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Media Groups Call 2006 Grim Year for International Media

  • George Lewinski

Recognition of World Press Freedom Day today comes with somber observations from international press freedom groups. Freedom House reports the media suffered a global decline in 2006. Reporters sans Frontieres says 110 reporters were killed last year, the most since 1994. And the Committee to Protect Journalists says there are 134 reporters in jail worldwide, including three held by U.S. authorities. George Lewinski reports on three nations where press freedom is slipping.

No matter where you turn on a TV in the world, newscasts look pretty much alike. They have computer-generated, moving graphics to grab viewers' interest. They use video headlines to draw attention to their stories. And they feature good-looking anchors to host their programs.

In Venezuela, RCTV, one of the Latin American nation's two commercial networks, is going to lose its license at the end of May. The government accuses RCTV of urging a coup against President Hugo Chavez in 1998. The network's president denies the charge, and says the government refuses to go to court to prove its case.

Teodoro Petkoff is editor of a Caracas daily. He says the Chavez government picked a fight with RCTV to frighten other media into self-censorship. "The case of RCTV needs to be seen in the context of freedom of speech, which certainly exists in the country, but which is continually under threats and pressure. The Venezuelan model looks more like the Mexican model – with the PRI in power for 70 years – than the Cuban model."

Freedom House, a non-partisan, independent monitor of media freedoms based in Washington, says Venezuela's slide is particularly shocking.

Karin Karleker wrote this year's press freedom report. "In the last five years we've noted that Venezuela has shown the greatest decline in press freedom of any country in our survey in terms of our numerical score,” she says. “He [President Chavez] started out by trying to control the press with a lot of legal restrictions and now he's turning his attention toward just eliminating privately-owned media with diverse opinions."

Freedom House says two-thirds of the newly independent countries that made up the Soviet Union do not have free media. It says Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, not only has control over the bulk of TV, radio and newspapers, it is moving to marginalize independent voices. Last summer, Mr. Putin signed a law that puts criticism of public officials in the media into the category of encouraging extremism.

In October, Anna Politkovskaya, a strong critic of the Putin government and its war in Chechnya, was assassinated in her apartment building's elevator. No charges have been filed in the case.

In addition to Politkovskaya's murder and the mysterious death plunge of Ivan Safronov, a reporter on national security matters, media watchdogs, like Karin Karleker of Freedom House, worry about another form of limiting critical media.

"The primary ways to intimidate or control the press appear to be in the economic environment where the government has been buying up or gaining controlling shares, especially in the broadcast media, but also the print media," says Karleker.

The Putin government also has announced plans to regulate reporting on the Internet in the run up to parliamentary elections next December.

In China, the government shows no sign of easing up the Communist Party's control over the media. TV and radio are still state-owned and are supposed to promote the government's economic development program, and censorship remains in force.

Those who defy lose their jobs or, in some cases, are beaten and arrested. In a new development pointed out by Freedom House, 19 on-line journalists have been jailed.

"Print and broadcast is already incredibly restricted,” Karleker says. “So there's not much they need to go after in terms of the traditional media. And in China, the Internet, and increasingly bloggers, now are the main outlet for independent voices. So, for the past several years we've seen increasing controls on Internet content. And I think as some of the main Internet web sites and news sites have been blocked, now people are turning to more informal means of expressing opinions such as blogging. So now we've seen increasing rise of the persecution of bloggers in China."

What Venezuelans, Russians and Chinese can read, hear and see on the media, though, is plenty about their leaders.

Whether it is Vladimir Putin enjoying a kick-boxing tournament, Venezuela' President Chavez hosting his own TV talk show or a rundown of what China's President Hu Jintao did all day, leaders always get plenty of good press.

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