21 Feb 2012

OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic: There is no true press freedom as long as journalists have to fear for their lives

OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic has given an interview to Interfax in which she speaks about Europe‘s perception of the freedom of media in Russia.

Question: In the last few years Russia has seen a string of attacks on journalists. Is the OSCE concerned about the situation? In your opinion do the authorities and law enforcement agencies make their best efforts to investigate these cases?

Answer: We all know the depressing statistics. Every year scores of journalists are killed. On average, 100 worldwide and, in the OSCE region alone, more than 30 journalists have been killed in the last five years for doing their jobs. Although the challenges and dangers that journalists face in our countries may differ from region to region, one sad fact holds true everywhere: the freedom to express ourselves is questioned and challenged from many sides. Some of these challenges are blatant, others concealed; some of them follow traditional methods to silence free speech and critical voices, some use new technologies to suppress and restrict the free flow of information and media pluralism; and far too many result in physical harassment and deadly violence against journalists.
Finally, however, with a concerted effort by international leaders and grassroots journalism associations, the message is being heard: Enough is enough! Now, perhaps for the first time, government authorities, including law enforcement officials, are stepping up to the challenge and coming up with methods - some innovative, some traditional - to break the cycle of violence that has plagued the media for more than a decade.
In Russia, preliminary contacts have taken place locally among prosecutors and journalists and human rights organizations to discuss ways of improving the process of gathering evidence about attacks on journalists, including information disclosed through journalists‘ enquiries or published in the media and databases.
We have recently issued a set of specific recommendations - the Vilnius Recommendations and a detailed guidebook on journalists‘ safety - which promote specific best practices that all relevant participants in the process can look to in order to create an environment safe for journalists. We consider them a roadmap for national governments, legislatures, law enforcement agencies and even the media to follow to reach the eventual goal: an OSCE region where journalists can do their jobs free from fear.
I believe that journalism should not be considered as a dangerous profession. Journalists are not fire-fighters, police nor sappers, risking their lives for public safety. Journalism is a peaceful profession of paramount importance for a democratic society and governments are responsible not only to physically protect reporters in danger, but also to establish a climate of prohibition on any attacks on the free press.
In Russia such a climate is yet not in place. At the same time, it is encouraging to see that authorities at the top of government are beginning to take a proactive role in solving murder cases against journalists. The guilty verdict and subsequent sentencing in the 2009 assassination of Novaya Gazeta journalist Anastasia Baburova is a sign of certain progress, but much more needs to be done. My hope is that this case will be followed by others and that the murderers of all other journalists killed in Russia will be brought to justice. Just recently, in December 2011, I urged the Russian authorities to put in all efforts to investigate Khadzhimurad Kamalov‘s killing in Makhachkala and bring its perpetrators to justice and take pre-emptive measures to ensure that journalists can carry out their professional duties without fear of retribution.

Q.: Russian authorities have recently put forward an idea of launching a public TV channel. Is such a channel necessary or advisable?

A.: I have noted the initiative introduced by President Dmitry Medvedev in his latest address to the national parliament and with interest I monitor subsequent developments.
Public broadcasting represents a traditional and necessary element in the media systems of European and North American countries and a necessary element of the functioning democracy. In Europe only Belarus, Russia and Ukraine do not have public broadcasting. These three countries and Azerbaijan are the only ones in Europe to have state-run national broadcasters. In Central Asia, to take another part of the OSCE region, Kyrgyzstan has just implemented a new law on public broadcasting that affirms the transition of the state broadcaster into a public one.
I hear the arguments that there is no difference between state and public broadcasting, therefore there is no need to transform one into another. These arguments do not hold water. There are not differences but a yawning gulf between the two models of broadcasting. State broadcasters have no obligation regarding programming; they pursue an unaccountable personnel policy under direct administration of the governing elite; they try to derive profit while seeking to please the government. Public broadcasting is structured to have legal and political safeguards against being held hostage to the top politicians. Public broadcasting is capable of making society better by sharing with citizens the depths of knowledge, information and culture that has been amassed by mankind. Clear program obligations, independence from the need to beat the ratings of the commercial TV companies, stable and sufficient financial and material resources, as well as autonomy from governmental control unite public broadcasting system despite different models of it that exist in the OSCE participating states. Anything else will only compromise the idea of independent media and public service.
In this regard let me note that the very fact that funding for public broadcasters comes from the state coffers, in itself, neither compromises the independence of such broadcasters nor is it unusual, especially in the new democracies of Europe. There are ways to guarantee that state money does not bring state influence: In Latvia, for example, the level of financing of the public service broadcaster may not be lowered year to year, while in Georgia it is fixed at 0.12% of the gross domestic product.

Q.: Is OSCE concerned that Russian authorities control most media in this country? Is it necessary to make the state-owned media private?

A.: In the OSCE region Russia has a record number of registered media outlets, big and small, active and "sleeping". A minor portion of those are run by the state. But those state-run media are the largest TV and radio broadcasters, as well as national and regional quality political dailies with the largest circulations. In the area of political speech state media are in an advantageous position compared to private media because they enjoy direct and indirect financial support and also greater access to information from official sources. If the Russian state were to depart from the media market as is the case with other European states, it would allow all outlets to operate on a level economic playing field, have equal opportunities to access information and to make use of the state-run infrastructure, as well as deny the officialdom the dangerous ability to impose its opinions on the public at the expense of alternative viewpoints. Then there will be pluralism of the media, an OSCE-shared value and standard.

Q.: In your opinion is censorship really a problem in the Russian media? Could you probably name most outrageous cases? Who censors media in Russia - the state, local authorities, media owners, all of them?

A.: Russia, like all other OSCE participating states, outlaws censorship. There were several court cases that affirmed this ban in practice. At the same time, I am attentive to reports of indirect attempts to violate this ban and intervene in editorial policy or the content of individual articles or program.
They include cases when state authorities informally circulate guidance to the editors. The same type of informal censorship could also include ‘friendly pressure‘ when officials ask journalists to withhold or, conversely, splash reports on particular issues and with a particular spin.
Another form is when the state or state-controlled media infrastructure refuses to serve independent or opposition outlets.
Restricting information for disloyal media is one more problem that faces many local media.
In this context I should also mention the issue of an abuse of state subsidies and monopolies.
Abuse of regulatory and supervisory functions, such as licensing of broadcasters or carrying out selective inspections, also sends a strong signal that drives opposition and independent media from the market.
Abuse of defamation laws to stop the media covering a particular issue or a politician is yet another example of soft censorship. This is underpinned by the judiciary‘s substantial dependence on the executive authorities.
I would also like to raise the issue of ‘in-house censorship,‘ wh ere editors or proprietors, under pressure from the state, obstruct the publication or transmission of journalistic output.
Last, but not least, is illegal pressure. This could be said to be the nastiest form of ‘soft censorship‘, in which influential officials and politicians resort to flagrantly unlawful methods, such as pressuring private businesses about wh ere they advertise; directly interfere in editorial policy or the content of individual articles or programs by offering inducements to journalists and editors; use or threaten violence against journalists; and seize press runs.

Q.: The Reporters Without Borders nongovernmental organization published its annual media freedom rating this January, ranking Russia as 142nd of 179 countries - just above Colombia and below Gambia. Do you agree that this ranking reflects the actual situation in Russian media?

A.: As a rule my office does not rate OSCE participating states according to their media-freedom standards. This is being done by various nongovernmental organizations, whose findings we do take into account when fulfilling our mandate. Our task is to observe relevant media developments in OSCE participating States and, in close co-ordination with the Chairman-in-Office, to advocate and promote full compliance with OSCE principles and commitments in respect of freedom of expression and free media.

Q.: In general, what is the way to go to improve the situation with freedom of media in Russia?

A.: As I have repeatedly told the Russian authorities, absolute priority should be given to breaking the cycle of impunity in work-related violence against journalists and bringing to justice those responsible for attacks on media professionals.
Violence against journalists equals violence against society and democracy, and it should be met with harsh condemnation and prosecution of the perpetrators. There can be no improvement without an overhaul of the very apparatus of prosecution and law enforcement, starting from the very top of the government pyramid.
I do hope that the perpetrators and masterminds of the murders of Anna Politkovskaya, Paul Klebnikov and Yury Shchekochikhin - to name only a few of those journalists who paid the ultimate price for their investigative reporting - will soon be indentified and prosecuted. I also hope that the investigations into the attacks on Mikhail Beketov and Oleg Kashin will eventually bear fruit.
There is no true press freedom as long as journalists have to fear for their lives while performing their work. The OSCE commitments oblige all participating States to provide safety to journalists, and I will do my best to pursue this goal with the mandate I was given and with all the professional tools I have at my disposal.
I already mentioned the need to introduce public broadcasting and privatize state media as important steps that should be taken to improve the media-freedom situation in Russia. In addition I would like to mention such important steps as the necessity to establish an independent licensing body for broadcasters and to simplify registration procedures for the media outlets. There is a need to abolish criminal liability for defamation of state officials in the media. All these elements of the freedom of the media were not invented for a specific country; they belong to the current traditions and standards in Europe. I see no reasons for Russia to deny these standards and try to invent a national model of the freedom of media.
Finally, I would like to use this opportunity to welcome the adoption by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation of resolutions which, in my view, represent commendable efforts to bring court practice in line with international media freedom standards. What I have in mind are the June 2010 resolution which instructs instructing lower courts how to interpret and implement the Media Law; the September 2010 resolution which protects media in civil defamation lawsuits; and the two resolutions on extremism and terrorism (in relation to crimes in the media) that were adopted in June 2011 and February 2012, respectively. I am confident that these recommendations, providing they are followed and implemented by courts, can only have a considerable liberating and stimulating effect on public debate in Russia.