Fear can block even the information highway

Much of eastern Europe still hasn't got the hang of press freedom

Martin Woollacott

Friday July 7, 2000

The wired world was supposed to be peculiarly resistant to attempts to hinder the free flow of information. In the old days, authoritarian states censored the press, padlocked telex machines, tapped phones, jammed broadcasts, and even went to such grotesque lengths as to register every typewriter. With the internet, and with allied changes in broadcasting and print publishing, this kind of crude control was going to go out of the window.

Sadly, while it is true that the new technology can be an aid to the critical journalism societies need if they are to become, or to remain, democratic, it is also true that the hardware matters much less than the software - in this case that softest and most vulnerable of stuffs, the individual human being. States have not ceased to try to control the hardware, as Russian and Chinese efforts to restrict the internet show. But the new strategies of information control target people even more than in the past, aiming to intimidate them into a self-censorship that can be frighteningly effective. Worse, such intimidation can also be effective in choking off those international efforts to bypass domestic information control which new technology was supposed to enhance. Those efforts depend on the readiness of journalists and others to transmit information out of their countries so that it can become internationally known, and, crucially, so that it can then be transmitted back to the country concerned. Here it is certainly the case that the net, as well as international broadcasting, cannot be as easily shut down as other information conduits in the past. But if you can frighten the information gatherers into silence, all the technical wizardry in the world will be to no avail. There is no electronic substitute for the human act of witness.

Last night in London Miroslav Filipovic was named European internet journalist of the year in the NetMedia awards at City University. The award was collected by his son and daughter, because their father is in jail in Nis on espionage charges. Filipovic worked for the Serbian paper Danas, for Agence France Presse, and for the London based Institute for War and Peace Reporting. The IWPR is a charitable organisation whose purpose is to support independent media in the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and some other areas. The main form this support has taken has been the regular publication, in the early years on paper but now electronically, of critical reporting from these regions by local correspondents. Much of this work is of the kind that could not be published, or not published in such a complete way, in the countries of which the correspondents are citizens. It is intended for an international audience but also for "home" audiences. It has often been one of the few sources of reliable information when the local media have been stifled - information not only about their own societies but about neighbouring societies with which they have hostile or difficult relations. It may initially reach only a small, educated and computer literate group, but there are ways in which it then sometimes diffuses quite widely. This is the bypass technique referred to above. To use another metaphor, the idea is to provide a kind of iron lung, enabling a suppressed or enfeebled journalism to breathe - and to survive until better times.

Miroslav Filipovic's main crime in the eyes of the Serbian authorities was probably to file a story based on a Yugoslav army investigation into military behaviour in Kosovo. The story quoted testimony from officers who had been horrified by atrocities they saw committed, usually by reservists or irregulars. Other Filipovic stories may also have angered the regime. In any event, he was arrested, interrogated, released, and then rearrested. The charges he faces could lead to a sentence of up to 15 years. Needless to say, the law is so broadly drawn that there is no requirement to prove he was in contact with a foreign intelligence organisation. Using other catch-all statutes, the Milosevic government has in the past few months battered down the relatively free media which had somehow survived in Serbia. Independent radio and television stations have had their equipment destroyed or confiscated. Independent newspapers have been systematically fined, and some have been bankrupted. More than 20 journalists have been killed, 60 have been arrested, at least six have gone to prison. An even more sweeping law, supposedly aimed at combating "terrorism", has just been postponed for some reason, but waits in the wings in case more powers are needed.

In the context of this campaign, the fate of Filipovic suggests that the regime believes it has achieved its aim of inducing a fearful self-censorship by the remaining independent organs, and is now moving to close off the last remaining channels of information, those that work through foreign connections. The independent broadcaster Veran Matic has argued that Serbia is creating a model for "some new breed of east European democratic dictatorship". Certainly similar tendencies, if not always so far advanced, can be seen in a number of other countries. In Russia, the arrest of Vladimir Gusinsky, the media magnate whose programmes have criticised and mocked Vladimir Putin, and the detention of Andrei Babitsky after his reporting in Chechnya, suggest that the government intends to "manage" the media more ruthlessly. The corruption of much of the Russian media, which one critic has defined as 60% devoted to disinformation and slander, might make that task easier. In Belarus the independent media are under siege. In Central Asia, the media are expected to utter no word against the autocratic presidential rule that is standard in all five republics, with the partial exception of Kirgizstan. In Kazakhstan, one of the last independent papers, the wonderfully named Let's Survive till Monday, has unhappily not survived a legal assault which ended in the confiscation not only of the paper's assets but of the personal wealth of the editors. Some other former Soviet countries could be added to this list.

The efforts made by a number of media support organisations and by western governments have helped stave off the worst. But the interest of western governments, at least, may be waning, in the case of Serbia because they can see no easy means to influence the regime, and in the case of the Soviet successor states because of the desperate desire to "do business" with their governments, and particularly with Putin. Yet devising outside ways to keep independent media alive, and to help men like Miroslav Filipovic or Andrei Babitsky, is more critical today, when the shades are lengthening, than it was in the happy years of the early 90s when everyone wanted to do something for east European journalism.

Original article