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Helsinki Commission Documents Deterioration of Freedom of the Media in OSCE Countries; Legislative Initiative, Albright Letter Planned

WASHINGTON — “The trend toward state-controlled media and the erosion of the most fundamental right of citizens in a democracy—freedom of speech—in a number of countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union is perilous for our neighbors in Europe,” said Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) at the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe’s hearing “The Deteriorating Freedom of Media and Speech in OSCE Countries.”

“While we have condemned recent events—the arrest of Andrei Babitsky, journalists arrested in Turkey, and the assassination of Slavko Curuvija in Serbia—the totality of threats to the media and private speech was brought into full view today,” Smith said.

“Members of the Commission will join me in asking Secretary Albright to address freedom of expression issues with governments in Central Asia when she visits next week. We want her to express our shared concerns in the most public and expressive way possible, so that the people of each country in the region know the American people stand behind them in their struggle for freedom and against tyranny. In July, the U.S. delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly meeting in Bucharest, Romania, will also raise these concerns with our parliamentary colleagues.

OSCE States have each committed themselves to democracy as the best form of government, a form that fails without free press and speech,” said Smith.

“When raising concerns about violations of freedom of speech, it is vital that we not only address the effect on the media,” said Commissioner Rep. Joseph R. Pitts. “As we know from numerous other Commission hearings, religious believers in Eastern and Western Europe and Central Asia have been imprisoned for publicly stating their religious beliefs. In Uzbekistan we have seen reports that on March 8, Uzbek police confiscated reports published by Human Rights Watch that were carried by one of their representatives who was monitoring the trial of twelve men charged with membership in Hizb-ut-Takhrir, a peaceful Muslim organization banned in Uzbekistan. The problems for religious individuals or groups are limited not only to speaking about their views person-to-person, but also speaking through the media.”

Testifying before the Commission were: David W. Yang, Senior Coordinator for Democracy Promotion, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. State Department; Freimut Duve, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media; Thomas A. Dine, President, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; Linda K. Foley, President, Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers of America and Vice-President, International Federation of Journalists; Emma E.D. Gray, Europe Program Director, Committee to Protect Journalists; and Marilyn Greene, Executive Director, World Press Freedom Committee.

Mr. Yang, discussing the U.S. commitment to media freedom, pointed out “The strength of our commitment is, first and foremost, demonstrated in our bilateral diplomacy. Every day, the State Department speaks out—both in public and private—against any and all violations of freedom of speech and the media.”

Mr. Duve explained, “My Office has been involved in freedom of expression issues in many OSCE participating States, including Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Georgia, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Moldova, Uzbekistan, Romania, Russian Federation, Slovak Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Turkey, Ukraine and in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.…and it is a bleak picture.”

Mr. Dine warned, “The possibility of the emergence of a free media in the post-communist countries is threatened by a combination of three factors: government efforts to restrict or even suppress media freedom; survivals of communist era attitudes about the press among officials; the population, and even journalists; and some unintended and unexpected consequences of the transition period itself. Both the extent of each and the mix of all three of these factors, of course, vary widely across the countries of the region. But almost all of them are found to one degree or another in most places, and consequently I believe it is most useful here to consider them as a syndrome affecting almost all of them rather than to examine each of the many countries of this region individually.”

Ms. Foley was somewhat critical of the role of the OSCE Representative, saying in part, “We have been following the work of the OSCE Representative for Media Freedom, Mr. Friemut Duve, and the annual report for 1998/1999. Although it includes a long list of interventions and visits, our view is that it does not provide clear and comprehensive strategies in support of independent journalism.”

“Because the OSCE Representative often develops strategies on his own without coordinating with journalists’ organizations in the affected countries, the OSCE’s efforts have not been as effective as they could have been. Instead of operating independently, we believe the OSCE Representative should support programs and activities developed jointly by all journalists’ organizations and professional groups that are striving for change within the new democracies.”

Mr. Duve rejected the criticism, citing his selective approach to media issues, and explaining his involvement with all groups in a given country.

Ms. Gray put this in perspective: “In the course of the past ten years, we have documented a total of 153 journalists killed in the line of duty in OSCE countries. That is just over a third of the total of 458 journalists killed, and is a figure we see reflected again in the latest statistics we have: in 1999 almost a third of the 34 journalists killed died in OSCE countries.

“The number of journalists killed is the most dramatic barometer of press freedom. Less headline-grabbing forms of attack which the CPJ records are: legal action, including fines and imprisonment; threats or physical attacks on journalists or news facilities; censorship; and harassment, which includes denying journalists access to information, denying them visas to travel for their work, or confiscating or damaging their materials. We also document cases of journalists missing, kidnaped, or expelled from a country.

“We do believe that one of the most effective methods of improving the conditions in which journalists work in OSCE countries is to shine a very public light on attacks on the press.”

Ms. Greene commented, “Our primary focus is on the ways in which international institutions — such as the OSCE, the United Nations, UNESCO, Council of Europe and the European Union—influence press freedom in the world.…These institutions wield great power, often merely through the moral authority of their resolutions or statements. These words can be forces for freedom and democracy—or they can provide cover for authoritarians seeking justification for restrictions on the free flow of information. I wish I could say that freedom of expression and of the press is thriving in the 55 nations participating in the OSCE. Sadly, I cannot.”

Chairman Smith closed the hearing explaining that this was the first in a series of hearings on this issue. The full text of the testimonies may be accessed at www.csce.gov.

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