Europe - Annual Report 2008
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Press freedom is deteriorating throughout this very diverse region. The leaders of the most authoritarian regimes bitterly resent journalists who expose their corruption, embezzlement and self-enrichment. In countries with more press freedom, journalists are often not sufficiently protected against legal action. Overall, journalism needs to be better defended, including in European Union countries where press freedom is a reality.
Attacks on the right of journalists to keep their sources secret increased in the major democracies in 2007. Journalists were arrested and questioned and their offices and homes searched in France, Germany and Italy. Legal officials tended to approve this kind of behaviour especially when legal confidentiality had been violated.
This has made it more necessary than ever for the European Union (EU) to pass laws to efficiently protect this cornerstone of press freedom. French President Nicolas Sarkozy promised journalists on 8 January 2008 that he would push through a law to this effect. “Proper journalists do not reveal their sources,” he said. “Everyone must understand and accept this.”
Physical violence against the media is less common in the EU than in the former USSR, but Bulgaria (now an EU member) and Italy were exceptions. Organised crime dislikes exposure of its activities and was quick to threaten a journalist in Bulgaria with an acid attack. In Italy the mafia forces journalists to have constant police protection if they want to stay alive.
Death threats and harassment are still common in central Europe and the Balkans, a region struggling to recover from a violent past that haunts every social and political upheaval. The media is still very polarised, with journalists suspected of taking sides and thus becoming targets of violence. The Serbian radio and TV station B92, which has bravely tackled the issue of war crimes for several years, was publicly accused in 2007 of being “paid to take an anti-Serbian stand.” Physical attacks continue, including with grenades, but the media remains vigorous and stands up to the pressures.
The authoritarian regimes in the former USSR countries make every effort to crush press freedom. Elections in Russia and Uzbekistan in 2007 confirmed governments in power and gave no short or medium-term hope of more press freedom. Editorial independence exists but only for media outlets with little public impact. Building civil society to loosen the monolithic grip of the authorities is a hard job.
The country in the region with the worst record, Turkmenistan, has made a wide range of foreign alliances of unclear meaning since the death in December 2006 of President-for-life Saparmurad Niyazov. The direction of his successor, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, is also rather a mystery. Will the EU present a firm and united front to the oil and gas rich country? Except for a few encouraging signs, such as the opening of a few cybercafés, the country has not liberalised and press freedom has not improved.
In the former Soviet Caucasus countries, Azerbaijan continued its crackdown on the media and treated as criminals journalists who exposed corruption among top officials. Heavy penalties for those who wrote “undesirable” articles had a dissuasive effect and President Ilham Aliev ignored the many appeals from NGOs and international bodies such as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The regime also broke off contact with Reporters Without Borders after harsh criticism from it.
Political violence against the media returned to Turkey with the murder of Turkish-Armenian editor Hrant Dink in January. The country needs more than ever to face up to its past and get rid of old-fashioned nationalistic ideas. The arrest of the killers and the start of their trial has thrown a shadow over the country - the involvement of the police and judiciary in Dink’s death. Debate about amending articles of the criminal law about Turkish identity has resumed but they are meanwhile still being used to prosecute and convict people, including Dink’s journalist son. The law and the behaviour of the judiciary must change so that disagreement with the country’s official principles is no longer punished.