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Snapshot: Challenges to Press Freedom in the OSCE
Tuesday, September 11, 2018

As the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) convenes the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) conference in Warsaw, Poland—the largest human rights gathering of any kind in Europe—journalists in several OSCE participating States continue to face intimidation, persecution, violence, and even imprisonment just for doing their jobs.

Albania: On August 30 in Albania, the home of the father of News 24 TV crime reporter Klodiana Lala was sprayed with bullets, according to the investigative website BalkanInsight.   Fortunately, nobody was injured.  Lala has been reporting on organized crime in Albania for years. Other investigative journalists have been harassed in the past.

Azerbaijan: Azerbaijan’s documented record of continued harassment of both foreign and domestic media, including intimidation through lawsuits and even imprisonment, has continued in 2018. Since early last year, the government has blocked the websites of Meydan TV, the Azadliq newspaper, Turan TV, and the U.S.-sponsored Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Azeri service, among others, effectively stifling the country’s only remaining major sources of independent news. Among those journalists investigating official corruption, Mehman Huseynov is serving a two-year sentence for defamation and Afgan Mukhtarli is serving a six-year sentence for entering the country illegally despite credible reports that he was abducted from Georgia in 2017 and brought into Azerbaijan against his will. According to news reports, Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist formerly with RFE/RL who was imprisoned for 18 months in 2014-15, remains under a travel ban and met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel during her recent visit to Azerbaijan to discuss the continued harassment of the media.

Bosnia and Herzegovina: On August 26, Vladimir Kovacevic, a reporter for the independent Bosnian Serb television station BNTV, was attacked and severely beaten outside of his home after reporting on an anti-government protest in Banja Luka, according to Voice of America (VOA).

Belarus: On August 7-8 2018, Belarusian authorities raided several independent media outlets, confiscated hard drives and documents from offices and apartments, and detained 18 journalists, including the editor-in-chief of Tut.by, Marina Zolotova. According to press reports, the Belarusian Investigative Committee accused the targeted media outlets of illegally accessing the subscription-only news website BelTA, a crime punishable by fines and up to two years of either house arrest or prison time. While all detained journalists have been released, Belarusian authorities have prohibited them from leaving the country while the charges are being investigated, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists.

These latest actions came on the heels of other recent incidents targeting the country’s independent media. As reported by RFE/RL, Belarusian lawmakers passed controversial amendments to the country's media laws in June 2018 which they claimed were necessary to combat so-called "fake news." In July, a Minsk court sentenced Belarusian journalist Dzmitry Halko to four years in a guarded dormitory and forced labor after convicting him of assaulting two police officers. Natallya Radzina, the Poland-based chief editor of independent news site Charter97, reported she received death threats. In addition, well-known Belarusian blogger Sergey Petrukhin has been harassed and detained in recent months, according to the CPJ. Independent media outlets like Belsat TV has received at least 48 fines since the start of 2018, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Croatia: In late June, the European Federation of Journalists reported that Croatian journalist and owner of Zadar News Hrvoje Bajlo was beaten up in Zadar, resulting in his hospitalization. He was also threatened with death if he continued his writings.  

Montenegro: Olivera Lakić, an investigative journalist for the Montenegrin newspaper Vijesti, was wounded outside her home by a gunman on May 8, The Guardian reported.  She had been reporting on official corruption in the country.   A bomb exploded in front of the home of one of her associates earlier in the year.

Russia: Russia remains a challenging place for independent media to survive, much less thrive.  Journalists remain the target of harassment, arrest, and intimidation. According to the CPJ, five journalists are currently serving prison sentences related to charges of defamation, ethnic or religious insult, or anti-state rhetoric.

One of the most notable cases is that of Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who was arrested by Russian authorities in Crimea, and is currently serving a 20-year prison sentence on charges of terrorism. He has been on a hunger strike since May14, 2018, calling for “the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners that are currently present on the territory of the Russian Federation.”  

Many governments, including the U.S., and non-governmental groups have raised concerns about his case directly with the Russian government and called for his release.

Serbia: The Association of Journalists of Serbia (UNS) said it had registered 38 cases in which journalists and media workers had reported attacks and other types of harassment since the year began. 

Turkey: Turkey continues to be the world’s leading jailer of journalists, according to CPJ. In 2017, CPJ documented 73 Turkish journalists in prison; Turkish civil society groups, such as the Journalists’ Union of Turkey and P24, estimate that the number is at least twice as high (149 and 183, respectively). Most imprisoned journalists are charged with terrorism, including links to the movement led by Fethullah Gulen, whom the government accuses of masterminding an attempted coup in 2016. Over the past year, dozens have been sentenced to lengthy prison sentences, often on charges related to terrorism.  Fourteen Cumhuriyet journalists were sentenced in April, 2018, and six journalists from Zaman newspaper were sentenced in July.

Even Turkish journalists living outside of Turkey are not exempt from persecution. According to the Department of State’s 2017 Human Rights Report, 123 Turkish journalists currently living in other countries are too afraid of reprisal, harassment, or arrest to return.

The government has also used emergency powers to shutter nearly 200 media outlets, putting scores of journalists out of work. Meanwhile, a small group of large business conglomerates loyal to the government have consolidated their control over the vast majority of Turkey’s mainstream media.

Ukraine: In a recent ruling that threatens the internationally recognized protection of a journalist’s sources, a court in Ukraine approved the prosecutor-general’s request for the cell phone data of an RFE/RL investigative reporter. The journalist is Natalia Sedletska, host of the award-winning anti-corruption TV show “Schemes: Corruption in Details,”  a joint production of RFE/RL and Ukrainian Public Television. The information requested includes phone numbers; the date, time, and location of calls, text messages, and other data, which the prosecutor-general’s office claims is needed as part of a criminal investigation. During the period covered by the request, however, the program Schemes has reported on several investigations of senior Ukrainian officials, including the prosecutor-general. 

The brutal murders of Jan Kuciak and his fiancé in Slovakia and Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta are stark reminders of the tremendous risks investigative journalists take to expose crime and corruption within the government. While public outrage over Kuciak’s killing led to the resignation of multiple cabinet officials in Slovakia, so far there have been no indictments for the crime. In Malta, three people have been indicted in connection with Galizia’s murder, but those who ordered the assassination remain at large. In the United States, five journalists at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, MD, were brutally murdered in June by a gunman who allegedly was disgruntled by an article the Gazette had written regarding his arrest and subsequent probation for harassing former high school classmates on social media.

This is merely a snapshot of the daily challenges and real danger that journalists, editors, and media professionals face in many OSCE participating States. Despite politically charged global rhetoric about the role and purpose of the media, freedom of speech remains a cornerstone of any functioning democracy, and a reliable, trustworthy, and professional media free to do its job without harassment or threat is essential.

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