WASHINGTON–In conjunction with World Press Freedom Day, marked annually on May 3rd, the leaders of the bicameral, bipartisan U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (The U.S. Helsinki Commission), today called attention to disturbing trends affecting media freedom in the OSCE region.
As a case in point, Smith cited repeated police raids targeting Belarus’ beleaguered independent media and arrests of journalists.
“I am deeply concerned by the precipitous decline in press freedom in a number of OSCE countries over the past year,” said Representative Christopher H. Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Commission and a leading human rights lawmaker in the U.S. Congress. “Independent media committed to honest reporting are essential to any genuinely democratic society,” Smith added. “We have always known that egregious violations of freedom of the press are commonplace in countries where democracy is held in outright contempt. Yet over the past year we have seen stepped-up attempts to muzzle independent media and journalists.”
“I call upon the regime in Belarus to end its unrelenting campaign against independent media and individual journalists as well as to bring its policies, including those restricting access to the Internet, into line with its OSCE commitments,” urged Smith, sponsor of the Belarus Democracy Act and related measures, including the Belarus Democracy and Human Rights Act of 2011, which seeks to support democratic activists and break the information blockade erected by the regime.
Commission Co-Chairman Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (MD) observed, “Instead of promoting the freer and wider dissemination of information, numerous OSCE countries are imposing myriad restrictions on independent media outlets, frequently targeting journalists responsible for exposing human rights abuses and corruption. I again urge participating States to repeal criminal defamation statutes, one device often used in an attempt to muzzle independent media.”
Co-Chairman Cardin decried the fact that “seemingly on a daily basis we receive reports documenting harassment of independent media and journalists by the authorities in some participating States. From burdensome registration requirements or visits by the tax police, to the confiscation of entire print runs or imposition of crippling fines from criminal charges for defamation of individuals, institutions or the state, free media face a multitude of threats and challenges today.”
In addition to pointing to Belarus, Smith also condemned the deplorable situation in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, expressed concern at the heightened repression of independent media in Azerbaijan and Turkey, as well as ongoing reprisals against journalists in Russia and Kazakhstan. Additionally, Smith noted with concern the backsliding on media freedoms in Ukraine.
Chairman Smith and Co-Chairman Cardin welcomed the important work of OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovi?, who testified at a Helsinki Commission hearing, “Threats to Free Media in the OSCE Region.” [The hearing proceedings can be viewed here.]
Both the Chairman and Co-Chairman welcomed the initiative of the Lithuanian OSCE chairmanship to convene a conference, early next month in Vilnius, on safety of journalists in the OSCE region. Dozens of investigative journalists, including American Paul Klebnikov, have been murdered over the past decade in a handful of OSCE countries, with few of the perpetrators brought to justice.
“I commend Lithuanian Foreign Minister Ažubalis for taking the initiative to convene a conference on safety of journalists,” said Smith, “because in several OSCE countries a career in journalism is a high-risk profession with some paying the ultimate price for pursuit of the truth.”