Behind Sochi Olympic showcase - Kremlin war on civil society
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 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.”
Thanks to its diplomatic and economic influence, Turkey is establishing itself as a regional model of democracy, especially for governments that emerged from the Arab Spring. After ten years of rule by the moderate Islamist AKP, the army’s sway over politics and the media has ended and a number of taboos linked to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s heritage are crumbling. New red lines are nonetheless emerging to replace them.
Despite a few limited reforms, judicial practices continue to be repressive and the number of detained journalists is still at a level that is unprecedented since the end of the military regime. Around 60 journalists were in detention at the end of 2013, including at least 28 held in connection with their work, making Turkey one of the world’s biggest prisons for media personnel. Despite directives intended to limit use of provisional detention, journalists often spend months if not years in prison before being tried.
After the most violent fighting in a decade, hopes have been raised by the start of negotiations between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government and the Kurdish rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The authorities have promised democratic reforms. They are urgently needed. Most of the journalists in prison or being prosecuted are the victims of anti-terrorism legislation inherited from the dark years. A score of articles in the penal code complete this repressive legislative arsenal. Aside from legislative reform, a peaceful resolution of the Kurdish issue would allow some evolution in a judicial culture marked by paranoid and repressive reflexes.
The unprecedented protests of the summer of 2013 highlighted Turkish society’s thirst for freedom. It also drew attention to the lack of democratic culture within the police and the threat to pluralism from the growing concentration of media ownership in the hands for businessmen linked to the government.
Gezi Park minefield for journalists
With 153 journalists injured and 39 detained, the media paid a high price for their coverage of the wave of anti-government demonstrations from May to September and the police use of force against protesters. Journalists were systematically targeted by the police and sometimes by demonstrators. The violence was sustained by a climate of hysteria fuelled by the speeches of government officials and pro-government media branding critical columnists, social network users and foreign reporters as agents of an international plot to overthrow the government or even as terrorists.
The level of self-censorship was such that 24-hour TV news channels completely ignored the violent clashes rocking Istanbul. Recalcitrant journalists were sidelined. No fewer than 14 were fired and 22 resigned. Astronomical fines were imposed on those TV channels that covered the protests closely.
IMPUNITY FOR OIL AND GAS DESPOTS
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.
Despotic winters and crackdowns
After 20 years of the most absolute despotism, Turkmenistan 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, 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 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, 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?
Despots with no oil or gas
Some post-Soviet states have decided they need no oil or gas to crack down on the media. In Belarus, 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.
INFORMATION THREATENED BY POLARIZATION
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, Georgia, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan 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.
Ukraine and Tajikistan in limbo
Respect for the editorial independence of media employees seems to be equally limited in Ukraine, 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.
In Tajikistan, coverage of the 2013 presidential election campaign was openly skewed in favour of the incumbent, Emomali Rakhmonov, who has ruled for more than 20 years. The arbitrary blocking of independent news websites has become common, even if it usually lasts just a few days. A new media law that took effect in March 2013 contained satisfactory provisions on paper but seems to have made no difference in practice so far.
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