At their meeting in Warsaw, members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe agreed in principle that "free and independent media are essential to a free and open society." But throughout the past year, the media in several O-S-C-E countries have been anything but free. And that, says Dorothy Taft of the U.S. mission to the O-S-C-E, "is cause for considerable concern."
In Belarus, the government continues to stifle the independent media with newspaper suspensions, crippling fines, and specious libel suits. The law in Belarus is used to restrain, rather than protect, free speech. In August, the government used spurious legal grounds to deregister the publishers of the independent weekly newspaper "Den and Kuryer iz Borisova." They are now no longer able to publish. In Central Asia, said U.S. O-S-C-E representative Taft, "freedom of the media remains a distant dream."
Fifteen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there is not one independent media outlet in Turkmenistan, and almost all of those that operated in Uzbekistan have been shut down. In addition, reporters have been threatened, arbitrarily arrested, and convicted of dubious charges for continuing their work. In Kazakhstan, the government has closed the "Respublika" newspaper because of an interview with Vladimir Zhirinovsky, an ultra-nationalist Russian politician.
In Tajikistan, authorities continue to target independent media outlets. While print media is relatively free in Azerbaijan, some journalists face threats for reporting that is critical of the government. Reporters in Armenia face government intimidation and self-censorship. Russia, says Ms. Taft, "is among the most dangerous places in the O-S-C-E region for journalists."
Thirty reporters have been killed in Russia since 1999. Maksim Maksimov of the "Kommersant" newspaper has been missing for a year. Reports indicate that three police investigators are prime suspects in his disappearance and possible murder. On June 28th, journalist Magomedzagid Varisovgamed was reportedly gunned down on the streets of Makhachkala in response to his investigative reporting. Recently, because of their newspaper articles, Nikolai Goshko and Eduard Abrasimov were sentenced to prison for defamation of public officials. As a result of such actions, there are fewer independent Russian media outlets and less diversity of content.
Clearly, too many journalists continue to be arrested, barred from covering important events, or killed in some O-S-C-E countries. It is time for the governments of Belarus, Central Asia, Azerbaijan, and Russia to start living up to their commitments to promote rather than repress the media.
The preceding was an editorial reflecting the views of the United States Government.