Oligopoly, state control over media outlets, and Russian propaganda are the main challenges facing to media freedom in the EaP countries.
Among Eastern Partnership countries, Georgia leads in the rating of Media Freedom, with the highest, though not perfect, indices of media policy and practices, and press and Internet freedom. Georgia is followed by Moldova (2nd position), Ukraine (3rd position), Armenia (4th position), and Azerbaijan (5th position), while Belarus remains the permanent outsider in 6th position.
This ranking is the result of a monitoring initiative undertaken through the EU-funded Eastern Partnership Media Freedom Watch project, the results of which were presented at a conference on February 9. Media experts presented a comprehensive overview of the media environment in the six Eastern Partnership countries.
More detailed information about the developments in these countries in 2014) can be found in a report Eastern Partnership Media Freedom Landscape 2014 prepared by the project.
Although all these countries have some common features, this report highlights the unique characteristics of each country that impact the media environment.
B E L A R U S
Zhanna Litvina, chairwoman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, explains the state of affairs with respect to media freedom restrictions in the country, drawing attention to the following trends: repressive legislation (there are six legislative articles criminalising defamation, the discrediting of the Republic of Belarus, and any media activities undertaken on behalf of unregistered organisations), lack of access to public information (over 60 public institutions are legally entitled to restrict public access to their information, including the Ministry of Culture and the national Belarus TV and Radio company), tight state control over the Internet (the state has the right to block any website without a court decision; 10 rating online media were blocked), and increasing persecution of media (in the last six months, journalists have been accused of extremism, illegal production and distribution of media materials, defamation, and discrediting Belarus).
Litvina notes that, “the state’s control over the media sector has recently increased,” and explains that, “such ‘vigorous activity’ on the part of the authorities is a result of the upcoming presidential elections in Belarus.” The current president intends to suppress opposing voices and win the race as usual.
The most recent challenge facing the media in Belarus, however, comes from the outside. Litvina warns that “Belarus is particularly vulnerable to Russian propaganda.” The mass media is not capable of taking an independent position on the conflict. Due to rigid censorship and lack of independence, public institutions are incapable of responding adequately to Russian propaganda.
U K R A I N E
Ukraine’s position in the ranking dropped in 2014 predominantly because of unsafe working conditions for journalists during Yanukovych’s rule and the deterioration of the security situation in the country. The EaP Media Freedom Watch report says that the number of violations of freedom of speech in Ukraine in 2014 was twice as high as in 2013. In particular, a record number of attacks on journalists were recorded in January and February, when 82 and 70 journalists, respectively, were beaten. Additionally, 76 journalists were held captive in 2014. Seven journalists were killed while carrying out their professional duties in 2014; one of them was killed during the Maidan events, and six while reporting on antiterrorist operations in Eastern Ukraine.
Adding to the violations of freedom of speech, journalists with the Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian-speaking media outlet, ATR, were attacked in the annexed Crimean peninsula by pro-Russian authorities and accused of promoting extremism.
These acts of physical aggression towards journalists are primarily related to three main factors: namely, the Maidan events, the annexation of Crimea, and the warfare in Eastern Ukraine.
Sergii Leshchenko, a Ukrainian MP and former journalist, also commented on media trends in the country, pointing to the media’s failure to counteract Russian propaganda, the prevalence of oligopolies, and the division of the media market among major Ukrainian tycoons, as major factors impeding media freedom.
Other negative media trends in Ukraine include the shortage of media market, the inefficiency of public and market regulation of the media due to the oligopolistic media structure, a lack of professionalism among journalists, and the weakness of Ukrainian trade unions.
Kostyantyn Kvurt, head of the board of the NGO, “Internews-Ukraine” (an NGO which implements the project), gives several reasons for the inadequate media freedom in Ukraine. Among them, he points out the “aggressive Russian policy and strong presence of Russian media products” (including the prevalence of Russian-speaking media outlets and Russian citizens in leadership positions at these organisations). The second reason Kvurt cites is the “inadequate response of Ukrainian political elites against the current challenges” (dealings and unfulfilled lustration). Finally, the “failure of Ukrainian mass media to play the role of mediator between establishment and society” also compromises media freedom.
Despite the troubling trends, there has also been some progress. Specifically, the main achievement in the media sphere is the adoption of the law on access to public information, which was promoted within the EU-funded project, “Strengthening information society in Ukraine,” and is one of the EU requirements the Ukrainian government is required to fulfil.
M O L D O V A
In describing trends in the media environment of Moldova, Petru Macovei, the executive director of the Association of Independent Press, also highlights the fierce Russian propaganda and manipulation that followed the signing of the Association Agreement. “Currently, there are discussions on how to minimise it,” he says, referring to the onslaught of Russian media propaganda, adding, “it would be complicated within the current Moldavian conditions.” These conditions include unfulfilled media reforms and the monopolistic structure of the media market.
This situation can be improved through the “adoption of the code on media” and the “demonopolisation of the media market.” But experts are sceptical about improvements and the development of media in Moldova since, as Macovei argues, “politicians don’t have a clear vision of independent media or the political will to support the reforms.“
G E O R G I A
Georgia is the leader in the media freedom ranking and continues to adhere to the EU reforms, including ensuring access to public information and the absence of state censorship and physical intimidation of journalists. Despite these positive elements, the situation in Georgia is not as rosy as it may seem at first glance.
Manana Jakhua, head of the “Green Wave” association and radio station, says that the Georgian media environment started worsening in December 2014 due to governmental pressure against critical media organisations.
Jakhua highlights the main media trends in Georgia. On the positive side, the transition to digital broadcasting has seen considerable progress and should support media pluralism in the country.
On the other hand, the expert notes the recent psychological pressure and threats authorities have levelled against journalists critical of the government, including Transparency International, Georgian NGOs, and independent media. Jakhua warns, “It is a bad sign and a threat to media freedom in the country.”
Another trend is the partisan structure of the Georgian media, where each media outlet belongs to one of the political parties. The only independent TV channel in the country, “Maestro,” is in danger of losing its editorial independence as the channel’s new owner has close business ties with Russia. Jakhua also points out that despite the problems with this partisan approach, in this way, “Georgia has managed to create a pluralistic media environment, where the media is supportive of different political parties.”
Among the financial challenges faced by the media is the shortage in the advertising market, with a further reduction in the works. “The government intends to reduce advertising in the media to gain more of an influence over it,” explains the expert.
Among the newest challenges, Jakhua concludes, is the “threat of the invasion of Russian broadcasting in the Georgian media environment.” She gives the example of Russian radio news outlet, which has begun broadcasting on local Georgian radio stations.
More detailed information about the developments in these countries, as well as in Azerbaijan and Armenia, can be found in a report Eastern Partnership Media Freedom Landscape 2014 prepared by the project.
ENP East Media Freedom Watch, a project funded by the EU, aims to protect freedom of media and expression in the ENP East region through raising regional and international awareness of the situation with respect to media freedom and journalists’ rights in the Eastern Partnership countries – Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The Project is funded by the European Union and was inspired by the Civil Society Forum of the Eastern Partnership, which was founded under the auspices of the European Commission in 2009.
Contact person: Natalya Sad, 050 930 84 39, firstname.lastname@example.org