(Washington) - As the May 3 observance of World Press Freedom Day approaches, the United States Helsinki Commission recalls negative trends and a growing list of restrictions against media freedom throughout many parts of Europe.
As all OSCE participating States have freely entered into commitments protecting freedom of speech and the media, these abuses are even more significant indicators of the fragility of these freedoms, even in established democracies.
Murder, torture, assault and censorship have been perpetrated by governments that have freely and openly committed to advocate and defend freedom of the press. The following examples should serve to remind us how precious a free press really is, and that we ought not take this freedom for granted.
Four journalists have been killed in Russia and one in Belarus in 2002. Dozens have been imprisoned and numerous others beaten and harassed throughout the region, according to a recent report from the Committee to Protect Journalists. Subsequent reports allege that Spanish officials have imprisoned and tortured some ten journalists.
Journalists Sergei Kalinovsky (Moskovsy Komsomolets-Smolensk), Natalya Skryl (Nashe Vremya), Valery Ivanov (Tolyatinskoye Obrzreniye) and Roddy Scott (Frontline) were killed in Russia in the last year, while another dozen or so have been attacked and many more harassed. Some of these incidents were directly due to war coverage in Chechnya, while others were linked to corruption and organized crime reportage. In Russia on March 11, Novaya Gazeta correspondent Sergi Zolvkin, who had received death threats for his reporting on organized crime and official corruption in the Krasnodar Region, was the target of an assassination attempt in the southwest city of Sochi. Russian military journalist Grigory Pasko was sentenced to four years in prison in connection with his coverage of the environmental damage caused by the Russian Navy.
The murder of prominent Ukrainian journalist Heorhiy Gongadze remains unsolved. Gongadze disappeared in September 2000. Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and a number of high-ranking officials have been implicated in his disappearance and the circumstances leading to his murder. There are audio tapes clearly implicating Kuchma in the scandal.
The case of Ihor Alexandrov also remains unsolved. Alexandrov, director of a regional television station, was beaten in July 2001 and subsequently died. Serious questions remain about how authorities handled the case.
Armenian Public Television reporter Tirgran Nagdalian was killed for motives as yet undetermined.
Ukrainian Mykhailo Kolomyets (Ukrainski Novyny) was found dead in Belarus on October 30 under unclear circumstances. As examples of the continuing use of criminal libel statutes, Belarusians Mikola Markevich and Pavel Mazheyka of Pahonya and Viktar Ivashkevych of Rabochy were sentenced last summer to corrective labor for “libeling” the President in pre-election articles.
Last August, the independent newspaper Nasha Svaboda was fined 100 million Belarusian rubles for civil libel of the chairman of the State Control Committee.
At year’s end, thirteen journalists were jailed in Turkey, some imprisoned since 1993.
In Kazakhstan, legal action was taken against Sergei Duvanov on July 9 for “infringing the honor and dignity of the president,” a charge that carries a maximum three-year prison sentence. Duvanov was severely beaten on August 28 as he returned home that evening and was imprisoned on October 27. Several other Kazakh journalists have been attacked and harassed over the past two years.
On February 20, the Spanish Government reportedly shut down the only newspaper published in the ancient Basque language, Euskera. Ten members of the small newspaper’s staff, including the editor, were arrested and accused of aiding ETA, included on the U.S. list of Designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations. The ten were allegedly sent to Madrid where they were held for days and tortured. Some of the staff were released on bail, according to The Los Angeles Times, which also reported the ten were warned that they might be rearrested when they described their treatment to the public.
The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.