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Study Shows Media in Eastern Europe, Eurasia on Divergent Paths

(Washington, DC--June 24, 2005) According to IREX, a U.S.-based NGO, its recently-released Media Sustainability Index for 2004 shows that media in Eastern Europe and Eurasia are on divergent paths. Mark Whitehouse, Director of Media Development for IREX and Peter Graves, a project manager for the US Agency for International Development, which funded the media index, told a RFE/RL audience last week that, while recent revolutions have sparked positive trends in Georgia and Ukraine, politicized media and self-censorship remain persistent obstacles to development of an independent press in almost all of the countries surveyed.

This is the fourth annual Media Sustainability Index (MSI) funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which uses the survey as an indicator for the effectiveness of technical assistance programs (the index is available on the IREX website). A panel of media professionals was assembled in each of the 20 countries studied, to assess their respective media environments over the last four years. According to Whitehouse, "to a large degree we're relying on local professionals to discuss the [media] situation in their own country within the framework of the methodology we provide them to provide the level of comparability across countries."

The MSI evaluates indigenous media on key aspects including: legal protection of the media, the professionalism of journalists, and the plurality of sources available to citizens, as well as whether or not the independent media are well-managed and "business savvy." Whitehouse said a country's media environment should include "international media, regional media, and a variety of local media widely available to people."

During the last four years, the MSI has identified both positive trends and highly troublesome trends. Whitehouse noted that, "one can really see that Southeastern Europe, despite problems, is the leader in terms of its advancement of a sustainable and independent media." He continued, "It's not there yet by any means, but when compared to either Western Eurasia or, in particular, Central Asia it is far more advanced."

The countries of Montenegro, Bosnia, Macedonia, and Bulgaria, according to Whitehouse, have made significant progress. "This is not to say that every country in the region is doing fine," Whitehouse said. "If we look at Albania, it's made progress but remains relatively stagnant." Kosovo has made some progress, but hasn't progressed as far as some believe it should have -- which many Kosovars believe is "because of the international presence," according to Whitehouse.

Central Asia was at the opposite extreme from Southeastern Europe: "It is evident and not necessarily surprising that [Central Asia] remains the farthest from having independent or sustainable media," Whitehouse said. Three of the four lowest-ranking countries in this year's survey were Central Asian countries; the fourth was Belarus.

Georgia after its "Rose Revolution" and Ukraine after its "Orange Revolution" have both provided bright spots in the short term. According to Whitehouse, panel members were emboldened by the fact that many media outlets Ukraine -- either state or private -- that were closely allied to the previous regime became more independent during the Orange Revolution. However, both panels expressed concern that democratic gains could be reversed, as happened in Serbia in 2000-2001. There, the former opposition media gave up their independence and became subservient to the new government, whose leaders they had supported when they were in the opposition. Whitehouse said that journalists agree that there is a "natural grace period" that exists after a new government comes to power, but that a danger exists that "the grace period becomes permanent."

Although it seemed on a positive trend line when the first Media Sustainability Index was prepared four years ago, Russia is ranked in the lower tier of countries in this year's survey, according to Whitehouse, because of its "backsliding". He said that "overall, the Putin government has continued its policy towards the media, which is not encouraging." The situation for media in Russia's neighbors in Western Eurasia also continues to get worse, according to the MSI -- especially in Belarus.