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Helsinki Commission Releases U.S. Statement on Freedom of Expression at OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting

WARSAW, POLAND – The following statement on Freedom of Expression was delivered by the United States at the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation currently being held in Warsaw, Poland:

Freedom of Expression

Statement Delivered by Orest Deychakiwsky

U.S. Delegation to the

OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting

Since we last met freedom of expression has been under severe strain, if not outright attack, in numerous participating States. The brutally shocking murders of journalists Georgiy Gongadze and Ihor Aleksandrov in Ukraine, Jóse Luis Lopés de la Calle in Spain, Milan Pantic in Serbia and Georgy Sanaya in Georgia and the “disappearance” of Russian ORT cameraman Dmitry Zavadsky in Belarus is an indication of the need to put an end to this downward spiral of civic deterioration now, or all of our freedoms will suffer the same fate. Not one of these murders or “disappearances” has been solved. The United States calls upon each of the governments concerned to find the killers – no matter who they are – and punish them to the fullest extent of the law. Anything less is to encourage further violence against our voices of conscience.

In this context, the United States supports the efforts of the Representative on Freedom of the Media Freimut Duve to assist in the creation of an independent commission of inquiry into the disappearance and death of journalist Georgiy Gongadze.

I wish to stress that this is not a mere political matter. The presence among us of several of the wives of the people whom I have just mentioned makes it clear that this is a human and personal tragedy as well.

Our OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Freimut Duve has stated that freedom of expression has not improved in recent years, and that in fact some participating States have seen renewed attacks on free journalism with certain governments believing that independent journalism poses a threat to them. “Censorship by killing,” criminal defamation laws and regulation of, and limited access to, the Internet were seen as part of the problem.

In March this year the participating States met in Vienna at the Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on Freedom of Expression where participants discussed legal restrictions on media, attacks on journalists and possible restraints on the Internet. While there was a consensus that the OSCE could play a more active role in promoting freedom of expression, through both legislative and technical assistance to governments, and by providing training and promoting better access to the Internet, it is clear that the basic responsibility for guaranteeing that this freedom go unfettered lays with the States. They should protect it.

Unfortunately, threats to freedom of the press continue to occur within OSCE States. Oftentimes, journalists who publish information critical of local governments and influential businesses, and investigative journalists writing about crime, corruption and other sensitive issues, continue to be subjected to threats of physical violence, beatings, and murder.

The United States finds the acts of targeting opposition activists, and cracking down on freedom of the press particularly disturbing. In particular, the United States is deeply concerned about Belarusian authorities’ suppression of free media where hundreds of thousands of copies of independent newspapers were confiscated and computer equipment seized in the run-up to the Presidential elections. We hope these and other forms of censorship end. We call on Belarus to begin to adhere to her commitments.

Some states insist on keeping criminal defamation and insult laws on the books. The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, and the Organization of American States Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression issued a joint statement in February 2000 which said, in part, “Expression should not be criminalized unless it poses a clear risk of serious harm. [. . . ] Examples of this are laws prohibiting the publication of false news and sedition laws. . . These laws should be repealed.…Criminal defamation laws should be abolished.”

For several years, the United States has been deeply concerned about the tendency of some countries to attempt to silence opposition and independent media by means of lawsuits alleging insults “to the honor and dignity” of officials. The United States urges all governments to stop the intimidation of media outlets that have dared write about official corruption or other issues that might be embarrassing to those in power.

The U.S. along with the OSCE representative on Freedom of the Media has also identified many cases of “structural censorship” throughout the OSCE region, including taxation and registration of media outlets, and governmental control of printing facilities, newsprint production, and distribution which unfairly target independent media outlets.

Many media outlets are under the direct or indirect control of powerful political families, leaving independent and opposition media under constant pressure and at serious risk. Now many governments are mandating the re-registration of all media outlets, a step that in the past has generally led to the banning of those inconvenient to that government. Additionally, some states limit the retransmission of foreign programs; some also subject Internet web pages to the same controls as print media. Moreover, media outlets can be held responsible for news not obtained from official sources.

We urge all participating States to uphold their commitments to the freedom of expression and to end all forms of harassment of the independent media.

We wish to thank ODIHR for making it possible to broadcast this meeting live on the Internet. We feel this is an important step towards greater transparency by enabling NGOs who were not able to travel to Warsaw to follow the proceedings. We encourage all OSCE institutions, participating States, and NGOs to use the Internet whenever possible to further dialogue on all human dimension issues.

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