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Consider the following violations: China's restrictions on the media in the run up to the 2008 Olympic Games. The erosion of press freedom in African countries where democracy has supposedly taken root. Vague "anti-state" charges to jail journalists in Russia and Central Asia.

In these countries, powerful governments have developed innovative tactics that represent a "soft authoritarianism" that is spreading in many regions of the world, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has found. And Western governments are letting them get away with it, says Human Rights Watch.

In its annual report "Attacks on the Press 2007", CPJ documents hundreds of cases of media repression in more than 100 countries - and discovers some worrying new challenges to press freedom.

Like how governments are now less likely to imprison journalists explicitly for their work than to bring vague anti-state charges against them. In Russia, for example, President Vladimir Putin has introduced new laws that define dissent as "extremism". Media criticism of public officials is a criminal offence, while authorities have broader grounds to spy on critics and close down media outlets. According to CPJ, Putin's tactic of rewriting laws to criminalise journalism has been exported to Central Asian countries, like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Thanks to sweeping national security laws in the wake of 11 September 2001, the number of journalists jailed has risen significantly. Imprisonments stood at 81 in 2000 but have since averaged 129 in CPJ's annual surveys.

Despite China's promises to improve press freedom before the 2008 Olympics, it continues to be the world's leading jailer of journalists with 29 journalists and writers behind bars. But the government is also relying on a more sophisticated system of repression and rewards to control the media - like giving journalists bonuses if local officials give their articles positive ratings, controlling and censoring the Internet rather than blocking it altogether, or using state security laws to imprison critics.

If China hosts the Olympic Games with no improvement to its human rights record, "it will have demonstrated that it's possible to join, even lead, the international community without honouring the basic right to express ideas and circulate information freely," says CPJ.

Meanwhile, in Africa, where democracy has supposedly taken root after years of conflicts, CPJ says press conditions have actually worsened. While accepting accolades from Western donors, repressive leaders in Ethiopia, the Gambia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo have cracked down on critical media, closing down newspapers and jailing journalists.

Similarly, in the Middle East, a number of Arab governments are expressing public commitments to democratic reform while using less visible legal strategies to control the press. "Manipulating the media... is more politically palatable to the international community than outright domination," says CPJ.

The other threat to journalists is just the opposite of the authorities imposing a heavy hand: too little government. In Iraq, Somalia, Gaza and the tribal areas of Pakistan, pervasive lawlessness leaves journalists at the mercy of armed factions. Iraq has become the most dangerous place for the press, with more than 170 media professionals killed since the March 2003 U.S. invasion. In 2007, more than 40 journalists and media workers died on duty, the vast majority of them Iraqi reporters gunned down by local militants.

Meanwhile, the U.S., the European Union and other influential democracies are allowing "autocrats to get away with mounting a sham democracy," says Human Rights Watch in its world report of human rights practices.

"Too many Western governments insist on elections and leave it at that," says Human Rights Watch. They don't press governments on the key human rights issues that make democracy function - a free press, peaceful assembly and a functioning civil society that can really challenge power."

Like China, countries can escape major international condemnation because they are key political or economic players, Human Rights Watch says.

The U.S. accepted the results of oil-rich Nigeria's February 2007 vote, for example, despite widespread allegations of poll-rigging and electoral violence, and has failed to withhold aid to push the government to negotiate with the opposition. As a result, bad practices are spreading, concludes Human Rights Watch. "It's no wonder Kenya's president felt able to rig his re-election."

The U.S. and some allies have also stayed silent about governments that commit abuses in the name of the war on terror. In Pakistan, President Pervez Musharraf has silenced his opponents by calling a state of emergency, muzzling the press and firing the independent judiciary in his fight against "Islamic insurgents". The U.S. and U.K., the country's largest aid donors, have refused to make their assistance conditional on Musharraf setting the stage for free and fair elections later this month.

Human Rights Watch says the U.S. and the E.U. should insist governments do more than hold a vote - especially since elections can be manipulated in a variety of ways, from vote-rigging to using outright violence against the opposition, such as in Cambodia and Lebanon.

In its annual report, Human Rights Watch also pointed to grave human rights abuses around the world, including the humanitarian crises in Somalia, Darfur, Sudan, and Burma, where hundreds are still arbitrarily detained after last September's deadly protests.

Human Rights Watch also had harsh words for Washington, which it says has allowed 275 detainees of the "so-called war on terror" to be held at Guantanamo Bay without charge.

To read Human Rights Watch's "World Report", click here:

For CPJ's "Attacks on the Press", visit:

(5 February 2008)

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