(Warsaw, Poland) - The following statement on Freedom of Expression, Free Media and Information was delivered by the United States at the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation currently being held in Warsaw, Poland:
Freedom of Expression, Free Media and Information
Statement of Ambassador M. Wells
U.S. Delegation to the OSCE Implementation Meeting
Mr. Moderator, of all the attributes of a law-governed state, a free press is perhaps the bedrock of democracy. Thomas Jefferson, in fact, observed in 1787 that if he had to decide between a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, he would choose the latter. He understood that with all its imperfections, the fourth estate is the best guarantee of popular sovereignty. Ultimately, the people’s right to know ensures their ability to govern themselves.
Conversely, where the press is under assault, so is democracy. In the OSCE space, we have witnessed in the past year some small steps forward and some very large steps back.
Generally speaking, there is no freedom of expression in Turkmenistan; most recently, even delivery of foreign newspapers and many foreign periodicals has ceased, including publications sent to embassies, international organizations and even the OSCE Center. President Niyazov has also demanded that private distribution by cable of satellite programming be restricted, thus cutting off Turkmenistan’s already deprived citizens even further from independent sources of information.
Media in Uzbekistan, which have essentially functioned under Soviet-era rules for the last ten years, received good news in May: the formal lifting of censorship. Of course, journalists are still practicing self-censorship, and it remains to be seen whether any actual progress towards freedom of speech has been made. We look forward to signs that would confirm optimistic prognoses, such as the appearance of news articles that describe openly the country’s problems and express candid views of government policy.
In Kyrgyzstan, the independent press has been under severe pressure. Newspapers like Res Publica have been fined large sums in court, and other papers have been fined out of existence. But President Akaev’s rescinding in May of Decree No. 20, which established state control over printing materials, was a step in the right direction, and we congratulate the President for taking this significant step. We encourage the Kyrgyz authorities to continue to take such steps to ensure that the government does not control the media.
Perhaps no country in the OSCE region has seen greater threats to a free media in recent months than Kazakhstan, where the independent and opposition media have come under savage attack. The most prominent pro-opposition television station has been forced off the air. Two independent newspapers have been firebombed. Yet another well-known opposition journalist, Sergei Duvanov, has been charged with “insulting the honor and dignity of the president” for publishing an article about the official acknowledgment of a foreign bank account under the President's name.
Unfortunately, as the situation in Kazakhstan shows, criminal defamation and insult laws continue to be used in a number of countries to silence criticism of the government or public officials. In Belarus, for example, Mikola Markevych and Pavel Mazheyka are serving sentences of 1½ and 1 years, respectively, for allegedly libeling President Alexander Lukashenko during the 2001 presidential election campaign in their weekly Pahonya. Viktor Ivashkevych, editor of Rabochy, is charged with slandering Lukashenko and is scheduled to go to trial on September 11. Another independent newspaper, Nasha Svoboda, recently lost a politically motivated libel lawsuit and is being forced to pay a prohibitively high fine, which may lead to its closure. Since the OSCE’s last human dimension implementation meeting, a succession of journalists have been threatened with libel suits designed to intimidate them into silence.
In August 2002, the Committee to Protect Journalists wrote to Azerbaijani President Aliev, again, to protest the harassment of the independent media, in this case, the magazine Monitor. We urge those OSCE participating States, which have not already done so to repeal any criminal defamation or insult laws on their books.
Journalists in Kosovo are also at risk. According to an OSCE survey, 35 percent of Kosovo Serb and 40 percent of Kosovo Albanian journalists said they had been threatened while investigating sensitive stories. In October 2001, Bekim Kastrati, a journalist in Kosovo was murdered.
Investigative journalism is also a dangerous profession in Albania. Coverage of official corruption and other government abuses can lead to retaliation, often taking the form of harassment, intimidation and even arbitrary arrest at the hands of the police. The attacks on journalist Fatmir Terziu in Elbasan were so relentless and physically brutal that he eventually left the country secretly in April 2001. Although the Elbasan Police Chief was dismissed in December 2001, and then arrested, for numerous human rights violations, violence and harassment suffered by journalists, particularly at the hands of the police, as well as the threat of defamation suits, remain serious concerns.
In Serbia, many of us can recall the front-page reports in our own newspapers of the 1999 murder of Dnevni Telgraf editor Slavko Curuvija, likely at the hands of some of Milosevic’s henchmen. We are concerned that those responsible for the murder have not been charged and arrested and urge the Government of Yugoslavia to reinvigorate the investigation of this case, as well as that of murdered Vecernije Novosti reported Milan Pantic in central Serbia just over one year ago.
In Ukraine, the case of murdered journalist Heorhiy Gongadze remains unresolved two years after his disappearance, due to government stonewalling and obstructionism. Especially given allegations of involvement by top Ukrainian officials in the circumstances leading to his murder, we hope that Ukraine's new Procurator General will follow up at long last on his promises to resolve this case. We also call on Ukraine to make progress on other cases involving violence against and murder of journalists
Finally, we must remember that free speech is not only a right of journalists. Greece’s prohibition of proselytizing restricts free speech just as much as any other content-based restriction. And notwithstanding Turkey’s recent and welcome reforms, four Kurdish former Members of Parliament are still imprisoned for expressing their views.
To conclude on a positive note. We are pleased that the government of Tajikistan has finally granted a broadcast license to Asia- plus, the first independent radio station in Dushambe, and that criminal proceedings against journalist Dodojon Atovullo have been dropped.