Anniversaries and commemorations are times to reflect, judge and move forward. So it is with World Press Freedom Day, which we note for the 22nd time this year amid worldwide evidence of hostility toward the media.
The date of 3 May was set aside by the UN General Assembly in 1993 to foster free, independent, pluralistic media worldwide.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the largest regional security organisation in the world, just four years later in 1997 created the position I now hold, the Representative on Freedom of the Media. The position was established expressly to help countries that are members of the organisation (which includes all of Europe, the countries of the former Soviet Union and Mongolia, as well as the United States and Canada) implement their promises to uphold the rights to free expression and free media.
It is my job to advocate for these two concepts. It is also my job to help, cajole and sometimes plead with the 57 nations in the organisation to simply live up to their promises to provide the environment in which free expression and free media can flourish.
Over the past 18 years only three people have held the position of Representative. As I enter my sixth and last year in this position, the time has come to reflect on the state of media freedom and to analyse the overall health of free expression across the OSCE region.
To do so, I needed a base from which to judge. I found that by returning to the very first public statement issued by the Representative’s office, then headed by German politician Freimut Duve, on 7 September 1998. It announced, ironically, that Duve had been denied a visa by authorities in Belgrade to visit the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, to lobby the government to change its policy of denying visas to reporters from other countries, some of whom were considered foreign intelligence agents.
The Helsinki Final Act of 1975, the very document that eventually brought the OSCE into existence, expressly called for improving the working conditions for journalists, which included examining “in a favorable spirit and within a suitable and reasonable time scale requests from journalists for visas” and to “grant to permanently accredited journalists…on the basis of arrangements, multiple entry and exit visas for specified periods”.
Duve wrote in the public statement: “Tito himself, as President of the former Yugoslavia, signed in 1975 his country’s acceptance of the principles and commitments of the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe.”
Those commitments expressly included the right of journalists to work internationally.
Promises made. Promises not kept.
Have things changed over the years?
The fact that you are reading this posting identifies you as someone well aware of the precarious position journalists and the media find themselves in today. They face a litany of problems, none of which is bigger than the issue of life itself.
The year 2015 hardly had started when eight journalists for the French magazine Charlie Hebdo were murdered in their office in Paris – over the depiction of a religious figure. Two weeks later, a discussion group in Copenhagen convened to talk about the Paris incident came under gunfire with another person killed. So much for free media. So much for free expression.
But we all know that while homicidal violence against journalists is the most drastic form of attack on free media, it is not the only one. Across the OSCE region media is subject to all nature of offences: criminal defamation laws that put reporters in jail for rooting out corruption in public places; cyber-attacks that plague internet media sites; new laws that are being adopted to criminalise free expression in the name of fighting terrorism; and increasing regulation of the internet in an effort by authoritarian governments to squelch media and free expression advocates.
The simple violations of media rights continue, too. In the past 12 months I have written to authorities and issued public statement on at least six occasions condemning the refusal of governments in the OSCE region to grant visas to foreign-based reporters. Have things really changed in 2015 from 1998? Only the countries involved; not the practices.
But even if my judgment on the past 18 years is harsh, media freedom advocates, such as me, must continue to move forward and provide the defenses necessary for free expression and free media to flourish. Complacency is not an option.
Solidarity, however, is.
For example, three rapporteurs on free expression from the United Nations, the Organization of American States and the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights and I annually issue a joint declaration on a topic related to free expression. Those declarations now are seeing their way into decisions of national and international bodies, including judgments of the European Court of Human Rights. This is real progress. Decisions upholding citizens’ rights under Article 10 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms are real results.
And all of us must continue to raise the issue of the rights of media before national legislatures. Public awareness campaigns on behalf of media can be effective tools to prod elected officials to spend the resources, including political capital, necessary to build environments conducive to free expression. Elected officials and their appointed, often nameless and faceless bureaucrats, can be taught and encouraged to write good laws and appoint good law enforcement authorities, including police, prosecutors and judges, to interpret those laws in a fashion that will provide oxygen for those who champion free expression.
It is easy to become disillusioned and depressed by the daily fare of media issues. We should recognise the perilous state of free media and free expression in many spots in the world. But we never should lose our focus. We should take note of this date and make a personal commitment to stand for the basic human rights of free expression and free media – this year and the next and the years after that.
World Press Freedom Day 2015
• Media freedom in Europe needs action more than words
• Dunja Mijatović: The good fight must continue
• Mass surveillance: Journalists confront the moment of hesitation
• The women challenging Bosnia’s divided media
• World Press Freedom Day: Call to protect freedom of expression