Lack of freedoms hindering democracy, says media rep

Twenty years after Europe’s Communist-era Iron Curtain began to crumble with the fall of the Berlin Wall, state interference or control of TV in many former Soviet countries continues to hamper democracy, a leading international security body has warned.

Miklos Haraszti, a former Hungarian dissident and media freedom representative at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, says that government run or influenced TV in Russia, Belarus and the countries of central Asia could threaten international peace and security if abused.

Most stations in these former Soviet states are either government controlled or owned by people with close links to those in power, Haraszti said.

“We cannot speak about free elections, we cannot speak about true democracies where most people get most of their information from television that is either quite firmly in governmental hands or, if privatized,then in the hands of cronies or even families of governmental leaders.

Haraszti, who is coming the end of his five-year term at the OSCE, has established a reputation as a tough critic of government abuse of media freedom in the 56 OSCE member countries he monitors.

In Russia, where in Soviet times TV was controlled by the state, a brief period of freedom in the early 1990s has been steadily eroded as the Kremlin clawed back control under President Boris Yeltsin and his successor Vladimir Putin.

Today virtually all channels in Russia are heavily influenced by the government although the country’s current leader, President Dmitry Medvedev, last week defended media freedoms, stating that he sees no “regression” and that opposition groups have no trouble communicating their message.

Champions of media freedom in Russia have recently expressed concern over plans by two independent stations, St. Petersburg’s Channel 5 and Moscow-based Ren-TV, to combine operations and cut the workforce. Ren-TV is reputed to be one of the last sources of independent news on Russian TV.

Fears that its news operation is to be transferred to studios housing government-back international English language channel Russia Today have been denied by owners, National Media Group.

In neighboring Belarus, TV is dominated by the government and independent media outlets have faced persistent harrassment.

Haraszti did not name the countries in Central Asia and South Caucasus he was concerned about.

However, Western nations and rights groups have urged Azerbaijan’s government to stop pressuring independent media, and have expressed concern about media freedoms in all the former Soviet republics of Central Asia — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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