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RFE Journalists in Trouble 2010: Wrap Up

Ukraine -- Memorial on the 10th anniversary of the murder of independent journalist Georgy Gongadze.

During 2010, RFE journalists suffered intimidation, physical attacks and arbitrary arrest in 12 of the 21 countries forming its broadcast region. The year presented additional challenges as authorities in Belarus, Turkmenistan and Iran broadened their efforts beyond individuals and conducted sustained campaigns to silence entire RFE language services. RFE’s experience is consistent wih the findings of other media watchdogs, suggesting that governments in its broadcast region are increasingly intolerant of independent media and that the tools traditionally available to safeguard it are increasingly inadequate.

The December sentencing of Ernest Vardanean, a contributor to RFE’s Moldovan service, epitomized the vulnerability of RFE journalists everywhere to lawless regimes. Vardanean, who was first detained in April and ultimately tried behind closed doors, received a 15-year prison sentence from a court in Moldova’s breakaway Transdniester region on charges of state treason.

Such risks were on display in mass proportions in Belarus as RFE journalists were beaten and detained in mass arrests that imprisoned hundreds following the December 19 presidential elections. Ten days later, RFE’s Minsk bureau was anticipating a raid on its premises as part of a crackdown on the independent media. The bureau was the target of a sustained campaign of official intimidation earlier in the year. Two freelancers resigned after receiving threats from security agents against family members. Authorities also used accreditation to intimidate RFE journalists, stripping one correspondent of her status and forcing another to quit. In September, authorities issued a warning that all employees risked losing accreditation, a threat, in effect, to shut the bureau down. The bureau chief was interrogated by the KGB in the summer and harassed during routine border crossings to neighboring states.

Intimidation of members of RFE’s Turkmen service began mid-year and continued unchecked at year’s end. In numerous instances relatives of the service’s Prague-based staff were interrogated, threatened, dismissed from long-held jobs, denied travel rights and in other ways blacklisted as a result of their association with RFE. A Prague-based correspondent was refused entry to the country and banned as an “inadmissible subject” in May after attempting a visit following 11 years of exile. During the year, RFE’s website and phone lines to its correspondents in the country were routinely monitored and blocked.

In Kyrgyzstan, several RFE correspondents were victims of interethnic violence that erupted in the country’s southern regions in June. Two correspondents for our Uzbek service fled their homes in Osh after attackers targeted them for their ethnicity and their reporting on atrocities.

RFE journalists covering events in Tajikistan’s remote northern provinces were vilified and threatened in a series of articles that were published in local newspapers and which appeared to be part of a coordinated campaign.

In the North Caucasus, where independent journalism is nearly extinct, two correspondents resigned from RFE’s small Chechen service this year after security agents threatened their families.

Efforts to thwart Radio Farda, RFE’s Persian language service, continued this year, and included routine blocking of its website and the publication of a 360-page book by Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance deploring the radio’s purpose, programs and employees. Farda staff members in Prague received threats, as did their family members in Iran.

At year’s end, the Azerbaijani service marked the second year since the government banned its broadcasts from medium wave and FM.

RFE’s Russian service continued to suffer the loss of broadcast affiliates across the Federation from almost 30 in 2004 to fewer than three in 2010 as a result of political pressure. RFE journalists in Russia operate in the shadow of some 20 journalists who have been killed and countless others who were brutally attacked this decade and whose cases remain unsolved.