(Washington, DC--May 19, 2005) During a briefing in early May to mark World Press Freedom Day, four experts on the media in the former Soviet Union shared their insights with an audience at RFE/RL's Washington office. Freedom House Director of Studies Christopher Walker, Diana Howansky of Columbia University's Ukrainian Studies program and Julie Corwin and Daniel Kimmage of RFE/RL all agreed that much needs to be done before the media in this region could be considered free.
In discussing the findings in Freedom House's just-released annual Press Freedom Survey (http://www.freedomhouse.org/research/pressurvey.htm), Walker said that while the eight new European Union member states have "in large measure... managed to consolidate the basic elements of a free press" and that the nations of southeastern European have achieved "partly free" status, "the picture is far less encouraging" in the "the non-Baltic former Soviet" countries. Walker noted, however, that developments in the last year and a half "offer some signs of promise".
Howansky said that the improvement in Ukraine's press freedom rating, from "not free" to "partly free" is primarily due to changes in the political environment that have occurred since the election of Viktor Yushchenko as president. Howansky stated that the legal framework has long been considered satisfactory in Ukraine, because the constitution provided for freedom of speech and citizens' access to information. However, according to Howansky, "[these] rights were not respected in practice" by the administration of former President Leonid Kuchma.
By the end of 2004, however, hundreds of journalists denounced the official intimidation and censorship they suffered during the presidential election campaign. Since Yushchenko's victory on December 26, the media freedom situation in Ukraine has shifted to one of "cautious optimism," according to Howansky. Ukrainian media continue to face challenges, Howansky said, but the government is working to ensure media freedom by "eradicating the abuse of the criminal justice system against media, reforming the politicized regulation of the media and resolving unsolved murder cases, such as the Gongadze case".
Kimmage said that "the situation with the media in Turkmenistan is terrible, bad in Uzbekistan, not very good in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan and unclear in post-Akaev Kyrgyzstan." Kimmage stated that, in these nations that "often lack consensus" over basic political systems, the press "assumes broader functions" such as the "search for justice." Because of this, Kimmage said, "journalists are often forced to take sides" on the issues and that "traditional journalists" in the Western mold do not now exist.
Corwin said that the smaller the audience that can be reached by a media in Russia, the less official interest and control it faces. Corwin called the Internet the "freest" form of media in Russia, but said that Russian media consumers exhibit a "great reliance on national television news" that "maintains the Kremlin's view of foreign policy and world events." Such sources provided a "distinct slant" during Ukraine's Orange Revolution, according to Corwin.