Attacks on the Press 2003: Europe and Central Asia Analysis

While integration into NATO and the European Union has had a positive effect on press freedom conditions in most of Central Europe and the Baltic states, the situation for journalists in Russia and the former Soviet republics has worsened steadily, with governments relying on authoritarian tactics to silence the media. Even reformist governments in the Balkans failed to make significant improvements in press freedom conditions because most leaders in the region avoided addressing the lawlessness, government corruption, and organized crime that plague their societies.

Despite advocating democratic reforms, many progressive politicians in the Balkans continue to believe that independent media should not criticize government policies. The assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in March, for example, led to the imposition of a state of emergency for 42 days, during which journalists were prohibited from reporting or commenting on “the reasons for the declaration of the state of emergency.” The Culture Ministry used the vaguely defined restrictions to fine and shutter media outlets in an arbitrary and heavy-handed manner. Throughout the rest of 2003, journalists in the Balkans endured threats, politically motivated lawsuits, and violent attacks, mostly from politicians and government officials.

Although the number of journalists in Europe and Central Asia killed or imprisoned for their work decreased in 2003–from three to one killed and from eight to six imprisoned–these smaller numbers did not reflect an improvement in safety or growing tolerance for independent news reporting. Rather, they highlighted the success of silencing journalists through more subtle forms of intimidation, such as politicized court rulings and financial pressure on media owners. Government repression of online reporting increased. And in Russia, the government continued its ferocious restrictions on coverage of the conflict in the southern republic of Chechnya while the rest of world stood by, ignoring the information void about a war that has claimed tens of thousands of lives during the last decade.

In 2003, one journalist was killed in Russia for his work. Aleksei Sidorov, editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye in the Volga River city of Togliatti, was stabbed to death outside his home in October because of the paper’s reporting on organized crime and local government corruption. He was the newspaper’s second editor-in-chief to be murdered in 18 months.

Two other murdered journalists in Europe and Central Asia may have been targeted in retaliation for their reporting. Dmitry Shvets, deputy director of the independent TV-21 station in the northern Russian city of Murmansk, was shot dead outside the station’s offices in April, possibly because of the station’s coverage of a politician’s links to organized crime. Ernis Nazalov, a Kyrgyz journalist for the Bishkek daily Kyrgyz Ruhu, died in the southern Kara-Suu District in September while investigating government corruption in the Osh regional administration. His body was found on the bank of a canal, and an incomplete police investigation has raised suspicions that he may have been murdered.

Almost all of the murders of journalists in the region during the last decade remain unsolved. Ukrainian authorities, for example, continued to actively obstruct the investigation into the September 2000 disappearance and murder of Georgy Gongadze, editor of Ukrainska Pravda, an online publication that often reported on government corruption. In neighboring Belarus, authorities obstructed an investigation into allegations that senior government officials were involved in the July 2000 disappearance and murder of Russian cameraman Dmitry Zavadsky. One of the few cases that has actually gone to trial, the October 1994 assassination of Dmitry Kholodov, a reporter for the independent Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets who had investigated corruption in the Defense Ministry, took six years to go before the courts and had not produced a conviction by year’s end.

The legacy of unsolved murders has fostered a culture of fear and self-censorship in countries such as Tajikistan, where dozens of journalists were killed during the 1992-1997 civil war between the People’s Front, a paramilitary organization led by the current president, Imomali Rakhmonov, and opposition parties. CPJ sent a delegation to Tajikistan in July that pressed senior officials from the Interior Ministry and Prosecutor General’s Office to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the murders. Little or no progress has been made in most cases, and local journalists expressed skepticism that the government has any interest in solving them. In August, CPJ sent a list of journalists killed during the civil war to the Prosecutor General’s Office. The prosecutor general replied in December that an investigative group would initiate inquiries into a number of murder cases that officials had not been aware of.

Not surprisingly, self-censorship is on the rise throughout the region, encouraged by politicized media regulators, bribery, and judges who are holdovers from the Soviet era and habitually rule in favor of the state. Growing self-censorship is also reflected in the steady decline of investigative reporting on some of the region’s most serious problems, such as rampant government corruption, organized crime, and human rights violations. Alexei Simonov, president of the Glasnost Defense Fund, a Moscow-based nongovernmental organization that monitors press freedom, believes that, “Investigative journalism is becoming an extraordinarily dangerous profession,” and this is depriving Russian society of its “eyes and ears.”

While some Russian newspapers like the Moscow-based twice-weekly Novaya Gazeta have developed a strong tradition of exposing government abuses and continue to do so, others have been dissuaded after seeing colleagues murdered, beaten, prosecuted, and fined. Journalists who have opted for publishing on the Internet–like Andrei Soldatov, who runs the Web site and specializes in writing about Russia’s powerful security services–have been detained and questioned by security forces angered by articles about their activities.

The number of imprisoned journalists in the region dropped slightly, from eight at the end of 2002 to six at the end of 2003. In Belarus, three journalists were released, while Russian authorities freed one, military journalist Grigory Pasko. However, two others were put behind bars in Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan remained the region’s leading jailer of journalists, with five imprisoned at year’s end. Mukhammad Bekdzhanov, editor of Erk, a newspaper published by the banned opposition Erk party, and Yusuf Ruzimuradov, an Erk employee, were sentenced to 14 years and 15 years in prison, respectively, in August 1999 for distributing Erk and criticizing the government. Madzhid Abduraimov, a correspondent with the national weekly Yangi Asr, was sentenced to 13 years in August 2001 for writing about corruption.

The two new journalists jailed in 2003 in Uzbekistan reflected the regime’s efforts to silence the country’s younger and more independent-minded journalists who criticize government polices. In February, Gayrat Mehliboyev, a 23-year-old freelancer, was charged with anticonstitutional activity and sentenced to seven years in prison after an April 2001 article in the state-run Tashkent newspaper Hurriyet questioned the compatibility of Islam and democracy. In August, Ruslan Sharipov, a 25-year-old press freedom activist and reporter for the Russian news agency Prima, was sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison on charges of homosexuality. For years, police and National Security Service agents have harassed Sharipov–who is openly gay–because he has criticized police abuses and press freedom violations.

Sharipov was also jailed in part because his articles were posted on the Internet in English, making his criticisms of the Uzbek government accessible to a wider international audience. Previously, governments in the region were content to block controversial news and opposition Web sites. But in 2003, officials became more sensitive to online criticism and blatantly disregarded efforts by international and nongovernmental organizations to promote greater tolerance for dissent.

In early 2003, a court in Kazakhstan’s financial capital, Almaty, sentenced Sergei Duvanov, a prominent independent journalist who wrote for opposition-financed Web sites and edited a human rights bulletin, to three-and-a-half years in prison for allegedly raping a minor. The trial was closed to the public and marred by numerous procedural violations. Duvanov, who denied the rape charges and claimed that they were politically motivated, is known for his criticism of high-level Kazakh officials, and authorities have frequently harassed him in reprisal for his work. In December, a court ruled that Duvanov could serve the rest of his term in a low-security facility.

Russian authorities also conducted a campaign to suppress news on the Internet by pressing neighboring Estonia and Lithuania to close the pro-independence Chechen news Web site Sergei Yastrezhembsky, an adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, warned Estonian authorities in April that, “Countries which aspire to partnership and mutually advantageous relations with the Russian Federation should bear in mind Russia’s categorical objection to the hosting of information resources on behalf of Chechen separatists,” the ITAR-TASS news agency reported.

The Kremlin’s aggressive efforts to close Web sites reporting on the conflict in Chechnya were part of a broader campaign to silence all independent coverage of the conflict. Despite a public relations campaign by the Kremlin claiming that life in Chechnya is returning to normal, few journalists dared to travel to the region, and those who did remained at serious risk. In July, unknown armed assailants in Ingushetia, a southern republic neighboring Chechnya, abducted Agence France-Presse correspondent Ali Astamirov. In the months prior to his abduction, police officers and FSB agents had repeatedly harassed Astamirov and obstructed his efforts to report on developments in Chechnya. At year’s end, no progress was reported in the investigation into his kidnapping.

Various branches of Russia’s government continued to intimidate journalists reporting on the conflict. In February, the Media Ministry issued an official warning to the Moscow-based, ultranationalist weekly Zavtra for publishing an interview with an exiled Chechen separatist leader. That same month, an Interior Ministry unit in Chechnya’s capital, Grozny, detained and assaulted Zamid Ayubov, a journalist for the local pro-Russian administration’s thrice-weekly Vozrozhdeniye Chechni, while he was researching the activities of police units conducting evening patrols. In March, the Prosecutor’s Office in the Siberian city of Nizhnevartovsk cleared a military officer accused of issuing death threats against Anna Politkovskaya, a war correspondent covering Chechnya for Novaya Gazeta.

In Azerbaijan, a repressive regime underwent a dynastic change in 2003, and analysts speculate that other despots in the region will soon follow suit. The country’s ailing leader, President Heydar Aliyev, appointed his son Ilham Aliyev as prime minister in August, clearing the way for a transfer of power during presidential elections scheduled for October. Authorities aggressively cracked down on the independent and opposition media to suppress reporting on the president’s deteriorating health and his son’s ascent to power in what international observers characterized as a fraudulent vote. Heydar Aliyev passed away in December, and his son continued to rely on the police, courts, and security services to suppress independent news reporting. Regional analysts pointed out that the presidents of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan appeared to be grooming their daughters to succeed them, a development likely to perpetuate the region’s restrictive policies toward the media.

Perhaps the most hopeful development in the former Soviet republics was Georgia’s so-called velvet revolution: the forced resignation of the country’s corrupt and highly unpopular president, Eduard Shevardnadze, in November. Rustavi-2, a private national television station known for its independent reporting–a rarity in post-Soviet countries–played a pivotal role with its coverage of protesters who were angered by fraudulent parliamentary elections and sought to oust Sheverdnadze. Rustavi-2 endured an intense campaign of harassment during the crisis–the Central Electoral Commission tried to revoke the station’s broadcasting license, and unknown assailants attacked the outlet’s offices with a grenade launcher. The popular uprising was the region’s first anticorruption revolt, and it highlighted the role independent media can play in promoting government accountability.

Alex Lupis is CPJ’s program coordinator for Europe and Central Asia. Freelance writer Genine Babakian and CPJ Research Associate Nina Ognianova contributed to the research and writing of this section.