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Press Freedom Deteriorating in Eastern Europe and the Middle East

(Washington, DC -- March 18, 2004) Press freedom conditions continued to deteriorate in Eastern Europe and the Middle East during 2003, according to two experts from the Committee to Protect Journalists. The panel, which included Alex Lupis, Europe & Central Asia Program Coordinator and Joel Campagna, Senior Program Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, told an RFE/RL audience that safety concerns, a culture of fear and self-censorship place journalists in increased danger.

Lupis asserted that government corruption contributes to the poor media conditions, citing the example of two journalists in Russia who were allegedly killed because of their reporting on corrupt practices. He said that a rise in the level of fear among journalists has also led to a steady decline in investigative reporting throughout what used to be the Soviet Union. Furthermore, some governments have restricted the ability of news organizations to report on poverty, organized crime and armed conflict occurring within their borders. For example, several branches of the Russian government intimidated reporters trying to cover the war in Chechnya.

The physical safety of the working press was the dominant concern in the Middle East last year, according to Campagna, who said that the war in Iraq resulted in the death of more than a dozen reporters. The practice of "embedding" reporters with military units was seen as a success by both media organizations and the Pentagon, Campagna said. He noted, however, that "embedded" journalists were able only to provide a localized view of what they themselves were experiencing. "Unilateral" journalists, on the other hand, who attempted to cover the war independently of the military, had a more "mixed" experience in Kuwait and Iraq. After the end of the war, working as a journalist in Iraq remained very risky -- the CPJ considers that country to have been "the most dangerous place to work" in 2003.

Campagna noted, however, that despite the war-related risk to journalists' safety, the media in Iraqi has prospered since the fall of the Hussein regime. He said that Iraqis are now gaining access to the uncensored Internet and that ownership of satellite dishes has risen dramatically in Iraq -- an act that carried criminal consequences during the rule of Hussein.

The same sort of progress has not occurred in Iran, according to Campagna, where the hardline judiciary continues to use its powers to harrass and arrest journalists as well as to censor and close newspapers. Campagna added that the situation for journalists in Iran has degenerated so badly that their lives are in danger, noting specifically the death in detention of Iranian-Canadian freelance photographer Zahra Kazemi.

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