Political hostility to journalists intensifies from Central Europe to Eurasia

Political hostility to journalists intensifies from Central Europe to Eurasia
Slovaks took to the streets (here in Brno) in such numbers after the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and his girlfriend Martina Kusnirova in February that the government fell. / Martin Strachoň / Wikimedia Commons.
By bne IntelliNews April 25, 2018

Turkey, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Poland are among the countries in Central Europe and Eurasia given particularly dishonourable mentions in the latest annual World Press Freedom Index released on April 25 by Reporters Without Borders. 

Warning that “hostility towards the media from political leaders is no longer limited to authoritarian countries” such as Turkey and Egypt, the RSF Index 2018 ranks 180 nations and hits out at the malign influence of US President Donald Trump, calling him “a media-bashing enthusiast” and noting his referencing of journalists as “enemies of the people”—a term once used by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

The index also takes aim at two other populists, Czech President Milos Zeman and former Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico. The former appeared at a press conference with a fake Kalashnikov inscribed with the words “for journalists”, while the latter resorted to calling journalists “dirty, anti-Slovak prostitutes”. The Czech Republic is down 11 places at 34th in the latest rankings while Slovakia has fallen 10 places to 27th.

Part of the report entry on the Czech Republic says: “Re-elected in January 2018, Zeman has a weakness for this kind of provocation and has described journalists as ‘manure’ and ‘hyenas.’ There is also concern about several newly-drafted bills that would increase the range of criminal penalties for defamation, especially defamation of the president. The level of media ownership concentration has become critical since new oligarchs began using their fortunes in 2008 to buy newspapers in order to reinforce their influence. One of these oligarchs, Prime Minister Andrej Babis, owns one of the Czech Republic’s most influential daily newspapers.

In Slovakia, investigative reporter Jan Kuciak’s murder in February triggered an unprecedented political earthquake, toppling Fico, and sent shockwaves through the international community, the index report notes. Kuciak had being doing research for the Aktuality.sk website on alleged links between the Italian mafia and Smer-SD, the left-populist party heading the ruling coalition.

The report adds: “In the absence of strong institutions that could protect them, Slovakia’s journalists are increasingly exposed to all kinds of harassment, intimidation, and abuse. Kuciak’s murder has revived questions about the unexplained disappearances of two journalists, one in 2008 and the other in 2015, and has put the issue of journalists’ safety back on the agenda. In recent years, Slovak media that were previously owned by leading international media companies have been acquired by local oligarchs whose main business interests lie outside journalism.”

Alongside Czechia and Slovakia, fellow Visegrad Four countries, Poland and Hungary, fell four places to 58th and two places to 73rd, respectively.

Of Poland, the index report states: “Nothing seems to be able to stop Law and Justice, the national-conservative party that won the October 2015 general election, from pushing on with its plan to radically reform Poland as it sees fit, taking no account of those who think differently. Press freedom is one of its project’s main victims. The public media have been formally renamed ‘national media’ and have been transformed into government propaganda mouthpieces. Their new leaders tolerate neither opposition nor neutrality from employees and fire those who refuse to comply.”  

The remarks on Hungary are less damning but may be a touch too generous given recent media landscape developments in the country. The report summarises: “Businessmen with close ties to Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s party, Fidesz, not only managed to acquire new media outlets in 2017 but also to replace foreign media companies that had invested in Hungary’s media. Their biggest success was getting control of the last three regional daily newspapers in the summer. Nevertheless, the Hungarian media landscape is still varied, and both print and online outlets do not hesitate to publish investigative coverage of alleged corruption involving top Fidesz and government officials.”

But across the EU, Bulgaria is ranked the lowest (111th place), which also puts it below the aspiring EU members from the Western Balkans. Corruption and collusion between media, politicians, and oligarchs is widespread in Bulgaria, the report noted, singling out former intelligence chief Deylan Peevski, whose New Bulgarian Media Group controls nearly 80% of print media distribution in the country. 

Turkey (down two places to 157th), and now known as the world’s biggest jailer of journalists, comes in for huge criticism in the report, which concludes: “The witch hunt waged by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government against its media critics has come to a head since an abortive coup in July 2016. A state of emergency has allowed the authorities to eliminate dozens of media outlets with the stroke of a pen, reducing pluralism to a handful of low-circulated and targeted publications.”

Commenting on the all too common jailing of journalists in  Turkey, it adds: “Turkey is again the world’s biggest prison for professional journalists, with members of the press spending more than a year in prison before trial and long jail sentences becoming the new norm—in some cases, journalists are sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of a pardon. Detained journalists and closed media outlets are denied any effective legal recourse. The rule of law is a fading memory under the now all-powerful president. Even constitutional court rulings are no longer automatically implemented. Censorship of websites and online social media has also reached unprecedented levels.”

Turkey’s neighbour, Iran (up one place to 164th), gets little praise in its entry, which talks of state control of news and information having “been relentless in Iran for the past 39 years”, adding: “The Islamic Revolution keeps a tight grip on most media outlets and never relents in its persecution of independent journalists, citizen-journalists, and media outlets, and uses intimidation, arbitrary arrest, and long jail sentences imposed by revolutionary courts at the end of unfair trials. The media that are still resisting increasingly lack the resources to report freely and independently. As a result, it is the citizen-journalists active on social networks who are now at the center of the battles for freely-reported news and information and for political change in Iran.”

The summary for Azerbaijan (down one place to 163rd) reads: “Not content with crushing all forms of pluralism, President Ilham Aliyev has been waging a relentless war against his remaining critics since 2014. Independent journalists and bloggers are thrown in prison if they do not first yield to harassment, beatings, blackmail, or bribes. Independent media, such as Zerkalo and Azadlig, have been stifled economically. Others, such as Radio Azadlig, have been closed by force. The main independent news websites are blocked. In a bid to silence those who continue to resist in exile, such as Emin Milli and Ganimat Zahid, the authorities harass their family members still in Azerbaijan. The regime has also had Azerbaijani journalists detained in Georgia and Ukraine, and sued in France.”

Georgia (up three places to 61st) goes down as a rare success story with the index entry crediting its media as “pluralist but still very polarised” while observing that “the reforms of recent years have brought improvements in media ownership transparency and satellite TV pluralism, but owners still often call the shots on editorial content”.

South Caucasus neighbour Armenia (down one place at 80th) is said to have print media that “are diverse and polarized [while] investigative journalism flourishes online, but pluralism lags behind in the broadcast media.” However, impunity largely prevails in the country when journalists are physically attacked, the report says.

Moving across to Central Asia, Turkmenistan (ranked 178th, just as it was last year, and only outscoring Eritrea and North Korea in the ranking), is referred to by the report as an “ever-expanding news black hole”.

Part of its entry states: “The Turkmen government controls all media, and the limited number of Internet users are able to access only a highly-censored version of the Internet—but that does not satisfy President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, also known as ‘Father Protector.’ Harassment of the few journalists who work clandestinely for media outlets based abroad continues to grow. One of them, Saparmamed Nepeskulyev, has languished in prison since July 2015. In recent years, other journalists have been arrested, tortured, physically attacked, or otherwise forced to stop working. On the pretext of making cities more visually appealing, the authorities are continuing a campaign of removing satellite dishes, depriving the public of one of the few remaining ways to access uncontrolled news coverage.”

Kazakhstan (down one to 158th) is said to be plagued by “uncertainty surrounding the succession to Nursultan Nazarbayev, the ‘Leader of the Nation’ who has ruled since 1990, [which] has accentuated his paranoia and determination to keep a tight grip.”

The entry on Kazakhstan also says: “The main opposition national newspapers were all banned in 2013, the remaining few are collapsing under the impact of fines, and any new independent newspaper is inevitably closed within months. Journalists are often arrested and the Internet is now closely controlled, with mass surveillance, imprisonment of bloggers and frequent cuts in access to news websites, social networks and messaging services.”

In Kyrgyzstan (down nine places to 98th), the report says society still benefits from “the pluralism of the Kyrgyz media [which] is still exceptional in Central Asia but the polarization of Kyrgyz society is reflected in the media and the environment for journalists.”

It adds: “There is still a great deal of self-censorship on certain subjects, such as inter-ethnic relations, and the grounds for concern are growing. Astronomic fines have been imposed for ‘insulting’ the president, accompanied by asset freezes and travels bans. Totally disproportionate sanctions were imposed on several critical media outlets in 2017: the leading news website Ferghana was blocked, the Zanoza website was stripped of the right to use its name and the Sentyabr TV channel was closed.”

Uzbekistan (up four places to 165th) has, the report observes, benefited from President Islam Karimov’s death in August 2016. “Karimov had never stopped reinforcing censorship and persecuting independent journalists during his 25 years as dictator. His successor, former Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has promised to improve the human rights situation. Well-known detained journalists have been freed and the signs of a thaw are growing,” the report says.

However, it also notes: “To judge by the accounts of former [journalist] detainees, torture is still being used. Official criticism of the former repressive apparatus has begun to loosen some taboos. Leading independent news websites such as Ferghana and Radio Ozodlik are still blocked in Uzbekistan.”

At 149th (the same as in the last ranking), Tajikistan is faced by “President Emomali Rakhmon [who] increasingly indulges his authoritarian tendencies which threaten the fragile national consensus constructed over the ashes of a civil war that ravaged the country from 1992 to 1997”, the report says. : On the pretext of combating terrorism, the government has reduced the media drastically and has eliminated the political opposition. Telephone calls from intelligence officers, interrogation sessions, intimidation, and blackmail are now all part of the daily fare of independent journalists who have been hit hard by the economic crisis. Surveillance of communications is getting more sophisticated, while the blocking of the main news websites and social networks is virtually permanent,” the report adds.

Finally, further east, in Mongolia (down two to 71st) “TV channels replaced their normal programming with blank screens on April 26, 2017 in protest of plans to increase the penalties for defamation ahead of a presidential election,” the report notes, adding: “More than half of the defamation cases in Mongolia are brought against journalists and media outlets, pushing them to censor themselves. The overall environment for the media has improved in recent years, especially as a result of the state media’s transformation from government mouthpieces into a public service. But media ownership is very concentrated and most media are affiliated with political parties, holding back the emergence of independent media. Whether state or privately-owned, the media are under pressure from politicians, and their ability to act as a watchdog is limited by the government’s lack of transparency and its susceptibility to criticism.”