Madam Speaker, as Co-Chairman of the Helsinki Commission I can attest to the fact that freedom of the press is only a cherished dream for many today in the OSCE region. Vibrant independent media are an essential element of any democracy. Leaders the world over who are determined to remain in office by any means necessary understand perfectly the power of the press. That is precisely why they and their associates strive so vigorously to control the media. Indeed, there are a variety of means commonly used by those attempting to harass or intimidate journalists.
Physical attacks on journalists have become commonplace in many part of the OSCE region along with police raids, spurious court cases, arrests, and forcible psychiatric hospitalization. In recent days those attacked included Argishti Kivirian, editor of the independent news Web site Armenia Today, Vyacheslav Yaroshenko, editor of Corruption and Crime, a weekly in the southwestern Russian city of Rostov-na-Donu, and Anastasia Akopyan, a young journalist assaulted following circulation of an interview she did with an opposition mayoral candidate in the Russian city of Sochi.
The situation in several other OSCE countries remains mixed. While the Belarusian regime allowed two independent newspapers to distribute through state-controlled outlets, the overall media environment remains repressive. Independent journalists continue to be harassed. A new media law entered into force in February contains provisions that toughen state control over the media as the Belarusian government seeks to maintain a virtual monopoly over the country’s information space, especially television. In Armenia, the independent A1+ television station, forced off the air by the authorities, remains silent despite a ruling on the case by the European Court of Human Rights nearly a year ago. While the release of some imprisoned journalists in Azerbaijan is a positive development, the authorities have yet to repeal criminal defamation provisions. In Georgia, the government should take decisive action on promised reforms on media liberalization.
In the Balkans, media outlets are commonly targeted for harassment and occasional violence. In Serbia, several journalists were reportedly attacked earlier this year by a radical group organizing a commemoration of the 10-year anniversary of NATO bombing. Investigative media in Kosovo have come under pressure for their attempts to expose corruption. Independent media in Montenegro are frequently the target of trumped-up defamation and libel charges. In Albania, the magazine Tema was reportedly forced to cease operations under government pressure, while TV News 24 was apparently assessed a large fine for ridiculing another station’s promotion of the country’s prime minister. This year marks the tenth anniversary of the murder of Serbian journalist and editor, Slavko Curuvija, who testified before the Helsinki Commission shortly before his death, a case which authorities have yet to resolve.
Meanwhile, in Kazakhstan, the opposition weekly Taszharghan has reportedly been forced to cease publication following the imposition of a $200,000 fine for damaging the honor and dignity of a member of the Kazakh parliament. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least half a dozen independent outlets and their staffers faced more than 60 such defamation lawsuits in 2008 alone, with many involving claims by senior government officials.
Madam Speaker, nearly two decades after the breakup of the U.S.S.R., Soviet-era censorship survives in places like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, which, not coincidentally, ban all political opposition.