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World Press Freedom Day 2017
Wednesday, May 03, 2017

By Jordan Warlick,
Staff Associate

Although freedom of the press is recognized by democracies around the world as an essential and basic human right, emerging reports show that it is globally in decline, even in countries considered strong democracies. The recently published Freedom House 2017 Freedom of the Press Report and Reporters Without Borders’ 2017 World Press Freedom Index both indicate grim trends – Freedom House declares press freedom at its lowest point in 13 years, and Reporters Without Borders describes the “ever darker world map” it has published this year.

The OSCE region is not uniform when it comes to freedom of the press. OSCE participating States include some of the freest nations in the world, like Norway and the Netherlands, alongside some of the least free nations, like Azerbaijan and Turkey. The worst-performing region in the aforementioned Freedom House report is Eurasia, while the best-performing is Europe, both of which are largely encompassed in the OSCE region. The central problems of media freedom are also varied between countries, from violence, intimidation, and incarceration of journalists; to emerging contempt for the media among politicians; to media outlet ownership and transparency issues. While some countries require more attention and monitoring than others, any conditions that impede on press freedom or that are considered harmful for journalists deserve attention.

The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media was an office created in 1997 to do just that: monitor and assist participating States with compliance commitments on freedom of expression and free media. The most recent OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, was a fierce advocate for the rights of journalists across the OSCE. The OSCE participating States currently are in the process of selecting her successor, an appointment that requires consensus among the 57 OSCE participating States.  This office’s function as a watchdog for violations and deteriorating conditions for media has been critical to bringing attention to issues and cases that may otherwise go unnoticed. Still, undemocratic regimes, changing political tides in the region, and the evolving landscape of journalism present ongoing challenges.

Over the last week alone, the Helsinki Commission has held three different events where media freedom has been an important topic of discussion: a hearing on human rights abuses in Russia; a briefing on Russian human rights violations of Ukrainian citizens; and a briefing on human rights in Turkey after its referendum on changes to the constitution.  At the hearing on human rights in Russia, each witness brought attention to the Kremlin’s control of the media and persecution of independent journalists. The briefing on Russian human rights violations against Ukrainian citizens focused on the incarceration of filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, but highlighted other cases of imprisoned journalists such as Roman Sushchenko of Ukrinform News and Mykola Semena, a contributor to Radio Free Europe. On Turkey, Freedom House panelist Nate Schenkkan described the severe restrictions on access to information and underscored Turkey’s status as the number one jailer of journalists in the world.

If there is any hope for the future of press freedom in these countries where media is especially unfree, it is in the passion and talent of journalists who are committed to holding their governments accountable despite the risks. It is vital that the United States continue to be an exemplar of and advocate for freedom of the press, enshrined by our founders in the First Amendment in recognition of its importance for democracy, for other countries around the world.

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  • HELSINKI COMMISSIONERS JOIN OSCE PA MEETING ON AFGHANISTAN, DEBATE POLICY RESPONSES

    On November 4, 2021, more than 40 members of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) met remotely to discuss the current security challenges posed by developments in Afghanistan and the future of OSCE engagement with Afghanistan under the Taliban’s rule. Since 2003, Afghanistan has been an OSCE Partner for Cooperation and shares a border with several OSCE countries. The debate, which was attended by seven members of the Helsinki Commission, took place as part of the OSCE PA’s annual Autumn Meeting. Each year, the Autumn Meeting focuses on debating one or more currently relevant issues confronting the OSCE region.  This year’s Autumn Meeting was originally planned to be in Dublin, Ireland, but a resurging COVID-19 pandemic forced the OSCE PA to rely on emergency procedures that allow for statutory meetings to be conducted remotely. OSCE PA Leaders Outline Challenges Posed by Afghanistan OSCE PA President Margaret Cederfelt opened the debate with an overview of the challenges presented by the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. While three OSCE countries—Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan—share a border with Afghanistan, developments there also have serious implications for the rest of the OSCE participating States. The worsening humanitarian crisis, the Taliban’s historical connections to terrorism, the negative economic fallout, the potential impact on neighboring countries, and deteriorating human rights, particularly for women and girls, were all of concern. “Those who will suffer most from this is, of course, the ordinary people,” President Cederfelt emphasized, while highlighting the impending economic turmoil Afghanistan faces. “It is essential that human security is protected by safeguarding the fundamental rights of all Afghans.” President Cederfelt also underscored the need for international cooperation while addressing this situation, given its global security implications. The three leaders of the PA General Committees highlighted aspects of the crisis related to their specific mandates. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson, who chairs the General Committee on Political Affairs and Security, noted, “Perhaps most alarming is the return of an international terrorist threat from Afghanistan. He also highlighted the production and trade of narcotics and illegal drugs backed by the Taliban as a serious challenge with global implications, thanks to major trafficking routes. “The security situation in Afghanistan is intrinsically linked with that of the OSCE region as a whole—but it will first and most immediately affect Afghanistan’s neighbors in Central Asia,” he said. “We must all be especially concerned about threats to the three OSCE participating States that have borders with Afghanistan: Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. This is perhaps the area in which our organization can have the greatest and most immediate impact." The other two general committee chairs shared their concerns as well. Pere Joan Pons of Spain, who chairs the General Committee on Economia Affairs, Science, Technology, and Environment, highlighted Afghanistan’s current economic and environmental challenges, especially given the country’s vulnerability in the face of climate change. Sereine Mauborgne of France, who chairs the General Committee on Democracy, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Questions, discussed the serious human rights violations faced by women, girls, and other vulnerable populations. In addition, many Afghans face urgent or extreme food and security issues; the Taliban lacks the capability to provide either for the Afghan people. Director of the OSCE Conflict Prevention Center Tuula Yrjölä discussed Afghanistan’s relationship to the OSCE as a Partner for Cooperation and the potential role of the OSCE role in addressing the situation. She concluded that Afghanistan’s partnership status in the OSCE was based on shared values; its future may be in question under a Taliban government. Helsinki Commissioners Participate in the General Debate Following the introductory remarks, six members of the Helsinki Commission—including all four senior commission leaders—took the floor to voice their concerns and engage with other parliamentarians. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin, who also serves as the Head of the U.S. Delegation and the OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, expressed disappointment at how quickly the democratic government and institutions in Afghanistan deteriorated, despite years of investment and support. “One of the prime reasons was corruption,” explained Chairman Cardin. The rights of women and girls and ensuring humanitarian assistance reaches populations in need were two areas that he insisted be of focus as international efforts move forward. Media freedom was of particular concern for Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen. “Lower-level Taliban forces threaten and harass journalists,” he stated. “RFE/RL has reported that over the past weeks, its remaining journalists have been questioned by armed Taliban and door-to-door searched have been conducted looking for journalists affiliated with the United States.” Media freedom is among the fundamental freedoms the OSCE seeks to protect, and Co-Chairman Cohen insisted the Taliban must be held responsible for violating these rights. Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker, who also serves as an OSCE PA Vice President, shared legislation he is sponsoring in Congress that seeks to strengthen the American response to Afghanistan and reiterated the dangers that religious and ethnic minorities in Afghanistan currently face. Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson highlighted the dangers of terrorism and the oppressive rule of the Taliban. “It cannot be business as usual with the Taliban,” he stated.  “Together, we must use our leverage to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a terrorist haven devoid of human rights.” Chairman Cardin, Sen. Wicker, and Rep. Wilson all expressed concern over Afghanistan’s status as an OSCE Partner for Cooperation. “Before we recognize any representative of Afghanistan in our assembly, we should make sure that they will adhere to the principles of the Helsinki Final Act,” Chairman Cardin stated. Rep. Wilson argued that Afghanistan’s partner status should be reconsidered, and Sen. Wicker also emphasized the importance of the values shared by OSCE participating States and Partners for Cooperation. “I would hope that it is our position going forward that the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan not be recognized as an OSCE Partner for Cooperation,” Sen. Wicker said. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore focused on the dangers for women and girls and the human rights violations they face. Despite advances made in women’s rights in Afghanistan during the past two decades, the return of Taliban rule has brought a resurgence of violence and restrictions, endangering the lives of women throughout the country. Many have fled Afghanistan, fearing for their safety, while others have remained to fight for their country. While Rep. Moore strongly advocated for supporting resettlement efforts, she also emphasized that resettlement was a last resort. “We must continue to press for the protection of these women in their own country,” she said. Ms. Moore also proposed that the OSCE PA create and maintain a project to monitor and support Afghanistan’s female parliamentarians. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Ruben Gallego stressed the importance of aiding Afghans still in Afghanistan. “We must find ways to support Afghans in-country who are bravely calling for progress, and we must stand up for the human rights of those who suffer at the hands of the Taliban,” he said. Rep. Gallego further argued that the international community must do more than simply aid in the evacuation of those fleeing the Taliban’s rule. “We must also ensure that those who have been evacuated have long-term support in the resettlement process. The United States must do its part in accepting the bulk of Afghan refugees, and I have personally pushed in Congress to provide Afghans with the long-term resources they need to settle into a new life,” he stated, and asked all the participating parliamentarians to urge their countries to do the same. OSCE Efforts Moving Forward Throughout the debate, which highlighted various vulnerable populations and severe security threats that must be addressed in the future, one recurring theme was the need for international cooperation. While President Cederfelt began the meeting by observing that it will be impossible to know the future, Rep. Gallego expressed one certainty. “The end of America’s military commitment in Afghanistan does not mean we will turn a blind eye to Afghanistan’s people or the security of the region,” he said.

  • Upholding OSCE Commitments in Hungary and Poland

    Political leaders in Hungary and Poland—U.S. allies and members of the European Union—have for the past decade pursued policies that undermine democracy and the rule of law. In Hungary, the Fidesz government has weakened the country’s democratic institutions, especially the free media and independent judiciary. Instead of strengthening the transatlantic bond, Viktor Orbán has sought closer ties with Russia and China. In Poland, the ruling coalition has taken steps to compromise judicial independence and limit free expression. In this hearing, witnesses examined the erosion of democratic norms in Hungary and Poland and discussed the implications for U.S. foreign policy. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) began the hearing by addressing the need to help safeguard the freedoms that both Poland and Hungary have fought so hard for, and that form the basis of the OSCE. He then addressed the downward trajectory of democracies in both countries, emphasizing Hungary as a particular concern. In his opening remarks, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) emphasized the importance of democracy to all freedom loving people, and that while both Poland and Hungary are critical allies to the United States, the erosion of democratic norms in both countries is of serious concern. Co-Chairman Cohen highlighted the use of xenophobic, antisemitic and Islamophobic rhetoric as a mechanism to maintain political power in Hungary, and the collapse of the judicial system in Poland as examples of de-democratization in both countries. He concluded by stating that the United States should expect better of their allies and of members of the European Union. Zselyke Csaky, Research Director, Europe & Eurasia at Freedom House, testified about the key differences between Poland and Hungary and their decline as democracies. She first noted that while Poland remains a democracy and Hungary is now reclassified as a hybrid regime, the democratic decline of Poland is occurring at a faster rate than that of Hungary. She suggested that state capture of the media, judiciary, civic sector, and elections play a key role in the democratic backsliding of both countries. Ms. Csaky then concluded that while any decisions on the governments of Hungary and Poland will be determined by their respective electorates, the United States should uphold strategic, long term commitments supporting the EU, and help to strengthen the civic and media sectors. In his testimony, Dalibor Rohac, Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, expressed his concern over the authoritarian nature of the Hungarian and Polish governments. In particular, he called attention to the de-facto end of constitutional review, limited access to diverse media, and extraordinary rise in corruption in Hungary. Mr. Rohac closed by stressing the need for support from the United States to be bipartisan and narrow in focus. Heather Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at CSIS and incoming President at the German Marshall Fund, began her testimony by maintaining that while democracy in Poland and Hungary are examples of foreign policy accomplishments, both Poland and Hungary should be held accountable for their governments’ behavior in undermining democracy at home and abroad.  Ms. Conley emphasized Hungary’s growing relationship with China, and the need to determine if Hungary is at the level of commitment too maintain the secrecy of a NATO member. She recommended that the United States remain engaged in its investment in both countries but do so through bipartisan and firm policy. Following the conclusion of the witness statements, Chairman Cardin acknowledged that Poland and Hungary are two separate countries with different priorities but addressed what the two have in common. While Poland and Hungary are different cases, he noted, there is a need to address disturbing trends in countries with which the United States has deep ties. “We have to look for way to strengthen the values that make our relationship so important,” he said. “I think America can play an important role here, and that Congress can play an important role.” Related Information Witness Biographies

  • Fighting Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists

    By Arwen Struthers, Max Kampelman Fellow​ In 2013, the United Nations General Assembly declared November 2 International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists to commemorate the lives of Claude Verlon and Ghislaine Dupont, two journalists who were kidnapped and killed in a targeted attack on that day. Since their deaths, their killers have walked free with complete impunity; there is no justice in sight. Unfortunately, cases where authorities respond to crimes against journalists with impunity for the perpetrators rather than justice for the victims are not outliers. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that “in over eight out of 10 cases where a journalist has been targeted for murder, their killers go free.” Impunity often extends beyond cases where journalists are murdered to failure to conduct a proper investigation into other crimes against journalists, such as threats and non-fatal attacks. Complete impunity is not uncommon and presents one of the greatest challenges for media freedom advocates and democratic states around the world today. Freedom of expression and free press are core democratic principles that protect individual liberties, promote discussion in public squares, and contribute to the spread of information. The harmful, cyclical nature of impunity endangers states and individuals as it impedes upon media freedom, violates human rights, and threatens democratic values. Natalya Estemirova Natalya Estemirova was a Russian investigative journalist and a leading defender of human rights in Chechnya for nearly two decades. Despite threats from local authorities, she dedicated her life to calling out injustice. She regularly reported on abuses and violations committed by authorities at the national and local level, and her work was published by sources like Novaya Gazeta and Kavkazsky Uzel. In 2006, she met with the Helsinki Commission to share her findings on human rights violations. On July 15, 2009, Natalya Estemirova was abducted and murdered. Over 12 years later, little has been done to bring her killers to justice. On August 31, 2021, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Russian government failed to properly investigate her murder. There has been no conviction and those involved in the murder of Natalya Estemirova continue to walk free. The Dangers of Impunity Across the globe, impunity jeopardizes journalists and the media environments in which they operate. It is both a symptom of broader systemic problems in states, as well as an environmental contributing factor which encourages further crimes against journalists. In an October 2021 Helsinki Commission hearing on media freedom in the OSCE region, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro explained that examining individual cases of crimes against journalists and addressing each as it arises is not enough. To best tackle the problems created by violations of media freedom and attacks on journalists, human rights advocates must examine the broader picture. When discussing cases of crimes against journalists, Ribeiro said, “All combined, they all create a landscape, an atmosphere, that silence[s] all the critical voices.”  Crimes against journalists are often efforts to censor journalists who are bringing attention to injustice and corruption. By examining the broader picture rather each individual crime against the press, deeply rooted issues – such as government corruption and authoritarianism - will be exposed. To protect journalists in the future, these issues must be addressed first. At the same hearing, Robert Mahoney, the Deputy Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, explained that the failure to administer justice not only creates a landscape where there are fewer voices expressing themselves, but also encourages more crimes against journalists in the future. “Impunity will only send a message that journalists’ lives are cheap and that those – whether it’s criminal gangs or whether it’s governments – that want to silence them can, for a few thousand dollars, hire an assassin and get rid of the problem,” he said. Impunity demonstrates to other journalists they may be freely targeted by those they criticize without any protection from the law. It creates a painful choice: are they bullied into silence or do they risk their lives? Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow One of the most important tools that can be used to help end impunity is multilateral, multi-level pressure. When international organizations and their members, such as the OSCE and its participating States, put pressure on those countries where authorities fail to adequately respond to crimes against journalists, they begin to break the dangerous cycle. Failing to call out impunity as injustice further feeds the emboldening cycle of impunity, but consistent pressure from outside forces can help that cycle crack. Domestic pressure also can have an impact. In February 2018, investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová were killed in a targeted attack in Slovakia. In response, the people of Slovakia took to the streets in protest of his death, resulting in the resignation of several top government officials. A Slovakian Supreme Court decision in June 2021 overturned the acquittal of two suspects, ruling that the lower court did not properly examine the evidence. The government’s response to the protests and pressure from the international community—its willingness to continue to prosecute those involved in the murders—demonstrates that external pressure works in putting a stop to impunity. In this case, there is hope that justice is on the horizon. When local communities, countries, and multilateral organizations all maintain pressure upon individual countries for their human rights and media freedom failures, governments who enable or are responsible for crimes against journalists begin to feel the heat. 2021 Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov, the editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, dedicated his award to his slain colleagues, including Natalya Estemirova. In a 2009 Helsinki Commission briefing, Muratov said, “In any encounter with representatives of the Russian political establishment and government, please, bring up this meeting. Please ask these uncomfortable questions.” Joining forces with other defenders of media freedom and human rights and calling attention in public spaces to the failings of countries is one way to effectively combat impunity and protect journalists. On International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, supporters of media freedom should affirm their commitment to protecting the media and fighting against impunity crimes against journalists. To ensure that the work done by journalists around the world – the work done by Natalya Estemirova and others like her – will not be silenced, governments must lend their support and protection.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest October 2021

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Hearing on Upholding OSCE Commitments in Hungary and Poland

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: UPHOLDING OSCE COMMITMENTS IN HUNGARY AND POLAND Wednesday, November 3, 2021 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 419 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Political leaders in Hungary and Poland—U.S. allies and members of the European Union—have for the past decade pursued policies that undermine democracy and the rule of law. In Hungary, the Fidesz government has weakened the country’s democratic institutions, especially the free media and independent judiciary. Instead of strengthening the transatlantic bond, Viktor Orbán has sought closer ties with Russia and China. In Poland, the ruling coalition has taken steps to compromise judicial independence and limit free expression. Witnesses will examine the erosion of democratic norms in Hungary and Poland and discuss the implications for U.S. foreign policy. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Heather A. Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic, Center for Strategic and International Studies Zselyke Csaky, Research Director, Europe & Eurasia, Freedom House Dalibor Rohac, Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute  

  • Experts raise alarm bells in Congress over ‘Europe’s most contested domain’

    With a handful of frozen conflicts, hybrid warfare, rising autocracy, and political instability, the Black Sea region may be Europe’s most volatile and most overlooked. This week, policy experts are testifying in Congress and calling for the United States to step up its involvement in the Black Sea region, a critical geopolitical crossroads where U.S. allies and adversaries coexist. “The region is Europe’s most contested domain,” said Ian Brzezinski, a former deputy assistant Defense secretary for Europe and NATO who testified to Congress on Wednesday. “It’s where you have the most intense confrontation and the most violent conflict in Europe in the last decade and a half. It’s high time we start addressing what needs to be done to bring greater peace and stability to that region,” Brzezinski told National Journal. Last week, Russian fighter jets intercepted two U.S. bombers over the Black Sea while Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was visiting Romania, a member of the European Union and a NATO ally that hosts nearly 1,000 U.S. servicemembers. During his trip, Austin also visited two other Black Sea countries, Georgia and Ukraine, a move many saw as a sign that the U.S. was beginning to focus on the region ahead of a key NATO ministerial meeting. High on the agenda during Wednesday’s congressional hearing, however, was the U.S. relationship with Turkey, a NATO ally that under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has had an increasingly fraught relationship with the West. Despite being part of the Western military alliance, Turkey has consistently opposed strengthening NATO’s presence in the Black Sea and courted Russia, opting to purchase a Russian missile-defense system that military experts say poses a risk to NATO equipment. “We have got to repair our relationship with Turkey. It’s not impossible. Erdoğan is a deal-maker,” said Jim Townsend, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and former deputy assistant Defense secretary European and NATO policy, who also testified Wednesday. Over the weekend, Erdoğan ordered the country’s Foreign Ministry to declare 10 ambassadors, including the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, persona non grata after they called for the release of an imprisoned civil-society leader named Osman Kavala. Erdoğan later walked back the statement, but the incident highlighted the volatility of Turkey’s relationship with the West. “Because Turkey is pursuing its own Russia-friendly policy and is often antagonistic towards the U.S., that makes our Black Sea policy so much more difficult,” said Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, who argues that NATO allies should be more active in the region. Sen. Ben Cardin, the chair of the Helsinki Commission, said the U.S. and Turkey share many interests in the Black Sea region but that shouldn’t stop Washington from speaking out on human rights. “Mr. Kavala, a Turkish philanthropist, has been in detention for four years despite being acquitted by a Turkish court," Cardin said in an email. "In their joint statement, the ambassadors simply asked that Turkey adhere to its international obligations and domestic law. “This kind of straight talk is important among NATO allies and did not warrant such a disproportionate response.” Despite the tensions with Turkey, Russia is the primary adversary in the region. Many lawmakers note that Moscow has trampled the rules-based international order by invading its neighbors and propping up separatists to prevent countries along the Black Sea from forming closer ties with the West. Russian forces currently occupy around 20 percent of Georgian territory and support separatists in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. They also annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014—in large part to maintain access to the Black Sea—and support pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Europe, said she convened Wednesday’s hearing to learn how lawmakers can holistically approach the region to address patterns of Russian encroachment. “Over the last two decades, the Black Sea has become an increasingly important region for Russia, which has repeatedly disregarded international norms to expand control of the region, waging war and deploying illegal and belligerent tactics to secure these goals,” Shaheen told National Journal. “Russia has made it clear that it is willing to exert economic, military, and political power to thwart NATO expansion and expand its control in the Black Sea.” Experts are arriving in Congress with a laundry list of recommendations, including building up Bulgaria's and Romania’s navies, sending brigade combat teams to both countries, investing in initiatives to counter Russian disinformation, and providing Ukraine with more lethal weaponry. Some are advocating for the creation of a NATO readiness action plan for the Black Sea, and for moving forward with NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. Both countries are angling to join the Western military alliance. Still, the alliance’s commitment to collective defense prevents countries already in a state of conflict from entering, a fact that Russia exploits. Because Georgia is not yet a NATO member, the U.S. recently renewed a six-year security pact with Tbilisi designed to bolster the defense capabilities of the country’s military. The U.S. is moving away from training battalions in Georgia and will focus instead on building sustainable institutional capabilities at the executive levels of the military. Still, experts warn that nearly all the countries in the region are dealing with political instability, Russian interference, or both. Georgia, heading for a second round of local elections on Saturday, has been accused of Democratic backsliding. Romania and Bulgaria, both EU members, are also in contentious election cycles and debates over government formation that will determine their future political trajectories. Ruslan Trad, an author researching Russian influence in Bulgaria, told National Journal there are several popular pro-Russian political movements in Bulgaria. Russian spies are active in the country and allegedly monitored European Union leaders during their visits. There’s also an urgent need to counter Russian disinformation and anti-NATO propaganda in the country, Trad said. What’s most important, said Ben Hodges, a retired lieutenant general now at the Center for European Policy Analysis, is to have a robust strategy for the entire region. “Having a strategy for the region has to be the first priority because then you can develop the right policies for each of the countries in the region,” Hodges said. The Biden administration is now working on a global-force-posture review, which should shed light on U.S. policy towards the region, and the State Department is also developing a Black Sea strategy. Alina Polyakova, the president of CEPA and another witness in Wednesday’s hearing, said it would be important to pinpoint the specific areas in which each partner country in the region can contribute to broader security. “The Black Sea region is critical to broader transatlantic stability,” Polyakova told senators. “It is where Russia, Europe, the Middle East, the Balkans, and the Caucasus come together, and it’s also the locus of the Kremlin’s test of the alliance’s credibility and resolve.”

  • In Pursuit of Truth

    A free press is the lifeblood of democracy; without independent media, democracy is doomed, economies suffer, and peace is imperiled. In many of the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), autocrats exploit financial and legal means, alongside physical violence, to intimidate and silence independent media. Journalists and their associates are attacked both online and offline; jailed on phony charges; and even killed for the secrets they expose. Leaders undermine public trust in the press to hide their misdeeds. Disinformation—particularly lies related to the COVID-19 pandemic—continues to pollute the information landscape. In her first appearance before Congress, OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro assessed the state of media freedom across the OSCE region. Other expert witnesses discussed recent attacks on journalists and media outlets, the motivations that lead authorities to try and silence the press, global disinformation networks, and more. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) opened the hearing by stating that media freedom is the bedrock of the democratic process, making it possible for citizens to make informed decisions on their political reality. He also addressed COVID-19 and disinformation, citing the need to safeguard fundamental freedom of expression while performing the vital task of reporting the truth. Chairman Cardin cited a Freedom House report showing a decline in democracy in some countries, often overlapping with a decline in media freedom, and expressed a concern over the silencing of media in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Hungary, Turkey, and Russia to name a few. As a co-sponsor of the Global Press Freedom Act, Senator Cardin expressed his wish for the U.S. to become more involved in press freedom across the globe. The OSCE Representative on the Freedom of the Media (RFOM), Teresa Ribeiro, thanked the Helsinki Commission for the strong support for the RFOM as an institution and media freedom and expression. Ribeiro seconded Chairman Cardin’s statement that free and independent media is a core pillar of democracy, adding that media is more than just a provider of daily news. Ribeiro addressed the steady decline of media freedom all over the OSCE region and decline in trust in the media. “We live in a time where accusing media outlets and individual journalists of false news has become the norm,” she said. Key issues, according to Ribeiro, include rising violence against journalists, abuse of the legal system to silence their work, restrictions imposed by authoritarian governments on the media, declining trust in the media, as well as the power of social media companies and their ability to shape the media landscape. Ribeiro argued that governments have a positive obligation to protect both the freedom of expression and a free press that delivers truthful information to citizens. In her opinion, the best way to fight disinformation is not through restrictive laws, but rather by promoting independent journalists. Robert Mahoney, the deputy executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), reported on his organizations efforts to track media freedom across the OSCE region. He stated that journalists and media have come under attack in almost all OSCE countries. Some of these attacks are by private citizens, but most attacks on press freedom are carried out by governments such as those in Hungry, Poland, Tajikistan, Serbia, Turkmenistan, Belarus, or Russia. Specifically, Mahoney mentioned the number of journalists behind bars in Turkey and the use of foreign agent laws in Russia to sideline media. He also expressed concern over the targeted murders of journalists in the OSCE in countries including Ukraine, Slovakia, and Malta. Mahoney recommended fully implementing the 2018 OSCE ministerial council agreement on the freedom of the media, supporting the RFOM mandate and urging the mandate holder to challenge those countries with the worst press freedom records, implement the policies outlined in the 2020 resource guide by the RFOM on the safety of female journalists online, and considering the use of targeted sanctions to gold governments within the OSCE region accountable for their violations of press freedoms. Jamie Fly, President of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, gave an update on his organizations efforts to provide news and media to 27 countries across Eurasia. Much of his testimony was focused on Russia and Belarus, where the gravest violations of press freedom occur. In Russia, foreign agent laws are increasingly being used to violate the freedom of the press and fines connected to these laws (such as $4.4 million owed by RFE/RL to Russia) are used to pressure news outlets financially. Fly believes the Kremlin is seeking absolute control over the information space in advance of the end of President Vladimir Putin’s current term in 2024. In Belarus, RFE/RL officers were raided, and equipment was confiscated. Meanwhile, many journalists threatened by the new government in Afghanistan are still hoping to evacuate and require outside support. Fly called for more advocacy for journalists in critical regions, funding for unbiased media to counter the large sums of money authoritarian governments spend on their biased media outlets, as well as pressure on those governments which jail journalists. Peter Pomerantsev, Director of the Arena Program and Senior Visiting Fellow at Johns Hopkins University, testified that the principles we use to defend journalists are being weaponized to attack journalists in other countries. He argued that the crushing of media voices happens not only through censorship, but also through the flood of disinformation. These mass inauthentic campaigns take away the fundamental right to receive information and know its origins, Pomerantsev said, and argued that the best way to counter such disinformation is through better transparency on the origins of content encountered online. Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH) asked the witnesses about steps the United States could take to counter disinformation and misinformation, especially strategies that have been found to be successful in Europe. Ribeiro answered that media literacy and better training for journalists to become fact checkers are key. Additionally, building back trust between the media and the public is vital, and the local level is the best way to do so. Mahoney agreed, stating that local news is generally trusted more than the news at a national level, but the decline in local news outlets in the U.S. has pushed people towards getting news from social media. Acknowledging various levels of media freedom across the OSCE, Chairman Cardin asked what best practices are to protect the freedom of the media. Ribeiro replied that different tools need to be used in different countries. Some countries have strong rule of law, yet still have issues with media freedom. In her capacity as RFOM, her tools include voice, advocacy, and assisting participating states to improve media freedom. Chairman Cardin also asked what should be done to protect journalists against indiscriminate arrests, detentions, and physical violence. Mahoney answered that the number one focus must be on bringing those who murder journalists to justice. Too often the murderers go free, sending the signal to others that journalists can be silenced this way. Next, to pressure governments that imprison journalists, including calling them out at conferences on the international stage. Lastly, the OSCE and EU must lift their standards and prevent capture of the media by the state. Chairman Cardin thanked Mahoney for his comments and added that the Helsinki Commission and the U.S. Congress is happy to help, but needs specifics like names and stories, not numbers, to advocate for journalists across the world. Asked about where the United States needs to concentrate its priorities regarding RFE/RL in the OSCE region, Jamie Fly noted the importance of social media in reaching audiences, and therefore the power social media companies have over RFE/RL. Social media algorithms dictate which content users see, and often authoritarian regimes intervene and pressure social media companies to remove content critical of them because of supposed terms-of-service violations, as was the case with Navalny’s election app in Russia. Fly affirmed the need for pressure and targeted sanctions on regimes violating press freedom, as well as support for journalist who cannot work safely in their home countries. Pomerantsev expanded on the issues of social media algorithms, explaining that understanding why an algorithm promotes some content over another is key to slowing disinformation. He emphasized that transparency, not regulation of content, is the best way to do so. Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) addressed the rising violence against journalists worldwide, including 29 killings in 2021, and increased imprisonment of journalists. Calling out Turkey, a NATO ally, for severe transgressions, Sen. Wicker asked if there is hope for improvement. Mahoney responded by saying the decline of press freedoms in Turkey has been happening for 20 years, but the coup attempt in 2016 worsened it. In his opinion, the OSCE and EU have been unsuccessful in attempting to bring change to media conditions in Turkey and must be more forceful in their critique of Erdogan and his regime. Chair Cardin closed the hearing by stating, “This commission stands ready to work with you to protect individual journalists as well as to put a spotlight on counties which are violating the freedom of the media.” Related Information Witness Biographies  

  • Media Freedom Across the OSCE Region to Be Assessed at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: IN PURSUIT OF TRUTH Media Freedom in the OSCE Region Wednesday, October 20, 2021 2:30pm Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 419 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission A free press is the lifeblood of democracy; without independent media, democracy is doomed, economies suffer, and peace is imperiled. In many of the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), autocrats exploit financial and legal means, alongside physical violence, to intimidate and silence independent media. Journalists and their associates are attacked both online and offline; jailed on phony charges; and even killed for the secrets they expose. Leaders undermine public trust in the press to hide their misdeeds. Disinformation—particularly lies related to the COVID-19 pandemic—continues to pollute the information landscape. In her first appearance before Congress, OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro will assess the state of media freedom across the OSCE region. Other expert witnesses will discuss recent attacks on journalists and media outlets, the motivations that lead authorities to try and silence the press, global disinformation networks, and more. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Teresa Ribeiro, Representative on Freedom of the Media, OSCE Jamie Fly, President & CEO, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Robert Mahoney, Deputy Executive Director, Committee to Protect Journalists Peter Pomerantsev, Director of Arena Program and Senior Fellow, Johns Hopkins University; Author and Journalist

  • Russia Slams 'Maniacal' U.S. Attempt to Sanction Country's Elites

    U.S. lawmakers' proposal to sanction members of Russia's elite over alleged human rights violations has been called "maniacal" by Moscow's envoy to Washington, D.C. Anatoly Antonov's remark come as diplomatic maneuvering continues between the U.S. and Russia to resolve a stand-off over embassy staff at missions in both countries. The Magnitsky Act authorizes the U.S. government freeze assets, and ban those suspected of human rights offences—was invoked by Tom Malinowski, a Democrat Representative and John Curtis (R-UT) last month in an amendment to the defense budget bill. Their amendment calls on the Biden administration to determine within 180 days whether 35 Russian officials and prominent figures meet the criteria to be sanctioned under the act. On the proposed blacklist are Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, the owner of Chelsea soccer club, Roman Abramovich, and prime minister Mikhail Mishustin. In response to a media question about the move, Antonov said the "maniacal persistence of local legislators trying to bring down Russian-American relations is bewildering," and that the "attempt to impose restrictions on 35 Russians under a completely contrived pretext is a clear example of this." He said that the motive was "to create among the voters the illusion of 'fighting the enemies of America'...instead of dealing with the urgent problems of its own country." "We call on members of Congress to abandon destructive approaches," he added in comments reported by state news agency Tass. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) have also introduced a measure on October 8 also requiring the Biden administration to evaluate the 35 figures for sanctions. Russian media outlets reported the proposed sanctions list in September although emphasized the process was in its early stages and that even if it is passed by Congress, it would still need to be backed by the administration of President Joe Biden. The list had been provided to the U.S. government and the EU in February by the Anti-Corruption Foundation, or FBK, linked to jailed opposition politician Alexei Navalny, which has since been declared an extremist organisation by a Russian court. Navalny's poisoning by Novichok nerve agent was blamed on the Kremlin although it denied responsibility. In the aftermath of his poisoning and jailing, U.S sanctions were imposed but the opposition activist's group has alway called for tougher measures for those in the inner circle of President Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov called for a truce of sorts over a spat over staffing at the U.S. embassy in Moscow. Consular services at the American mission have been hindered after Russia banned it from employing local staff as part of tit-for-tat sanctions. "The Russian side stressed that hostile anti-Russian actions would not remain without retaliation, but Moscow did not seek further escalation," Ryabkov said in a statement reported by Tass. The issue was discussed during a meeting with U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland whose three-day visit to Moscow will also include talks with Putin's foreign policy adviser Yury Ushakov, according to the Kremlin. Newsweek has contacted the State Department for comment.

  • Russia Slams 'Maniacal' U.S. Attempt to Sanction Country's Elites

    U.S. lawmakers' proposal to sanction members of Russia's elite over alleged human rights violations has been called "maniacal" by Moscow's envoy to Washington, D.C. Anatoly Antonov's remark come as diplomatic maneuvering continues between the U.S. and Russia to resolve a stand-off over embassy staff at missions in both countries. The Magnitsky Act authorizes the U.S. government freeze assets, and ban those suspected of human rights offences—was invoked by Tom Malinowski, a Democrat Representative and John Curtis (R-UT) last month in an amendment to the defense budget bill. Their amendment calls on the Biden administration to determine within 180 days whether 35 Russian officials and prominent figures meet the criteria to be sanctioned under the act. On the proposed blacklist are Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, the owner of Chelsea soccer club, Roman Abramovich, and prime minister Mikhail Mishustin. In response to a media question about the move, Antonov said the "maniacal persistence of local legislators trying to bring down Russian-American relations is bewildering," and that the "attempt to impose restrictions on 35 Russians under a completely contrived pretext is a clear example of this." He said that the motive was "to create among the voters the illusion of 'fighting the enemies of America'...instead of dealing with the urgent problems of its own country." "We call on members of Congress to abandon destructive approaches," he added in comments reported by state news agency Tass. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) have also introduced a measure on October 8 also requiring the Biden administration to evaluate the 35 figures for sanctions. Russian media outlets reported the proposed sanctions list in September although emphasized the process was in its early stages and that even if it is passed by Congress, it would still need to be backed by the administration of President Joe Biden. The list had been provided to the U.S. government and the EU in February by the Anti-Corruption Foundation, or FBK, linked to jailed opposition politician Alexei Navalny, which has since been declared an extremist organisation by a Russian court. Navalny's poisoning by Novichok nerve agent was blamed on the Kremlin although it denied responsibility. In the aftermath of his poisoning and jailing, U.S sanctions were imposed but the opposition activist's group has alway called for tougher measures for those in the inner circle of President Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov called for a truce of sorts over a spat over staffing at the U.S. embassy in Moscow. Consular services at the American mission have been hindered after Russia banned it from employing local staff as part of tit-for-tat sanctions. "The Russian side stressed that hostile anti-Russian actions would not remain without retaliation, but Moscow did not seek further escalation," Ryabkov said in a statement reported by Tass. The issue was discussed during a meeting with U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland whose three-day visit to Moscow will also include talks with Putin's foreign policy adviser Yury Ushakov, according to the Kremlin. Newsweek has contacted the State Department for comment.

  • Chairman Cardin and Ranking Member Wicker Introduce Bill to Sanction Navalny 35

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker yesterday introduced a measure that would require the administration to evaluate the Navalny 35 for Global Magnitsky sanctions. The Navalny 35 are a group of 35 Russian kleptocrats and human rights abusers who Alexey Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation has identified as those primarily responsible for looting the Russian state and repressing human rights in Russia. “Corruption is an urgent national security threat. As revealed by the Pandora Papers, global kleptocrats are pushing dirty money into our system and those of our allies with the help of unscrupulous American enablers. No kleptocrats more obviously use corruption as a foreign policy tool than those named by Alexey Navalny. This measure will ensure that we are protecting our system against the taint of corruption and standing with the victims of kleptocracy in Russia,” said Chairman Cardin. “Alexey Navalny languishes today in a Russian jail cell, unjustly imprisoned by Putin. The United States must ensure it does not overlook Russia’s malign oppression abroad as well as its historic repression at home. The least we can do is make sure that known kleptocrats and human rights abusers are denied access to our shores and financial system,” said Sen. Wicker. Chairman Cardin and Sen. Wicker had previously encouraged President Biden to sanction the Navalny 35. The measure already has been passed by the House of Representatives as part of the House defense bill, where it was led by Representatives Tom Malinowski and John Curtis, co-chairs of the Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy. Multiple individuals on the Navalny 35 list were also named in the Pandora Papers investigation, including Konstantin Ernst and Gennady Timchenko. In remarks introducing the legislation, Chairman Cardin said, “Foreign dictators, their associates, and other foreign officials have stolen untold sums—billions of dollars—and moved that dirty money into our democracies, into real estate, bank accounts, trusts, and other financial instruments.…Although kleptocrats may steal abroad, to taint our political system with that money requires the assistance of enablers--American lawyers, accountants, trust, and company service providers, real estate professionals, and the like—who put aside any moral qualms they may have about working for the enemies of democracy to obtain a small slice of the ill-gotten gains. “It is the tragedy of the post-Cold War world that corruption has come west along with dirty money rather than democracy going east. There are names in the [Pandora Papers] that also come as no surprise—Putin cronies Konstantin Ernst and Gennady Timchenko are both named. Both are included on Alexey Navalny's list of 35 human rights abusers and kleptocrats. Timchenko is already under U.S. sanctions, though Ernst is not. Now would be a good time to consider sanctions on him.” Chairman Cardin is the author of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights and Accountability Act, which gives the United States the power to deny travel and banking privileges to individuals who commit gross violations of human rights against rights defenders and dissidents, and leaders who commit acts of significant corruption.

  • Cardin and Cohen Laud 2021 Nobel Peace Prize Award to Investigative Reporters

    WASHINGTON—Following the award of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize to journalists Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov of Russia “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace,” Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following joint statement: “We congratulate the winners of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, and applaud the Nobel Committee for recognizing the courage of these journalists and their contributions to democracy and peace. Maria, Dmitry, and their colleagues are beacons of truth—without a free press, democracy is doomed, economies suffer, and peace is imperiled. “That this award comes just after the 15-year anniversary of the murder of Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya and three years after the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi solemnly reminds us of the dangers journalists face, particularly in authoritarian states.” Later this month, the Helsinki Commission will hold a hearing to call attention to the growing attacks on free media and underscore the importance of investigative journalism. Muratov is the longtime editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian newspaper widely respected for its hard-hitting investigative journalism. Novaya Gazeta journalists routinely have been targeted by the authorities for their work and even murdered with impunity. Muratov dedicated his Nobel Prize award to his slain Novaya Gazeta colleagues Igor Domnikov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, Anna Politkovskaya, Stanislav Markelov, Anastasiya Baburova, and Natalya Estemirova.  In a November 2009 Helsinki Commission briefing on violence against journalists and impunity in Russia, Muratov, who provided testimony, said, “I would like to ask you a huge favor. In every meeting, in any encounter with representatives of the Russian political establishment and government, please, bring up this meeting. Please ask these uncomfortable questions. Please try not to be too polite.” Ressa is a Filipino-American journalist and co-founder and CEO of Rappler, a Philippine news website. Ressa was included in Time Magazine's 2018 Person of the Year as one of a collection of journalists from around the world, collectively branded “Guardians of Truth.” In 2019, she was awarded the Sergei Magnitsky Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalist, presented by international human rights lawyer Amal Clooney. In 2020, she was convicted of trumped-up “cyberlibel” charges by the Philippine government.

  • Helsinki Commission Regrets Closure of OSCE Observer Mission at Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk

    WASHINGTON—In light of yesterday’s termination of the activities of the OSCE Observer Mission at the Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk on the Russian-Ukrainian border, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “By forcing the closure of the OSCE Observer Mission on Ukraine’s border, despite clear and continued support from other OSCE States for the mission, the Kremlin is once again trying to blind the international community to the reality of its aggression against Ukraine.  The mission regularly observed and reported suspicious movements at the border. “Rather than blocking OSCE instruments, Russia needs to cease its war against Ukraine, including reversing its illegal occupation of Crimea.”    The OSCE Observer Mission at the Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk was intended to build confidence through increased transparency by observing and reporting on the situation at the international border between Ukraine and Russia. Russia had previously imposed severe restrictions on the observer mission, including limiting movement and prohibiting the use of binoculars or cameras.  Despite these limitations, the mission reported on the movements of more than 24 million people since beginning operations in 2014. It observed more than 100 Russian convoys, along with individuals in military apparel and thousands of other vehicles, crossing the uncontrolled border.

  • Helsinki Commission Leadership Condemns Russian Obstruction of OSCE Human Rights Work

    WASHINGTON—In response to Russian intransigence blocking the annual OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM), Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We are extremely disappointed that the HDIM failed to start this week as planned, due solely to Russian intransigence blocking the meeting. The Kremlin has reached a new low in its efforts to undermine the OSCE’s work to promote human rights and democracy. “Russia clearly fears criticism of its worsening human rights record and fraudulent elections from the OSCE, other OSCE participating States, and civil society. The HDIM, through its thorough review of states’ human rights records and its inclusion of civil society, is a crown jewel of the OSCE’s human rights work. “We urge Russia to change its position and we expect the HDIM to be held in accordance with the agreement adopted in Helsinki in 1992 by the heads of state of all OSCE participating States—including Russia—that established the HDIM. For our part, we will continue to speak out when we see human rights violations, including in the Russian Federation.” The OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting is the region’s largest annual human rights conference, and typically brings togethers hundreds of government and nongovernmental representatives, international experts, and human rights activists for two weeks to engage in a comprehensive review of the participating States’ compliance with their human rights and democracy-related commitments. The meeting is held in Warsaw, Poland, where the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights is headquartered.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest September 2021

  • The Russian election was supposed to shore up Putin’s legitimacy. It achieved the opposite.

    Electoral precinct 40, located in a charming historic area a few minutes’ walking distance from the Kremlin, is among the few in Moscow that can be trusted to count votes honestly. Ever since I first voted here at the age of 18, the official tallies have always reflected the actual votes cast. In Moscow’s 2013 mayoral election, the candidate who won the precinct was anticorruption campaigner and opposition activist Alexei Navalny. Local Muscovite pride may be one factor in this honesty; the presence of independent electoral commission members in the precinct may be another. So when I came to vote here on Sunday, and then stayed overnight to observe the count, I was certain that I would get a glimpse of the real sentiments of Russian voters. To be clear: It wasn’t an honest election. Opponents of the Kremlin, including all Navalny supporters, had been preemptively disqualified from the ballot through various bans imposed by the regime. But I did expect to see an honest count of the votes that were cast. I was proven right. The official vote tally from Precinct #40 showed the three top spots on the party list ballot divided among the Communists, Vladimir Putin’s United Russia and the liberal Yabloko party, the only genuine opposition group allowed to take part in this election. (Their shares were 27, 20 and 19 percent, respectively.) The Communist vote, usually low in Moscow, was boosted this time by support from the Navalny team, which urged voters to pick any candidates on the ballot who don’t represent United Russia — a tactic, known as “Smart Voting,” that aims to demonstrate how minimal support for the ruling party really is. On the single-member ballot (where voters choose among individual candidates rather than parties), Yabloko’s Sergei Mitrokhin won handily with 35 percent; the pro-regime candidate eked out just 14 percent. The overall official results announced next morning — both for Moscow and for Russia as a whole — might as well have come from a different country. The authorities solemnly announced that United Russia had retained its two-thirds supermajority in parliament — even though most polls (including those from government pollsters) showed support for the party in the high 20s. The rest of the seats will be filled by officially approved “opposition” parties that always end up supporting Putin’s most important initiatives. Predictably, not a single genuine opposition candidate — among the few allowed on the ballot in the first place — was actually allowed to win. This time around — in addition to traditional rigging methods such as organized voting by state employees and military conscripts, “carousel” multiple voting, and plain ballot-stuffing — the regime deployed a rather specific brand of electronic voting. When used in genuine democracies, electronic voting usually produces an outcome almost immediately. But in this election, tabulating the results took hours longer than counting traditional paper ballots — and the final result flipped at least eight Moscow districts from the opposition to United Russia. “The story with electronic voting fraud … reminds me of the switched urine samples at the 2014 Sochi Olympics,” noted political analyst Maria Snegovaya. “It was done clumsily and crudely — and by the same people, the FSB [Federal Security Service]. It seems this is the only way they can work.” In contrast to 2011, when a patently fraudulent parliamentary election brought tens of thousands of people into the streets, this time no major protests followed. Indeed, none were expected. Navalny’s arrest, and an unprecedented crackdown on opposition supporters earlier this year — with 11,000 detentions and more than 100 criminal cases against participants of pro-democracy rallies — has left Russian civil society subdued and demoralized. But this silence is deceptive. The respite for the regime will almost certainly prove to be only temporary. Recent protests and public opinion trends point to an unmistakable rise in general fatigue with one-man rule that is now stretching into its third decade. Major political change in Russia is notoriously difficult to predict — suffice it to mention the (unpredicted) political upheavals of 1905, 1917 or 1991 — but it seems likely that brewing anti-regime sentiment will burst out into the open in the spring of 2024 if Putin attempts to remain in power, in violation of the constitutional term limit he unlawfully overturned last year. It is an incontrovertible logic of history that in countries where governments cannot be changed at the ballot box, they are often changed on the streets. Russia has seen this herself, as have other countries in our post-Soviet neighborhood. It is no news to anyone that there are no real elections in Putin’s Russia. Yet international reaction to last weekend’s sham vote has been strong on both sides of the Atlantic. Lawmakers in the U.S. Congress and in the European Parliament have stated that it “severely weakens the legitimacy” of Putin’s rule. Whatever remains of that legitimacy will be finally shed in the event of Putin’s illegal prolongation of his mandate beyond 2024. European Union lawmakers have already hinted at a formal nonrecognition of any such action in the new strategy toward Russia adopted earlier this month. The year 2024 will be an important test — both for Russian society’s tolerance to autocratic rule, and for the West’s adherence to the rule of law not just in words but in practice. It’s now time to start preparing for that moment.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Blast So-Called Election Results in Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following the sham State Duma elections in Russia, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Ranking Members Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following statements: “From barring opposition candidates to stuffing ballot boxes and manipulating vote totals, there is ample evidence that these parliamentary elections may be the most blatantly fraudulent of them all. The Kremlin once again has demonstrated its utter disregard for the norms and values it purports to respect,” said Chairman Cardin. “Contrary to their international obligations, Russian authorities inexcusably restricted the number of international observers to the point that the OSCE was unable to monitor this election according to its long-established methods. Compounded with the fact that no election is free or fair if the principal opposition figures are kept off the ballot, as in this case, these elections will provide not a shred of legitimacy to those who take their seats in the Duma.” “Citizens cannot freely choose who represents them when opposition candidates are banned from running, poll workers stuff ballot boxes, and last-minute electronic ‘vote counting’ pushes Kremlin-preferred candidates over the top,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “With each election, fewer and fewer opportunities remain for dissent in Russia, demonstrating Putin’s growing insecurity about his ability to stay in power unassisted.” “Moscow’s intimidation of local workers and businesses has left U.S. companies tainted for doing business in Russia,” said Sen. Wicker. “The moral cost of doing business in Russia increases with every day that Putin and his cronies bully their opponents into submission to maintain political power.” “Despite the lack of international observers, independent observers in-country bravely documented violations exposing the Kremlin’s machinations and the illegitimacy of this weekend’s election,” said Rep. Wilson. “The people of Russia deserve a vote that counts and a government that doesn’t stack the deck in its own favor.” The State Duma elections took place from September 17 – 19, 2021. Ahead of the election, many critics of the Kremlin were barred from running; in June 2021, a Moscow court ruling banned Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and associated organizations as “extremist” groups. As voting took place, photos and videos from live-stream camera feeds captured violations including officials stuffing ballot boxes and people being given multiple ballots. At the end of the vote count in Moscow, non-United Russia candidates who had been consistently leading lost at the last minute after thousands of “delayed” electronic ballots changed the results. On September 17, under threat of criminal prosecution of its staff in Russia, Google removed the Smart Vote app, a tool created by Navalny’s team to help voters identify candidates with the best chance to defeat a United Russia party candidate. Google also blocked access to two documents on Google Docs that included lists of Smart Vote endorsements on the grounds that the documents were “illegal” in Russia. Apple removed the Smart Vote app in Russia as well, claiming it had to follow Russian laws about “illegal” content. On September 18, at the Russian government’s request, YouTube blocked a video that included names of recommended candidates for Navalny’s Smart Vote initiative. The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly chose not to observe the Russian elections due to severe restrictions Moscow placed on the number of international observers that would have left the OSCE unable to conduct a complete observation consistent with its usual methodology and standards.

  • Seeking Justice and Freedom in Belarus

    In 2020, mass protests against the fraudulent election of Alexander Lukashenko shook Belarus. Since then, Lukashenko and his illegitimate regime have clung to power by committing ever more serious acts of repression against advocates of democracy and free expression. Hundreds of political prisoners languish in pre-trial detention or have been sentenced to years in prison during closed trials. The regime has effectively criminalized independent journalism and peaceful assembly; no independent justice system exists to hold those in power accountable. On September 21, 2021, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a hearing on the events in Belarus leading up to and following the 2020 presidential elections. The hearing included expert witness testimony by four witnesses on the state of the media, the plight of political prisoners, the international legal ramifications of Lukashenko’s violence, and U.S. policy responses and options. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) opened the hearing by remarking that the election in 2020 was not free or fair, contrary to official reports from Belarus, and commended the extreme courage of peaceful protestors to show up en masse despite a history of mass arrests and torture and the “brazen hijacking of a civilian aircraft and kidnapping of a critic of Mr. Lukashenko.” In opening remarks, Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) announced that, alongside Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), he soon would sponsor a resolution denouncing the acts of the Belarusian regime and supporting freedom and human rights in Belarus. Serge Kharytonau delivered a testimony on behalf of the International Strategic Action Network for Security (iSANS) based on monitoring and documentation of activity in Belarus. He noted that since 2020, the informational sovereignty of Belarus has been given up to Russia in exchange for Putin’s support of Lukashenko. The state propaganda machines in Belarus and Russia are now synchronized to promote the Kremlin’s goals. Kharytonau noted that the state media also is being used to conduct psychological operations, depicting videos of political hostages and victims of torture. Technology platforms such as YouTube are being used to promote misinformation, hate speech, and the threat of violence towards civilians. Tatsiana Khomich, the Coordination Council’s Representative for political prisoners, testified about the situation of political prisoners in Belarus. Only 673 political prisoners are officially recognized by the government in Belarus, but more than 4,600 cases have been opened relating to 2020 election. Several activists have been sentenced to more than 10 years in prison, where they lack medical care, suffer from chronic diseases, are subject to torture, and often attempt suicide. She noted that most of these prisoners are just regular people, such as taxi drivers, and some are as young as 15 years old. “The situation in Belarus will most likely result in the complete annihilation of the civil rights of Belarusians and the chance of political transformation in Belarus will disappear,” she said. Khomich argued that time plays into Lukashenko’s hands as his government adapts to sanctions and the negotiating position of the West declines. Furthermore, as time passes the focus on Belarus is likely to decrease; action is needed now. David Kramer, a senior fellow at Florida International University and former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, testified on the violation of human rights and “weaponization” of migrants by Belarus, noting that the spillover effects in neighboring NATO countries poses a threat to the United States. Kramer also classified Belarus as a test case for the West and its struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. He offered several recommendations to deal with the situation in Belarus: targeting the individuals surrounding Lukashenko who are keeping him afloat financially with sanctions; requiring U.S. allies in the Middle East to make a choice between supporting the United States or supporting Lukashenko; cutting off  IMF funding to Belarus; and continuing not to recognize Lukashenko as the leader of Belarus. Kramer emphasized that an effort should be made to press for the release of all political prisoners and have accountability for the gross violation of human rights by the Lukashenko regime. The West needs to prepare for when Lukashenko is gone, he argued, but in the meantime Belarusian civil society must be supported. Siarhej Zikratski, a representative on legal affairs in the office of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, personally attested to the political persecution of prisoners. Prisoners are cramped in tiny cells, tortured, beaten, and subjected to sexual violence. Despite appeals, no criminal cases exist regarding these acts. He also highlighted the disbarment of 13 lawyers who defended journalists and politicians who stood up to the regime. Zikratski recommended that the international community refuse to recognize Lukashenko as Belarus’ leader; use international human rights laws and international human rights protection mechanisms such as Article 30 of the Convention Against Torture and Article 41 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to address human rights violations; and record evidence of human rights violations, document crimes, and investigate criminal proceedings under the principle of universal jurisdictions. During the question-and-answer session with witnesses, members asked questions ranging from the use and abuse of U.S. technology platforms by repressive regimes, to the proposed union between Belarus and Russia and the recent joint Zapad military exercise, to specific cases of human rights abuses in Belarus. Witnesses also discussed the effectiveness of the OSCE’s 2020 Moscow Mechanism investigation and the continuing importance of U.S-funded news outlets such as Voice of America, Radio Liberty, and Radio Free Europe. Related Information Witness Biographies Special Statement from Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya Press Release: Chairman Cardin Joins Bipartisan Resolution Highlighting First Anniversary of Fraudulent Election In Belarus Press Release: Cardin and Cohen Condemn Persecution of Independent Journalists in Belarus Press Release: Helsinki Commission Condemns Lukashenko Regime for Forced Landing of Commercial Jetliner Leading to Arrest of Raman Pratasevich

  • Repression in Belarus Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: SEEKING JUSTICE AND FREEDOM IN BELARUS Tuesday, September 21, 2021 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 419 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission More than a year has passed since mass protests against the fraudulent election of Alexander Lukashenko shook Belarus. In the meantime, Lukashenko and his illegitimate regime cling to power by committing ever more serious acts of repression against advocates of democracy and free expression. Hundreds of political prisoners languish in pre-trial detention or have been sentenced to years in prison during closed trials. The regime has effectively criminalized independent journalism and peaceful assembly; no independent justice system exists to hold those in power accountable. As Lukashenko lashes out at the West—even engineering the forced landing of an EU flight to abduct a journalist and sending overwhelming numbers of migrants into the EU via Belarus—the exiled leader of democratic Belarus, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, has been engaging the world on her country’s behalf, calling for new elections, the release of political prisoners, and accountability for the repressive regime. Expert witnesses will provide updates on the current situation in Belarus, including the state of media, the plight of political prisoners, the international legal ramifications of Lukashenko’s violence, and U.S. policy responses and options. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Serge Kharytonau, Media Expert, International Strategic Action Network for Security (iSANS) Tatsiana Khomich, Coordination Council Representative for political prisoners, Viktar Babaryka Team Coordinator, and sister of political prisoner Maria Kalesnikava David J. Kramer, Senior Fellow, Florida International University Siarhej Zikratski, Representative on Legal Affairs, Office of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya

  • Cardin, Shaheen, Johnson, and Portman Issue Joint Statement on 30th Anniversary of Ukraine Independence

    WASHINGTON–Ahead of today's 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence, Helsinki Commission Chair Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) yesterday issued the following joint statement with fellow Senate Foreign Relations Committee members Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations (SFRC) Europe and Regional Security Cooperation Subcommittee and a member of the Helsinki Commission; Sen. Ron Johnson (WI); and Sen. Rob Portman (OH): “This is an important milestone for Ukraine, marking three decades since an independent Ukraine rose from the ashes of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Over the years, Ukraine has faced immense challenges in its effort to build a more prosperous future for its people, from rooting out corruption to defending its territorial integrity against an increasingly aggressive Russia. Despite these struggles, the progress made in Ukraine on urgent governance reforms are undeniable, and we, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the U.S. Senate, congratulate our partners for staying the course. “The U.S. stands in solidarity with Ukraine as it continues to build a democratic, accountable government that is responsive to the needs of its people. We join the rest of free world in rejecting Russia's territorial claim on Crimea and condemning their ongoing assault on Ukraine's territorial integrity in the Donbas region.  We are encouraged by President Zelenskyy’s commitment to continue pro-democratic measures that will empower Ukraine and facilitate its entry to NATO and the EU, which is in the best interests of Ukraine, our transatlantic community and U.S. national security. As Ukraine celebrates 30 years of independence, the U.S. reaffirms its support for our partners’ determination to ensure a free, democratic future for all its citizens.”

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