Title

Remarks by the Hon. Alcee L. Hastings at the Conference on 21st Century Threats to Media Freedom

Hon.
Alcee L. Hastings
Washington, DC
United States
Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Ladies and Gentlemen,

As Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, I appreciate this opportunity to address threats to media freedom in the expansive OSCE region stretching from Vancouver to Vladivostok. While the now 56 signatories to the Helsinki Final Act have accepted a series of specific commitments on media and working conditions for journalists, the difficulty remains translating words on paper into deeds in practice.

Before turning to concerns of the 21st century, let me recall Thomas Jefferson’s observation from 1787: “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” In a subsequent elaboration, he explained why: “The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed.”

You don’t have to be one of our own Founding Fathers to grasp the idea. Leaders the world over who are determined to remain in office by any means necessary understand perfectly the power of the press. That is precisely why they and their associates strive so vigorously to control the media.

In Aleksandr Lukashenka's Belarus, for example, media freedoms are systematically stifled and have deteriorated over the past few years. Investigations of suspicious deaths of two journalists in 2004 and 2005 have gone nowhere. And just a month ago opposition activist Andrei Klimau was arrested under a vague article of the Criminal Code. Meanwhile, the Lukashenka regime maintains a virtual monopoly on television and radio broadcasting. Last November, Lukashenka himself unabashedly admitted to reporters that his government uses “serious pressure” to control the media and that he is in charge of this process.

In another context, that acknowledgment might be described as admirable candor – and certainly more than could be had in Russia. I’m sure all of you have read the obituaries for the late Boris Yeltsin. Russia’s first freely elected president made many mistakes. But all commentators have stressed that throughout his two terms, he protected the media. You may recall a TV show in Russia called Kukly which satirized politicians with hand-puppets. The show’s writers savaged their targets, including the head of state, and this in a country where the Tsar or the General Secretary could never be criticized. Yet Boris Yeltsin, who must have been chagrined, did not order Kukly off the air.

That was left to his successor, whose minions made sure that Kukly never again darkened the airwaves. In fact, contrast the era of Kukly to the situation in Russia today: According to a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty report last year, 79 percent of the population gets its news from the three national TV networks, which are either directly or indirectly controlled by the government. And it shows. You have to look long and hard for criticism of President Putin.

You all saw, I suspect, the press report that employees of Russia’s largest independent radio news network have been told that at least 50 percent of the reports about Russia must be “positive,” that opposition political leaders may not be mentioned on the air and that “the United States was to be portrayed as an enemy.” The first impulse is to laugh at this absurdity of such policies. But journalism in Russia is a very serious business.

Even before the assassination of prominent investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya last October and the mysterious death of reporter Ivan Safronov earlier this year, the Committee to Protect Journalists cited Russia as the third-deadliest country in the world for journalists over the past 15 years, with 42 journalists killed since 1992. The vast majority of these crimes remain “unsolved.” Only last week we learned that a former Kremlin reporter has felt it necessary to seek political asylum in the United Kingdom.

Russia tends to be a trendsetter for its neighbors. But there are various degrees of media freedom in the former USSR. In Ukraine, since the 2004 Orange Revolution, media freedom has opened up and the egregious government instructions to the media are a thing of the past. Yet even in Ukraine, anonymous threats and attacks against journalists, especially those in the regions who expose corruption, still occur too frequently, and the 2000 murder of prominent journalist Georgiy Gongadze remains “unresolved.”

Elsewhere, freedom of the press is only a cherished dream of human rights activists. Soviet-era censorship survives in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, which, not coincidentally, ban all political opposition. The death of a Radio Free Europe journalist while in custody in Turkmenistan demonstrates starkly how dangerous the journalist’s profession can be.

In Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, electronic media are tightly controlled. Print media enjoy more latitude but their grounds for maneuver are also limited. A reporter in Kazakhstan who wrote articles implicating local officials and businessmen in the recent clashes between Kazakhs and Chechens has been missing for about a month.

Kyrgyzstan is more difficult to characterize, because the state has been weaker than elsewhere in Central Asia and less capable of asserting its control of the media. But since the Tulip Revolution, restrictions on the free flow of information have loosened and I would say that free media have developed farther in Kyrgyzstan than anywhere else in Central Asia. Still, it is very disturbing that Kyrgyz authorities raided publishing houses last week, as the confrontation between the government and protesters heated up.

In Armenia and Azerbaijan, according to reports by the State Department and OSCE’s Representative on the Media, the government seeks to control free media, especially television. In Armenia, for example, independent TV station A1+ has never been allowed back on the air since it was closed down. As for Azerbaijan, just last week, the State Department criticized Baku for the jailing of a journalist on libel charges and expressed concern about the deteriorating media situation. The use of criminal defamation and insult laws has long been used against those who criticize the government or officials, and I commend the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media for his consistent, principled focus on this area of abuse.

Georgia is a particularly interesting case. Throughout the 1990s, leaders of most former Soviet states reined in the media that had blossomed under glasnost. A historic turning point came in fall 2003, when the Rose Revolution was gathering force in Georgia. Opposition leaders who refused to accept another rigged election led throngs of protesters against Eduard Shevardnadze’s government.

You will recall that at a crucial moment, the Rustavi-2 TV station aligned itself with the opposition Troika and played a critical role in galvanizing the public to reject the official election results. In short order, this resistance movement mushroomed into peaceful regime change that sparked similar events in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

The lesson was not lost on leaders of other post-Soviet states. Shevardnadze’s counterparts in other CIS capitals were determined to avoid his fate and they resolved that no analogue to Rustavi-2 would arise on their turf. For the most part, I must say, they have pulled it off: outside Ukraine and to some degree Kyrgyzstan, nothing of the sort is permitted. In Georgia today, opposition figures maintain that Rustavi-2 has become a pro-government station. But other TV stations air broadcasts critical of President Saakashvili.

Today, Russian and Uzbek media excoriate the United States for allegedly plotting more “color revolutions.” To stem the tide, a broad panoply of tactics has been deployed. Prominent among them have been the expulsion of democracy-promoting NGOs, including many U.S.-based organizations, and the throttling of media outlets.

What lessons should we draw from this state of affairs? The first is that most governments of the post-Soviet states understand Thomas Jefferson quite well. They see freedom of the media as a threat which they are determined to neutralize. Second, they have been rather too successful in this endeavor. Even outside the extreme cases of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, certain topics remain taboo in most countries, specifically criticism of the head of state or revelations about high-level corruption. This is particularly true of electronic media, and first and foremost TV.

However, there is some reason for hope. I believe that pressure exerted by outside forces, including foreign capitals and international organizations, including the OSCE, can have an impact. For example, last week, Kazakhstan’s Culture and Information Minister announced that in response to OSCE criticism, the government has withdrawn a bill that would have imposed licensing requirements on publishing houses. Proposed legislation to regulate the Internet has been withdrawn and he said the authorities are ready to introduce a moratorium for “distorting the truth,” to free journalists from criminal persecution.

At least under certain circumstances, then, and over the longer term, outside pressure and suasion can have a positive impact – even if gradually. But this also strengthens my conviction that now is not the time cut back on U.S. broadcasting to the post-Soviet republics. Freedom of the media is in real danger there, and those seeking alternative sources of information need our help. I am determined to make sure they get it.

Let me conclude by quoting a heroic Russian journalist who understood the real meaning of Thomas Jefferson’s words over two centuries ago: Anna Politkovskaya. “My job is simple: to look around and write what I see.” That is how she described her task in accepting the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly 2003 Prize for Journalism and Democracy for her investigative reporting on developments in war-torn Chechnya. Last October, an assassin’s bullet brought her brilliant career and life to a sudden end. Anna knew the risks, given the death threats against her, but this courageous professional would not be deterred. Her murder is a reminder of the tremendous risks journalists take for daring to look and report on events that others prefer remain hidden.

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