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Free Speech and Media in the OSCE Region After 25 Years

  • Hon. Joseph R. Pitts
    US












House of Representative

106th Congress, Second Session

Mr. Speaker, today freedom of the press and media in the OSCE participating States is deteriorating and regressing, largely unnoticed by the peoples of the region. This is happening in Western and Central Europe in much the same way one cooks a frog. Place the frog in cold water and start the fire. As the water heats up, the frog is gradually cooked, having never known he was in danger. This type of political gradualism is a true threat to the peoples and States of Europe. Recent hearings held by the Helsinki Commission, on which I serve, have noted a number of high profile cases in Eastern Europe showcasing the situation.

 

We have heard of the rise of influence and pressure from heavy-handed government authorities who feel the need to control the views and reports of independent journalists. Such actions have been especially evident in Bosnia, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine. The recent arrest of Vladimir Gusinsky, head of Media Most and an outspoken critic of Russian President Putin, has raised our concern about Russia’s approach to an agenda of free media. A key OSCE commitment allows for the development and protection of freedom of expression, permitting independent pluralistic media. Three years ago, the OSCE States were concerned enough about the problems in this area that they mandated the creation of the position of Representative on Freedom of the Media. The 25th Anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act marks an appropriate occasion to review the past relations between the OSCE governments and the media, and to review the current situation of free media in the region.

 

Last year, 11 journalists were killed in the region, with a number of the deaths accompanied by suspicious circumstances. In addition to those killed while reporting the news, many others were arrested under suspicious circumstances and without due process. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reporter Andrei Babitsky’s story is a frightening example of just how badly the situation for reporters has deteriorated in Russia. While covering and reporting on the war in Chechnya, Babitsky was arrested by Russian troops for `participating in an armed formation,’ and yet later was traded to Chechen rebels in an exchange, thus being placed in grave danger. Babitsky was later retrieved by Russian forces and subsequently charged with using false papers. While Babitsky was fortunate to have survived and received international exposure, most other journalists are not so lucky in Russia. In Vladimir Putin’s first `state of the union’ speech, he said that he supported a free Russian press, but was angered that media owners could influence the content. That is, while Putin openly declares support for a free media, he chills the media in his next utterance. Likewise, Gusinsky’s arrest has heightened our concern as we see the tightening of the noose on the throat of a free press in Russia.

 

Actions by governments in Southeastern Europe are also a cause for concern. Turkey and the Balkan States present serious impediments towards promoting and allowing free media. Serbia continually threatens, harasses, and fines all media that do not follow the official line. Milosevic has seen to the gradual demise of any independent Serbian media, not the least through fines totaling $2.1 million last year. Turkish authorities continue to block free media in key areas, with either the Kurdish issue or criticism of the military most likely to land journalists in jail.

 

Mr. Speaker, I could continue. Such developments are rife throughout the Caucasus and Central Asia. It is not enough for OSCE States to ardently promote the idea of free speech and media. Collective accountability must be used, along with public diplomacy, if the OSCE is to consist of States that rise to the standard envisioned at Helsinki 25 years ago regarding free speech and media.

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