The countries of the European Union (EU) can definitely do better than maintaining prison sentences for press offences and attacking the right of journalists not to reveal their sources. Press freedom deteriorated in 2004 in most of the former Soviet Union countries, where censorship and crackdowns on dissident journalists continue.
Western European countries, often held up as models of democracy, respect press freedom but there are flaws in these journalistic havens of tranquillity.
Press freedom is sacrosanct in Scandinavia, where it is strongly protected and defended by law. The national constitution in Sweden allows a civil servant to give information to the media and confidentiality of sources is an absolute right. Stockholm’s police chief was put under legal observation in October 2004 after he investigated one of his officers for passing on information to a journalist. Such an investigation is illegal in Sweden.
The weak link in press freedom
Most other European countries do not recognise such rights and their court rulings on revealing sources, secrecy of preliminary legal investigations, presumption of innocence and the right to use someone’s picture increasingly present a clash between individual freedom and the right to inform the public.
Formal questioning of journalists, searches of media premises and seizures of documents increased in Belgium, Denmark, France and Italy. Such practices are serious obstructions and significant pressure, especially on investigative journalists.
Pressure and self-censorship also arises from laws in some countries that still allow journalists to be sent to prison for what they have written. Two journalists were jailed for libel in Italy in 2004.
France took a dangerous step backwards. Prison terms for most press offences were abolished in 2000 but parliament approved a measure on 22 December 2004 to set up a watchdog body to fight discrimination and inequality and also created new press offences (punishable by prison sentences) of defaming or insulting people because of their sex or sexual orientation, in addition to the crimes of incitement to racism and anti-Semitism.
The 10 countries that joined the EU on 1 May are also behind in press freedom. The editor of a local weekly in Poland was jailed for three months on 6 February for libelling a civil servant but was pardoned by the president in September. A journalist in Hungary was sentenced to 10 months in prison in January for libelling a member of parliament.
Negotiations by other countries to join the EU led to efforts by them to improve press freedom. Turkey abolished prison sentences for press offences in June and the government also released several journalists from jail. But those criticising the army or mentioning the Kurdish question still take a big risk. The media situation continued to improve in the Balkans, though two journalists were given suspended prisons sentences for libel in Croatia.
Dissident journalists persecuted in the former Soviet Union countries
Press freedom continued to worsen in most former republics of the Soviet Union, especially Ukraine and Belarus.
Censorship of TV news and pressure on the independent media in Ukraine peaked with the presidential election at the end of the 2004. The authorities stepped up their use of "temnyks" (written government instructions to the media). But during the "Orange Revolution" that followed the badly-flawed election, journalists in government-controlled media roundly denounced censorship.
It was an unprecedented uprising in a country where the murder in 2000 of independent journalist Georgiy Gongadze remains unsolved. As soon as the new president, Viktor Yushchenko, was elected, he told Kanal 5 TV station on 29 December that he wanted to quickly sign an agreement with journalists guaranteeing government non-interference with the editorial lines of newspapers.
"Press freedom is key to the country’s development," he said. "Without an impartial media, Ukraine will not be able to take its place among democratic nations." It remains to be seen if these declarations will be followed by speedy action.
In Belarus, the authoritarian regime of President Alexander Lukashenko made concerted efforts to silence the few remaining dissident voices. The information minister used bogus bureaucratic reasons to suspend a dozen independent newspapers - the only alternative to the regime’s propaganda - in the run-up to parliamentary elections and a referendum in October, throwing them into grave financial crisis.
The investigation into the disappearance in 2000 of opposition journalist Dmitri Zavadski was closed but a Council of Europe report said top government figures may have been involved.
The biased coverage of the school hostages tragedy in Beslan (Northern Ossetia) in September showed clearly the government’s complete control of TV stations in Russia. Key details of the events were censored and well-known reporter Anna Politkovskaya, a Chechnya expert with the daily Novaya Gazeta, was almost certainly poisoned in a bid to stop her reaching the scene.
The number of physical attacks on journalists remained very high and two were killed, including the editor of the Russian edition of the US magazine Forbes, Paul Khlebnikov, who was murdered in Moscow on 9 July.
The situation got worse in Central Asia, where the few independent journalists were under heavy pressure. The fight against terrorism was used as an excuse by President Islam Karimov’s regime in Uzbekistan to intensify his crackdown on the barely-existent independent press.
As in the old Soviet Union, the authorities also used sex to jail dissidents. Independent journalist and human rights activist Ruslan Sharipov was granted political asylum in the United States in October after fleeing the country, where he had been sentenced to four years in prison for homosexuality.
In Turkmenistan, where the privately-owned media is banned, several journalists working for foreign media were arrested or beaten up. Reception of the Russian station Radio Mayak, the only foreign station that had not been jammed, was cut off by the authorities, officially because of technical problems.
President-for-Life Separmurad Nyazov denied people had to have visas to leave the country but several journalists who had tried unsuccessfully to leave said they seemed to have been put on a blacklist.
The situation also remained unstable in the Caucasus, where in Azerbaijan, pro-opposition journalists have been under heavy pressure since the 2003 presidential election. Rauf Arifoglu, editor of the country’s main opposition paper, Yeni Musavat, and also a political leader, was sentenced in October to five years in prison for "disturbing the peace". In Georgia, media coverage remained difficult in the constituent republics of Abkhazia and Adjaria.