Save the Economy, But Save Press Freedom Too
BUCHAREST—World leaders continue to search for solutions to the global recession, as we witnessed during the just-concluded G-20 summit in Toronto—a forum representing the full spectrum of regime types, and one that has effectively replaced the G-7 group of industrialized democracies as the international high table. Rescuing the global economy is imperative. But it is also time for the transatlantic community to focus again on media freedoms, whose denial or absence severely weakens the fragile foundations of emerging democracies.
While limitations on independent news sources are often associated with countries such as Iran, which recently marked the first anniversary of its flawed presidential election, the West should not overlook its immediate neighborhood, where governments continue to systematically silence critical voices and limit the free flow of information. The Committee to Protect Journalists, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Freedom House, and Reporters without Borders have all documented instances where freedom of expression and media plurality have been met with hostility, intolerance, and occasionally even violence in the states along Europe’s eastern periphery. In Ukraine, where the press proudly reclaimed its freedom in the wake of the Orange Revolution, recent events have signaled a new trend of government crackdowns on independent media outlets. On June 8, two Ukrainian independent TV stations, Channel 5 and TVi, were stripped of their broadcasting frequencies by the Kyiv district court.
Ukraine’s backsliding is not helped by continuing repression in its neighborhood: Azerbaijan, Russia, Armenia and Belarus have all consistently been rated “not free” by Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press survey. In Azerbaijan, the last three years have witnessed striking examples of President Ilham Aliyev’s government stifling critical voices, from the 2007 arrest of independent editor Eynulla Fatullayev to last year’s arrest of two young bloggers, Adnan Hajizada and Emin Milli, on “hooliganism” charges. The situation in Russia is even more disturbing. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 52 journalists have lost their lives attempting to document corruption and human rights violations in Russia since 1993. Among the most notable are Anna Politkovskaya, murdered in 2006, and Anastasiya Baburova and Abdulmalik Akhmedilov, both killed just last year. And the Northern Caucasus remains a dangerous place for many of the brave individuals who search for the truth in this volatile region. In Armenia, the parliament recently amended national laws concerning television and radio broadcasting, despite the public pleas of the OSCE and Council of Europe. International analysts suspect that the amendments will be used to prolong government control of the broadcast media, limiting the emergence of new independent news sources. Just as alarming is Belarussian President Lukashenko’s Decree No. 60 on “Measures to Improve the Use of the National Segment of the Internet Network”. The decree, which comes into effect on July 1, essentially increases government surveillance over Internet usage and content. The move coincides with a renewed wave of police harassment of Belarusian journalists at Nash Dom, Vitebsky Kuryer, and Charter 97.
The unfortunate truth is that the United States and its European democratic partners continue to turn a blind eye to democratic backsliding in exchange for tangible, short-term policy gains, such as energy deals and overflight rights. This is evident, for example, in the West’s relationship with Azerbaijan. A country that is going backwards with regard to democracy and human rights but nonetheless is regarded as an important player in the European energy market and as a geographically relevant actor given American interests in Afghanistan. Pursuing economic and security interests is important. But it should not come at the expense of advancing democracy and human rights. On May 17, President Barack Obama signed into law the Daniel Pearl Press Freedom Act, expanding the State Department’s mandate to target violators of press freedom in its annual human rights report. This represents a positive step, but more can still be done.
Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of any working democracy. Protracted conflicts are more likely to be solved and communities are more likely to be bridged when the free flow of information is allowed. Economies can thrive and diversify, while evolving in transparent and predictable ways. Only when core democratic principles take root in Europe’s Eastern neighborhood can the region begin to emerge as a reliable and stable corridor between Europe and Asia. Sadly, governments to Europe’s east have limited experience in fostering democratic principles. The transatlantic community needs to do all it can to prevent their sliding back towards authoritarianism.
Mark Cunningham is senior program officer for the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation in Bucharest.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.