Désir: “Contrary to what populists say, you cannot oppose the people to the press”

Arman Fazlić

BRUXELLES, 10.03.2018. – At the closing conference of the Media Against Hate project, held in Brussels on 5 and 6 March, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir gave an interview to the Croatian Journalists’ Association, commenting on current issues and problems in journalism.

You were appointed as the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media in July of 2017, for a three-year mandate. What would you highlight as the most important developments during your term so far?

My first preoccupation is the safety of journalists. A few days ago I was in Bratislava, after the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak; he was killed together with his fiancé Martina. I was there to meet with the prime minister and to ask for a full, transparent and independent investigation of this murder. It reminded me of what happened a few months ago, in Malta – the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia and the fact that, unfortunately, we see that even in the most advanced democracies – even in European Union member states – journalists are threatened and even killed. Both of them have received threats because of their work, their investigations on corruption. Many journalists are threatened all over the OSCE region because of their work. Because by nature, journalists are critics – they are here to voice concerns about powerful people and their responsibility. There is now a populist trend in some countries by political leaders to designate journalists as enemies of the people, to oppose journalists to people. This means to oppose journalists to democracy and to designate them as a target for hatred.

Have you been satisfied with the state responses in the two cases you mentioned?

In Malta, three perpetrators have been arrested but the masterminds are still not identified. In Slovakia investigation is only beginning now. In 85% of killings of journalists in the past 25 years in the OSCE region, neither masterminds not perpetrators have been arrested so the impunity of the crimes against journalists is a big challenge.

Would you comment on the difference in the rhetoric of political elites when there is an incident or a tragedy governments absolutely have to address, such as cases of Slovakia and Malta, and the rhetoric used by different establishments in “peaceful times”, when a tendency to label journalists in derogatory terms and to undermine the function of the press prospers?

There is a difficulty in many countries to make it clear from the point of view of the authorities that journalists are more exposed than others – especially when they deal with sensitive issues like corruption when they look into problems in different governments… There is a specific duty of governments towards protection of the press and journalism because it is a pillar of democracy. It is difficult for some governments to accept, to endorse this idea that they have to protect the part of the society that critiques them.

And it should be an active role, even in times when there are no major incidents?

Absolutely. Because we are in the times of turmoil for the press, everywhere. In France, my country, several journalists have been killed in the Charlie Hebdo newsroom; journalists and cartoonists killed by terrorists. There are a lot of threats, there are a lot of people who do not accept the freedom of expression, don’t accept the freedom of the press. So there is a special duty for those who are attached to democracy, to mobilize their capability to protect the press. The press has no army; the press doesn’t have bodyguards or the police – it relies on the protection of the society, of the state. This is the duty of governments. I also have a severe concern when it comes to imprisonment of journalists. In general, it is concentrated in some participating OSCE states but it’s not just a few; hundreds of journalists are now in jail because of their professional activities. They are accused of terrorism, of complicity to coup d’état, tax fraud, every kind of economic fraud but the reality is that they are in jail because of their reportage because they informed and expressed their opinion. In a region where all participating states have committed to respecting freedom of the media, this is a major concern.

The position you currently occupy entails speaking out when media freedom commitments are being violated. These days, who is listening?

That’s a good question. And that’s a discussion I have with participating states. They have given me the mandate to monitor the respect of their own commitments that they have taken voluntarily, starting with the Helsinki Final Act from 1975 – to respect freedom of expression and freedom of the media because they consider that those are issues that form a part of their broad concept of security. They consider that free flow of information, the free expression of opinion in different participating states is contributing to peace and good cooperation between the participating states. They give to my institution and to me as the Representative on Freedom of the Media the duty to intervene on a basis of early warning mechanism each time there is a breach of freedom of media commitments they undertook, for instance when journalists are in danger, when they are on unjustified basis put in jail or prosecuted, when media are being closed down… So I recall their national commitment, the international law they abide, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights… I just recall to them what is the law. And, of course, they have some problems sometimes because of the fact that they do it, they even do it publicly. I think that reminding of what the voluntarily taken commitments are is a useful tool in order to have a discussion with a given state. It is a difficult discussion sometimes and I would like to have more participating States listening. We do have some results in some places. For example, in Uzbekistan, there were several journalists who were in jail for many years and they have been released, there is a change in the country, though many problems persist. But, unfortunately, my role is to look at where we still have problems, and we still have big problems when so many journalists are put in jail or prosecuted. A few weeks ago three journalists have been sentenced to life imprisonment in Turkey because of their work; I raise this issue in front of all OSCE member states.

In the keynote speech given during the Gdansk Free European Media conference in February 2018, you singled out four issues as key priorities for media freedom. In addition to the already mentioned safety of journalists, there is a need to protect media freedom in the new context of the fight against terrorism and hate speech, to address important issues of disinformation such as “fake news,” and propaganda, and to sustain and further develop media pluralism. Given the current media landscape trends, what do you expect your operational priorities for the remainder of your term to be for each one?

My priorities were selected in a very tense security context. In the fight against terrorism and so much tension and conflict in the world today, we protect freedom of the media while states have a legitimate preoccupation to counter-terrorism propaganda, hate speech and other illegal content. We also work on preservation and development of media pluralism, including the very important role of public service broadcasters. We also work on the social protection of workers, especially in South East Europe countries, and we also work on internet regulation. In all these issues we not only look at major breaches of commitment but we also bring assistance to the states. We provide the legal review when there is a modification of media legislation, we try to help a state to adopt best practices and are very much encouraged by good cooperation and dialogue that we have established in Western Balkans. I was in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro in the past weeks and months; I will be in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Kosovo in the coming months… We are preparing a regional conference to be held in Struga, on the development of media and promotion of media freedom in the region. Each time we had a very constructive discussion with governments, even if sometimes difficult. I think the issue of safety is still a problem there due to a lot of threats against journalists. The financing and independence of public broadcaster must be addressed, and also the social conditions of journalists are a problem. In some countries, journalists do not receive their salaries for months at a time and when they do, it is with three or four months of delay. We have also supported a lot of self-regulation initiatives such as the media council and ombudsman to promote ethical standards. I think this region, as well as several countries in the South Caucasus, show that it is possible to have a constructive relationship.

Most of the European countries you singled out are in a pre-accession process to the European Union so they have a strong motivation to at least nominally put the topics of media freedom on the agenda, in order to close certain chapters in the negotiation for EU membership. Within this context, there is a clear way to reward or punish certain systemic changes, a proverbial “carrot and stick” situation. How do you approach countries and collaborate with governments that do not have such a strong motivation and a clear timeline for reforms?

You are right to say that the European perspective is a very strong incentive for reforms in the field of rule of law and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of the media. It’s something European Commission is looking at, as well as the EU member states, and there is a very good collaboration between OSCE and field missions on one side, and the European Commission on the other side, to support the progress of media freedom in this region. And it is also true that sometimes we feel that there is less incentive for current EU member states. There are a lot of problems today with the kind of policy towards media in some countries like Hungary and Poland. As far as other member states go, I think they are committed to democratic values so they don’t need “carrots” to respect their own values; as OSCE participating states, they need to accept that there is an oversight of their policies. Usually, including Croatia, they answer my requests, my intervention. I have raised several issues regarding threats and the need for protection of journalists in Croatia and I hope that we will have a constructive dialogue with Croatia as well.

You mentioned Hungary and Poland as examples of countries that in this moment of time do not support the concept of media freedom and press independence. What about their citizens? A democracy needs a functioning media landscape; when media institutions deteriorate, citizens suffer.

In all of these countries, including Slovakia, there has been a very strong mobilization of citizens in favor of democratic values and that shows that, contrary to what populists say, you cannot oppose the people to the press. It is not so simple, even if they try to play that card. There is a very strong support for democratic values among citizens.

OSCE is the world’s largest security-oriented inter-governmental organization, within which 57 countries across three continents reach decisions by consensus. Given the variety of local contexts, how do you go about building a wide consensus on the importance of media freedom and journalists’ safety?

We work with both governments and civil society. We could not work without the support of civil society, which provides information from the ground and relies on us to get support within their own governments. We distribute press releases, organize conferences and workshops… That is a part of our assistance to the development of media freedom in participating countries – to bring together different stakeholders in different formats of discussions. We organize regional conferences in Central Asia and South East Europe every year in addition to a lot of other civil society meetings in Vienna and Warsaw. One of the objectives is to incite civil society’s actors and governmental representatives to discuss together and jointly address the situation in the media – the pluralism of the press, support to public service media independence, development of vibrant and diverse media landscapes including internet, to avoid restrictive measures for media freedom in fight against terrorism propaganda and hate speech… All these issues we bring to the floor and try to create a platform for this discussion. It doesn’t mean that in the end everybody agrees but everybody has to accept to discuss this issue on the basis of OSCE commitments, which are very clear on the respect of freedom on the media. OSCE considers media freedom as part of security – this is unique in international organizations’ panoply. Nobody can say ‘this is a part of my internal affair, this is my national security interest, I’ll deal with this as I want’ – no. Media freedom is a part of the joint commitments of OSCE participating states, to contribute to their cooperation and their own security.

As a final remark, could you connect the significance of this superstructure to a living experience of a regular person going on about their daily life?

Each citizen has a need to rely on free and vibrant press because that is how we get information and learn about the world. Through press a public debate with diverse opinions is facilitated, a scrutiny of public institutions conducted. I want to underline a point which was discussed in Gdansk and that is evident to me: in OSCE participating states there is a need for more solidarity among journalists; to defend themselves. Even if the media landscape is very polarized. Press has to be diverse – that is absolutely normal. But within this diversity, in front of the fake news, in front of threats and the risk of censorship, it is very important that the entire profession defends its rights and its collective social conditions under which they work. And this is in the interests of citizens too.

Author: Monika Valečić

Monika Valečić, Bruxelles, 10/03/2018