The press freedom gap between Europe and the former Soviet republics widened significantly in 2002.
In the European Union (EU) countries, outdated laws and increasing challenges to the protection of journalistic sources were the cause of most attacks on press freedom. The prospect of EU membership had varying effects in Central and Eastern European countries. Most made big efforts to bring their press laws into line with European standards, but some took a step backward by trying to stifle any criticism that might tarnish their image, especially in the eyes of EU officials.
The worsening of the situation in the former USSR countries aroused international concern. In Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Central Asia, the authorities used Soviet-era methods to gag the independent and opposition media.
Fewer journalists were killed in the whole region during the year, though at least three were murdered for doing their job. But physical attacks sharply increased, including attacks by extremists in EU countries. At the same time, the authorities harassed journalists with unjustified legal action, forcing many to censor themselves.
Despite the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling that "protection of journalistic sources is one of the basic conditions for press freedom" (Goodwin decision, 27 March 1996), several European Union governments stepped up their attacks on this key principle of independent investigative journalism. In Belgium, Denmark, France, Italy, Portugal and the United Kingdom, journalists were hauled before courts to try to force them to reveal their sources, not just in connection with terrorism, but in routine police enquiries too.
International judge were also called upon to rule on the confidentiality of sources concerning war reporters. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) said these journalists could not be forced to give court evidence unless "the evidence sought is of direct and important value in determining a core issue in the case" or "the evidence sought cannot reasonably be obtained elsewhere".
Diversity of news continued to be threatened in Italy, where Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who effectively controls what is seen by 90 per cent of TV viewers, has not still not resolved the conflict of interest between his holding in the Mediaset broadcasting conglomerate and his position as head of government, despite promising to do so. One journalist was given a prison sentence for a press offence.
France, where there was an upsurge of violence against journalists by extremists of all kinds, was condemned by the ECHR for its press laws, which are among the most outdated in the EU. The 1881 press law, with its clauses about insulting the president and foreign dignitaries, although rarely used, is far from being a model of laws about defamation for countries in transition to democracy.
The countries of Central and Eastern Europe, helped by Council of Europe experts, are trying to harmonise their press laws with those in the rest of Europe, as part of their efforts to win EU membership. But legal loopholes persist which oblige journalists to censor themselves heavily. In most of these countries, defamation is punishable by prison sentences, which the authorities freely use and abuse. Damages awards remains arbitrary and the presumption of innocence is not respected when journalists themselves are expected to provide proof of their good faith or the accuracy of their reports.
Reform of the defamation law in Slovakia, which will join the European Union in 2004, greatly improved press freedom there. But Romania passed new laws curbing freedom to inform the public and increased pressure on journalists so as to minimise criticism that might tarnish the country’s image as it negotiates for membership of NATO and the EU.
Turkey, which is also seeking EU membership, passed a wide range of legal reforms, abolishing the death penalty, legalising broadcasts in Kurdish and lifting the state of emergency that for 15 years has been used to justify many press freedom violations in the southeast of the country. But in practice, journalists daring to criticise state institutions or mention taboo subjects, such as the Kurdish problem or the role of the army in political life, are still punished with censorship, heavy fines or unjustified prosecution.
As talks resumed between the Turkish and Greek parts of Cyprus about reunification and EU membership, the situation remained difficult in the north, where two journalists deemed over-critical of the authorities spent three months in prison.
Strong disparities were seen in the Balkan countries, which are in the process of democratisation and stabilisation. In Albania, Bosnia, Croatia and Montenegro, significant changes were made in press laws as a result of working closely with experts from the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The situation has also improved in Macedonia since the end of the war between the government and Albanian guerrillas in 2001, despite increased media restrictions in the run-up to parliamentary elections.
The situation hardly changed in Serbia, where a much-anticipated reform of the public media to strengthen their independence did not come to anything and the killers of journalists Slavko Curuvija (1999) and Milan Pantic (2001) still walked free.
In Russia, President Vladimir Putin put the finishing touches to his takeover of the media through his associates. When Chechen rebels seized hundreds of hostages in a Moscow theatre in October, the years-long censorship of the war in Chechnya and anything to do with it was stepped up. Journalists were also still harassed in the republics of the Russian Federation. With three journalists murdered in 2002, Russia remained the European country where the most journalists were killed for doing their job. Journalist Grigory Pasko remained in prison despite an international campaign for his release.
Despite pressure from the Council of Europe, the situation got worse in Ukraine, with increased violence against journalists, especially in the provinces, tighter censorship and a takeover of the media by associates of President Leonid Kuchma. Legal officials became more cooperative about trying to solve the murder of Georgy Gongadze, but there were no proper enquiries into the deaths and disappearances of journalists and impunity remained the norm.
In Belarus, independent journalists continued to be harassed by one of the most repressive regimes in the ex-USSR countries. Three journalists were sent to labour camps for having dared to criticise President Alexander Lukashenko.
In the non-Russian Caucasus countries, working conditions for independent journalists remained tough. The situation was especially bad in Armenia, where the head of the state TV company, Tigran Naghdalian, a close ally of President Robert Kocharian, was murdered, an investigative journalist was seriously injured in a grenade attack on him and the main independent TV station lost its operating licence. In Georgia, independent journalists were still targets of violence and harassment while the enquiry into the 2001 murder of Georgy Sanaya, the star presenter on the independent TV station Rustavi 2, continued amid great official secrecy.
In former Soviet Central Asia, press freedom continued to shrink, especially in Kazahkstan, where the authorities did all they could to stifle the independent and opposition media. In Kyrgyzstan, independent journalists were under systematic pressure and virtually all media exercised strict self-censorship. No independent media were tolerated in Uzbekistan, despite President Islam Karimov’s fine words to the West about press freedom, and three journalists were still imprisoned for daring to tackle matters banned from discussion.
Turkmenistan was an extreme and unique case in the region for its total censorship and President Separmurad Nyazov targeted the last foreign media from which his people could get uncensored news.