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Helsinki Commission Leaders Cite Central Role of Media in Building Democracy

WASHINGTON – On World Press Freedom Day, the United States Helsinki Commission reiterated its strong belief that a free press is essential to building democracy and to assuring the protection of other basic human rights.

“In the past decade, more than 500 journalists have been killed while doing their jobs, and their killers are allowed to walk free, often by governments that see a free press as a direct threat to their power,” said Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ), Co-Chair of the U.S. Helsinki Commission.

The Helsinki Commission is an independent Federal agency that monitors progress in the implementation of the provisions of the 1975 Helsinki Accords. The Commission is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives, and officials representing the State, Defense and Commerce Departments.

“Human rights and a free press are two parts of the same whole,” said Smith. “Human rights are not safe where a free press is not a central part of society and a free press is an essential component of those societies where human rights are protected.”

Helsinki Commissioners lauded the increased global attention that has been paid to press freedom issues, noting that it has paid dividends. Commission Ranking Member Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) pointed to Ukraine, where after years of stonewalling and cover-up by the regime of former Ukrainian President Kuchma, the new President Yushchenko has taken steps to resolve the case of murdered journalist Heorhiy Gongadze.

“While recently in Ukraine, I was heartened to hear of the progress being made in investigating the Gongadze murder. I look forward to a thorough and complete investigation and the bringing to justice all those involved in ordering and perpetrating this crime,” remarked Cardin.

Because vibrant journalism plays such a central role in civil society, democratic government and the protection of human rights, Helsinki Commissioners have focused not only on oppressive governments, but also on governments that fail to protect journalists, or punish those who commit crimes against journalists.

Several examples of such victims include:
Investigative journalist Paul Klebnikov, an American of Russian descent, was editor of the Russian edition of Forbes. Klebnikov was gunned down by unidentified assailants as he left his office in Moscow on the evening of July 9, 2004. Klebnikov wrote extensively on corruption in Russia and was the author of a controversial book that appeared in 2001 on Boris Berezovsky, one of Russia’s most influential businessmen. Charges of murder have been filed against two persons in the case, and Russian authorities say the investigation is continuing. Prior to the February 2005 summit meeting in Bratislava, Commissioners implored President Bush to ask Mr. Putin to ensure that both the perpetrators and organizers of the crime be apprehended and prosecuted.

Belarusian journalist Veronika Cherkasova, of the Minsk-based opposition newspaper Solidarnost was killed in her home in Minsk on October 20. Found stabbed 20 times, Cherkasova was reportedly investigating possible arms deals by the Belarusian Government with Saddam Hussein. Recently, the Minsk City Prosecutor’s Office eliminated her son and stepfather as suspects and pledged to continue the investigation.

Currently, French journalists Florence Aubenas and Hussein Hanoun al-Saadi are being held hostage in Iraq. World Press Freedom Day will mark their 118th day in captivity.

“Journalists, whether print or television or radio, are the unsung heroes of the democracy and human rights movements worldwide,” noted Smith. “It is the bright light of communication that has dispelled the shadows of oppression and brought freedom to millions.”

“I urge all governments and press organizations around the world to take a moment on May 3, World Press Freedom Day, to remember those journalists who have sacrificed so much to bring truth to the world’s darkest corners,” added Smith.

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