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Introduction Europe - Annual report 2007

The temptation to ban

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2007 Europe Annual Report
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2006 was a very worrying year for press freedom in Europe, not just in countries whose governments naturally caused anxiety but also in European Union (EU) member-states. Moves to censor or self-censor appeared, sometimes violently, concerning religious topics. The range of subjects that can be covered freely also shrank, with harming the reputation of the state and denying or mentioning historical events drawing threats or legal action. The banning in three countries, including Turkey, of the January-February 2007 issue of the magazine Historia about religious fundamentalism is the most recent example.

Western Europe, and also Turkey, were frequently tempted to ban some topics from public discussion. The row over a Danish paper’s September 2005 publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed and the reprinting of them in solidarity in several countries spread across Europe and beyond. Supporters of freedom of expression faced those who said religious feelings should be respected. French newspapers France Soir and Charlie Hebdo, which both reprinted all 12 cartoons, were legally challenged by the French Muslim Council.

French philosopher Robert Redeker was threatened in southern France for a very critical article he wrote about Islam. A leading opera house in Germany cancelled performances of Mozart’s opera Idomeneo for fear of Muslim reaction. Other concerns were a new law in France banning denial of the 1915 Armenian genocide and Turkey’s frequent use of article 301 of its criminal code to prosecute journalists and intellectuals mentioning the genocide.

The situation was grim in Russia, where campaigning reporter Anna Politkovskaya became the third journalist to be murdered during the year on 7 October, after Yevgeny Gerasimenko and Ilya Zimin, Moscow correspondent for the nationwide NTV network. Twenty-one journalists have now been killed since President Vladimir Putin came to power in March 2000. New media takeovers by firms close to the Kremlin and lack of broadcast news diversity showed Putin’s determination to increase his control of the media.

Five journalists were murdered in the former Soviet bloc countries in 2006, including leading investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, showing the problems this region has in shaking off its authoritarian past.

Greater press freedom since the 2004 “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine was offset in 2006 by physical attacks on journalists and failure to satisfactorily resolve the murder of journalist Georgy Gongadze. The campaign for the November presidential election in Tajikistan saw websites shut down and very unequal media access for candidates.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was reelected with 80% of the vote in March in grim conditions, having virtually eradicated the independent media since coming to power in 1994 and returned the country to the era of clandestine publications. Violence and physical attacks on journalists and hounding of the opposition press also made it a dark year in Azerbaijan.

Things did not improve either in Central Asia. The regime in Uzbekistan maintained pressure on independent local and foreign media. The Kazakh government stepped up legal harassment of opposition media and a young French journalist was murdered.

In Turkmenistan, which has the world’s worst press freedom record along with North Korea, the local correspondent for Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty died in prison while serving a six-year sentence for working with foreign media. Two other journalists were given similar sentences for the same reason on 25 August and have not been heard of since. The death of “President-for-Life” Separmurad Nyazov in December raised hopes for liberalisation of one of the world’s most oppressive regimes.

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