Press freedom in Europe proved to be fragile in 2001. After the 11 September terrorist attacks in the United States, governments (including those in the European Union) were quick to give more power to the police, curb freedom of movement, make it easier to monitor the Internet and remind the media of their "responsibilities" when handling news about the war in Afghanistan.
In the countries of the former Soviet Union, in Central and Eastern Europe and in the Balkans, emerging democracies did not make anticipated progress. In some, democratically-elected governments continued to use the police and legal machinery of the old dictatorships. From Georgia to the Ukraine, interior ministers and state prosecutors were careful to keep a close watch on the media. From the Caucasus to the Balkans, local officials, politicians, economic interests and criminal elements feared the unmasking of their rackets and so clamped down on all independent information. From Moscow to Budapest, central governments assiduously kept control of the main TV and radio stations. From Turkey to the gates of the Russian federation, armies fighting separatist forces also hit out at the "destabilising" effect of free expression of nationalism in the media and of reports about military repression.
Only one of the seven journalists killed in the region in 2001 died covering a war (in Macedonia). The six others were deliberately murdered, probably for pointing a finger at the politically, economically and legally powerful, and at criminal gangs. Legal reforms called for by European organisations made summary imprisonment of journalists harder to get away with, but murder was still the last resort to silence a critical or investigative journalist.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe, noting that press freedom has in recent years become a yardstick to judge emerging democracies, protested more often against the most blatant challenges to the right to freely inform. One trend in Central and Eastern Europe in 2001 giving hope for the future was the significant campaigns to defend freedom of information by civil society groups in Russia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Georgia, the Ukraine and Azerbaijan. Freedom of information is now clearly seen by the public in these places as a key to their democratic future.
Threats to media pluralism and freedom of information either arose or worsened in the major European Union countries. In Italy, new prime minister Silvio Berlusconi can control most of the country’s private and public TV and radio stations, an unprecedented situation in a democratic country. Nineteen journalists were injured during the Genoa summit of the G8 industrialised countries. In Spain, violence against the media culminated in the killing of another journalist after the failure of the pro-independence party in the regional elections in the Basque Country in May. In the United Kingdom, a journalist was murdered for the first time since the start of the conflict in Northern Ireland. In Austria, the narrowing of ownership in the print media continued and the effects of the right-wing coalition government’s policy of "depoliticising" the state-owned TV and radio were uncertain. In France and Germany, journalists were charged or convicted for having disclosed material protected by professional or legal confidentiality, which does not legally apply to journalists. The French supreme court itself endorsed these new challenges to investigative journalism and the right of journalists not to reveal their sources was once again contested by the courts.
In Central and Eastern Europe, countries seeking to join the European Union vigorously debated how to ensure the independence and impartiality of the major TV and radio stations. Such concerns of journalists in the Czech Republic were listened to early in the year, but in Hungary, the authorities strengthened their grip on the state TV and radio and increased their warnings to the press. In Slovakia and Romania, severe laws against defamation were still an obstacle to the free flow of information.
In the Balkans, the fighting in Macedonia between government forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas led to attacks on journalists, who were also shot at and a British reporter killed. In Serbia, freedom of information was one of the main achievements of the arrival of democracy after the fall of the Milosevic regime in October 2000. But hopes for speedy reform of the media and press laws were disappointed. The public media remained under tight government control and requests for new radio and TV broadcasting licences were not answered. The media in Montenegro dared not challenge the authorities. In Kosovo and Albania, violence and social tension forced the media to strictly censor itself. But progress in Croatia towards European standards of press freedom and plurality was boosted by reform of public TV and radio.
In Turkey, despite the announcement of democratic reforms as part of the country’s quest for membership of the European Union, punishment of free expression remained systematic and severe with the help of a formidable legal arsenal aimed at protecting the state against the demands of Kurds, Islamic fundamentalists and the far left. Any criticism of the army was penalised. In the Turkish part of Cyprus, the newspaper most critical of Turkey and the policies of the unrecognised republic of Northern Cyprus closed at the end of the year after months of pressure, court convictions and other obstacles.
The government of Russia continued its policy of using powerful state enterprises to take control of or dismantle nationwide media belonging to private press barons. Independent journalists could no longer cover the war in Chechnya and pressure on journalists increased in the republics of the Russian Federation. The new conviction and imprisonment in December of journalist Grigory Pasko was a clear warning to the media to stop criticising the army. In the Ukraine, the public prosecutor and the police were still a powerful obstacle to the search for the killers of journalists Georgy Gongadze (in 2000) and Igor Alexandrov (2001). Violent attacks on journalists continued to increase despite pressure from the Council of Europe. In Belarus, the government did everything it could to stifle the independent print media. The "re-election" in September of President Alexander Lukashenko was preceded by eight months of pressure on independent newspapers.
The situation remained difficult in the non-Russian Caucasus. In Azerbaijan, threats and violence against the independent media worsened, although the country became a member of the Council of Europe in January. Things also got worse in Georgia amid generalised corruption. After several years of threats against the independent TV station Rustavi 2 and the murder in July of its star presenter, new pressure on the station sparked large demonstrations and the resignation of the government.
In the republics of former Soviet Central Asia, which became US allies because of the US military operation in Afghanistan, still no information was allowed except that approved by the ruling elite. In Uzbekistan, the battle against Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism was systematically cited by President Islam Karimov to justify his brutal repression of the media. One of the few TV stations that had showed some independence was definitely closed in July. Press freedom in no better guaranteed in Tajikistan, which was at the mercy of criminal gangs and a struggle for power between political and ethnic clans. In Kazakhstan, attacks, pressure and intimidation against the media was the order of the day in a country controlled by the family and allies of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. In Kirghizistan, the regime of President Askar Akayev hardened its stand against the media, though the situation was less serious than in other republics. In Turkmenistan, a great blot on the media landscape in Central Asia, the regime of President-for-Life Separmurad Niyazov retained total control of all information outlets.