Government-influenced television is hampering democracy in Russia, Belarus and most post-Soviet countries in Central Asia and the South Caucasus, and it could endanger international peace and security if misused as a propaganda tool, a watchdog warned Thursday.
Miklos Haraszti, the outgoing media freedom representative at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said even TV stations that are not directly state-owned are often in the hands of people close to those in power.
"We cannot speak about free elections, we cannot speak about true democracies where most people get most of their information from television that is either quite firmly in governmental hands or, if privatized, then in the hands of cronies or even families of governmental leaders," Haraszti said. "Or if (the countries) nominally have public service broadcasting, then it is in fact just a propaganda tool for the government."
Haraszti, a former Hungarian dissident and parliamentarian who has written several books, spoke in an interview with The Associated Press several months before his mandate expires.
Since 2004, Haraszti has monitored media-related developments in the OSCE's 56 member countries, not shying away from criticizing actions related to journalists or the right to free speech.
It was not immediately possible to get Russia's reaction to Haraszti's comment because telephone calls to the country's envoy to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe were not answered on Thursday evening.
However, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Monday that he sees no "regression" in the nation' media freedoms, and that government opponents have no trouble getting their messages out.
In authoritarian Belarus, television is dominated by the state, and independent media have faced persistent harassment from the government.
Haraszti did not name the countries in Central Asia and South Caucasus he was concerned about.
However, Western nations and rights groups have urged Azerbaijan's government to stop pressuring independent media, and have expressed concern about media freedoms in all five former Soviet republics of Central Asia _ Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Haraszti, noting the influence of government-controlled TV during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, said TV outlets in the hands of the state "quite directly influence the international peace and security because it can be used as a propaganda tool, because government policies cannot be checked and scrutinized by the press, and because dangerous and irrational emotions can be officially spread."
On the Net:
OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media: http://www.osce.org/fom/13024.html
AP correspondent Steve Gutterman contributed to this story from Moscow.