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Helsinki Commission Leaders Mark World Press Freedom Day

Monday, May 03, 2021

WASHINGTON—On World Press Freedom Day, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and commission leaders Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following statements:

“Press freedom is at the core of a healthy democracy,” said Chairman Cardin. “Over the last year, we have witnessed a sharp decline in access to information globally, and a rise in cases of violence against journalists. Some OSCE participating States have even used the COVID-19 pandemic as grounds to justify unnecessary restrictions on the press. Independent, professional journalism grounded in truth and transparency is the best antidote to the poison of disinformation and misinformation that plagues the OSCE region, during this global emergency and at all times.”

“Strong democracies encourage a free press—one that informs the public, welcomes diverse voices, and holds leaders accountable,” said Sen. Wicker. “Unfortunately, in many nations autocrats abuse political, economic, and legal measures to intimidate, jail, and bankrupt members of the media who oppose them. On World Press Freedom Day, I commend the courageous journalists who work despite these threats.”

“In the absence of press freedom, citizens are denied access to information and prevented from meaningful engagement in their communities,” said Rep. Wilson. “In some participating States, we continue to see violent attacks, arbitrary arrests, legal harassment, and other attacks against the legitimate work of journalists. These attempts to close off the information pipeline only highlight the weakness of such regimes, not their strength.”

In its 2021 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters without Borders found that journalism is totally blocked, seriously impeded, or constrained in 73 percent of the countries evaluated. The data also reflect a dramatic deterioration in people's access to information and an increase in obstacles to news coverage.

According to the study, Turkmenistan (at 178 of 180), Azerbaijan (at 167), Tajikistan (at 162), Belarus (at 158), Uzbekistan (at 157), Kazakhstan (at 155), Turkey (at 153), and Russia (at 150), rank the lowest in press freedom in the OSCE region.

On April 30, Chairman Cardin and Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) reintroduced the World Press Freedom Protection and Reciprocity Act, which seeks to protect and promote worldwide press freedom and enhance reciprocity for U.S. news and media outlets.

Earlier in April, Helsinki Commission leaders called on Belarusian authorities to release journalists and political prisoners.

In 2020, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a hearing to examine the troubling trend of violence against journalists, and review implementation of international press freedom commitments undertaken by the United States. In 2019, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media testified before the U.S. Helsinki Commission on the state of media freedom in the OSCE region.

Media contact: 
Name: 
Stacy Hope
Email: 
csce[dot]press[at]mail[dot]house[dot]gov
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202.225.1901
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Nevertheless, the CSCE's Council of Ministers was persuaded by the argument that the best way to bring Western democratic and free market ideas to the region was to include them in the process. The visit to Armenia and Azerbaijan was motivated by obvious considerations: the increasingly bloody and alarming conflict between them over Nagorno-Karabakh. From an ethnic dispute that threatened to complicate Mikhail Gorbachev's reform program, the conflict has ballooned, with the dissolution of the USSR, into a larger regional conflict with international significance that threatens to involve neighboring states, one of which -­ Turkey -- is a NATO member. From the CSCE perspective, this conflict brings to the fore the inherent contradiction between two equally valid principles of the CSCE: the right of peoples to self-determination, on the one hand; and territorial integrity, with only peaceful change of borders, on the other. Yugoslavia in 1991 had already presented the CSCE with the difficult problem of reconciling these principles; Armenia and Azerbaijan are offering the latest challenge. There is reason to believe -- or fear -- that this issue will resurface elsewhere on the territory of the former USSR, and the unhappy experience of these two Transcaucasian countries may prove an object lesson that has applicability to other situations. Reflecting the concern of the CSCE member States about the situation, and in an attempt to resolve the crisis, a decision was taken at the March 1992 opening of the Helsinki Follow-up Meeting to organize a "Conference on Nagorno-Karabakh" which will meet soon in Minsk under CSCE auspices. Ukraine, meanwhile, is embroiled in its own disputes as it develops its institutions as a newly independent country and CSCE state. 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In February, the Bush administration signalled its intention to establish diplomatic relations with all the former Soviet republics. The result was the speedy opening of U.S. Embassies in the newly independent countries, which was enthusiastically greeted by the leaderships and opposition forces. Effectively, therefore, the United States is the only Western country with fully-functioning Embassies in all the new countries visited by the Helsinki Commission.

  • The New Commonwealth of Independent States: Problems, Perspectives, and U.S. Policy Implications

    This hearing discussed the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the creation of a series of succeeding states. The hearing covered the theme of regional and ethnic divisions as key elements in the unpredicted dissolution of the Soviet Union. The witnesses covered the particular challenges of securing peaceful independence from the “commonwealth of former Soviet Republics” and the democratization process. The conversation centered on the human rights dimension and the process of newly created states signing on to several international treaties and obtaining memberships in international organizations.

  • Report: the Referendum on Indipendence and Presidential Election in Uzbekistan

    Uzbekistan held a referendum on independence and its first direct, contested presidential election on December 29,1991. According to the republic's Central Election Commission, over 98 percent of voters cast ballots for independence, and more - important - 86 percent voted for Islam Karimov as president. Karimov, former head of Uzbekistan's Communist Party (now renamed Party deputy to the republic's Supreme Soviet and chairman of the opposition party Erk). Uzbekistan's referendum on independence was a mere formality, given the dissolution of the URSS. Karimov's victory in a direct, two-candidate election signaled significant progress compared to the republic's previous practices and relative to other Central Asia republics, most of which did not hold contested presidential elections. But Karimov's advantages over Salih in the campaign, the exclusion of Pulatov, and the prevalence of old voting habits, both among voters and polling station officials, indicate that much remains to be done before Uzbekistan attains Western and CSCE notions of political pluralism and electoral probity. Two Helsinki Commission staffers observed Uzbekistan's referendum and presidential election, at the invitation of the republic's Supreme Soviet. They spent four days in Tashkent, the capital, and also traveled to Samarkand, to interview spokesmen of unofficial movements about the election and the general political situation in Uzbekistan.

  • Turkmenistan's Referendum on Independence

    On October 26, 1991, Turkmenistan held a referendum on independence. Over 97 percent of eligible voters turned out to answer "Yes" or "No" to two questions, the first dealing with the republic's independence, the second seeking approval of President Saparmurad Niyazov's political and economic program. Over 94 percent of participants voted for independence; almost as high a percentage of voters voiced backing for Niyazov. On October 27, an extraordinary session of Turkmenistan's Supreme Soviet declared independence. Most republics of the former Soviet Union declared independence soon after the August 19, 1991 coup attempt. The much-delayed declaration by Turkmenistan's conservative government aimed at putting the republic on an equal footing with the other republics as negotiations among them and what remains of the center continue towards an uncertain conclusion. But Niyazov has made it quite clear that Turkmenistan's leaders will not countenance Baltic or Russian-style political pluralism on the road to independence. Equally clear from statements by the republic's official spokesmen and from the prominence of Iranian guests in Ashkhabad during the referendum is that Turkmenistan will pursue a regional foreign policy, oriented primarily towards developing good relations with its neighbors. Helsinki Commission staff traveled to Turkmenistan to observe the October 26 referendum. The Commission has been observing elections and referendums in the Baltic States and Soviet republics since February 1990. Except for monitoring the voting in the March 1991 All-Union referendum in Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan, however, the Commission has not been to Central Asia. The trip to Ashkhabad thus marks the beginning of a geographical expansion of Commission activity. U.S. policymakers have tended to neglect the region -- a habit that can no longer be afforded as the USSR dissolves and these republics become independent states and enter the world community. The trip's purposes were therefore not only to observe the balloting in the referendum but also to establish contact with the republic's leadership, to gain a sense of the leadership's plans, its attitude towards the CSCE and its commitments, and to meet with representatives of opposition groups. 

  • The Nagorno-Karabakh Crisis: Prospects For Resolution

    This hearing focused on Nagorno-Karabakh, a region in Azerbaijan that has historically been dominated by Armenians and, consequently, has requested to become part of Armenia. The Azeris did not take too kindly to this request, and bloody and violent conflict ensued between the two countries. The hearing examined whether there were still reasons for cautious optimism about a negotiated settlement. This dispute underscored the fact that almost all borders between republics in the former U.S.S.R. were then in dispute. Others present at the hearing included Commissioner Dennis DeConcini, members of the Russia Supreme Soviet Anatoly Shabad, Nadir Mekhtiyev, and Fyodor Shelov-Kovedyaev, Plenipotentiary Representative of Armenia to the United States Alexander Arzoumanian, and Dr. David Nissman, expert on Azerbaijan.

  • Trip Report on South Africa, Namibia, Kenya, and Nigeria, August 4-19

    The dramatic realignment of relations between the Soviet Union and the United States has impacted significantly on developments in African states. A fundamental restructuring of internal and external political and economic systems has started to take shape and aspirations for more open and just societies based upon democratic principles are evident across the continent. While some changes have been made possible by the dramatic relaxation of superpower tensions, indigenous democratic movements toward democracy still face enormous barriers. African nations, with few exceptions, are in the midst of a very profound and prolonged economic depression. Other problems confronting Africa are of equally catastrophic proportions: exploding population growth; civil wars sometimes involving ethnic genocide; large displaced populations fleeing violence, persecution and starvation; a burgeoning debt crisis; ravaging famine and spreading diseases. Senator DeConcini visited Africa to study recent developments and examine how Africans are dealing with present demands, aspirations and problems. A corresponding objective of Codel DeConcini's visit to Africa was to examine the present economic, political and human rights developments and how the newly emerging political process known as the Conference on Security, Stability, Development and Cooperation in Africa (CSSDCA) intends to address and meet the unique challenges confronting Africa today.

  • The Moscow Meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimension of the CSCE

    In accordance with the mandate of the Vienna Concluding Document, the 38 states participating in the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) met in Moscow from September 10 through October 4, 1991, for the third meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimension (CHD, or CDH from the French acronym) of the CSCE. The first meeting of the Conference was held in Paris from May 20 through June 23, 1989, and the second was held in Copenhagen from June 5 through 29, 1990. The meetings of the CHD address the full range of human rights and humanitarian concerns associated with the Helsinki process.

  • Geneva Meeting on National Minorities and Moscow Meeting on the Human Dimension

    The hearing will focus on two important CSCE meetings, the Geneva Experts Meeting on National Minorities.   The Geneva meeting which recently ended was mandated to discuss national minorities, the meeting had three components: exchange of views on practical experience; review of the implementation of relevant CSCE commitments; and consideration of new measures. The distinguished speaker will outline the major points of the Geneva meeting and how the United States can best utilize its success while moving towards the upcoming human dimension meeting in Moscow.

  • Referendum in the Soviet Union

    Mikhail Gorbachev's March 17, 1991 referendum on maintaining the USSR as a "renewed federation" was the first in Soviet, or Russian, history. As the following report makes clear, the referendum was not merely an exercise in public opinion polling or a guide to policymakers. It was intended to give Gorbachev a popular mandate for pressuring the newly elected legislatures of the Baltic States and Soviet republics seeking independence or greater sovereignty. In this light, the referendum amounted to an attempt to use democratic methods to undermine the results of democracy. Its other purposes aside, however, Gorbachev's referendum does represent an aspect of the democratization of Soviet politics that has taken place since 1985. The Helsinki Commission has carefully tracked this process through public hearings and extensive staff reports on perestroika and on the Baltic States. In 1990, in accordance with its mandate to monitor and promote compliance with the provisions of the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent CSCE documents, the Commission sent staffers to observe parliamentary elections in the Baltic States and the Soviet republics. A compendium of their reports was published in December 1990. This year, Commission staffers monitored the March 3 "counter-referendums" on independence held in Latvia and Estonia, at the invitation of their parliaments and governments. The Commission also sent staffers to observe the conduct of the voting on March 17 in Latvia, Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, and on March 31 observed Georgia's plebiscite on independence. The following report reflects their on-site observations, supplemented by subsequent published reportage about the referendum, and contains as well an analysis· of the referendum's implications. In retrospect, perhaps the most striking thing about the referendum is how little notice the Soviet and international media now pay to an event depicted as "historic." To some extent, the fast pace of change in Soviet politics precludes lingering on last month's news. But the lack of attention also reflects the referendum's minimal impact: as a stategem, it was flawed; as policy, it was irrelevant, since the jurisdictional disputes in the USSR between center and republics had already gone too far for mere strategems to be effective. In fact, the failure of the March referendum to deliver what its initiators sought was its greatest contribution to Soviet politics, since it helped produce the "April Pact" between Gorbachev and leaders of nine republics. That agreement, if followed through sincerely, promises to be a watershed in the decentralization and democratization of the Soviet Union, and may prove genuinely "historic."

  • The USSR In Crisis: State of the Union

    This hearing centered the economic and political crisis in the Soviet Union. The Commissioners praised the diligent work of Gorbachev by positively changing the human rights dimension in Eastern Europe. From multi-party participation to higher freedoms of speech and assembly, the Soviet Union has pivoted to international standard of human rights. Despite the reforms made towards the advancement of human rights the economic situation has never been so pronounced in recent memory. The economic challenges facing the people of the Soviet Union is affecting the political atmosphere in very concerning way- increased powers to the KGB and arms deals that violate past international treaties. The hearing reviewed whether the economic crisis is causing the Soviet state to use military methods to save the Soviet power.

  • Soviet Crackdown in the Baltic States

    This hearing, which Steny H. Hoyer presided over, came at a time during which the United States’ time was occupied elsewhere in the world (i.e. the Middle East). Therefore, the running time of this hearing was expected to be an hour, with a more in-depth hearing to follow later on. In any case, attendees discussed, from the view of the U.S., anyway, that the Baltic States (i.e. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) had all been illegally absorbed into what was then the Soviet Union. Likewise, the Baltic States had raised the issue that enforcement of conscription laws of the Soviet Union in these countries is in and of itself legal within the framework of the Geneva Convention. The consensus of the hearing was that the attempt by Moscow to crush democracy in the Baltic States must be met by the U.S. with the same resolve that the U.S. took in meeting similar attempts in other parts of the world, including collaboration with other countries.

  • Supreme Soviet Elections in Azerbaijan

    After long delays and one official postponement, the elections to the Azerbaijani Supreme Soviet finally went off as planned on September 30. The late date of the Azerbaijani election reflects the region-wide instability in Transcaucasia: voters in Armenia chose their legislature only on May 20 and Georgia's elections (the last ones scheduled) took place on October 28, having been postponed from March. Nevertheless, the atmosphere in Azerbaijan was peculiarly charged, even by today's Soviet standards. Azerbaijan was the only Soviet republic to hold its Supreme Soviet elections with its capital city, Baku, and other regions, such as the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO), in a state of emergency. This dubious distinction indicates the level of unresolved tensions in Azerbaijan as well as the determination of the central authorities in Moscow, abetted by the Communist Party of Azerbaijan (CPA), to keep tight reins on this strategically and economically vital republic. 

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