Category Archives: Europe

Free media vital to anti-corruption campaign

Transparency International issued a new report on steps to fight corruption in the Visegard countries — Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia.

The outlook is not good. But the report does have some bright points. Specifically, the report notes that strong civic society organizations and free media are important players in the anti-corruption battles.

Non-state institutions, especially media and civil society, are key anti-corruption actors because for corrupt interest groups it is much harder to influence and control them than state institutions.

As noted before in this site, countries without free and independent media are often right at the top of the list of most corrupt.

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Filed under Corruption, Europe, Press Freedom

The former Soviet republics keeping to the old ways

Many thanks to Roy Greenslade at The Guardian for an excellent summary of the state of press freedom in the former Soviet Union.

Bottom line: It is not good.

How political leaders in former Soviet states threaten press freedom

That absurd but sinister arrest in Belarus of a website editor for publishing pictures of teddy bears is just one example of the way in which the former Soviet satellites have failed to allow freedom of the press to flourish.

The South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), which keeps a watching brief on affairs in many of the countries, has now registered a “growing concern” about the treatment meted out to journalists by the authorities.

Though nominally “republics”, few of them are truly democratic. Several are nothing more than autocracies without any respect for human rights for their citizens let alone press freedom.

Rest of story.

My favorite is the one where the Romanian interim president labelled the Washington Post as “contaminated.” He blamed the Post and other international publications for the country’s deteriorating international image. (Sounds like he has a lot in common with the U.S. Tea party.)

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Bad news in Europe

Freedom House released its Nations In Transit report for 2012.

And things don’t look good for civic and press freedoms in central and eastern Europe.

The failure of virtually any of the countries of Eurasia to shed old governance habits and end monopolies on political and economic power has been one of the greatest disappointments of the past two decades. Regimes in countries as diverse as Azerbaijan, Belarus, Russia, and Uzbekistan have taken steps—some brutal, others more subtle—to adapt to new circumstances and maintain power.

Read rest of Introduction to report.

The change in independent media is pretty disturbing:

Independent Media

↓ 5 declines: Hungary, Lithuania, Macedonia, Tajikistan, Ukraine

↑ 3 improvements: Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Slovakia

This is in addition to the authoritarian regimes in Russia, Belarus and all the “-stans.”

Overall, not good news for democracy or free press.

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Azerbaijan government calls for “hatred” of independent media

The International Federation of Journalists and the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) condemned a May 31 statement by Azeri presidential spokesman Ali Hasanov calling for a show of ‘public hatred’ against independent media.

“This call by one of the government’s most senior spokespersons, is designed to increase the climate of fear and tension in which violence and impunity flourish,’ said Jim Boumelha, IFJ President. “It is an attack on journalism and the public’s right to oppose, to scrutinize and to hold government to account.”

To be honest, the call fits right in with the mentality of the dictatorship that has controlled Azerbaijan since its break away from the former Soviet Union.

The recent Freedom House report on Nations in Transit show Azerbaijan to be a worthy successor to the Soviet Union and other dictatorships.

Here is the summary on press freedom:

Independent Media. The regime’s systematic suppression of independent broadcast, print, and online media has effectively silenced public debate. In 2011 pressure against online activists increased. Violent attacks on opposition journalists continued in 2011, with full impunity for perpetrators. Libel continues to be a criminal offense. On a more positive note, newspaper editor Eynulla Fatullayev, whose release had been ordered by the European Court of Human Rights in April 2010, was finally set free in May after four years in prison on politically motivated charges. Overall, Azerbaijan’s media situation remains unchanged, therefore, the independent media rating stays at 6.75.

‘Nuff said!

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Hungarian cartoonists speak up (draw) about new media law

Many thanks to editorial cartoonist Matt Bors for his interview with three Hungarian editorial cartoonists and illustrators–Gábor Pápai, Joe Békési, and Péter Zsoldos–about how the media law will affect them.

(For background on the new Hungarian media law see Hungary’s media law: Back to the bad old days)

Hungarian Cartoonists Under Fire from Repressive New Law

Gábor Pápai: The consequences of the law are scary indeed.

Joe Békési: This law is not dangerous to specific individuals, but editorial offices, publishing houses, and television channels that can be ruined or forced to continually self-censor. It will kill investigative journalism.

Péter Zsoldos: Until now, theoretically we had total freedom. And seldom did any official retribution happen.

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Belarus over the top: 3 year old might be arrested as subversive

In a move that better fits the great purges of the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s, the government of Belarus after arresting most of the candidates who ran against President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko decided that the 3-year-old son of one of those candidates is a possible security threat.

The arrests of the candidates came after a demonstration against alleged election fraud. Among those detained were Andrei Sannikov, a leading opposition presidential candidate, and Irina Khalip, a respected investigative journalist. Both were dragged from their car and placed in jail.

And just like Stalin — obviously a hero to Lukashenko — the state issued a warning they were considering arresting the 3-year-old son of Sannikov and Khalip.

Belarus Signals It Could Seize Opponent’s Son

Lukashenko is seen by many to be the last dictator left in Europe. He has argued that Belarus should reform a union with Russia. Lukashenko went as far as signing a cooperative agreement with Russia and stated openly he would like to see Belarus once again be part of a greater Russia — ala Soviet Union.

He is also pretty much shunned by the rest of Europe. The EU is restoring a ban on issuing visas to Belarus officials — including Lukashenko — because of the crackdown.

Last month, the Belarus government was accused of launching a denial of service attack against the opposition party and media outlets. At the same time the government also launched attacks against media outlets not under its control.

The crackdown on dissidents includes the arrest and detention of dozens of journalists who were covering the demonstrations. Journalism groups around the world have called on the Belarus government to release those journalists.

The arrests of journalists in Belarus are said to be based on the law. Even though the constitution has provisions for freedom of the press, the law says criticism of the president and government is a criminal offense.

But then again, Stalin ran his purges under the umbrella of the Soviet Union’s law as well.

Belarus is ranked 154 of 178 in the Reporters Without Borders list of press freedom. That makes them worse than Russia, Singapore and Venezuela.

And — sorry I couldn’t resist — speaking of Venezuela, just to show that birds of a feather do indeed flock together (or at least have each others back: Venezuela announced it would ensure shipment of crude oil to Belarus even if it has to buy it from other sources. I guess anything to help a fellow national leader who likes repressing the media.

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Hungary’s media law: Back to the bad old days

The fall of communism in Europe opened a door to democracy and all the rights that come with it — freedom of press, speech, expression etc.

And the right to elect officials who might do all those other rights in. Such as the good people of Hungary.

The electorate reacted to eight years of bad governance and arrogance by the Socialist party by voted in a center-right candidate who railed against the elites and main stream media.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban proposed and his parliament enacted Dec. 21 a new media law with language that is deliberately vague but pleasant-sounding to the people of the country who dislike elites. The media law that could just have easily been written by the crew that used to run the country 25 years ago. (For the historically challenged, that would be the Communist Party.)

To be sure there was more to the Orban victory in April 2010. But the rhetoric focused on how the government was run by elites who had no respect for the common people.

The “populist” theme was added to the poor showing of the Hungarian economy. Then to tap the last nail into the Socialist’s party chances, a tape emerged of the then prime minister telling colleagues he lied to the voters and that hundreds of tricks kept the country from falling apart.

In April the Socialists were out and Orban was in.

Orban stepped right in to fix the problems of the country. In fact, he pledged to get Hungary’s economy back on track after the country required a bailout from the EU.

The only problem is that he saw any organization or group that opposed him to be part of the problem. And this problem had to be addressed before he could deal with the other issues facing the country. (Sound like a certain Venezuelan leader we all know?)

Anne Applebaum at SLATE reports that since taking office less than a year ago, Orban appointed a council to rewrite the constitution, cut funding for the national audit office and stripped the supreme court of its powers.

But it is the media law that is now getting attention. (After all, it was passed by the Orban-dominated parliament just this past week.)

Running to 180 pages, the law is pretty simple and vague — as is usually the case with people who want to do in freedom of press: “Do what we say or we will break you.”

Under the law:

  • The government sets us a state-run media council — composed entirely of ruling party appointees.
  • The media council is tasked with protecting “human dignity.”
  • The media council can issue fines against  news organizations up to US$1 million is the news reports are not balanced. (No definition on what “balanced” means.)
  • The government has also ordered a limit on crime-related news. Such news cannot take up more than 20 percent of airtime. (And as usual with folks who try to control the media, the law does not define “crime” or mention if government corruption is included under the “crime” category.)

The law also seems to be reaching to give the government the power to censor the Internet. Here the government seems to be relying on the “human dignity” aspect of the law. Can you say “Great Firewall of Hungary”? (Maybe they can cut a deal with China and Iran to get the technology and cheap staff to monitor the Internet.)

To be sure, not everyone is sitting still for this.

Right from the start, journalists in Hungary and Europe stepped up almost as soon as the legislation was introduced: Protests at new media law in Hungary.

And again when the law was passed: Adam Michnik Editorial Criticising Media Legislation in Hungary.

Within days of the law’s passage, the chilling effect was seen in a radio interview.

Journalist Sandor Jaszberenyi was on Radio Kossuth’s morning show Dec. 28.  Before taking a question about plans to open the abandoned Chernobyl reactor site to tourists, the journalist asked for a minute’s silence in protest at the media law.

The show’s host cut short the interview. Listeners then heard the radio station’s theme tune for a while. When the show restarted it was without Jaszbberenyi.

Jaszberenyi said the incident was an example of how self- censorship was already in place in Hungary.

His was not the first act of defiance on the air against the law by working journalists. The day the law was passed,  two Radio Kossuth presenters interrupting their program for a minute’s silence.

They were suspended indefinitely by the station.

This legislation also came at a very embarrassing time for the European Union. Hungary is taking over the rotating presidency of the EU. The EU has raised a number of issues with Hungary over the law.

Hungarian parliamentarians say the door is not locked on making changes.

A leading member of the ruling party in parliament told the BBC that if the law was applied “in a wrong way, or there are problems” parliament would change it.

But then he fell back on the old chestnut of all those who want to stop a free press from looking into how things are done in government. He said they want to “improve” journalism in Hungary and “not to wage a war” against it.

For my money, whenever a government tries to dictate how journalism should be done, it is waging war on it.

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