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World Press Freedom Review
Overview of Europe
In Europe, especially Eastern Europe, reporting both before and during elections has always been a challenge for the media.
FOR WHOM THE ELECTION BELL TOLLS
By Diana Orlova
In a recent article in the IPI Global Journalist, former editor-in-chief of the (London) Guardian Peter Preston called elections "political crisis zones," where everything was up for grabs. This was the case in many European countries, and particularly acute in those with the least free and independent press.
The media played a key role in the elections process, not only by bringing the news to the people, but also by acting as a political indicator. Furthermore, the respect for freedom of the media and freedom of expression during an election period also shows how these freedoms are respected in general.
Mass media are an essential part of the democratic electoral process. The information provided to the population during an election, about candidates and policies, demonstrates the political freedom in the country. In a world dominated by mass communications, the media are able to shape the political agenda, and are, in turn, shaped by those who control the media. The assessment of election coverage - objectivity, time allotted to candidates, etc., - also indicates the level of democracy in a particular country.
In Georgia and Ukraine the media were able to broadcast to the world their like or dislike of the political candidates by not allowing the government to monopolise and control media coverage. In consequence, there was a change of government in both countries. In Belarus, Azerbaijan and Armenia, they tried to communicate their message, but were brutally suppressed. In Russia, they almost failed to even try.
A number of European countries had presidential or parliamentary elections in 2004. Romania, Austria, Germany, Georgia, Greece, Spain, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Luxembourg, Iceland, Lithuania, Slovenia, and Macedonia, just to name a few. Ukraine, where a political crisis "ousted" an incumbent government from power and installed the opposition, Belarus, where nothing could oust president Alexander Lukashenko, Russia, where Vladimir Putin, similarly stayed comfortably in office with a 52 per cent majority.
Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia had presidential elections in 2003, and the media participated first hand in the political crises that ensued from the elections. In Georgia, there was a change of government, and further elections.
In Azerbaijan, the government-favoured candidate assumed the office. However, in both cases, the situation of the independent media has not greatly improved.
Governments can control the media in a variety of ways. Sometimes, they do so crudely, by closing newspapers and imprisoning journalists, sometimes more subtly, manipulating coverage, taxes, and legislation. While in Western Europe the media in general can be said to be free, mass media in most countries of the former Soviet bloc function under considerable economic, legal, and bureaucratic constraints.
Furthermore, as Myroslava Gongadze pointed out, like any influential resource, the media in the former Soviet Union are abused by the authorities and the business groups who want to advance their own interests.
During elections in Belarus, numerous journalists were assaulted, or had their equipment destroyed. Indeed, more than fifteen newspapers were suspended, fined large amounts; the distribution of newspapers was obstructed, and foreign media could not broadcast footage of events surrounding the elections and referendum out of the country during the following week.
The media could have played a more critical role, as it did in Ukraine, but tight government control did not let the media practice its profession as a watchdog of democracy. According to Ales Ancipienka, Belarusian Political Scientist and Free Speech Activist, "the waves of oppression coincide with the preparation of the most important political campaigns launched by the authorities."
In Ukraine, many independent media were also assaulted, and the authorities attempted to stop unfavourable coverage, but the political climate and support from the West, allowed the media to broadcast with less constraints from the ruling elite, and cover events as they unfolded. Prior to that, journalists, owners and editors were afraid to go against the government line and suffer the consequences of resisting abuse.
Since the fall of communism the media in the former communist states has become vibrant and diverse. Most countries in Eastern Europe have developed a vibrant free independent press, and EU elections in the twenty-five member states were covered without the press freedom violations recorded in other former Soviet bloc countries.
Confidentiality of sources was a key issue this year, when several journalists were forced to reveal their sources by the authorities. The ability to keep a source confidential is important for journalists world-wide and it is an integral component of the ethics of journalism.
However, this year, authorities in Portugal, Belgium, Estonia, The Netherlands, and Italy, demanded that journalists reveal sources whose information helped the publication of critical stories. Journalists are often asked to reveal their sources, when the information could save people's lives, or when it is a question of national security, but the ambiguousness of the concept of national security often causes conflicts between the authorities and the media.
German journalist Hans-Martin Tillack's reporting about corruption in EU institutions led to police raids of his home and office in Brussels, during which police confiscated boxes of documents related to his journalism, as well as his computer and mobile phone.
Police raided the offices of the Milan based weekly Gente and the home of one of the paper's journalists, after a story about the July 2001 G-8 Summit in Genoa. Police also searched the homes and offices of two journalists from Il Messaggero, and Corriere della Sera, in January, over a story about the investigation into the death of a doctor suspected of being responsible for several murders.
In Estonia, a story about a spitting bartender, which enraged Tallinn's mayor, put the journalist in detention for several hours. In the Netherlands, media and journalists' unions protested against the tapping of journalists' telephones. In Russia, police in Orenburg raided the offices of the local television station, OREN-TV. The station's staff believe that it was an attempt to force the station to reveal their sources.
The issue of public interest came to a climax this year, when the ECHR pronounced its verdict in the much publicised case of Princess Caroline of Hanover vs. Germany. Dubbed the "Caroline verdict," the ruling declared that only photographs of Caroline of Hanover at state functions could be published without prior consent.
Journalists argued that it is in the public interest to report on figures of "contemporary history" and their lives. Furthermore, some stories about politicians, which uncovered political scandals would not have been possible without pictures taken by the media, which are prohibited under the new ruling. While the judgement of the ECHR does not bind German, or other European judges, it will have an effect on judicial practice in Europe.
In Bulgaria, intense debate about the formulation and justification of "public interest," came as a consequence of lawmakers taking the initiative to work on amendments for the article in the criminal code.
Elsewhere, criminalisation of defamation was debated, as several Polish journalists were given suspended prison sentences for their reporting. In Italy, RAI journalist Massimiliano Melilli received a fine and a prison sentence for an article published in 1994, which allegedly defamed the mayor of Trieste.
The war in Iraq was also an important issue for the media, not only because of its coverage, but also due to the fact that several European journalists were killed, and many kidnapped while covering the war and the January 2005 elections.
Serious journalism is costly, and it is not the most popular type of media; therefore, some newspapers in Belgium, Germany, Sweden and Netherlands started or planned tabloid editions of popular newspapers.
While very few journalists died in Europe this year, it is hard to say that all European media are free. Pressure, while it only remains in a few countries, has become more subtle. Bringing democracy to Georgia, has not solved the problems of Georgian journalists. To return to Peter Preston's article, "democracy, with the peoples' choice upheld, isn't a panacea." However, it is clear that the media are the most oppressed in countries, where their active work is most needed, and elections provide a good time for the media to exercise their power.
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