By Jordan Warlick,
From November 2 to November 3, 2017, Helsinki Commission staff participated in the OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on the Role of Free Media in the Comprehensive Approach to Security. Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings are convened a few times per year on specific subjects that are determined to deserve distinct focus by the Chairmanship-in-Office. Like the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings bring participating States and civil society actors together, facilitating dialogue on challenges to human rights issues in the OSCE region.
The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir, identified this topic – the role of free media in the comprehensive approach to security – as one of his four priorities at the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in September 2017:
“My second priority will be to protect media freedom in the new security context….I fully support the efforts of governments to combat terrorism and create safer societies, but let me repeat this simple fact: there are ways to achieve these goals without compromising on our hard-fought fundamental freedoms.”
Unfortunately, some governments in the OSCE region consider a free press to be a threat to national security, and worse, persecute or silence journalists in the name of the security. Certain governments and nationalists justify the censorship of journalists by labelling them unpatriotic, even enemies of the state. Since the failed coup attempt Turkey, for example, hundreds of journalists have been arrested and media outlets shuttered on the basis of national security. The mere suspicion that citizens are part of the Gulenist movement – the group that the Turkish government blames for the coup attempt – can result in many years in prison, or even life sentences. Journalists, as well as civil society as a whole, have been particularly targeted by terrorism-related charges.
However, despite that freedom of expression and national security are often pitted against each other, the two are not mutually exclusive – in fact, they are complementary. An independent, free, and pluralistic media can play a role in peacebuilding and conflict prevention, countering prejudices or misperceptions, and preventing extremism and radicalization. Still, in a world where terrorists spread radical ideas, prejudiced organizations perpetuate intolerance, and government-sponsored bots disseminate misinformation, the tension between freedom of expression and national security seems greater than ever.
The conference featured three sessions: the first, on free media as a basis for European security; the second, on the role of the media in peacebuilding and conflict prevention; and the third, on the role of media in counteracting disinformation, “hate speech” and radicalization. Panelists and participants present discussed the tension between freedom of expression and security interests, the pressures independent media faces from this tension, and best practices for governments to uphold free media and expression commitments in this context.
The OSCE takes a comprehensive approach to security, subscribing to the idea that political-military security, human rights, and economic governance are mutually reinforcing ideals. It is important to encourage dialogue on best practices to ensure that participating States remain true to the ideals that the OSCE was founded upon, despite sometimes challenging circumstances.