in Europe and Central Asia were killed in retaliation for their reporting. This was an increase from the five killed in 2000, but an average figure for the region during the mid-to-late 1990s, by which time civil wars in Tajikistan, Georgia, and the former Yugoslavia had, for the most part, subsided.

Four of the journalists were killed for investigating official corruption or organized crime in provincial areas of Russia, Ukraine, Latvia, and Serbia. In the summer of 2001, a popular television journalist with the embattled Rustavi-2 station in Tbilisi, Georgia, was also murdered.

Two other journalists were killed while covering conflicts. An Associated Press Television News correspondent was killed just inside Kosovo while reporting on NATO operations related to fighting in neighboring Macedonia. Investigative journalist Martin O’Hagan, shot dead outside his home in the Northern Irish town of Lurgan, was the first reported fatality of a journalist covering the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Alex Lupis is the CPJ program coordinator for Europe and Central Asia. Olga Tarasov is the CPJ research associate for Europe and Central Asia. Emma Gray is the CPJ program consultant for this region. The CPJ fact-finding and advocacy mission to Serbia and Bosnia was funded by a grant from Freedom Foundation.