Unprecedented crackdowns on reporters covering protests in Belarus and the obstruction of reporting on the war over Nagorno-Karabakh were among the factors that kept Eastern Europe and Central Asia at the bottom of the 2021 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
But the Paris-based media freedom watchdog said of all the somber developments in its latest ranking, released on April 20, the most disturbing for the future of press freedom in the region was the evolution in Russia, which the watchdog said followed "a political model involving ever greater repression of independent journalists and media."
Russian police have never cracked down so extensively and systematically on journalists as they did in their efforts to prevent coverage of protests in support of Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny, RSF said.
Navalny is now in the third week of a hunger strike in a Russian prison as his anti-corruption foundation calls on Russians to take part in another round of demonstrations backing him later this week.
Independent media in Russia, which fell one spot to 150 in the ranking of 180 countries, also fought for months to report the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic and to combat the government's claims and erroneous figures.
RSF noted that there was a "contagious" desire to control information to varying degrees across all of Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
"Following the Russian model, other governments used the need to combat disinformation about COVID-19 as grounds for imposing additional curbs on press freedom," RSF said.
This included Tajikistan, which fell one position to 162, where any "false" or "inaccurate" information about serious infectious diseases appearing in the media became punishable by a fine of up to twice the minimum monthly wage or 15 days in prison, RSF said.
"The aim was clearly to make journalists self-censor any information about the pandemic that did not come from official sources," RSF said.
Of the other Central Asian republics, only Kyrgyzstan's ranking at 79 was in the top half. Kazakhstan improved two positions to 155; Uzbekistan fell one position to 157; and Turkmenistan improved two slots to 178, outranking only two other totalitarian countries: North Korea and Eritrea.
RSF also spotlighted Belarus, which slipped five positions to 158, noting that journalists working for independent media in the country were targeted by the police following the contested presidential election in August 2020.
An unprecedented wave of protests has gripped Belarus since authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka was declared the winner of the vote, which the opposition says was rigged and which the West does not recognize as legitimate.
RSF said journalists working in the country faced censorship, mass arrests, harassment, and violence, and authorities have begun raising the stakes by bringing more serious charges against them and subjecting them to sham trials.
In addition, the Internet was completely inaccessible for three days after the election and then intermittently in the following months, RSF said.
Internet shutdowns also hampered the work of journalists in Azerbaijan during the war with Armenia over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, during which at least seven journalists were injured and reporting was obstructed, RSF said.
Azerbaijan improved one position in the ranking to 167, while Armenia fell in the ranking two slots to 63.
The overall ranking placed Norway at the top for the fifth year in a row. Finland held second place, while Sweden moved up one to third and Denmark moved down one to fourth.
RSF also expressed dismay that only 12 of the Index's 180 countries can claim to offer a favorable environment for journalism.
Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036