Hungary, Balkans sully Europe's reputation for press freedom

By bne IntelliNews February 12, 2014

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Reporters Without Borders' (RWB) "World Press Freedom Index 2014" highlights major declines in media freedom around the world, with some parts of Europe accused of routinely abusing freedom of information, while Central Asia continues to keep a tight rein on its media, jailing journalists who step out of line.

Despite the EU's overall good showing in the press freedom index, the NGO notes "regrettable developments" that have sullied the performance of some countries.

Alongside Greece, Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orban has seen a significant erosion of civil liberties, above all freedom of information. "The Orban government used its two-thirds majority in parliament to get a highly restrictive media law adopted in 2011. It introduced fines for the creators of content that is not 'balanced' - a concept deliberately left vague - and established a dangerous media regulatory authority with statutory links to Fidesz, the conservative ruling party. This 'Media Council' guaranteed just one thing - political interference in news and information content," RWB says

The EU subsequently managed to get the Hungarian government to rescind some of its provisions, it notes, but not the most draconian ones.

The Washington-based NGO cites the example of what it terms the "witchhunt" against independently reported news from sources such as the Budapest-based news and talk radio station Klubradio. It says the newly established Media Council refused to renew its licence, despite its years of existence and hundreds of thousands of listeners, and reassigned its frequency to an unknown station. "After a major campaign in support of the station and several court rulings, the Media Council finally gave Klubradio a long-term licence in March 2013," it adds.

Hungary apart, many EU states in Central Europe and the Baltics beat some of the bastions of freedom further west when it comes to press freedom, according to the index.

Sitting top of the Central and Eastern European (CEE) region for a second year running, Estonia remains one place outside the top 10, just as it did in 2013. However, its Baltic cousins lag far behind, with Lithuania bogged down at 32nd place - just ahead of the UK - and Latvia at 37 - just two spots ahead of France. Rated as "satisfactory," the latter pair are the only states in Central Europe - apart from outlier Hungary - to fail to qualify as offering a "good situation" in the survey. Rising three places to 13th, the Czech Republic is the second best country in CEE to work as a journalist, according to the index, which sees it standing in front of Germany. Poland and Slovakia are grouped together at 19th and 20th spots.

Bombs in Balkans

RWB expresses particular concern at developments in the Balkans, in a section entitled "Balkan powder keg for journalists".

Romania was ranked in top place in terms of press freedom in the Balkans, in 45th place out of 180 countries in the survey. Last year, Romania came in at 42nd position. Serbia came next after Romania, in 54th place, climbing up from 63rd position last year. It is followed by Croatia, at 65, dropping from 64th position in last year's report.

Bulgaria was the lowest ranked EU country in the 2014 report after a year dominated by anti-government protests and political tension. "Reporters were repeatedly the victims of police violence during these demonstrations calling for the government's resignation," says RWB, citing the example of harassment to investigative reporters that can take the form of arson attacks on their cars.

The EU's newest member, Croatia, has seen major improvements in the six years prior to its accession in July, though RWB argues much more needs to be done. "The state radio and TV broadcaster HRT has been criticized for a lack of independence after reforms carried out under centre-left Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic," it notes. "The head of HRT, the members of its supervisory board and its administrators are now appointed by parliament. This gives the ruling party political control over broadcast content."

In the Balkan EU-wannabes the situation is far worse. In Macedonia, for example, the NGO argues that the democratic window-dressing of the past few years is not enough to hide the many freedom of information violations. It cites cases of journalists being jailed, particularly that of Zoran Bozinovski, who is regarded as the country's Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, but was arrested in Serbia on an Interpol warrant for spying. "Bozinovski has done a great deal of investigative reporting on Sashe Mijalko, Macedonia's intelligence chief and relative of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski," RWB notes.

Journalists' operating environment and safety continues to be a major concern in Montenegro, the report says. Even as the politicians master the language of the EU's institutions and put on show of striving to be more democratic, threats, insults and even violence are regularly employed as a means to silence dissenting voices.

It cites the example of a bomb attack against Tufik Softic, an investigative reporter who has been writing about clandestine organizations and drug trafficking in Montenegro for years, often implicating government officials in his articles. "In August 2013, a TNT charge exploded outside the home of Softic, who... was not hurt but the bomb could have been fatal if it had gone off a few minutes earlier."

The further east you go in Europe, the worse it gets, according to RWB.

The eyes of the world might be on the Winter Olympics in Sochi - with the international press awash with criticism of facilities and corruption, while the Russian press complains of inaccuracies and propaganda - but RWB accuses the Kremlin of waging an "increasingly repressive" war on civil society and the press.

While criticism of President Vladimir Putin's regime is not uncommon, it notes, "media self-censorship is far from disappearing," and that the major TV stations remain under state control. Meanwhile, following mass demonstrations in 2011 and 2012, the "return of politics in Russia" has seen new restrictions introduced. "Defamation has been criminalized again, websites are being blacklisted and the range of activities that can be construed as 'high treason' is now much broader," RWB points out. "'Traditional values' are used to justify new restrictions on freedom of information, including the criminalization of 'homosexual propaganda' and 'insulting the feelings of believers'."

While the international press coverage around the Olympics focuses on twin toilets and Putin's personality cult, Russian reporters have been locked up for looking into corruption, wide-scale abuse of local residents' property rights and organized crime in the region. "Continuing impunity sustains a climate of violence, especially in the Caucasus," the report concludes. "At least 33 journalists have been murdered in connection with their work in Russia since 2000."

At 127th place, Ukraine has slipped one spot in the ranking. However, given recent events surrounding the ongoing protests in Kyiv and other cities - at which it is claimed journalists have been targeted by the Berkut riot police - it seems likely that the country is set for a big fall in 2015. "The political crisis that began in December 2013 and the government's sudden adoption of very repressive policies came after the period covered by this index," RWB points out, "but will clearly have an impact on Ukraine's ranking next year."

Away from the frontlines, the concentration of control over the country's media by oligarchs close to the regime of President Viktor Yanukovych has only limited editorial independence further. "Changes of media ownership led to sudden changes in editorial policy, the introduction of new taboos and many dismissals," the report claims. "A draft law would make media ownership more transparent but its second reading in parliament has been delayed."

Bottom of the Eastern Europe ranking yet again at 157th place, Belarus openly harasses media, according to the report, and independent journalists continue to fight on unequal terms against 'Europe's last dictatorship' and its propaganda machine. "In the name of 'combating extremism'," RWB complains, "the KGB and judicial authorities silence those who refuse to toe the official line."

Stan and deliver

The main oil and gas producers in the Eurasia region "keep their news media under tight control and jail recalcitrant journalists with complete impunity," according to the report, with few repercussions from an international community keen to gain access to natural resources from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.

In Turkmenistan, which remains at the bottom of the index along with North Korea and Eritrea, media freedom is "non-existent". The new media law adopted in January 2013 ostensibly proclaims pluralism and bans censorship, but this "is a complete fiction", the report says, pointing out that local media is still under government control, with independent journalists forced to report clandestinely for news media based outside Turkmenistan. Uzbekistan is also among the worst countries with the situation rated as "very serious"

Other states in the region including Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan fall into the index's second-worst category of countries with a "difficult situation". Despite the country's longstanding political stability and economic growth, in Kazakhstan press freedom worsened in late 2012 and early 2013, when the main opposition news outlets were closed down. According to RWB, "the regime's paranoia and desire to control have grown. And freedom of information is in free fall."

The picture in the region's energy importers is generally better, with little censorship and a higher degree of pluralism in Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan, although journalists still face harassment from pressure groups and owners of media outlets exercise a strong influence on contents.

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