Attacks on the Press 2004: Europe and Central Asia Analysis

by Alex Lupis

Authoriatarian rulers strengthened their hold on power in many former Soviet republics in 2004. Their secretive, centralized governments aggressively suppressed all forms of independent activity, from journalism and human rights monitoring to religious activism and political opposition.

Politicians, government officials, and pro-government businesses have relied on a combination of covert bureaucratic controls, lawsuits, hostile corporate takeovers, and aggressive harassment by security services to consolidate control over influential broadcasters and instill widespread self-censorship among print journalists.

National broadcasters are the most popular and influential sources of news, but truly independent-minded stations are being eradicated in many parts of the region. A small number of independent newspapers and Web sites provide critical reporting for largely urban, educated audiences. Yet severe restrictions on independent media have enabled governments to ignore widespread problems like HIV/AIDS; environmental pollution; corruption; human rights abuses; election fraud; and trafficking in people, arms, and drugs.

Dictators in Belarus, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have decimated the independent press, with the local media essentially functioning as propaganda machines. Taking cues from their neighbors, governments in the Caucasus republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, and in the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, aggressively harassed and obstructed newspapers and Web sites.

In Russia, a secretive and centralized Kremlin—increasingly dominated by security and military officials—used its control over the national broadcast media to help orchestrate President Vladimir Putin’s re-election to a second four-year term in March. The Kremlin purged the state-dominated national television channel NTV of independent-minded news programs in midyear. It used the war in Chechnya and a September hostage crisis in southern Russia as a pretext to implement political changes that further consolidated Putin’s power.

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma announced that he would not run for a third term, and his government promptly launched a campaign to muzzle independent broadcast media that balked at supporting his anointed successor, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. State-controlled television and private media owned by pro-government oligarchs saturated the airwaves with news reports and programs blatantly supporting Yanukovych’s candidacy.

However, when the country’s politicized elections commission declared Yanukovych the winner of a fraudulent presidential election in November, massive street protests in the capital, Kyiv, forced another round of voting in December that opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko won. The tide turned even in the state-controlled media. Hundreds of journalists for state broadcasters went on strike to protest the manipulated November balloting and biased news coverage. After the November 21 vote, a sign-language interpreter for the state television channel UT-1 famously refused to sign an official news bulletin declaring Yanukovych the victor. Instead, she told viewers that the government was lying.

Many Balkan countries made modest progress in enforcing the rule of law and implementing reforms required for European Union and NATO membership, but financial pressure, verbal threats, and politicized lawsuits are still commonly used to discourage reporting on politically sensitive subjects. Journalists in Serbia and Kosovo, in particular, continued to endure aggressive and sometimes violent intimidation from politicians, businessmen, and government officials angered by news reports on corruption, war crimes, and various government abuses.

In Western and Central Europe, journalists worked in safer environments but sometimes faced attacks and lawsuits in retaliation for their work. In January, two unidentified men assaulted Tomas Nemecek, editor-in-chief of the independent Czech weekly Respekt (Respect), after it ran articles about organized crime. In October, an assassination attempt was made against Philipos Sirigos, sports editor of the Athens daily Eleftherotypia (Free Press), after he investigated allegations of doping among athletes. Reports continued to surface describing threats against journalists by the Basque armed separatist group ETA, and by Turkish Cypriot nationalists.

Several Western and Central European countries retain criminal libel laws. Journalists in Hungary, Italy, Poland, and Portugal received suspended prison sentences in cases seen as efforts to suppress reporting on government abuses and criticism of public figures. Andrzej Marek, editor-in-chief of the Polish weekly Wiesci Polickie (Police News), spent three months in jail during the summer in retaliation for reporting on police abuses after the Supreme Court upheld an earlier criminal libel conviction against him.

Three journalists were killed for their work in the region in 2004. Adlan Khasanov, a cameraman with the news agency Reuters, was killed in May by a bomb planted by Chechen rebels in Grozny, the capital of the southern republic of Chechnya. In July, unidentified gunmen shot and killed Paul Klebnikov, editor of Forbes Russia, as he left his Moscow office. Klebnikov was the 11th journalist to be murdered in a contract-style slaying since Russian President Vladimir Putin took power in late 1999.

Dusko Jovanovic, editor-in-chief of the opposition daily Dan (Day), was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting in the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica. The murder significantly dampened media freedom in Montenegro, which had remained relatively peaceful during socialist Yugoslavia’s violent dissolution in the 1990s.

Impunity for murdering journalists remains the rule throughout the region. In some cases, prosecutors and police actively obstructed inquiries that might point to high-level officials. In Ukraine, Kuchma has been accused of involvement in the September 2000 abduction and murder of Georgy Gongadze, editor of the muckraking online publication Ukrayinska Pravda (Ukrainian Truth), after a presidential security officer recorded Kuchma and two subordinates discussing how to get rid of the journalist. Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko has been implicated in the July 2000 disappearance and murder of Russian cameraman Dmitry Zavadsky after two former members of an elite Special Forces unit were convicted in 2002 of kidnapping the journalist.

Five journalists were imprisoned at year’s end in the region, a slight decline from the six behind bars in 2003. Uzbekistan remained the region’s leading jailer of journalists, with four imprisoned at year’s end. Mukhammad Bekdzhanov, editor of Erk (Freedom), 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 the newspaper and criticizing the government. Gayrat Mehliboyev, a 23-year-old freelancer, was arrested in February 2003, convicted on charges of “anticonstitutional activity,” and sentenced to seven years in prison for an April 2001 article in the state-run Tashkent newspaper Hurriyat (Liberty) that questioned the compatibility of Islam and democracy. Ortikali Namazov, editor of the state newspaper Pop Tongi (Dawn of the Pop District) in the northeastern Namangan Region, was convicted on embezzlement charges and sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison after publishing a series of articles criticizing alleged local government abuses.

Madzhid Abduraimov, a correspondent with the national weekly Yangi Asr (New Century), was released in April after serving three years for writing about corruption. Another journalist and human rights activist, Ruslan Sharipov, fled Uzbekistan in June and received political asylum in the United States in October after he served 10 months in prison on charges of sodomy, having sex with minors, and managing prostitutes. Sharipov denied the accusations, which were widely seen as politically motivated.

In Azerbaijan, the editor-in-chief of the opposition newspaper Yeni Musavat (New Equality), was arrested during a broad government crackdown on opposition journalists and activists following a flawed October 2003 presidential election won by Ilham Aliyev, son of President Heydar Aliyev. Rauf Arifoglu was detained for a year before being sentenced in October to five years in prison for allegedly organizing antigovernment riots.

Some analysts feared that the orchestrated handover of power from Azerbaijan’s Soviet-style autocrat to his son—with U.S. and European acquiescence—presaged future dynastic successions in the region. Dariga Nazarbayeva, a media mogul and daughter of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, established her own political party in January, sparking rumors that she was preparing to replace her father. Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Uzbekistan’s dictator, Islam Karimov, is also said to have presidential ambitions.

The use of spetsoperatsii—covert, KGB-style special operations—to silence independent journalists was another disturbing development in the region. The Kremlin’s crackdown on independent reporting during the September hostage crisis in the southern Russian city of Beslan highlighted the trend. One journalist was drugged while in the custody of the Federal Security Service (FSB); another journalist was detained after the FSB sent two men to provoke a fight with him; and a third was poisoned while flying on a commercial plane en route to Beslan.

In June, fake copies of the Kazakh opposition newspaper Assandi Times containing stories saying that members of the opposition were preparing to resign were distributed. When the newspaper accused the presidential administration of organizing the scheme, a district court in the country’s financial capital, Almaty, fined the newspaper 50 million tenge (US$365,000) for defaming the president’s office.

International developments in 2004 helped strengthen authoritarian leaders throughout the region. The Bush administration focused on fostering military and security cooperation with governments in Russia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, pushing free expression issues to the background. The Kremlin countered the expanded U.S. military presence in the region by bolstering regional military bases and promoting Russian business interests in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

The massive street protests in Ukraine after the fraudulent presidential election—and the bold move by the press to stop doing the government’s bidding—stirred hopes that citizens could oust the corrupt, authoritarian leaders who dominate the region. New Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko pledged full investigations into the political crimes committed under Kuchma’s rule, including the murder of journalist Gongadze.

Yet developments in Georgia suggest that progress in the region will be arduous. Georgia’s November 2003 “Rose Revolution”—in which protesters ousted the country’s corrupt and highly unpopular president—had inspired many of the demonstrators in Kyiv. But conditions for the Georgian press remained poor in 2004, with even reform-minded politicians pressuring the media in response to critical news reports. Journalists and press freedom advocates accused Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili of using an anticorruption campaign as a cover to crack down on opponents and their media outlets. If nothing else, the development highlights the unstinting determination among many regional politicians to control the press and quell criticism.

Alex Lupis, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for Europe and Central Asia, along with CPJ Research Associate Nina Ognianova, researched and wrote this section.