Czech reporter's narrow escape
Friday, the murder plot's alleged ringleader a former official was charged with corruption.
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Indeed, if this were the former USSR, where critical journalists often disappear or turn up dead, Slonkova's case would not be exceptional. While Eastern Europe generally became more open to critical journalists in the 1990s, the situation has deteriorated during the past three years in the former Soviet states of Russia, Belarus, and the Ukraine.Skip to next paragraph
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The Kremlin has imposed strict censorship on reporting in war-torn Chechnya, orchestrated legal cases against critical news sources, and granted sweeping powers to the security services to crack down on journalists. Dozens of journalists have been murdered or have disappeared under suspicious circumstances, placing the former Soviet Union back at the top of the list of dangerous places to practice the profession.
In the Ukraine, President Leonid Kuchma has ramped up censorship of nongovernmental newspapers. In 2000, the abduction and murder of one of Ukraine's pioneers in independent journalism, Georgy Gondagze, in a plot allegedly spearheaded by Mr. Kuchma, brought international attention to the plight of Ukrainian journalists but that did not stop several more politically motivated murders and numerous threats against journalists last year.
"There has been some progress since Soviet times," says Yuri Padyak, a publisher in Ukrainian Uzhgorod. "Before, there was no free press, period. Now independent press does exist but you can be killed for writing the wrong thing."
The Czech Republic is a far cry from Ukraine, but journalists in Central European states also run the gamut of legal threats and political pressures. Former Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman, who headed the government Srba served in, was famous for his disdain for journalists, whom he called "liars with the intelligence of mentally retarded schoolchildren" and "degenerate mongrels who only want sensations."
Under Mr. Zeman's government, Czech public television faced a management takeover by associates of Vaclav Klaus, then speaker of the parliament, who had a hand in state media appointments. In December 2000, journalists at the station launched a protest, barricading themselves in the studio and broadcasting rebel newscasts. Only after 100,000 people protested in Prague in the biggest demonstrations since the Velvet Revolution 10 years before was the political management forced to resign.
Yet, short-term victory led only to long-term troubles. The station is still plagued by political hiring and firing from a government-dominated board. A similar situation also developed in Hungarian public television last year, while Polish and even traditionally Western Austrian public stations have had to struggle to maintain their independence. Across Central and Eastern Europe, even private media tend to be dependent on sponsors who see them as a political tool.
Slonkova's case, journalists say, is a measure of the limited but still significant progress of press freedom in the region.
"We still need to be vigilant about threats against independent journalists," says Sasho Damovsky, editor of Dnievnik, which became Macedonia's first independent newspaper in 1996. "As long as politicians view independent media as an enemy, journalism will be a dangerous profession. We must strive for a political culture that sees a free press as a blessing."