CIS Most Dangerous for Journalists (If you leave out war zones)

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Reports about how the CIS is dangerous for journalists are so common that their worthy efforts are starting to sound like a bad pop song. Freedom House is the newest NGO/think tank to give its evaluation of media freedom. To no one’s surprise its report, Muzzling the Media: The Return of Censorship in the CIS, “makes the assertion that most former Soviet states, including those in Central Asia and the Caucasus, are the most hazardous on earth, outside of active war zones, for journalists to work in. Entrenched authority in these states are increasingly unwilling to tolerate the “watchdog” role that media strives to play in open societies.” The report also points out that the CIS countries with the least media freedom are also those experiencing high rates of economic growth. Such a finding seems to surprise Christopher Walker, the report’s author, who thinks that economically robust Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan “should likewise be enjoying increased press freedom. Yet they are not.” I’m surprised that there are some who continue to believe that there is a direct correlation between capitalism and freedom.

But media control in the CIS is not like the old Soviet model where what was and wasn’t allowed is directed from a central agency. Now successful media control is accomplished through a combination of methods to ensure self censorship. That mix includes “state-enabled oligarchic control, broadcast monopolies of presidential “families,” judicial persecution and subtle and overt forms of intimidation.” The report paints a picture is so bleak, outside of the few “courageous journalists,” that the only refuge for unadulterated information lies on the internet and among bloggers. But even Internet might have hit its freedom peak since it too is “fast becoming a target of greater interest for new regulatory intervention by the authorities.”

Still, while the report is certainly correct to lambaste censorship in the CIS, Freedom House’s own ideological position should not be overlooked. The group has a long history of being a mouthpiece for US interests since its founding in 1941. Its annual “Comparative Survey of Freedom” has been charged with basically boosting the “freedom rating” of US allies. For example, according to one evaluation of Freedom House’s reports, “On the 1989 survey, for example, South Africa’s “freedom rating” was worse than Nicaragua’s, but South Korea–where there has been government sponsored violence and corruption at levels unheard of in Nicaragua under the Sandinistas–was rated “more free” than Nicaragua by several points. The same held true vis-a-vis Nicaragua for El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Pakistan.”

More recently, Freedom House has been charged with being the ideological arm of the Bush Administration and is said to have received funds for “for clandestine activities inside Iran” (what these clandestine activities are is not stated). It has also, like other right wing think tanks, been an advocate for “regime change” in the Middle East.

The group’s political connections aside, there is one aspect of the report that is more telling: the fact that it excludes “active war zones” from evaluation. As of late 2006, there are 20 armed conflicts around the world, many of which have been the main reason for journalists deaths. The Committee to Protect Journalists states that 56 journalists were confirmed killed in 2006, of them 45 were killed in counties with armed conflicts. Of those 45, 32 journalists were killed in Iraq. So far for 2007, 24 journalists have been killed, 22 of which were casualties of armed conflict. 15 of them were slain in Iraq. Given these numbers, to declare the CIS the most dangerous place for journalists also involves some statistical slight of hand and definitional constriction.

Still, such jostling doesn’t belie the seriousness of the poor state of journalism in the CIS. It is only to remind us that not only should we know who is speaking but how they are speaking.