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'Watch List' draws attention to media freedom issues in Europe

(IPI/IFEX) - 5 November, 2012 - The countries of Belarus, Hungary, Turkey and Ukraine each provide troubling examples of a backslide on media freedom issues in Europe, the International Press Institute (IPI) said today as it unveiled a "Europe Watch List" to highlight and combat that trend.

The four countries represent "Focus Countries" on the List, posted on IPI's website, which will highlight stories from across the continent that have an impact on media freedom. The List will combine reports from IPI, which advocates for press freedom worldwide, and its affiliate, the South and East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), which addresses press freedom issues in countries located in South East Europe.

In recent years, the attention of press freedom monitors has been directed at parts of the world where censorship runs rampant and where journalists are regularly jailed, attacked and killed. However, Europe – where many countries have long been viewed as bastions of free expression – has seen a backslide on media freedom issues.

IPI selected the four Focus Countries not because they are necessarily the worst or the only offenders, but because each presents emblematic elements of the growing threats to media freedom in Europe.

In Belarus, recent presidential and parliamentary elections that Western observers claimed were held in an atmosphere of intimidation of journalists. Numerous reporters were attacked for covering protests following the December 2010 re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko to a fourth term and journalists regularly face harassment and prosecution for airing criticism of the government, particularly with respect to Lukashenko and on subjects like the 2011 explosion in a Minsk subway station.

Ukraine similarly saw numerous media freedom violations in the run-up to parliamentary elections on Oct. 28, as well as parliament's consideration of a proposal to re-criminalise defamation, a measure that was shelved last month but which observers fear may now return.

Despite improvement following the 2004 Orange Revolution, media freedom has decreased since Viktor Yanukovych was elected president in 2010, and economic pressure on media and harassment of independent outlets has grown. Impunity for attacks on journalists remains a grave concern.

Turkey saw the number of journalists in its prison swell to nearly 100 earlier this year, making it apparently the leading jailer of journalists worldwide. That number has dropped to approximately 76, the majority of whom are jailed on what appear to be spurious charges of spreading propaganda for terrorist organisations. However, a climate of fear and self-censorship among journalists prevails.

Economic pressure on media remains a pervasive problem and the country faces the threat that proposals for a new Constitution could severely limit guarantees of media freedom.

In Hungary, media laws adopted in 2010 remain in force, providing restrictive content requirements and a highly-centralised regime of regulation under the prime minister's control, particularly with respect to the state news agency and public radio and television. Fears continue to grow that other former Eastern Bloc countries will look to emulate Hungary's example in examining their own media laws.

In addition to these countries, a number of Council of Europe member states have exhibited poor and deteriorating records on media freedom, raising concerns not only over the state of free expression but of democracy itself. These concerns demonstrate why it is crucial that media freedom organizations such as IPI and SEEMO monitor not only authoritarian countries, but those in their own backyard, and, in the event of grave concerns, react promptly, efficiently and effectively.

IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie commented: "Although the List focuses on these countries to heighten its impact, that limitation is not a suggestion that other countries lack similar concerns, but a reflection of IPI and SEEMO's view that media freedom in these particular countries is under major threat. The List – to which other countries will be added, as needed – is not an academic study, but an effort to shine the spotlight on the regimes that run these countries; to gain media attention to send a message that IPI and SEEMO continue to be present, active and engaged in Europe."

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