By Rod Perlmutter
KANSAS CITY, Mo., Apr 10 (Media Central)
When Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright leaves on Friday to visit several Central Asian nations, her department's website states, her agenda includes encouraging them to �establish strong democratic and market-oriented institutions.�
For two groups of politicians, that agenda should mean an unambiguous message supporting a free press throughout the former Soviet Union.
Albright will travel to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan from April 14 to 20, her first visit to Central Asia as secretary of state. On April 20 and 21, she will visit the Ukraine. She is scheduled to meet with the heads of state in each of the four nations.
Though she will not visit Russia, a group of senators wants to make sure that she will urge press freedom throughout the former Soviet world.
On April 3, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee website posted a letter sent from four senators to Albright, urging her to �publicly condemn the Russian government's harassment and intimidation� of Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty and other news organizations.
The next day, the Helsinki Commission urged Albright to �address freedom of expression ideas and�so that the people of each country in the region know the American people stand behind them in their struggle for freedom and against tyranny.� <
According to her website, Albright also is scheduled to meet with American business representatives and �local non-governmental organizations and other leaders active in strengthening the protection of human rights and building a civil society in these countries.�
That's important, according to both the Senate Foreign Committee and the Helsinki Commission, because in the former Soviet Union, the concept of an independent free press is either extinct or under attack.
The letter from the four senators � Jessie Helms (R-N.C.), Joseph Lieberman(D-Conn.), Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) � said that recent actions by Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin, who won his country's March election, threatened Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.
The letter was dated March 29 but posted last week.
Putin's actions and statements �jeopardize not only RFE/RL's ability to report freely and objectively on events in Russia, but also the basic principle of freedom of expression in Russia,� the letter stated.
One example of harassment is the government's treatment of RFE/RL correspondent Andrei Babitsky, who disappeared for more than six weeks after he was captured by troops in Chechnya. During that period, the Russian government gave conflicting accounts of how he was captured, how the Chechens �traded� him for captured Russian soldiers and even whether he was alive or dead.
The letter said he was under house arrest, not allowed to leave Moscow and under investigation by the Interior Ministry on charges of falsifying documents and other more serious accusations.
�This continued treatment of Babitsky intentionally intimidates all other correspondents working in Russia, particularly those covering the tragic story unfolding each day in Chechnya,� the senators wrote.
The letter noted that on March 13, the Russian Ministry of the Press ordered RFE/RL's Moscow Bureau to provide complete recordings of broadcasts between February 15th and March 15th. Tom Dine, president of RFE/RL, said that his organization will comply with this unusual request, but that he viewed �the timing and form of this request as an act designed to intimidate us and others.�
The next day, the Ministry of the Press issued a directive to prevent the broadcast of interviews from Chechen leaders, including President Aslan Maskhadov.
�We fear that these developments reflect a systematic contraction of civil liberties in Russia under the presidency of a former KGB officer, Vladimir Putin,� the letter said. �It is, therefore, imperative that the government of the United States respond vigorously to this harassment, intimidation, and censorship of RFE/RL. Failure to do so would only undercut the credibility of the United States' commitment to the principles that are the foundation of a free press.�
�Our ability to help Russia evolve into a stable democracy cannot be effective if the U.S. ignores such systematic repression of the press,� the letter said. �We urge that you publicly condemn the Russian government's harassment and intimidation of RFE/RL and other news organizations and to take whatever steps are needed to ensure that they are able to report freely and objectively on events in Russia.�
Human rights in Central Asia
When the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe was founded in 1975 in Helsinki, its purpose was to �foster the implementation of human rights, fundamental freedoms, democracy, and the rule of law.� Today, the international commission, known informally as the Helsinki Commission, represents 54 European and Central Asian nations, and seven non-European partners.
Signers of the Helsinki accords pledged to respect basic human rights, including �freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief.� But according to testimony last Tuesday in Washington, journalism organizations and politicians fear that Central Asian governments are stripping away press and speech freedoms.
�The trend toward state-controlled media and the erosion of the most fundamental right of citizens in a democracy � freedom of speech � in a number of countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union is perilous for our neighbors in Europe,� said Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.), the chairman of the Helsinki Commission, on April 4.
Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, and the Ukraine are just some of the nations that signed the Helsinki accords that are being investigated because of complaints of repression of freedom of expression, said Freimut Duve, the commission's Freedom of the Media Representative. In all, he said, his office has investigated 18 nations that signed the accords.
�It is a bleak picture,� Duve said.
But the picture might be less bleak if Duve worked with journalists within the countries that he investigates, said Linda Foley, the vice president of the International Federation of Journalists and an executive of the Newspaper Guild of America.
Duve lacks a �clear and comprehensive strategy� in support of independent journalism, Foley said in testimony before the commission.
Duve �often develops strategies on his own without coordinating with journalists' organizations in the affected countries .... (As a result, the efforts) have not been as effective as they could have been,� Foley said. �Instead of operating independently, we believe (Duve) should support programs and activities developed jointly by all journalists' organizations and professionals groups that are striving for change within the new democracies.�
Foley urged Duve to promote �truly independent public service broadcasting� in these nations, because �the free market cannot sustain private broadcasting networks.� She also urged Duve to investigate the private sector and the impact that media monopolies and the concentration of several media into the hands of few companies is having on press freedom in these regions.
�If media ownership concentration threatens democracy in the United States, you can imagine how it imperils democratic processes in the (Helsinki commission) counties where citizens just recently received the right to vote,� Foley said. Already, she said, journalist organizations are concerned about foreign media ownership of media in Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic.
Chadwick Gore, the commission's communication director, said on Friday that Smith and other members of the commission see the private and public ownership of the media as separate issues.
�We are concerned about private concentration of the media, but government control has a chilling effect across the spectrum,� Gore said. �Frankly, the private ownership issue is more of a concern to the Europeans than it is to the Americans. With the equal access doctrines that we have out of the FCC, it has not had a chilling effect on the marketplace of ideas.
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