Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence - Sixth Report


APPENDIX 9

Memorandum submitted by Article 19

  1.  ARTICLE 19 is an international human rights organisation dedicated to the promotion and protection of freedom of expression, including the right to information. Established in 1986, it takes its name from the relevant provision of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948. Article 19 States:

    Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

  We consider freedom of expression to be a key human right and, as has been widely recognised, a cornerstone of democracy. It is vital for its own sake and as an aspect of democratic participation. Freedom of expression, including the right to information, is also essential for facilitating awareness about, and the enjoyment of, other basic human rights, such as the right to health.

  2.  ARTICLE 19 has considerable experience of working on the post-communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the Newly Independent States (of the former Soviet Union).

  In 1998 we commenced work on the Caucasus. We are submitting to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee briefing papers on Armenia and Azerbaijan which are based on short reports researched in 1998, and on a submission to the UN Human Rights Committee in late 1998 on Armenia.

  We have thus far carried out no work on Georgia or on the Central Asian Republics. We have prepared short papers on Georgia and Uzbekistan which we hope will help the Committee in its consideration of the freedom of expression situation in these countries. We should like to make it quite clear, however, that these papers were put together in a very short time specifically for the Committee. The information has been taken from reliable sources but they are not comprehensive reports in either their scope or format. We, nevertheless, hope that they will prove useful and would be pleased to provide further information if it is required.

  Many of the problems that exist in this region are common to all the countries covered as will be noted from the recommendations which are attached to all the papers.

 ARMENIA

Introduction

  Armenia has made significant progress in promoting freedom of expression since it became independent in 1991. This progress is reflected in guarantees of freedom of expression in the 1995 Constitution, the growth in the number of independent media outlets—including newspapers, and radio and television stations—and in improved media coverage of the Presidential elections in March 1998. Despite this, however, relics of the former policy of state control over the media persist, both in law and in practice, which ARTICLE 19 believes place Armenia in breach of its international obligations.

International Obligations

  Armenia ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on 23 June 1993 and is hence bound by the commitments contained therein, including the guarantee of freedom of expression found at Article 19. It is a member of the Organisation on Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and in this capacity has made a commitment to respect the standards set out in the Helsinki Final Document and the subsequent declarations of the OSCE. Armenia is not yet a member of the Council of Europe, but has expressed an intention to join once it has met the conditions for membership, including improved respect for human rights.

Constitutional Guarantees

  Chapter 2 of the Armenian Constitution sets out a number of basic rights which, pursuant to Article 6, are superior to ordinary laws and are directly applicable to render inconsistent laws of no legal force or effect. Rights guaranteed include, among others, freedom of movement, thought, conscience, religion and association. Article 24 guarantees freedom of expression in terms which appear to be closely modelled on Article 19 of the ICCPR. Article 44 allows limitations on certain rights, including those found at Article 24, where these are provided for by law and are necessary for the protection of "state and societal security, social order, the health and mores of society, and the rights and freedoms and honour and good reputation of others." As drafted, these provisions are broadly in line with Article 19(3) of the ICCPR. In addition, Article 45 allows for limited derogation from freedom of expression where provided for by law during a military situation but does not otherwise impose conditions on this form of derogation. It may be noted that the power of derogation under the Armenian Constitution is much broader than that allowed under Article 4 of the ICCPR.

Print Media

  According to recent reports, there are 12 daily newspapers in Armenia but their total circulation is just over 30,000 copies, reaching less than 1 per cent of the population. Several of these, including Hayastani Hanrapetutiun with a circulation of 10,000, are state-owned. There are also a number of weekly and monthly newspapers and journals. Although the print media sector is reasonably diverse, and does engage in criticism of government, a number of problems persist as detailed below. There are, in addition, at least 10 news agencies, including several which are independent.

Broadcast media

  The state plays an important role in the broadcast sector with two state-owned television stations, one of which, Channel 1, plays a dominant role in news reporting. There are plans to privatise the second station, Channel 2, but these have yet to bear fruit. Given the low circulation of newspapers, television plays a very important role in the provision of news and according to a January 1997 study by TACIS, 72 per cent of the population relied on state television as their primary source of information. Two Russian channels are also available in Armenia and there are several independent television stations operating in both Yerevan and the provinces. A similar situation pertains in the radio broadcast sector, with three state-owned channels and a number of independent radio stations.

State Monopolies

  The state has a monopoly over printing and distribution through the state-owned printer, Periodika, and the state-owned distribution agency, Haimamul although there are developments underway in both cases.

LAWS AFFECTING THE MEDIA

1991 Press Law

  Article 2 of the 1991 Law on Press and Other Mass Media guarantees a free press in Armenia and prohibits prior censorship. It also provides for citizens' right to express their views and to receive reliable and timely information on issues of public importance via the mass media. This is backed up by Article 4 which grants the mass media the right to acquire information from public authorities, subject to the by-laws of those authorities and Article 6 of the Press Law (see below). It would appear that the authorities felt that these guarantees were too strong as it drafted a far more restrictive press law in 1996. This initiative was effectively halted after public criticism, including particularly strong objections raised by journalists. The government, however, appears to have no immediate plans to introduce a new press law.

  ARTICLE 19 has a number of concerns with the 1991 Press Law including the broad definition of what constitutes the press and mass media which means that the law might be applied to regular independent reports, for example by NGOs or other organisations. Registration with a government ministry is also a cause for concern and the process appears on occasion to have been delayed without reason, contrary the law.

  Even more serious are the broad content controls established by Article 6 of the 1991 Press law which include prohibitions on publishing "false and unverified news reports" or "state secrets, a list of which shall be established by the Council of Ministers." The government has been widely criticised for being over-sensitive about security matters (see below under National Security) and does suspend newspapers for publishing articles it does like.

  Concerns have also been raised regarding accreditation procedures for journalists and there have been allegations involving both local and foreign journalists that accreditation has been withheld or revoked for improper reasons, namely for criticism of government. In addition, even accredited journalists are not always given full access to the relevant public authority.

The Broadcast Media

  Although there are a number of private or independent broadcasters presently operating in Armenia, there is no law governing the allocation of licenses or frequencies. A draft law has been circulating since at least March 1997; in the meantime, licensing is overseen by the Electro-Communications Inspectorate within the Ministry of Communications. This leaves decision-making in this key area in the hands of a government department rather than an independent body. In addition, licensing procedures appear to be far from open and transparent and there are no established criteria for license allocation.

  In addition to these licensing concerns, there have been complaints about the independence and impartiality of state-owned broadcasters. While state television and radio broadcasters have clearly attempted to fulfil their public service obligations more adequately, it is equally clear that a bias in favour of government positions remains.

  Problems in this regard have been most clearly demonstrated in the context of media reporting during elections. The 1995 election was widely criticised as falling far short of the standards required under international law; the OSCE, for example, concluded that the election was generally free, but not fair. Concerns were also expressed regarding the impartiality of election coverage by the state-owned media. The Presidential election of September 1996 was also widely criticised. General coverage of the 1996 election by the state media was heavily biased. The February 1998 presidential elections were reported by the OSCE to be an improvement on the seriously flawed 1995 and 1996 elections, but still they did not meet international standards for free and fair elections. This included criticism of the state media in term of fairness of the allocation of its airtime.

  The evidence points to a steady but unacceptably slow improvement in terms of independence and impartiality of the state media. These media still see it as part of their mission to provide support for the government. In turn, it has been suggested that these media are given privileged access to government information.

National Security

  As noted above, the government has been widely criticised for being over-sensitive about security matters, particularly regarding the ongoing threat in Nagorno-Karabakh, although this has receded significantly in recent years. Comments on a wide range of subjects are prohibited for security reasons pursuant to Article 6 of the 1991 Press Law and a new law on state secrets adopted in 1996. This state secrets law has been used on a number of occasions, for example in 1996 to ban the leading opposition party, its official newspaper as well as six other independent newspaper with supporters of this party in prominent positions. Journalists have also been taken for questioning under this law, thus exercising a "chilling effect" on freedom of expression.

Economic Constraints

  One of the most serious obstacles facing newspapers in Armenia is the harsh economic climate, with taxes estimated at around 34 per cent of income and charges by the state distribution agency at 25 per cent. An inadequate advertising base leads to high prices which is part of the reason newspapers reach only 1 per cent of the population. This vicious circle means that newspapers tend to rely on sponsors, wealthy individuals who underwrite the costs of the newspaper, with clear implications in terms of editorial independence.

  The harsh economic climate also means that newspapers are perennially in debt to various service providers, including the state monopoly distribution and printing agencies which provides the government with a lever of control over them. Many newspapers are also housed in buildings owned by public authorities to whom they must therefore pay rent. Allegations have been levied against both agencies for using their power to discriminate against opposition or critical newspapers. Debt also inhibits the ability of newspapers to generally operate effectively; journalists' wages are low and there is little flexibility to engage in expensive investigative journalism.

Informal Censorship

  There are frequent allegations of informal censorship and intimidation of the press. The authorities circulate what has been described as an "informal list of `forbidden subjects' " which journalists respect to avoid problems. The authorities have been known to exert considerable pressure, and even to resort to underhand schemes, to prevent unwanted criticism, for example by transferring ownership of an independent daily newspaper by re-registering it in the name of a pro-government group, thus cutting off the founders and true owners.

  The media were subjected to different forms of harassment during the violence which erupted after the September 1996 Presidential election when the opposition disputed the official results and organised large-scale protest demonstrations. Suspicion about the results was exacerbated due to the refusal of the Central Electoral Commission to grant even accredited journalists access to the vote counting. The protests led to violence and police retaliation. A number of journalists were imprisoned, allegedly for their "participation in mass disturbances", and a radio programme and television programme, both of which had supported the opposition presidential candidate, were suspended for several days with no reason given. A number of journalists claimed they were attacked by security forces even though they were simply observing or filming the protests.

  Since that time, there have been a number of physical attacks on journalists and allegations of government involvement based in part on the failure of officials to adequately investigate the attacks.

Future Reform

  ARTICLE 19 believes that a number of steps should be taken to address the concerns described above and to bring Armenia's law and practice fully into accord with Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In particular:

    —  steps should be taken to ensure that all legal measures affecting the media, including Presidential Decrees, are consistent with constitutional and international guarantees of freedom of expression; measures do not meet these standards should be declared to be of no force or effect;

    —  registration requirements under the 1991 Press Law should be relaxed so that only large circulation mass media are covered;

    —  the content restrictions in the 1991 Press Law relating to false news should be repealed;

    —  Ministers should not have the power to produce lists of secret information; similarly, officials should never issue informal lists of "forbidden subjects" or otherwise attempt to restrict media coverage of certain topics or events; the media should be punished for disseminating state secrets only where there is a real risk of serious and immediate harm to a legitimate security interest as determined by an independent court;

    —  public authorities should co-operate with the media to ensure a free flow of information to the public, in particular by granting access to documentation and other records without discrimination;

    —  suspension of newspapers should be employed only as an absolute last resort, after repeated and gross breaches of the law and a clear failure to respond to less drastic sanctions;

    —  public officials should deny accreditation to journalists only where they can justify this by reference to overriding legitimate interests;

    —  the government should make it a priority to introduce a law governing allocation of frequencies in the broadcast media sector; such a law should ensure that the body responsible for license allocation is fully independent of government and that the process for license allocation is open, transparent and fair;

    —  steps should be taken to enhance the independence and impartiality of the state-funded media; one possibility is to subject these media to scrutiny by an independent broadcast regulator;

    —  the government should take steps to create an economic environment in which an independent press and related industries can flourish, including through the use of tax incentives and subsidies;

    —  the government should take steps to divest itself of ownership over the printing and distribution agencies;

    —  the government should take urgent steps to prevent informal censorship of all kinds; direct interference in the media by officials—including attacks on or harassment of journalists and attempts to control media outlets—should be strictly forbidden and sanctions should be sufficient to deter such activities; public officials should be aware that even actions which may appear innocuous, such as questioning journalists, may inhibit the free operation of the media and should be avoided;

    —  private attacks on the media should be investigated promptly and offenders severely punished.

 AZERBAIJAN

Introduction

  Azerbaijan gained independence from the Soviet Union on December 1991; a constitutional act declared Azerbaijan a secular and democratic government whose economy was governed by the rules of the free market, with the provision of full civil rights to its citizens. The legal framework introduced since 1991 guarantees many fundamental human rights; however, in practice the government commonly restricts the right to freedom of expression. In addition, the majority of the population still lives in poverty, which causes greater dependence, and therefore submission, to the authorities. These conditions are worsened by the war over Nagorno-Karabakh, which re-commenced in 1991 bringing with it political instability and economic stagnation. Currently the country is led by President Heidar Aliev, a self-professed democratic leader who has, however, introduced a repressive regime.

International Obligations

  Azerbaijan is a member of the UN and ratified the International Covenant in Civil and Political Rights, which protects freedom of expression at Article 19, on 13 August 1992. It is a participating state in the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in European (OSCE) which confers on it a number of commitments to protect freedom of expression, although these commitments are not legally binding but do carry certain political and moral weight.

  Azerbaijan is not a member of the Council of Europe but has applied for membership. It has not yet, therefore, signed the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), Article 10 of which protects freedom of opinion and expression.

Constitutional Guarantees

  The new Constitution was adopted in 1995 and undertakes at Article 12 to ensure "human and civil rights and freedoms" and that these rights should be exercised in accordance with Azerbaijan's international obligations. It does not specifically mention political rights. Article 47 of the Constitution protects freedom of thought and speech and Article 50 protects freedom of information.

Print Media

  There are around 375 newspapers and 100 magazines registered in Azerbaijan, although only a small proportion of them appear regularly (a 1997 estimate puts the number of newspapers regularly publishing at under 100). Since the fall of Communism, readership of these publications has fallen dramatically, mainly due to the high costs of purchasing them and the irregularity of publication. The range of newspapers can broadly be divided into three categories: official and pro-governmental, those reflecting the views of opposition political parties and those which are independent of either governmental or oppositional tendencies.

  Approximately one third of the newspapers were established by private finance or by the editorial staff and they tend to be more independent. They do, however, tend to avoid political discussion and contain considerable amounts of advertising and entertainment.

  There are also several independent news agencies which issue daily bulletins in English and in either Russian or Azeri. Generally opposition and independent newspapers can be found in both government-run kiosks as well as independent news distributors.

Broadcast media

  The high cost of newspapers in Azerbaijan means that the broadcast media has even greater influence than in other countries in the region. Television is the main source of information for most Azeris. There are two national television channels which broadcast for 16 and four hours per day respectively and their political coverage concentrates overwhelmingly on the political activities of the President. In 1995, there were six private TV channels although in private not all were functioning. There are also two state radio stations, both of which are subservient to the authorities, although one does relay one hour per day of broadcasting from the BBC World Service. There is one private radio station.

  The opposition has virtually no access to the official media and the independent radio station, which is the preferred choice of most radio listeners, is almost entirely entertainment oriented. Independent television and radio stations are reluctant to air controversial political topics for fear of government retaliation. The Ministry of Justice continues to deny registration to nine independent television stations, five of which are prevented from broadcasting.

Laws Affecting the Media

1992 Press Law

  The Law on the Mass Media, adopted in 1992, prohibits censorship at Article 3 and establishes a body regulating relations between media and the government. Article 4 states that the media cannot be used to "slander the honour and dignity of citizens". However, this same rule is not applied to journalists and the opposition, who are often vilified by the state-sponsored media. The decree "About Military Dictatorship", first declared in 1993, allows the suspension of Article 3 of this law in case of military conflict, as well as providing a list of military and state secrets. A second similar decree declared a state of emergency and thus reinforced the first, as well as giving the military units the right to close media outlets when they are found guilty of "anti-government propaganda". The Law on the Mass Media was amended in 1996, requiring all media outlets to seek registration and a state licence in order to legally operate (see below under Licensing). Furthermore, according to the Criminal Code of Azerbaijan, twelve years of imprisonment can be imposed on those who are found guilty of "Appeal[ing] for forced Change of Statehood or Dividing Territory" (article 63). Such a provision was justified in light of the conflict with Armenia.

  There is also a specific law on "the Honour and Dignity of the President of Azerbaijan", which imposes up to six years imprisonment upon the offender. Even the former president Abulfaz Elchibey was charged of such a "crime", on 13 November 1998, although charges were dropped in early 1999. Criminal defamation is also employed against those who defame the Azeri nation and government officials. Fines for implicating members of the government are prohibitively high and constitute an unbearable financial burden for the independent media, especially given the current economic recession.

Licensing

  A new body of regulations for the allocation of licenses, "On Granting Licences for Television and Radio Broadcasting and the Printing Business", Ministers' Cabinet Resolution No.84, was approved on 16 April 1998 after the government had decreed that all media outlets had to re-register (end of 1997). Prior to April 1998 licensing procedures were regulated by the 1992 "Law on Press Media" and the "Law on the Registration of Legal Entities" (1996) and the Ministers' Cabinet Resolutions No. 287 (1993). These legal provisions established that all stations were to register with the Ministry of the Press and the Ministry of Justice; subsequently stations could apply for a frequency from the Ministry of Communications or the "Frequency Commission" of the Cabinet of Ministers, which were granted on the basis of "internal procedures" lacking in transparency. The use of bribery was common, and it has been reported that the processing of applications were dependent upon the authorities' approval, often very difficult to obtain.

  The introduction of the new regulations has not facilitated such a process yet it has somehow made it more obscure. Pursuant to the new regulations, frequencies should now be granted by the "Frequency Commission" before a request for a licence from the Ministry of Press and Information can be filed, while the role of the Ministry of Communications is not entirely apparent. Among the documentation for the above process is a certificate, which is issued the State Broadcasting Company further to its approval of the stations' technical conditions. The enforcement and effect of the new regulations were still not clear at the end of 1998.

  Furthermore, Article 6.1.1 of the April 1998 Resolution requires a potential licensee to agree not to "allow broadcasting of programmes, materials and descriptions which contradict the traditions and customs, historical heritage and harm the morals of citizens, and must not allow the monopolisation of radio and television". This is extremely vague and can be widely interpreted and thus abused by the authorities.

Abolition of official censorship

  In August 1998 censorship was formally abolished, with the removal of the censorship apparatus, or Gavlit (see below—Direct and Indirect Censorship). Media regulations in force to this date were in violation of the 1992 Law on Mass Media and the country's constitution and justified in light of the state of emergency due to the conflict of Nagorno Karabakh. However, the authorities still manipulate the media through other means.

Access to information

  Journalists need to have accreditation to gather information in the parliament, which can be revoked. For example, a speaker of the Parliament threatened to revoke the accreditation of journalists whose material "show[ed] the parliament in a bad light", although the law establishes that this procedure requires a court order.

The Print Media

  The print media does not have the same role as the electronic media in featuring political development, especially prior to elections, a disparity due mainly to economic factors, as the readership cannot always afford to purchase newspapers. In addition, the great majority of the print media is published in Baku and covers mainly the news from the capital, whilst the inadequate distribution system does not allow news to timely reach peripheral areas.

  In protest of the generalised atmosphere of media repression, on 18 November 1998 twenty editors of independent Azeri newspapers began a hunger strike. The action was mainly in response to the government's opening a series criminal cases on alleged defamation of the president. This was perceived as a renewed attempt to further curb the independent media by restricting the free flow of information.

  However, despite the above measures to limit political criticism through media repression, some opposition press has continued to produce articles that have been critical of some government figures and their policies (excluding the president), as well as sensitive issues such as the conflict over Nagorno Karabakh and government corruption. The issue of corruption was also discussed prior to its abolition.

The Electronic Media

  There are a limited number of private television and radio stations in the country, and some television channels are only accessible to those citizens that own modern, foreign-made television sets. As the Azeri population has greater access to radio and television than to print media, the authorities tightly control the information that is aired and the opposition is virtually allocated no time on the state-owned media, with the exception of pre-registered spots of presidential candidates during the 1998 elections. In addition, the government has employed the state electronic media to conduct campaigns against political parties and individuals critical to the government. The independent electronic media normally refrain from criticising the authorities, due to fear government reprisal. The country's most popular media outlet, the independent radio, merely broadcasts entertainment programmes, with the exception of one station, in which, however, news only represents a small section of the programming. There are currently no limitations on receptions of foreign stations via satellite.

  It has been noted that one of the most crucial problems that negatively effects the broadcasting media is the lack of sufficiently adequate regulations governing the licences and registration of radio and television stations (see above under Licensing). Internews reported that the regulations for registration in Azerbaijan were "much stricter" than those in any other country of the former Soviet Union. Protest from independent broadcasters regarding the above regulations have not been addressed by the authorities; as long as stations will continue operating without licences, lacking recognition as legal entities, they can easily be subjected to pressure from the local government, as well as adversely affected in their ability to receive funding from abroad.

  The difficulties in obtaining licences greatly influence the role of the media, and indirectly the country's politics, in particular during election times, through manipulation of the citizenship's electoral choice. State officials use their official activities to create a more positive image immediately prior the elections, although this is prohibited by the Central Electoral Committee, while opposition reporting is greatly limited.

  As regards the Internet, the government has granted licences only to two providers although many others requested transmission licences.

Publication and Distribution

  The majority of newspapers are printed in the state-owned publishing house, which allows the authorities to maintain control over what is printed. In addition, the authorities control the price of newsprint which was greatly affected the independent print media, given their precarious financial resources. The authorities also normally control the distribution of newspapers and magazines, although it was reported that some government-run kiosks also distributed independent newspapers. Some of the distribution has also recently been undertaken by a limited number of independent distributors. However, there have been cases of seizure of publications from the newsstands. For example, the in February 1998 the police seized all issues from the magazine Monitor from the newsstand, claiming that it offended the Azeri nation.

Direct and Indirect Censorship

  Journalists have been subjected to government pressure, with the co-operation of the police and military units. During the state of emergency, Gavlit, the censor from the Soviet era, in conjunction with President Heidar Aliev's office, filtered stories prior to printing and harshly criticised the editors, as well as providing strict rules for the format of their articles. Journalists' careers have been brought to an end for establishing relations with the opposition. The independent media has been subjected to most pressure, which generated heated debates with the censor or self-censorship by the authors, leading him/her to refrain from producing articles likely to be censored. The censors' cuts left empty spaces, which began to be filled by cartoons.

  The Ministry of Press and Information tried to close newspapers for being "provocative", such as Avraska in July 1996, which resumed publication in September 1996. In 1998 the Ministry of Information closed a newspaper for a month for violation of censorship regulations. Cases have been reported where issues of opposition newspapers were banned, whilst permission to print was revoked when an "opposition tendency" was found in a newspaper. There have also been examples of direct harassment, such as beating of journalists, which were not followed by proper investigation. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the police attacked 34 journalists on 12 September 1998, who were reporting an opposition rally in Baku.

Future Reforms

  ARTICLE 19 believes that a number of steps should be taken to address the concerns described above and to bring Azerbaijan's law and practice into accord with Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights:

    —  steps should be taken to ensure that all legal measures affecting the media, including Presidential Decrees, are consistent with constitutional and international guarantees of freedom of expression; measures which do not meet these standards should be declared to be of no force or effect;

    —  public authorities should cooperate with the media to ensure a free flow of information to the public, in particular by granting access to documentation and other records without discrimination;

    —  suspension of newspapers should be employed only as an absolute last resort, after repeated and gross breaches of the law and a clear failure to respond to less drastic sanctions;

    —  public officials should deny accreditation to journalists only where they can justify this by reference to overriding legitimate interests;

    —  the government should make it a priority to introduce a sufficiently adequate regulations governing allocation of frequencies in the broadcast media sector; such provisions should ensure that the body responsible for license allocation is fully independent of government and that the process for license allocation is open, transparent and fair; technicalities behind the granting of licences should not cause a stagnation in the free development of the independent electronic media;

    —  the provisions regarding defamation should be de-penalised, especially in terms of the regulations regarding the protection of the president's honour;

    —  steps should be taken to enhance the independence and impartiality of the state-funded media; one possibility is to subject these media to scrutiny by an independent broadcast regulator;

    —  the government should take steps to create an economic environment in which an independent press and related industries can flourish;

    —  the government should take steps to divest itself of ownership over the printing and distribution agencies;

    —  the government should take urgent steps to prevent censorship of all kinds; direct interference in the media by officials—including attacks on or harassment of journalists and attempts to control media outlets—should be strictly forbidden and sanctions should be sufficient to deter such activities; private attacks on the media should be investigated promptly and offenders severely punished; and

    —  the authorities should not contribute in creating general atmosphere for the extensive practice of self-censorship, reducing the population's right to access to unbiased information on government activities.

 GEORGIA

Introduction

  In January 1999, Georgia became the first country from the region to become a member of the Council of Europe which indicates significant progress in the area of democracy and human rights. This includes media freedom where generally few abuses have been reported in recent years.

  However, ARTICLE 19 has some concerns regarding the laws and notes that at a practical level indirect censorship continues.

International Obligations

  Georgia is a member of the UN and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which protects freedom of expression at Article 19, on 3 May 1994. It is a member of the Organisation on Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and has thus made a commitment to respect the standards set out in the Helsinki Final Document and the subsequent declarations of the OSCE, although these commitments are not legally binding but do have political and moral weight.

  On becoming a member of the Council of Europe in January this year, Georgia signed the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) which protects freedom of expression at Article 10. It will ratify it in early 2000, subject to meeting the conditions of membership.

The Constitution

  The Georgian Constitution, which was adopted in August 1995, specifies at Article 24 that:

  (2)  The mass media is free. Censorship is prohibited.

  (3)  Monopolisation of the mass media or the means of dissemination of information by state or natural persons is prohibited.

  (4)  Clauses 1 and 2 of this article can be restricted by law when conditions make it necessary to do so in order to guarantee and by the conditions necessary in a democratic society for the guarantee of state and public security, territorial integrity, prevention of crime, and the defence of rights and dignities of others, to avoid the revelation of confidentially received information or to guarantee the independence and impartiality of justice in a democratic society.

Regulatory Bodies

  The Ministry of Justice registers media outlets while the Ministry of Communications grants (or revokes) licences for broadcasters, manages the state printing house, the distribution of newspapers and the "subsidies" to state-owned media. The Ministry of Press and Information is, besides providing official information, responsible for the accreditation of journalists. The president appoints the ministers.

Print media

  The number of registered newspapers (both provincial and regional) exceeds 100. There are about 35 magazines and 10 information agencies.

  The official press and the private stations are all in a difficult position because of their financial difficulties. Equipment is often obsolete, they do not have enough sponsors, advertising income is insufficient, and overstaffing is a common problem. The independent press is more solvent, mainly due to the limited number of staff and the higher cover price of the newspapers. Their editorial premises are also much smaller than the government papers. The high cost of daily newspapers in Georgia means that they do not reach a wide sector of the population.

Broadcast Media

  There are about 40 television broadcasters and the same number of radio stations. Like the official print media, the State TV Corporation faces serious financial challenges.

  Due to the low circulation of newspapers, the role and influence of the broadcast media is proportionally greater than elsewhere. However, the broadcast media has its own problems because of the chronic energy shortages, which curtails the broadcast of state TV to 5 hours per day.

Laws Affecting the Media

  On 10 September 1991, the Georgian parliament adopted a Law on the Press and Other Mass Media. It is acknowledged by Georgian journalists to be exemplary; however ARTICLE 19 does have some concerns. Although the law forbids censorship, as well as the existence of any media or distribution monopoly, including by the state, there are some permissible limits on disclosing information for example in the case of "state secrets", hate speech and inflammatory language, and infringement on "the honour and dignity" of citizens. The broad wording of this clause can easily be misinterpreted and misunderstood and constitutes an unnecessary content restriction. The law also leaves no doubt that state-run media remain under strict government surveillance. For example, television and radio news coverage of political developments has to follow "official guidelines".

  There is no law providing public access to government information, and government officials are sometimes unwilling to answer press inquiries. Journalists lack effective legal protection, and this circumstance hinders investigative journalism. The Civil Code and other legislation make it a crime to insult the honour and dignity of an individual and place the burden of proof on the accused, which is contrary to accepted international standards which require the burden of proof to lie with the plaintiff.

  Several draft laws on the media are currently being considered by parliament, one of which would introduce truth as a defence against a defamation charge.

Attacks on the Media

  In 1991, following Shevardnadze's return, Georgia underwent a relatively unstable period politically speaking. During this time, independent journalists were subjected to systematic harassment and opposition newspapers were close on the flimsiest of pretexts. Since 1994, there has been a gradual relaxation of political control of the press and in November 1995, several journalists confirmed that the media enjoyed greater freedom than one year earlier. In 1996 the Independent Federation of Georgian Journalists recorded no obvious violation of the freedom of speech. There was only one case where a newspaper—Noy—was closed down following the publication of anti-Semitic material. Apart from this incident, direct interference was nearly absent.

  There are cases, however, where indirect influence on the media is still visible. The middle and upper management of the state-controlled press are still wary of printing controversial materials that could compromise their standing with the national leadership. More then independent journalists, they have to contend with the possible repercussions of offending a state member. As for the opposition media it seems there are no serious political restrictions and interference by the authorities does not appear to be a problem.

  However, there are still cases reported, where security and law enforcement authorities attempt to intimidate the press through public comments and private admonitions. In April 1998 two journalists from the independent newspaper Orioni reported allegations of homosexuality and sexual harassment in the armed force that had led to several suicides. Government and officials reportedly responded by threatening the reporters with arrest, demanding the names of sources, and filing a civil law suit for defamation. One of the two journalists—Amiran Meskhedi—was arrested for allegedly having evaded military service, subsequently was conscripted, and was assigned to the unit on which he had reported. Human rights monitors considered this action a transparent attempt at intimidation and filed a lawsuit to overturn his conscription. The trial has been postponed, and Meskhedi is out on bail.

  In May 1998, security forces beat journalists who were reporting on a rally of Gamsakhordia supporters. On 12 September 1998 chief editor Lasha Nadareishvili and correspondent David Okropiridze of the independent weekly newspaper Asaval Dasavali were beaten by six unidentified armed men on a street corner in front of their newspaper's office in central Tbilisi. Nadareishvili and his staff believe that assault was in reprisal for their work because already before they had periodically received threatening phone calls after publishing expose"s and articles critical of figures and forces across the political spectrum, from the government to the opposition.

  On 21 September 1998 two journalists, Kote Vardzelashvili and Gogi Kavtaradze, who were working for the non-governmental Liberty Institute, were severely beaten and threatened by police in Tbilisi. They were attempting to interview Chief Mgebrishvili, the city's chief of police. They were forced into a car and taken to a police station. They were released two hours later but as medical report confirms that they were beaten.

  The most serious constraints for the media at the moment are financial rather than political. Nonetheless, the newspapers published with a degree of regularity testify to a laudable plurality of opinion—there are opposition, nominally independent, official and special-interest publications. However, their combined circulation is low and the collapse of the distribution systems means that most newspapers have considerable difficulties in ensuring regular distribution outside Tbilisi.

Future Reform

    —  steps should be taken to ensure that Georgia brings its laws regarding freedom of expression and media freedom fully into line with the European Convention of Human Rights, and its constitutional and international obligations, as soon as possible; measures which do not meet these standards should be declared to be of no force or effect;

    —  that accreditation of journalists should only be denied where there is an overriding legitimate interest;

    —  that an independent body be established to regulate the broadcast media, in particular for the allocation of broadcast licences, such a body should be impartial and the process of allocation should be open, transparent and fair;

    —  steps should be taken to enhance the independence and impartiality of the state-funded media; one possibility is to subject these media to scrutiny by an independent broadcast regulator;

    —  public authorities should co-operate with the media to ensure a free flow of information to the public, in particular by granting access to documentation and other records without discrimination;

    —  suspension of newspapers should be employed only as an absolute last resort, after repeated and gross breaches of the law and a clear failure to respond to less drastic sanctions;

    —  that the vague provisions in the 1991 Law on the Press should be amended to be more specific and narrower in their scope, in line with international standards and that the content restrictions on reporting, for example, to follow "official guidelines" should be removed.

    —  the government should divest itself of ownership of the printing and distribution agencies;

    —  the government should take urgent steps to prevent informal censorship of all kinds; direct interference in the media by officials—including attacks on or harassment of journalists and attempts to control media outlets—should be strictly forbidden and sanctions should be sufficientto deter such activities, public officials should be aware that even actions which may appear innocuous, such as questioning journalists, may inhibit the free operation of the media and should be avoided;

    —  private attacks on the media should be investigated promptly and offenders severely punished.

 UZBEKISTAN

Introduction

  Uzbekistan presents an extremely high level of government control, and no democratisation process has been initiated since independence from the Soviet Union, gained in September 1991. Opposition parties have been banned since 1993 (in tandem with any opposition literature). Election laws have been formulated with the intent of hindering the formation and campaigning of new parties. The repressive leader of the country, Islam Karimov, was elected in December 1991 through procedures that were neither free nor fair and has since then been ruling the country with an iron fist. His rule was extended (with procedures of the same nature) to the year 2000.

  The police are controlled by the Minister of Defence (MVD), while the National Security Service (NSS) intervenes in cases that are loosely defined as national security concerns. Both have been guilty of many severe human rights violations. In particular, they have employed torture, harassment and illegal searches against opposition activists or Islamic leaders, often falsely accusing them of contraband, by planting weapons and narcotics, to justify such actions.

  Government repression greatly impacts the media and by creating an atmosphere of intimidation and producing a generalised chilling effect on the work of journalists. President Karimov was rated by Rapporteur Sans Frontieres the seventh worst offenders against the press freedom in the world.

International Obligations

  Uzbekistan is a member of the United Nations and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protects freedom of expression at Article 19, on 28 September 1995. It is a participating state of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) which confers on it a number of commitments to protect freedom of expression, although these commitments are not legally binding but do carry certain political and moral weight.

Constitutional Guarantees

  The Uzbek Constitution provides for "freedom of thought, speech and convictions" and Article 67 specifically prohibits censorship, stating that "the media are free" and that "censorship is impermissible".

The Print Media

  In 1998 there were 427 registered newspapers, of which 327 controlled by the state, 42 published by NGOs and 28 by other organisations. Sixtyseven newspapers are national. Seventysix per cent of all publications are state-controlled and receive state subsidies. In addition, two newspapers, Khalk Suzi and Narodnoye Slovo, are produced directly by the Parliament. Like in other NIS countries, newspapers are not printed regularly, due to censorship and economic recession.

The Electronic Media

  The four main television stations are state-owned and always reflect the government's position. There are also between 30 and 40 local private television stations and 4 radio stations. The first two private radio stations, opened in January 1998, were almost immediately shut down by the authorities, but allowed to re-open due to international pressure. An Urgench-based television station was repeatedly closed by the authorities yet it was finally given a license after winning a court appeal.

Laws Affecting the Media

  In addition to the Constitution, the media in Uzbekistan are regulated by the Law on Mass Media in the Uzbekistan Soviet Socialist Republic, which was promulgated during the Soviet period. A number of decrees and regulations were later added to this law. In June 1991, a law was also passed against "offending the honour and dignity of the President" and in practice this has had the effect of making citizens afraid to express their opinions in public when they might be perceived as critical to the president.

  In April 1992 the government issued a decree, Article 3 of which stated that "(...) political parties and mass movements pursuing political goals do not have the right to publishing activity (...)". The authorities used this to justify the closure of two newspapers. Newspapers treating opposition themes are currently produced and smuggled from abroad.

  The Parliament passed two laws affecting the media in February 1997, Guarantees Of and Freedom of Access to Information and Protection of the Professional Work of Journalists in February. The former lists the categories of information that are available to the public, unless they are identified as "state secrets". Access to information is regulated and filtered by the Uzbekistan Information Agency, which closely co-operates with the presidential staff. The two laws were produced as a response to general criticism on the government on such matters.

1998 Media Law

  A new media law was also passed at the beginning of 1998. The provisions reiterate the right to freedom of expression stated in the Constitution and call for the respect of the rights of journalists. However, it also contains several articles that have been employed by the authorities to silence oppositions: provisions for accuracy of information can result in criminal defamation where a state official disagrees with a news story; media outlets can be closed by the authorities without a court decision; the incitement of religious and ethnic conflict is banned in news stories.

  A later resolution by the Cabinet of Ministers obliged all media outlets to register by 1 January 1999. Permission to register is to be sought from a government commission composed of 17 members on the bases of programme content, sources of funding, means of distribution and founders, which clearly hinders the ability of private citizens to engage on such activities. The annual fees for broadcasting have recently been raised, and pre-established technical standards have to be met. Many private stations might be forced out of business by such financial burden, whilst at the same time such technical complications is discouraging entrepreneurs from investing in this type of business. In addition, general delays due to lengthy and complex bureaucratic procedures have already caused at least five television stations to suspend broadcasting. Licenses to broadcasting stations are provided (and can be revoked) by the Ministry of Communication.

The Print Media

  All newspaper editions have to be approved by the Committee for the Control of the State Secrets prior to publication. As there is no official listing of the subjects that are to be defined as "state secrets", the committee practically enforces prior censorship for all matters the authorities do not want to be featured in the news. The words "dictatorship", "opposition", or "crisis" are banned. Furthermore, all newspapers have to be registered by the State Committee of the Press, also responsible for accreditation of journalists, which can be refused or revoked.

  As there are no private printing houses, the state-owned houses need guarantee of formal authorisation before printing, which is clearly fertile ground for generalised self-censorship. In 1996 the "Sharq" publishing house declared that it would cease the publication of seven publications for their inability to pay debts. It is alleged that the decision was due to the publications' political content.

  Only two private newspapers (in Samarkand and Tashkent), featuring mainly advertising and horoscopes, operate without censorship.

The Electronic Media

  The Television and Radio Company of Uzbekistan, Uzteleradio, is accountable to the Cabinet of Ministers and is responsible for co-ordinating local broadcasting stations. Administrative delays are common and lengthy for stations seeking registration.

  Self-censorship is as common in the electronic media as in the print media, although some local stations are allowed some criticism of the local authorities. Many stations, however, merely treat "neutral" subjects. Broadcasters have formed in June 1998 an independent association (ANESMI). Despite intense pressure from the government, its members have resisted nominating a government candidate as chairman preferring to him an opposition candidate. The government harshly denied registration as a professional association, which greatly undermines the organisation's ability to operate legally or attract international funders.

Foreign media

  The government restricts the citizens' access to foreign media, by prohibiting the distributions of foreign newspapers and magazines, with the exception of some conservative Russian newspapers, and by jamming Russian news broadcast that are critical to the government. In addition, the publication and sale of Izvestia and Pravda (both local and Moscow editions) was suspended. Foreign broadcasters, including the BBC, can reach limited areas, while cable television is not affordable for nearly the entire population.

Direct and Indirect Censorship

  Despite the government self-proclaimed support of human rights, as well as the provisions in the election, religion and media laws, which should theoretically protect human rights, the government normally greatly represses the media and the general rights to freedom of expression, as well as other fundamental rights. It has been noted that the authorities have attempted to portray a mere facade of a democratic system.

  Different forms of censorship are widely practised to repress any criticism directed towards the government. Both direct and indirect means are employed by the authorities to achieve their objectives. For example, it is alleged that the NSS caused the newspaper Suhbatdosh to close for criticising the local authorities through intimidation of its sponsors and news stands, while the newspaper Erk (see above) was closed in 1993 through overt action.

  In other cases journalists have been dismissed from their jobs. Due to the difficult economic conditions in Uzbekistan, this has led many journalists to comply with governmental media regulations. It has been noted that the harsh practice of prior censorship and the generalised repression of the media has generated a desire for self-preservation which commonly induces journalists to practice self-censorship.

  In June 1998 62-year-old Shadi Mardiev from the state-run Samarkand radio was sentenced to 11-year imprisonment for satirising the alleged corruption of a local prosecutor. The verdict was reached after he had been held in pre-trial detention since November 1997, despite his poor health.

  Until now there have been no cases of journalists who successfully challenged governmental decisions in court.

  Freedom of expression is also limited in academic institutions, which have restrictions on the choices regarding the curricula. Modern textbooks are also often unavailable.

Economic Constraints

  In May 1996 President Karimov issued decree UP-1462, which, among other provisions, exempted from taxes the TV and Radio Company of Uzbekistan and its network of stations around the country. It also stated the Company's right to earn funds through commercial activities and declared all state-run radio and televisions as separate legal entities. As state-run stations are now financially privileged as compared to private stations, the latter might decide to re-register as state entities, which would clearly greatly affect the independence of the news.

Religious Repression

  Freedom of religion is restricted and two new laws might exacerbate this problem. One imposed upon all religious groups the necessity to re-register to comply with tougher regulations, while the second set harsher penalties for the religious groups that violated laws concerning religious activities. Furthermore, there have been dozens of episodes involving the arrest of men wearing beards, as well as other signs of their belonging to an Islamic group. The government has also been guilty of harassing and arresting Islamic leaders and their followers. Such acts were justified by referring to the threat of Islamic extremism. Larger Christian denominations are currently tolerated, yet the government has denied registration and restricted the right of religious expression of smaller evangelical groups. Some female students have been expelled from universities for wearing Islamic dress. In January 1998 demonstrators in Islamic clothes protesting against the government's religious repression were detained and fined.

 FUTURE REFORM

  ARTICLE 19 believes that a number of steps should be taken to address the concerns described above and to bring Armenia's law and practice fully into accord with Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In particular:

    —  steps should be taken to ensure that all legal measures affecting the media are consistent with constitutional and international guarantees of freedom of expression; measures which do not meet these standards should be declared to be of no force or effect;

    —  public authorities should co-operate with the media to ensure a free flow of information to the public, in particular by granting access to documentation and other records without discrimination;

    —  suspension of newspapers should be employed only as an absolute last resort, after repeated and gross breaches of the law and a clear failure to respond to less drastic sanctions;

    —  regulations governing allocation of frequencies in the broadcast media sector should ensure that the body responsible for license allocation is fully independent of government and that the process for license allocation is open, transparent and fair; technicalities behind the granting of licenses should not result in the stagnation of the free development of the independent electronic media;

    —  steps should be taken to enhance the independence and impartiality of the state-funded media;

    —  the government should take steps to create an economic environment in which an independent press and related industries can flourish;

    —  the government should take steps to create an atmosphere of religious tolerance, respecting the right of religious expression of all citizens, pursuant to the country's constitutional guarantees;

    —  the government should take steps to divest itself of ownership over the printing and distribution agencies;

    —  the government should take urgent steps to prevent censorship of all kinds; direct interference in the media by officials—including attacks on or harassment of journalists and attempts to control media outlets—should be strictly forbidden and sanctions should be sufficient to deter such activities; private attacks on the media should be investigated promptly and offenders severely punished;

    —  the authorities should not contribute in creating a general atmosphere for the extensive practice of self-censorship, reducing the population's right to access to unbiased information on government activities.

March 1999


 
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Prepared 27 July 1999