By Chadwick R. Gore
The Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on Freedom of the Media: Protection of Journalists and Access to Information was held July 13 and 14 in Vienna, Austria. The meeting was sponsored by OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Miklós Haraszti and supported by the Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Ambassador Christian Strohal. An estimated 82 delegates from participating States and 102 representatives of civil society participated. The attendees discussed concerns about government restrictions on access to government information, codes of conduct for media professionals, and threats to the safety of journalists.
Haraszti and Strohal initially focused on current government-imposed restrictions on access to government information and the affect of such limits on the public. Specific concern was voiced about recent increases in the use of old laws to impose punitive damages on journalists who publish leaked information. It is worth noting that for years government officials from participating States with such “dormant” speech laws have argued that concerns about provisions remaining on the books were unnecessary since these laws were never used. Now many of these laws are being applied, resulting in numerous cases of administrative harassment of the media in numerous participating States in violation of OSCE commitments. Citing violations of commitments guaranteeing the freedoms of access to information, assembly and association, as well as onerous NGO registration requirements that impair democracy and security, Haraszti cited Belarusian customs officials taking one month to clear a carload of OSCE publications for entry into Belarus.
In her keynote, Agnes Callamard, Executive Director of Article XIX, contrasted the two main justifications for restricting access to information usually given by States: national security concerns and blocking hate speech. She argued “restriction of freedom of expression or access to information in the name of national security is an extremely short-sighted view—in fact, denial of information is far more likely to result in social tensions and conflicts.” In short, she dismissed legitimate national security needs, going so far as to advocate that anyone who disclosed classified information should benefit from a public interest defense even if disclosure of the information would cause harm.
Callamard then went on to discuss hate speech, reflecting on the environment surrounding the Danish cartoon controversy. She argued that these concerns reflected “insecurity” across and between societies, describing the background to the cartoon events as one of global insecurity: terrorism and the war on terror, the war in Iraq, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and images of Western soldiers on Iraqi soil, Israeli tanks in Palestinian cities, escalation of intolerance and discrimination, etc.
Some attendees were amazed at her failure to recognize the attacks of 9/11, terrorist beheadings on TV, the bombings in Madrid, London and Bali, the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers, and more. Her presentation was a thinly-veiled anti-United States, anti-Israel commentary.
Turning to hate speech more broadly, Callamard argued that hate speech regulations constitute a legitimate and potentially necessary restriction to freedom of expression. Yet, she said, the appropriate answer to hate speech is not more speech, but also policies and action which “tackles the causes of inequality in all its forms.” She recommended that an effective government response to such expression that “vilifies” others requires a sustained commitment on the part of governments to promote equality of opportunity, to protect and promote linguistic, ethnic, cultural and religious rights, and to implement public education programs about tolerance and pluralism.
Many were struck by her conclusion that proscribing speech for national security concerns is not justifiable, while regulation of so-called hate speech is both justifiable and necessary for massive social engineering.
While discussing access to government information, the discussion turned to the right of the media to protect news sources. Speakers noted that, while nearly all participating States have such laws, they vary as to the type and extent of protection accorded to journalists. While most agreed that laws providing for strong protection of sources are necessary to ensure freedom of information, many thought journalists should not be allowed to publish whatever they want; they remain liable, legally and ethically, for what they write. Regarding access to information, the application of laws restricting access to information has proven to be very controversial. Predictably most States praised their own systems. Notably, Russia reflected a very positive review of the situation of the media and journalists in Russia, and offered Russia's “civilized development of the market” as a model for others. This was rather odd given the decline of independent media and the expansion of government control in the Russian Federation.
A highlight of the meeting was a session dedicated to the “cartoon crisis.” Jehad Momani, former Editor-in-Chief of the Jordanian newspaper Shihan, argued the cartoons were “used in several ways in different countries to gain political points” without regard for the possible consequences as he believed publication of the cartoons was a violation of the freedom of expression and an attack on others’ rights. He argued that others stand up “against any offensive expression in writ[ing] or in [pictures] or in any way against any religion or faith.” For this reason, Momani sharply criticized the terrorists who tortured and killed a journalist from Al Arabia TV, saying that the murder “offended us as human beings more than any illustrations or statements.” Momani’s view was supported by Ambassador Orhun, the Chair-in-Office’s Personal Representative on Discrimination against Muslims. Orhun saw the cartoons as part of a larger problem of “overly selective, one-sided, simplistic and clichéd” reporting on Muslims in the West. He emphasized the need for increased restrictions to freedom of expression, stressing that you cannot have freedom without responsibility. These restrictions should, however, be self-imposed by the media itself: “self-regulatory ethical systems should be established, or if they exist, should be strengthened.” This view was not shared by the U.S. Delegation and others.
However, most other speakers pointed to the impossibility of legislating tolerance. Patrick Chappatte, cartoonist for the International Herald Tribune, observed that, to the contrary, there is no responsibility without freedom. He argued we must first ensure freedom of the press while encouraging responsible use of that freedom. As to voluntary professional standards, Johann Fritz, Director of the International Press Institute, noted that there have been numerous initiatives over the past 50 years by international, governmental and media organizations to regulate press ethics, all of which were unworkable in practice. This is why many media outlets have chosen to elaborate regional or sectoral professional standards. However, he cautioned that self-regulation must be decided upon by the media itself. In several countries around the world, media councils are veiled legal bodies limiting the freedom of the press in a way which the state cannot do or does not want to do.
Ali Dilem, cartoonist for the Algerian daily Liberté, presented a lengthy animated program that showed what can be published and is controlled. He also demonstrated a few instances where he voluntarily withheld publication of cartoons which he felt would cause either political unrest or offend the public. This was much more than a set speech and such presentations will hopefully be more frequent in the future.
The application of administrative measures such as excessive licensing or registration procedures to control the press was discussed at length. Ioana Avadani, Executive Director of the Centre for Independent Journalism in Bucharest, pointed out that while most countries have adequate media legislation, implementation is lagging or is often applied in a discriminatory manner. She cited the case of Turkey, which uses a law which forbids “insulting the Turkish identity” to silence certain opinions. Azer Hasret, Director of the Central Asian and Southern Caucasian Freedom of Expression Network, made a presentation on violations of freedom of the media, including administrative measures and physical repression, in the countries covered by his network. There was a lively exchange between a representative of the Kazakh newspaper Respublika and an official from the Kazakh Ministry of Culture and Information. The individual from Respublika painted a bleak picture of the media situation in Kazakhstan, asserting serious and sustained administrative harassment; the official denied the accusations, claiming that the new media law does not impinge on media freedom in any way.
Belgian Ambassador de Crombrugghe commented that media form an important link between civil society and government; therefore it is even more important that they act responsibly. In the view of the Belgian Chairmanship, voluntary professional standards can promote increased professionalism, accuracy and adherence to ethical standards among journalists, without in any way endangering the freedom of expression and opinion. De Crombrugghe also highlighted the importance of media development initiatives and noted that the Belgians will begin consultations on possible OSCE initiatives in this area.
During the closing session, the United States delegation forewarned the participating States about the potential loss of liberty when rushing to regulate speech in an environment of trying not to offend others, such as the period immediately following the publication of the Danish cartoons. It was emphasized that such lost liberties are difficult to regain. Both of the U.S. interventions made during the second and final sessions are available online here