OSCE Human Dimensions Conference 2003 Warzaw, Poland, October 2003
Statement by Norwegian People’s Aid, Norwegian Union of Journalists and Norwegian PEN
Mr. Chairman, honoured delegates and colleagues,
Too many regimes, political leaders and non-governmental or quasi-governmental groups find it hard to meet criticism and unpleasent questions and to respect opposition. A wide range of means are being used by the same actors to silence critisism and independent information: liquidation, intimidation, imprisonment and torture, censorship and more subtile economical means such as monopolization of distribution units, illegal tax inspections and demands and an extensive use of defamation statutes against journalists and editors who are sentenced to pay heavy fines. We view the latter practices as financial blackmail intended to bankrupt publications and individual journalists. All these means are being employed in the OSCE region.
The authoritanian regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is openly hostile to a free press. According to Freedom House (New York) new security legislation allows state agencies to effectively seize control of all media outlets under cover of counter-terrorism operations. This legislation prohibits press discussion of law enforcement activities and defines some forms of political protest as «terrorist» activity. In 2002, Belarusian courts sentenced Mikola Markevich, editor of the independant weekly Pahonya, and the journalist Pavel Mazheika to two years of forced labour for insulting the honor of the president. The sentence was reduced to one year on appeal. Authorities subsequently arrested 14 journalists for protesting in support of Markevich and Mazheika. State-run media outlets are subordinated to the president, whose regime controls press content and the appointment of senior editors. While state-controlled print and broadcast media do not offer a plurality of views, some regional television broadcasters cautiously attempt more balanced reporting. Many Belarusians receive their news from Russian television. However, the government is reportedly planning to assign the current Russian broadcast frequency to a new state television channel.
In Ukraine, freedom of the press declined under the continued weight of political pressure and government censorship. Article 34 of the constitution, and a 1991 law on print media, guarantee freedom of expression and the press, but journalists do not enjoy these rights in practice. Official influence and de facto censorship is widespread. The administration issues regular instructions (temniks) to mass media outlets directing the nature, theme, and substance of news reporting. The European Institute for the Media reported that coverage at the state broadcaster UT-1 clearly favored the ruling party during the March 2002 parliamentary campaign. Opposition media outlets face various forms of harassment, including obstructive tax audits, safety inspections, and selective enforcement of media regulations. Libel ceased to be a criminal offense in 2001; however, politically motivated civil suits are common. Journalists frequently experience physical assaults, death threats and murder as a result of their work. In March 2002, Reporters Sans Frontières noted that 10 journalists have died under suspicious circumstances in the past four years, while another 41 have suffered serious injury from attacks. In October, the body of Ukrainian News director Mykhailo Kolomyets was discovered in northwestern Belarus nearly a week after he had disappeared from Kyiv. Kolomyets´s news agency had at times been critical of the government. The case remained open by year´s end. The well publicized murder of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze also remains unsolved. Although print and broadcast media are largely in private hands, the state maintains control over the central printing and distributing centers.
On behalf of Norwegian People´s Aid, Norwegian Union of Journalists and Norwegian PEN, I would like to ask you to pay attention to the following two recommendations:
1) We will again recommend that the OSCE conducts a comparative analysis on the situation of freedom of expression in all OSCE participating states. The purpose of this study will be to identify common problems and obstacles, as well as country specific problems. This study will enable a more effective approach to solve the problems, both by national governments and international organisations. To conduct this study, financial support from the OSCE participating states must be required, as well as independent expert and NGO assistance. The study could also be used to elaborate and adopt international guidelines to national governments facing political and religious extremism.
2) With reference to freedom of the media we will recommend that the OSCE establishes a consultative body where competent NGOs are represented on an informal or formal basis. We believe that the NGOs will contribute with valuable insight and concrete measures to the strengthening of freedom of the media in the OSCE region.
Oslo, 01. October 2003