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Reporters without borders: Worldwide press freedom index 2014

International organization for freedom of press "Reporters without borders" published Index of media freedom for 2014.

The former republics of the Soviet Union are represented in some groups.

More than two decades after the Soviet Union's implosion, the entire region still looks to Moscow, to which it is bound by strong cultural, economic and political ties. All the pomp of the inauguration of the Sochi Winter Olympics in February 2014 must not divert attention from the reality in Russia (148) of a trial of strength between an increasingly determined civil society and an increasingly repressive state.

Criticism of the regime is common since the major demonstrations of 2011 and 2012 but media self-censorship is far from disappearing. The federal TV stations continue to be controlled and, in response to the "return of politics in Russia," the authorities have chose repression. Ever since Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin in May 2012, more and more draconian laws have been adopted. Activists, news media and bloggers have all been targeted. 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. "Traditional values" are used to justify new restrictions on freedom of information, including the criminalization of "homosexual propaganda" and "insulting the feelings of believers."


The former Soviet republics that most violate freedom of information - Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan - are subjected to little pressure from the international community for the simple reason that they are rich in oil and gas deposits, and pipelines. Rich enough to feel untouchable, they are also wooed because of the strategic importance. So for the time being they keep their news media under tight control and jail recalcitrant journalists with complete impunity.

After 20 years of the most absolute despotism, Turkmenistan (178) adopted a media law in January 2013 that proclaims pluralism and bans censorship. It is a complete fiction. President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's totalitarian regime still controls all the local media. Independent journalists can only operate clandestinely, reporting for news media based outside the country. This obviously involves risks. Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khadjiyev have just completed seven-year jail terms in appalling conditions. Arbitrary arrests are common. Turkmenistan continues to be ranked with North Korea and Eritrea at the bottom of the press freedom index.

Strict censorship also prevails in Uzbekistan (166), where no fewer than 10 journalists and netizens are currently detained. One was awarded the 2013 Reporters Without Borders press freedom prize. He is Muhammad Bekzhanov, a former editor of the newspaper Erk and champion of the fight for democracy, who has been held for nearly 15 years. Tortured and denied medical attention, he is in danger of dying in prison. Another is the freelance journalist Solidzhon Abdurakhmanov, held since 2008 for writing about the consequences of the Aral Sea ecological disaster. Not content with absolute control over the traditional media, the authorities have been taking care to refine their Internet censorship techniques in recent years.

Succession is a thorny issue for despots who have been in power for more than 20 years. Like his Uzbek counterpart, Islam Karimov, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has yet to designate a clear successor. Kazakhstan (161) has been stable since independence but, as appetites are whetted and threats to this stability manifest themselves, the regime's paranoia and desire to control have grown. And freedom of information is in free fall. All the main national opposition news outlets were closed at the end of 2012 and start of 2013 and the most outspoken critics are being prosecuted or subjected to administrative harassment.

More repression is also the strategy being adopted in Azerbaijan (160), where the very survival of media pluralism is in danger. The TV stations are under government control, the main foreign radio stations are banned, and the main opposition newspaper barely circulates except in the capital and is on the verge of financial extinction. At the same time, recalcitrant journalists and bloggers are exposed to physical attacks, death threats, smear campaigns and abduction. Will the emergence of new alternative exile media save pluralism?

Some post-Soviet states have decided they need no oil or gas to crack down on the media. In Belarus (157), independent journalists continue to fight on unequal terms against "Europe's last dictatorship" and its propaganda. Those who cover street protests are routinely detained. The KGB and the judicial authorities often use "combatting extremism" as a pretext for silencing those who refuse to toe the official line. A book containing the winning photos of the 2011 Belarus Press Photo competition was banned in 2013 and one of the leading independent publishing houses was stripped of its licence. The magazine Arche and independent media based abroad such as Belsat TV are subjected to all sorts of administrative harassment.

Leading quartet

The region's four best-placed countries in this year's index are the same as last year. Although their positions in the index are fairly dispersed, Moldova (56), Georgia (84), Armenia (78) and Kyrgyzstan (97) all enjoy a significant degree of pluralism and relatively little state censorship. But the considerable social polarization is reflected in the media and the climate for journalists, who are often harassed by pressure groups. Given that the political orientation of individual media usually coincides with that of their owners, it would seem that respect for the editorial independence of media employees is still limited.

The 2013 elections in Georgia and Armenia were calmer than previous ones. Violence against journalists was rare. Armenia's state broadcaster has progressed as regards impartiality but the electoral environment exacerbated the ongoing information war in the privately-owned media - a war in which the authorities have a clear advantage. The change of government through the polls in Georgia was reflected in the media. Imedi, a TV station acquired by allies of former President Mikheil Saakashvili in 2007, was returned to the family of the original main shareholder shortly after the October 2012 elections. The justice system began investigating alleged fraudulent share transfers and money laundering involving the mayor of Tbilisi. After being elected prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili announced the closure of TV9, a privately-owned TV station which his wife had launched in 2012 and which had played a major role in propelling him to power. A new broadcasting law should limit the political in-fighting within Georgia's state broadcaster that resulted in a wave of dismissals in 2013.

Respect for the editorial independence of media employees seems to be equally limited in Ukraine (127), where changes of media ownership led to sudden changes in editorial policy, the introduction of new taboos and many dismissals. A draft law would make media ownership more transparent but its second reading in parliament has been delayed. 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 but will clearly have an impact on Ukraine's ranking next year.

The precursors of these policies were nonetheless clearly visible - growing concentration of leading media ownership in the hands of pro-government oligarchs, increasingly frequent violence against journalists that went unpunished, and attempts to intimidate independent journalists. By the end of 2013, there had already been significant erosion of the freedom of information won in the Orange Revolution.



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