- The Washington Times - Friday, May 26, 2000

There is a little-noted war going on in Eastern Europe and the Russian Federation. The rulers of these countries aim to restore what we all thought, foolishly perhaps, had come down forever in 1991 the Iron Curtain. The war is intended to crush freedom of the press and other media. It is as simple as that.

I have been following harassment of the media in these once communist countries for many months. And now comes a country-by-country report from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty which fully documents the charge that with virtually no exception every leader in these ex-communist countries, starting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, is actively pursuing a policy of intimidation of journalists and other writers.

For several years after the fall of the Soviet Union and the overthrow of East European communist dictatorships, the media had a field day. Closed archives were opened and published, newspapers fearlessly printed exposes about past and present misdeeds. And then came the counterattack scattered incidents. For example, five years ago, Vladislav Listyev, a television journalist was murdered. No arrests.

The incidents are no longer scattered as will be seen below. The grim, sad fact about this war against the media behind what was once the Iron Curtain is that we will never know what might have been printed or broadcast. The gangsters who have been given the right to shut down press freedom are more efficient than government censors. The new censorship will be self-imposed by the journalists and editors themselves as they see the criminal tactics against them go unpunished.

You have a wife and three young children do you want to get your skull smashed in as happened to Russian journalist, Igor Domnikov, a few days ago? He was attacked with a hammer in the entrance to his apartment house in southeast Moscow. Mr. Domnikov, hospitalized with severe head wounds, works for a Moscow biweekly, Novaya Gazeta, which has published exposes about government corruption.

Let me now give you the RFE/RL country-by-country report of what is happening to press freedom in these onetime Soviet or former "socialist" East European "republics":

Azerbaijan: Islam Dun'yasi, the country's only Islamic news agency closed down by official order although it was officially registered. On April 29, police beat 17 journalists as they covered an opposition rally in Baku. "Tax police" shut down the Baku offices of the Monitor Weekly for allegedly failing to present financial data for the first three months of the year. The paper's predecessor, Monitor, ceased publication in the summer of 1998 after the court imposed fines for insulting senior officials. On the same day, the press that printed the Monitor and several other Russian-language publications was shut down as well as the newspaper, Baku Boulevard.

Belarus: The weekly Nasha Niva has been warned for a second time, this one about an article it published comparing a high official to Adolf Hitler. The government now has the "legal" right to initiate court proceedings to close the paper.

Georgia: Two newspaper reporters gathering information in a marketplace about goods smuggled from Russia were arrested May 8 and accused of spying. They were released two days later due to "personal contacts" with police officials, whatever that phrase means.

Kazakhstan: The local Committee to Protect Journalists issued an "enemies of the press" list. President Nursultan Nazarbayev placed sixth on the list. The list went unreported. The editor of an independent newspaper, Ramazan Esergepov, reported that since his criticism of the mayor of Almaty, city officials were pressuring him to move the paper from its present offices.

Romania: Valentin Dragan, a reporter for a Constanta paper and a Reuters correspondent, was severely beaten and had his leg broken by police May 12. He was trying to photograph a "private party" hosted by the local police chief.

Russian Federation: Four days after President Vladimir Putin was sworn into office, armed men, some of them masked, raided the offices of Media-MOST Group, whose publications and broadcasts have dealt with government corruption. The Committee to Protect Journalists wrote Mr. Putin that this raid "raises serious questions about [your] commitment to a free and independent press." The U.S. State Department has voiced its concern about the raid.

Serbia: There isn't enough room on this page to list all the incidents instigated by the Belgrade government aimed at crushing press freedom. Even street vendors are not immune from arrest. Three of them were seized for selling the Banja Luka weekly, Nezavisne Novine, and 2,000 copies of the current edition and three previous editions were confiscated. Foreign TV crews were informed May 9 that no transmission services would be possible due to unspecified technical difficulties.

Tajikistan: Sayfadin Dostiev, an RFE/RL correspondent in Dushanbe, was set upon by armed soldiers who told him they had been ordered to search people for weapons. He was badly beaten and received knife wounds on head and arm.

These may all seems like trivial episodes. But are they? Laws that claim to protect civil freedoms are on the books of these onetime dictatorships. But intimidation, beatings, killings, corrupt judiciary can do a better job of destroying press freedom and restoring a latterday Iron Curtain than an official censorship structure as was the case under Soviet rule.



Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is a columnist for The Washington Times. He is the editor of the just-published "CNN's Cold War Documentary: Issues and Controversy" (Hoover Press)

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