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Introduction Europe and the former Soviet bloc countries - 2004 Annual Report

Former Soviet countries: A return to the old ways?

Press freedom in European Union (EU) countries remained satisfactory in 2003, with fewer physical attacks on journalists and fewer violations of the right to protect sources. But conditions for those working in former Soviet bloc countries worsened further, with physical attacks, imprisonment, censorship, state monopolies of printing facilities and lack of diversity in the broadcast media.

At the heart of the EU, Italy continued to go against the grain. Prime minister Silvio Berlusconi had still not resolved the conflict of interests between his post and his ownership of a media empire. The government tried to push through laws to protect his private interests, further endangering news diversity.
The threat of the terrorist ETA in Spain continued to weigh on journalists who criticised the organisation. But the fight against terrorism also undermined press freedom, and the Basque-language newspaper Euskaldunon Egunkaria, whose editors were suspected of collaborating with the ETA, was closed as a "preventive measure."
In France, investigative journalism and the right not to reveal sources was threatened by the proposed "Perben law," whose most repressive clauses were eventually dropped.

Some precarious gains

Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia, all due to join the EU on 1 May 2004, respected press freedom. But in most of them, laws punishing defamation and perceived insults frequently hampered journalists in their work and gave undue protection to the authorities.
Events in Romania, which hopes to join the EU in 2007, were disturbing however. Four journalists investigating corruption among local officials of the ruling party were badly beaten. The authorities, keen to present themselves in a good light in the run-up to parliamentary and presidential elections in late 2004, stepped up legal harassment of journalists, who increasingly opted for self-censorship.
Working conditions remained very difficult for journalists in Turkey despite some legislative improvements to boost the country’s chances of EU membership. Pro-Kurdish journalists and those who criticised the government or the role of the armed forces in political life continued to be extensively harassed. In late October, a pro-Kurdish journalist was jailed for a year for "insulting" parliament.
Press freedom sharply declined in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (which is only recognised by Turkey), where the authorities cracked down on journalists who criticised the government of President Rauf Denktash. Five journalists were facing between 10 and 40 years in prison for "insulting the army."
Advances in press freedom remained fragile in Balkan countries. Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia continued to make progress, but major restrictions were imposed in Serbia-Montenegro, especially during the state of emergency after the assassination of prime minister Zoran Djindjic. Bad relations between the media and politicians led to a rise in unjustified prosecutions of journalists in Macedonia.

Legal harassment, an effective weapon

No journalist in the region was murdered in 2003 because of their work, but some killings were still being investigated at the end of the year.
Seven journalists died in very mysterious circumstances in Ukraine, Russia and Kyrgyzstan. In Ukraine, the killers of Georgy Gongadze and Igor Alexandrov were still unpunished and in Belarus, no effort had been made to find those really responsible for the disappearance of Dmitri Zavadski. Journalists investigating political or financial corruption continued to be very frequent targets of physical attacks, including nearly 100 in Azerbaijan, mostly during the presidential election.
Reporting on elections and campaigns in Armenia, Georgia and Russia led to many attacks on press freedom. Russian authorities used the excuse of combating "election propaganda" to restrict coverage of parliamentary elections under a law suspending media that infringed the electoral law more than twice.
Legal harassment remains an effective weapon to prevent independent and opposition media from acting as a counterbalance to government power. The authorities in Ukraine continued to harass their strongest media critics using tax laws. A dozen newspapers were suspended and punished in Belarus.
In most former Soviet republics, trials for libel and insults, punishable by prison terms, were used to silence critical journalists. In Belarus and Russia, four journalists were sentenced to imprisonment or hard labour for defaming government officials. Five journalists were in prison in Uzbekistan, where censorship remained in force despite its official abolition in 2002. The authorities tried to discredit a journalist and human rights activist in Uzbekistan and another in Kazakhstan by jailing them for alleged sex crimes. Both were sentenced after sham trials.
In some ex-Soviet republics, there is little or no media freedom. Censorship was total in Turkmenistan, the most repressive of them. The regime controlled all written and broadcast media and also did everything it could to block news from the outside world by banning foreign newspapers and blocking access to Internet websites. Reporting independently of the authorities was virtually impossible in Chechnya, where there has been a war since 1999. A correspondent for Agence France-Presse, one of the few foreign media operating in the country, was kidnapped in July.

Soria Blatmann, head of Europe desk, and Caroline Giraud (former Soviet bloc countries), Reporters Without Borders

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Annual report 2003