Northern Light

Less Freedom in Eastern Europe

Freedom Forum will publish its annual report on Tuesday April 29. The Economist has had a look at it in advance and writes that ”the ex-communist countries show the biggest relative decline in media freedom in the world.”

The drop is larger than in Asia, Africa and Latin America, not exactly strongholds of freedom.

Latvia’s score slips from 19 to 21, after the government put pressure on public television to cover Russia in a less critical manner. I wrote about one such example here.

Slovakia’s falls from 20 to 22, Poland’s from 22 to 24 and Slovenia’s from 21 to 23.

One important reason for this development is widening regulation of the media. Slovakia has just passed a law that will give anyone mentioned in an article the right to an equally prominent rebuttal, that cannot be accompanied by editorial comment.

Across the former Soviet bloc insult laws are being used to intimidate the media. In Bulgaria defamation of public figures is considered a crime. In Russia and other countries in the region journalists can be sued for offending somebody’s honour and dignity. When I was a correspondent in Russia dozens of this kind of proceedings took place every other week.

It was never ordinary people who pursued these actions, it was powerful politicians and business people.

In Bulgaria 60 cases went to court in 2006, and a further 100 in 2007.

The Economist writes that the constitutional court in Romania just restored a tough defamation law that criminalises ”insult”.

The paper quotes US ambassador to Romania Nicholas Taubman who has called on the legislators to ”strengthen their own accountability… rather than try to hamper the efforts of a free media to exercise its legitimate role in Romania, either through criminalising journalistic efforts or otherwise intimidating independent media.”

The development in Eastern Europe is another sign that we need a consolidated effort to fight ”insult” laws around the world. As the examples indicate these laws are being used to silence critical voices.