Press Freedom Day in the Not So Press-Free Caucasus
On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, there is not much to celebrate in the Caucasus. Georgia, not exactly a paragon of free speech, is as good as it gets in the region.
Being freer than Azerbaijan and Russia for media liberties is not much of a compliment for any country. With its dismal ranking of 80 on US civil-rights watchdog Freedom House’s most recent press freedom chart -- four up from the bottom and dead even with Russia -- Azerbaijan marked the day by telling journalists they will soon get apartments in an upcoming 10-storey “press building” in Baku.
In a claim that would make many observers chuckle, a key government official declared yesterday that journalists in Azerbaijan have all the freedom they need, and it gets better by the day.
Journalists, who are or have been in Azerbaijani prisons, would beg to differ. With a long record of repressing free media, Azerbaijan hit a new low recently with a character assassination campaign against investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who works for both EurasiaNet.org and RFE/RL.
Neighboring Armenia has persistently failed to regain the “partly free” status it enjoyed on the Freedom of the Press index back 2002. Discriminatory broadcast media licensing policies, regulatory hurdles for media and a refusal to allow a critical television station back on the air, put Armenia in the “not free” category, though it scores 15 points higher than Azerbaijan on the chart.
Ranked at 52, Georgia has seen a slight improvement since last year and outpaced Turkey, which slid several points down. But don’t hurry to pat Georgia on the back.
Partisan propaganda remains a massive problem. The national television channels offer laughably similar, gushing praise of the government, while the “opposition” media camp was recently joined by a new station sponsored by billionaire-turned-opposition-leader Bidzina Ivanishvili. In such a polarized picture, flipping from one channel to another remains the sole way to get both sides of a story.
And then there is Russia, but one post is not enough to describe what’s going on there.