Attacks on the Press 2002: Europe and Central Asia Analysis

While some governments in Central Asia and Eastern Europe are taking small steps forward regarding the media, 2002 was another dismal year for press freedom in much of the region. In some countries, a growing concern about Western public opinion resulted in a shift from blatant attacks to more subtle, covert tactics to control national media, and a lack of public information and state accountability continued to haunt the majority of the region.

Nowhere was this absence seen more starkly than in Russia, where conflict in the southern region of Chechnya became nearly impossible for the media to cover. The Kremlin maintained its information embargo on Chechnya, severely restricting the ability of Russian and foreign correspondents to report independently on the war’s devastation. Journalists were required to travel with police escorts, which, along with the fear of being kidnapped by Chechen rebels, made it difficult to meet and speak with ordinary citizens.

Reporting in Russia was not only difficult, but it was also often dangerous. In 2002, three journalists were killed there because of their work–bringing the total number killed during the last 10 years to 37. Moreover–as seen by the shocking June 2002 acquittal of six suspects who had confessed to various elements of the 1994 murder of journalist Dmitry Kholodov–perpetrators are almost never punished, fostering a culture of impunity in the country.

In October, the sheer level of violence in Russia hit the world stage when a group of heavily armed Chechen rebels seized some 700 people in a Moscow theater, demanding that Russian troops pull out of Chechnya. The three-day crisis had a disastrous effect on the media. As local journalists scrambled to cover the situation and provide the public with information about what was happening in the theater, the Kremlin panicked, and the Media Ministry threatened news outlets that reported on the hostage-takers’ demands and the government’s sloppy response. The ministry temporarily closed the private Moscow television station Moskoviya for allegedly promoting terrorism and threatened to shut down the Web site of independent Moscow-based Ekho Moskvy radio station for posting the transcript of a telephone interview with a hostage-taker.

After President Vladimir Putin ordered security forces to use a narcotic gas and storm the theater–a move that resulted in more than 120 civilian deaths–the Kremlin set its sights on a number of media outlets whose coverage had criticized the decision. The
government pressured the television network NTV, unsuccessfully, to fire host and deputy head of news Savik Shuster for broadcasting an interview with anguished relatives of some of the hostages. Kremlin officials succeeded in pressuring authorities in the autonomous republic of Tatarstan to dismiss Irek Murtazin, director of the republic’s television station, for hosting a talk show where participants criticized the Kremlin’s domestic policies and called for an end to the war in Chechnya. Even Russian embassies throughout Europe went on the offensive, publicly criticizing German ARD television, Czech Television, and the Turkish media for their coverage of the hostage crisis.

While the Kremlin tried to maintain a democratic veneer over its elaborate authoritarian policies, other countries didn’t even bother with appearances. In Turkmenistan, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, draconian regimes continued to use violence and criminal prosecution to squelch unwanted voices. The ongoing repression of journalists in these nations intensified regional instability by denying citizens access to the most basic information about their countries. Press restrictions also prevented citizens from expressing their frustration, exposing official corruption, and encouraging political participation.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Central Asia, government leaders were busy showing the United States that they support the Americans in their “war on terror.” That had some positive effects on press freedom, with stronger U.S. diplomatic and military engagement encouraging authorities in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to take some concrete steps toward liberalization. For instance, Tajik president Imomali Rakhmonov granted Asia-Plus
news agency a broadcasting license in July, while Uzbekistan’s president, Islam Karimov, authorized the release of journalist Shodi Mardiev from prison in January, allowed for the registration of the country’s first human rights organization, and announced the end of prior censorship.

While these steps were often merely diplomatic overtures rather than changes in policy (for instance, in Uzbekistan, responsibility for censorship was transferred from the government to editors, who are unlikely to risk publishing something that offends authorities), journalists saw the moves as small victories. Nonetheless, members of the media were frustrated that the United States did not push more aggressively for press freedom reforms. In Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, whose president, Askar Akayev, has also been emboldened by the growing number of U.S. troops stationed in the country, authorities have used the threat of international terrorism to curb political dissent and suppress independent and opposition media. In fact, Uzbekistan’s president continued to view imprisonment as an acceptable means of silencing the media; at year’s end, at least three journalists remained incarcerated in that country’s brutal penal system in retaliation for their reporting.

In Ukraine, the killings and beatings of journalists and state-ordered closings of media outlets gave way to covert pressure and government directives. In the run-up to March parliamentary elections, President Leonid Kuchma violated press freedom and censored the media by denying his political opponents media access and turning influential state and private news outlets that supported him into government mouthpieces. Journalists in the capital, Kyiv, reported receiving explicit instructions from the president’s administration prescribing subjects to be covered and how to report them. The instructions were distributed to all television stations and large newspapers by a representative from Kuchma’s office who, when questioned about them, said they were merely “suggestions.”

Such methods also prevailed in Yugoslavia, where politicians have forsaken the brutal methods of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic but have, nonetheless, sought to preserve other levers of power over the press through carefully leaked information and public smear campaigns. Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic shut down the Information Ministry, replacing it with the Communications Bureau and installing propaganda chief Vladimir “Beba” Popovic as its head. Popovic proceeded to discredit Djindjic rivals by leaking secret police files to media outlets loyal to the prime minister. In some cases, Popovic bullied journalists and editors for criticizing Djindjic. For example, in mid-September, Popovic was accused of organizing a smear campaign in the local media wrongfully accusing radio B92 editor-in-chief Veran Matic of illegally privatizing the station. Two media outlets allied with Djindjic, TVBK and TV Pink, gave the story prime-time news coverage. B92 is Belgrade’s most popular radio station, and local journalists said the campaign was an attempt to punish the outlet for maintaining an independent editorial policy and diluting the government’s influence over the broadcast media.

On a more positive note, elsewhere in Europe, the possibility of membership in the European Union (EU) and NATO sometimes gave a boost to press freedom. Eager for
the security guarantees of NATO and EU agricultural and economic subsidies, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia gradually worked toward Western ideals of democracy to comply with the legal reforms necessary for membership. In their desire to put their recent communist past behind them and integrate culturally and politically with the West, these countries moved to adopt democratic media regulations and laws. For instance, Slovakia suspended parts of its criminal defamation statute, making it more difficult for an individual to file a criminal libel suit against a journalist. Some countries, notably Romania, used threats and intimidation to suppress critical reporting that could jeopardize the country’s bid to join NATO.

But the concern about presenting a democratic face to curry favor with the EU and NATO during the application processes may have been an optimistic sign for press freedom in the Czech Republic. In July, Czech authorities were quick to investigate and prevent the assassination of Sabina Slonkova, a reporter for the Prague daily Mlada Fronta Dnes. Slonkova was the target of a hit man who had been hired by a former high-level government official about whom she had written critically.

Alex Lupis is CPJ’s program coordinator for Europe and Central Asia. Olga Tarasov, who is CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia research associate, contributed substantially to the research and writing of this section. CPJ interns Ana Andjelic, Jimmy Manuel Wong, Lidija Markes, and Aijan Mukanbektalieva assisted in researching and documenting the cases.