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Another Bad Year for Eastern Europe's Media, Macedonian Opposition Boycotts Parliament

Plus, a watered-down rights bill advances in Georgia and Mongolia’s premier unveils his 100-day plan.

by S. Adam Cardais, Ioana Caloianu, and Jeremy Druker 2 May 2014

1. In press freedom report, TOL countries among worst of the worst

 

Media in Eastern Europe and Central Asia remain among the most oppressed in the world, according to an annual press freedom report by Freedom House, the global human rights watchdog.

 

Released 1 May, the 2014 survey says global press freedom hit a 10-year low in 2013 due to backsliding in the Middle East but also in Eastern European countries such as Ukraine, according to the introductory essay. Worldwide, only one in seven people lives in a country with open, robust media, measured by everything from the quality of political coverage to attacks on journalists.

 

A reporter broadcasts in central Kyiv in 2008 to mark the eighth anniversary of the murder of journalist Georgiy Gongadze, in which top officials in a former Ukrainian government were implicated. Photo by Veronica Khokhlova/flickr.

 

In 2013, Eastern Europe and Central Asia were once again models of dysfunction. Not a single country is rated “Free” under the watchdog's methodology, and Belarus, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan are among the eight worst press-freedom abusers in the world.

 

Notably, Ukraine's status fell to “Not Free” due to violence against journalists covering the EuroMaidan protests. Azerbaijan's already abysmal media climate got worse as Baku stepped up surveillance on journalists and other abuses. Moscow, meanwhile, continues to use a comprised judiciary to go after independent journalists and generally keeps a leash on most media. In December, President Vladimir Putin shocked many by closing RIA Novosti, which, although government-owned, had often struck a balanced tone in its coverage.

 

In a rare positive development for TOL's coverage area, Kyrgyzstan saw fewer attacks on journalists, a more relaxed legislative environment, and other improvements. Georgia also improved slightly, according to Freedom House.

 

Freedom of the Press assesses 197 countries, scoring them from 0 to 100 based on 23 questions covering the various means used to pressure and restrict independent media. Based on the scores, 0 being the best, countries are designated Free, Partly Free, or Not Free.

 

2. Claiming election fraud, Macedonian opposition plans boycott

 

Macedonia’s opposition Social Democratic Party is boycotting parliament after what it calls massive fraud in the 27 April presidential and general elections, Balkan Insight reports.

 

The party's executive board says its legislators will not serve in parliament "after the systematic theft of votes in the elections …" spokesman Petre Silegov said.

 

Nikola Gruevski
Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, whose ruling VMRO-DPMNE won a third term, urged the Social Democrats to reconsider. However, if the party doesn't change its mind within 20 days, the constitution allows for new elections to fill its seats, according to Balkan Insight.

 

The opposition might organize public protests, as it did last year during a lengthy political crisis over a budget dispute.

 

According to initial election results, the VMRO-DPMNE took 61 of the 123 seats in parliament. The party also held on to the presidency, and its coalition partner, the ethnic Albanian DUI, took 19 seats for a comfortable majority. The Social Democrats won 34 seats.

 

International observers called the polls “efficient and orderly,” albeit with reports of voter intimidation and other issues, according to Radio Free Europe. However, immediately after the polls closed the Social Democrats said they would not recognize the results due to massive fraud including vote buying, Reuters reports.

 

The Social Democrats have also accused Gruevski of corruption. A week before the election, they said the prime minister accepted a 1.5 million euro ($2.1 million) bribe to expedite the 2004 sale of a Macedonian bank. Gruevski maintains his innocence.

 

3. Watered-down Georgian rights bill advances

 

A Georgian anti-discrimination bill looks headed for passage despite strong opposition from the country’s Orthodox Church, according to Civil.ge.

 

The measure prohibits discrimination based on a long list of characteristics that include, most controversially, sexual orientation and gender identity. It passed in first reading two weeks ago.

 

Before the bill’s second reading 1 May, which it passed unanimously, some lawmakers met with members of the clergy and added amendments that do not define certain behaviors as discrimination if their aim is “the protection of public order and moral.”

 

In addition, a prohibition on “creation of a hostile, intimidating, humiliating … environment” was removed, although Georgia has seen violence and intimidation against homosexuals by militant Orthodox organizations. Lawmakers also voted against including a clause setting out penalties and enforcement strategies for the measure.

 

The EU has made the adoption of the bill one of the conditions for dropping its visa requirements for Georgian citizens. Georgian parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili told reporters after a meeting with Moldovan government officials in Chisinau that the bill represents a choice his country must make between the West and Russia, Civil.ge reports. Moldova, too, has had to pledge to protect the rights of gay people, over loud Orthodox protests, in order to move closer to the EU.

 

“We have to take decisions that are acceptable in the civilized world in order not to stay in the uncivilized world with Russia,” Usupashvili said, according to Civil.ge.

 

Orthodox clerics and others protested in front of the parliament building during the vote on the bill, holding signs reading, “Legalization and propaganda of homosexuality is genocide of the nation” and “We ask the authorities not to allow preaching of depravity,” Civil.ge reports.

 

4. Mongolia’s PM outlines a 100-day plan to boost growth

 

In a bid to revive sagging economic growth, Mongolian Prime Minister Norov Altankhuyag announced a wide-ranging stimulus plan on 30 April, Bloomberg reports. The “100-day action plan” will focus on cutting red tape, diversifying the economy, and spurring the all-important mining sector.

 

Foreign investment dropped by 54 percent in 2013 amid disputes between private mining companies and the government that resulted in the cancellation of more than 100 mining licenses, according to Bloomberg.

 

Mongolia’s economy fell from world-high growth of 17.5 percent in 2011 to 11.7 percent in 2013. Its currency, the tugrik, has been trading at record lows to the dollar, and, according to Bloomberg, is worth 25 percent less than a year ago. Inflation, now at 12.4 percent, has recently led to several public demonstrations in the capital, Ulaanbaatar.

 

As Bloomberg points out, the government has had to balance the need for foreign investment to develop local mineral ranges with rising nationalist calls to restrict a sell-off of state assets. During the press conference on the stimulus package, Altankhuyag said resolving the license disputes is a priority. But more important, at least in the short term, will be making progress on the possible expansion of the massive Oyu Tolgoi gold and copper project, which could one day account for one-third of Mongolia’s economy. A number of sticking points between the mine’s multinational operator and the Mongolian government have delayed plans for over a year.  

 

The prime minister also said Mongolia must become less dependent on raw material exports. Altankhuyag has proposed the establishment of two free economic zones, the construction of an oil processing plant, and the erection of thermal power stations. There has also been talk of legalizing betting and launching a professional horse-racing league to appeal to the Chinese market.

 

“Today, the nation is rarely manufacturing final products. Mongolia imports 88 percent of its commodities, and over 90 percent of exports are raw minerals. Unless we change this, Mongolia will continue to face economic hardship and resource tension will rise,” Altankhuyag said at an economic forum in March.

 

The package of measures goes to parliament next week, The UB Post reports.

 

5. 'Arctic 30' among those arrested in Greenpeace protest

 

Dutch police have foiled an attempt by Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior ship to block a Russian tanker carrying Arctic oil, Radio Free Europe reports. The activists onboard included members of the "Arctic 30" arrested by Russia in September.

 

On 1 May, 30 Greenpeace activists were detained while trying to block the Mikhail Ulyanov from unloading its shipment of oil in Rotterdam, according to RFE. Environmentalists riding along in smaller vessels were successful, however, in painting "No Arctic Oil" on the tanker.

 

Captain Peter Willcox was among those detained. He also helmed the Arctic Sunrise ship that was part of a September protest in Russia. Willcox, a photographer, and 28 other crew members were arrested by Russian authorities for piracy before the charges were downgraded to hooliganism. They were released on bail.

 

All together, seven of the "Arctic 30" were aboard the Rainbow Warrior Thursday, according to the Guardian, which puts the arrest number at 44. Most of the protestors were released without charges within a few hours. Greenpeace campaigner Ben Ayliffe said this demonstrates Moscow's heavy handedness, given that Thursday's operation was “just as serious as it was in Russia last September.”

 

Greenpeace opposes offshore drilling. It has criticized international energy majors like Shell and BP for partnering with Russian firms to explore the hydrocarbon-rich Arctic.

 

In 1985, French authorities bombed the Rainbow Warrior during a demonstration over France's nuclear testing in the Pacific.

S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial intern. Jeremy Druker is TOL's executive director.

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