Freedom is a privilege that many of us easily take for granted sometimes. We subconsciously do it, because it’s so easy to forget that it’s not a right, but a privilege. The freedom to live how we want, dress how we want, do what we want, and especially say what we want, all within reasonable limits, of course. The reason why freedom is a privilege and not a right is because it could easily be taken away from us one day, for one reason or another, and also because everyone in this world does not have the ability to be as free as others do. The media field is one where freedom is especially precious. Throughout the world, many members of the press have the ability to cover most of what they want, with minimal boundaries preventing their duties. However, in many countries around the world, members of the press find themselves under constraints that limit the things that they are allowed to say, due to threats and influences from political leaders in those countries. In the countries of the former Soviet Union, there are many cases where the media constantly has the eye of the government on them.
Until 1985, the countries of the Soviet Union were anything but free and open under the strict rule of the Communist-led government. The Communist revolution had initially been one that was supposedly for the benefit of the people and their freedoms, but through the eras of Lenin, Stalin, and and on up to Chemenko, that must have been lost somewhere in the middle of trying to assume complete control of the republic’s many peoples. That meant controlling what they knew and what they found out about the state of the country, the political goings-on, their history, and the people around them. And, if that meant brainwashing, hiding facts, twisting truths, and all-out lying to the people, then that is what had to be, and what was, done, for a long, long time.
That is, until Mikhail Gorbachev came along. Gorbachev advocated a policy of freeness and openness, that put the country in a new, unfamiliar position. It was one that benefited the people and gave them the opportunity to be not live under such a shroud of cautiousness, and it also gave the media a new freeness in reporting things that, at one time, would have either been almost off-limits to them, or grounds for serious trouble. This openness, known as ‘Glasnost,’ was one of the main factors in the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. The freedoms that the people and the media had been given were the catalyst that was needed to make a push for independence and change in many of the Soviet republics. Once the itch for independence had began, it spread like wildfire, and there was little that the political leaders could do about it, because, due to all that the media were now allowed to say, a lot of the Communist transgressions of the past and present were revealed, much to the shock of the mass of citizens.
The Soviet Union’s collapse became complete in the early 1990s, and in the mother country, changes were quickly made in the freedom of the media. Under Boris Yeltsin, the freeness that had begun under Gorbachev continued. Considering some of the strange things that occurred with Yeltsin, that may not have been a good thing for the leader. But, any changes for the better in Russia have been gradually pushed out since Vladimir Putin became the country’s leader, succeeding Yeltsin at the end of 1999, who had named the former KGB agent his appointed successor. Putin immediately restored the government’s hold on the people, bringing it back to pre-Glasnost days. In the first year of Putin’s tenure, media censorship was tightened, and several media organizations were brought under great governmental scrutiny, raided, shut down, and restructured so that the government could have the proper influence over what could be reported. But, even beyond those already extreme measures, many journalists personally felt the wrath of the new regime A countless number of media members were threatened, but in a number of cases, the threats manifested themselves into acts, and several Russian media members were kidnapped or brutally attacked, and there were a reported several murders of Russian journalists as a result of reporting on controversial issues. The resumption of an earlier conflict with breakaway republic Chechnya fueled a number of these incidents, as Russian leaders were intent on painting the Chechens as the instigators of the conflict, and also hiding much of the bloodshed that occurred the during the conflict.
Since then, Russian media has gradually lost more and more of its freedom, and as it stands today, is as free as it was before Gorbachev. The treatment of the media in the country is not looked favorably upon by organizations that monitor press freedom. The country consistently ranks in the lowest portion of the press freedom rankings issued by the organization Reporters Without Borders, and its dwindling support of freedom of the press has also received it a ‘Not Free’ status from Freedom House. The long-running conflict with Chechnya has had a great influence on the overall presence of the media, because it not only has created limitations with what the media can say about that conflict specifically, but about many other issues that might be viewed controversial or open up criticisms to the government. In 2003, the nation’s last independent national television broadcaster, NTV, was shut down, and the moves to control the media haven’t stopped there. Many who have been responsible for being critical or supposedly slandering the government and officials have been either slapped with ludicrous fines or lawsuits, or sent to prison for their work, such as journalist German Galkin, who was sentenced to a year of prison in 2003 to silence him for speaking of indiscretions by regional government officials.
When you think of the Soviet Union, Russia is the first country that comes to mind, but in many of the former Soviet republics, the media is under the same pressure, and in some of the countries, even a little more, than in the former mother country. The political leader of the central Asian country of Turkmenistan, Sapamurat Niyazov, has as firm of a grip on the media as he does on the people of his country. The dictator, who has been in power for more than three decades, and is the self-annointed ‘President for Life’ and the ‘Turkmenbashi,’ has the final say in what goes on the front pages of the country’s major newspapers. His control on the broadcast media is just as tight. At the beginning of every news broadcast, broadcasters start with a pledge that their tongues will shrivel if they ever slander the country, the flag, or Niyazov, and thusly, all that is said is nothing but praise for the leader and the country. Unfortunately, problems like poverty, AIDS, and prostitution are covered up. Niyazov also ensures he’s never far from his people’s memories, as his picture is constantly shown on the bottom of the screen on the state television networks. In the most recent Reporters Without Borders rankings, Turkmenistan is ranked 167th. That distinction is made all the more dubious by the fact that the ranking lists 168 countries. Turkmenistan is also ranked third in a list of the ten most censored countries in the world, compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The situation is much the same in other former Soviet republics. In Uzbekistan, journalists have to walk a fine, fine line, and if they dare, can release stories that are critical of leader Islam Karimov and the government, but there’s a price to be paid for it. Uzbekistan also has the most reported imprisoned journalists of any of the former Soviet republics, with six behind bars at the end of last year. And those who are ‘free’ are subjected to great political intimidation that limits what they can say. And, any freedom that media did have was undone by the Andijan massacre in May 2005, when many anti-government protesters were murdered. In the aftermath of the bloodshed, all foreign press were either kicked out of the country or forced to flee, because of the factual eyewitness reports they filed that were contradictory to what the government had put out.
Belarus is another former Soviet republic that has the media on a short leash. During the 2004 elections, more than two dozen journalists were imprisoned. The leader who was conspicuously re-elected as a result of those elections, Aleksandr Lukashenko, goes to great lengths to ensure that a favorable shadow is cast upon him by the various media outlets. Most of the main media outlets are owned by the government, so there is little room and even less tolerance for any independent news media. Lukashenko has had many independent news outlets shut down, and he does a lot to prevent the release of most critical articles and stories, by going through print houses and the post offices. So, for the few independent news agencies, there is little real independence. And, if any journalists and reporters dare defy the wishes of Lukashenko, they could face punishment of up to five years in prison for their critical statements.
To get a better picture of how difficult it is for media members to work in the former Soviet Union, those two aforementioned lists and also lists compiled by another media freedom organization, Freedom House, provide a lot of telling statistics. Turkmenistan (#3), Uzbekistan (#8), and Belarus (#10) are all in that CPJ list of most censored countries, and all three are ranked lower than 150th in the Reporters Without Borders rankings. The media Baltic states such as Lithuania and Latvia rate in the ‘Free’ category as per Freedom House’s list of free, partly free, and not free nations, but those are exceptions. Nine former Soviet republics, along with Russia, make up the ‘Not Free’ category.
Conditions are poor for the media in Turkmenistan and other former Soviet satellites, but there is only one country in the world that officially tops all of those countries, and that is North Korea. North Korea has been very last in each of Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom rankings, which the organization has released since 2002. If the North Korean leaders aren’t proud enough about those ‘honors,’ then there’s also the distinction of being at the top of the list in that CPJ ranking of the world’s ten most censored countries. All news media outlets in the country are under strict government control. The country’s citizens are unable to hear the truth about the poor state of the country and the transgressions of the corrupt government, including widespread famine and poverty that has much to do with the government more for itself, like build nuclear weapons, than it does for the sake of its people’s welfare. Instead, news focuses on leader Kim Jong-il, building him up to be as much of an icon as his father, former and late leader, Kim Il-sung. Few foreign media members are allowed into the country, and those who do are closely monitored by government-appointed watchers to make sure they don’t say or see anything that they shouldn’t. Televisions and radios are permanently on state-run channels, and any print publications are subject to the same methods of approval as publications in Turkmenistan.
The April 2004 explosion of a train in Ryongchon serves as a perfect example of how much of a hold that the government has over the media. After the explosion, the official state news agency, the Korean Central News Agency, instead of talking about the casualties of the explosion, talked about how people reportedly ran into burning buildings to save portraits of the country’s leader before doing things like gathering up valuable possessions or ensuring the safety of what was most important, themselves and their loved ones. Also, North Korea took two days to admit that an explosion had indeed occurred, and even so, when the accident was admitted, the scale of it was toned down. North Korea’s insufficient supply of information caused a delay in the delivery of proper aid to the victims, and it also went a long way to show just how little care the government has for its citizens.
The North Korean government takes great measures to make sure that journalists say what they are supposed to say, and nothing more. Steps are taken to ‘revolutionize’ journalists, educating them on the necessity of getting every bit of information correct, on down to the proper spellings of officials’ names. Many North Korean journalists have been sent to concentration camps, which should no longer exist, but are home to over 200,000 North Korean citizens. One North Korean journalist was forced to work on a pig farm for six months for leaving off the last syllable of Kim Jong-il’s name. Journalists have to take part in courses that span long hours, for the purpose of learning everything about the leader’s speeches, his achievements, and his party, to train their minds as to what they’re supposed to focus their reporting on. Journalists, like the one who made a mistake on Kim’s name, face a series of punishments, from going through a period of interrogation and self-criticism in front of a committee, and then being sent to the ‘revolutionization’ camps for a period of time until they have their minds in order again. In the past couple of decades, several journalists and important media members have either been removed, mysteriously disappeared, or fled the country as a result of their not keeping in line with the leader’s wishes.
For many of us who live in freer countries and regions, like the U.K., or the United States, or most of Europe, it would seem hard to believe how the inability to speak freely is as widespread as it is in this current day, but such is the case. And, it might be even harder to believe that, in some of these countries, journalists often enough have to pay the ultimate price for giving out the truth and speaking their mind. Just two months ago, in Russia, prominent, and highly controversial, journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot and killed in her apartment complex. Politkovskaya had been a harsh critic of the Russian government, and she had also been one of the leading journalists involved in reporting the events in Chechnya for the past several years. She had been kidnapped and poisoned before, and had also often been the subject of death threats. Murder is the ultimate and most extreme measure, and while it doesn’t often happen, it happens more often than it should. Politskovskaya is not the only Russian journalist who has fallen victim in the past several years. Over a dozen Russian journalists have been savagely and unnecessarily murdered since the beginning of Putin’s tenure, and many, many more have been brutally attacked. Violence towards journalists is not limited to Russia, either. Just this year, Turkmen journalist Ogulsapar Muradova was tortured and killed while in prison. Elsewhere, the abduction and heinous murder of Ukrainian journalist Heorhiy Gongadze in 2000 is still fresh in the minds of his colleagues throughout the world. Gongadze was a well-known Internet reporter who ran a site that spoke out against supposed corruption by the government, and his killing was reportedly ordered by the then-president, Leonid Kuchima. Statistically, Ukraine has been one of the world’s most dangerous places to be a journalist, with more than 20 journalists being murdered since Soviet independence was achieved.
So, is the situation in these affected countries likely to change anytime within the near future? Organizations like Reporters Without Borders and CPJ work tirelessly to promote journalistic freedom throughout the world, and in countries where freedom of the press is limited, influential political leaders around the world and even international organizations like the United Nations often get involved in trying to press the issue to the leaders of those countries. However, unless the leaders of these countries have a sudden change of heart, or the people who replace them don’t follow their predecessors’ agendas, or by chance, there’s a coup of the current governments, there would seem to be little hope for change, at least in the short term.
Words speak far louder than actions do, because words can often incite people to act. History shows that hitting the right chord with people and telling them the right things, may it be truth or lie, goes a long way in determining political success. The leaders of those countries know that, as long as they’re telling people the right things, and keeping from them what they don’t need to know, then their spot in office is solidified. The case of the former Soviet Union shows just how big of an effect freeness and openness has on instigating a revolution of some sort. There has, however, been progress, albeit mixed. Ukraine has seen improvements in the governmental treatment of the media under new leader Viktor Yushchenko, as the number of media members who are harassed and physically attacked have greatly declined in the past couple of years, and meddling in what the media reports has also seen a decline. Also, Yushchenko pushed to solve the Gongadze murder, and his killers were found in 2005. Still though, that progress has not come without incident, because even one attack or murder of a journalist is too much, and those have not yet completely stopped in the country. But, if Ukraine can make some slow progress in the right direction, progress can be made elsewhere. It’s all a matter of effort.
Unfortunately, the prognosis for progression in North Korea seems extremely grim, barring some sort of miracle. A couple of foreign media outlets have tried to make their way into the radio frequencies of the country’s citizens, with some success. Those with radios must register them with the police, and have them preset to government frequencies. But, those who want to get access to those foreign stations can purchase another radio and try to listen to those stations, such as FreeNK, which broadcasts an hour of government-critical programs each day. However, those who dare to subvert the leader and listen face the risk of imprisonment, and those media outlets and any other, domestic or foreign, are looked down upon by the North Korean government as enemies. Because of Kim’s lack of desire for his people to have any sort of actual freedom or rights, only those that are allowed by him, it does not seem likely that the censorship and control of the media will change, at least while Kim is alive and in power.
It would be nice to think that, at some point, freedom of speech and press could not be limited to only a certain number of countries, but instead expanded to fit the entire world. Organizations can do everything within their means for the sake of freedom, but in the end, it’s up to the leaders in those countries to decide what they want said, who they want to say it, and how they want it said, even if that means going against laws that allow freedom of the press, as in Russia’s case. Fortunately, there are people like Anna Politkovskaya and so many other journalists throughout the world who stand up for the voices of freedom and for the masses of unrepresented and oppressed people. Sadly, people like her end up paying with their lives sometimes, or their freedom. The fact that people would sacrifice their lives for the sake of the truth and expression shows just how valuable freedom of speech is. The efforts of those people should be praised, and their work exalted, not halted. And those who are martyrs for the truth and for freedom are one of many reasons why we should never, ever take our freedom for granted, no matter how easy it might be to do so.