WASHINGTON—In advance of World Press Freedom Day, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) and U.S. Representative Chris Smith (NJ), Co-Chairman of the Commission, addressed the deterioration of media freedom in Ukraine, and the continued presence of criminal defamation:
On the situation in Ukraine, Chairman Cardin stated: “I am deeply concerned by the rapidly degenerating state of media freedom precipitated by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Pro-Russian militias continue to harass, intimidate, and censor both Ukrainian and foreign journalists reporting on the situation in an attempt to quell criticism of separatist-instigated violence and upheaval. Free and independent media is a crucial component of the commitments adopted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), of which Russia and Ukraine are participating States. I urge Russia to respect media independence and freedom in its own territory as well as in Ukraine.”
“Many countries in the OSCE region continue to limit speech to an extraordinary degree,” said Co-Chairman Smith. “I’m particularly concerned by the rise of criminal defamation laws which make it increasingly difficult, and even dangerous, to criticize those in power. These libel and insult laws have an absolutely chilling effect on robust inquiry and the ability to hold politicians and others accountable. I commend the efforts of the OSCE and other organizations to call attention to these and other attacks against freedom of press. A strong and independent media, free from political pressure and censorship, is fundamental to sustainable and accountable democracy.”
The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media reports regularly to the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna, including on developments in Ukraine. In advance of World Press Freedom Day, the Commission also noted concern about media freedom in the following countries:
UKRAINE: In the town of Slavyansk, over 40 individuals, including many reporters, have been abducted by separatists and held hostage in various makeshift prisons. In the Donbas region, pro-Russian armed forces discontinued digital broadcasting of Ukrainian TV channels and replaced them with Russian ones, mirroring the disruption of Ukrainian press by Russian forces in Crimea. There have been several accounts of journalists being physically intimidated while reporting both in the field and within their offices.
TURKEY: Turkey imprisoned more journalists in 2013 than any other country. Currently, legislation is going into effect in Turkey that expands the powers of secret services and stipulates 10 year prison sentences for journalists who publish leaked information. In the last few months, Turkey undertook an immense crackdown on social media, particularly by banning access to Twitter and YouTube.
MACEDONIA: In Macedonia, media coverage, largely unbalanced in favor of the ruling party and against the opposition, was a leading criticism of the conduct of last week’s presidential and parliamentary elections. This bias is symptomatic of the great regression in media freedom noted in Macedonia in recent years. Journalists and news sources not allied with the government tend to face increased scrutiny and legal hurdles.
KAZAKHSTAN: Recent changes to Kazakhstan’s legislation are likely to further restrict media and access to the Internet. New rules control what the media can report during a state of emergency; a new code criminalizes “dissemination of false information” that harms “interests of society or of the state”; and pending legislation would allow the government to shut websites and other communication networks if they disseminate “harmful” information or call for “extremist” activities. Kazakhstan also has closed virtually all independent newspapers for minor infractions of publishing regulations or on charges of extremism.
CROATIA: In Croatia, where the legal definition of “insult” is vague and open to arbitrary enforcement, there are currently over 40 pending criminal insult cases against journalists. This situation, whether or not the cases result in convictions, could lead to increased self-censorship in the media.
AZERBAIJAN: The status of press and media in Azerbaijan is decidedly not free. Criminal defamation is still punishable with up to three years in prison. Media and NGO movements that aim to create space for media freedom have been checked at every turn, through various techniques ranging from ignoring lawsuits seeking access to information, to pressing criminal charges on journalists. Most recently, Azerbaijani journalist Rauf Mirkadyrov was arrested and charged with espionage.
The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, is an independent agency of the Federal Government charged with monitoring compliance with the Helsinki Accords and advancing comprehensive security through promotion of human rights, democracy, and economic, environmental and military cooperation in 57 countries. The Commission consists of nine members from the U.S. Senate, nine from the House of Representatives, and one member each from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce.