“We need political will and leadership to protect media freedom and keep journalists safe”, Jan Malinowski from the Council of Europe told a conference devoted to the safety of journalists organised by the Austrian and Swiss governments in the Polish foreign ministry guesthouse in Warsaw on April 23 and 24. “The legal framework is in place, now it needs to be implemented”, Mr Malinowski added.
His views were echoed by Roland Bless, a principal adviser to the OSCE representative on the freedom of media, who noted that in some 40 out of the 57 states participating in the OSCE, whose origins date back to the Helsinki agreement signed in 1975 between the West and the Soviet bloc, defamation and libel are still a criminal offence. “80 journalists are still in jail in Turkey”, he remarked.
Those present might well conclude that the OSCE mechanisms for protecting media freedom in such cases are being ignored by participating states which are simply unwilling to implement the democratic commitments all have made. Decisions in the OSCE have to be agreed by all members.
Overshadowing the discussion was the worsening civil rights situation in Azerbaijan, where western officials have been helpless to stop a growing campaign of repression against civil society ahead of presidential elections next October. The situation is also deteriorating in Russia, where the trial of Aleksei Navalny, the opposition leader and anti-corruption blogger opened on the day of the Warsaw conference.
Increasingly officials are looking to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in western countries to put pressure on their governments to play a more active role in defending media freedom. Already Mr Bless said that NGOs are an essential part of the monitoring the state of media freedom and his organization. He said the OSCE relies heavily on them.
Jan Malinowski, who heads the Information Society Department, of the Council of Europe, noted that 90 per cent of crimes against journalists go unpunished. “We cannot say we are living in a sphere of safety for journalists in Europe” he said, and added that he was worried about the lack of safeguards where there is surveillance of journalists by governments; nor is there enough protection of whistle blowers. The same goes for storage of e-mail and biometric data and face and voice recognition systems, all of which dramatically infringe on personal and professional privacy.
The Council of Europe has pledged to contribute to a world-wide campaign to improve the security of journalists by working through international organisations including the UN, as well as by strengthening its own activities in ways that stakeholders including the AEJ have said are so far not concrete and specific enough to be effective. In November, Serbia will play host to a major conference of ministers responsible for media matters in the 47 Council of Europe member states. The safety of journalists and the rights of Internet users will be high on the conference agenda.