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Deputy Assistant Secretary Melia on Freedom of expression, free media and information

(As prepared for delivery at the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, Session 1)

L to R, Amb. Cynthia Efird, Amb. Ian Kelly, Amb. Suzan Johnson Cook, Amb. David Johnson and DAS Thomas Melia, Sept. 26, 2011. Photo by USOSCE/Colin Peters.

L to R, Amb. Cynthia Efird, Amb. Ian Kelly, Amb. Suzan Johnson Cook, Amb. David Johnson and DAS Thomas Melia, Sept. 26, 2011. Photo by USOSCE/Colin Peters.

Freedom of expression, including freedom of the press, and the ability of citizens to access and share a wide range of information are hallmarks of democratic governance and essential to national success in the Information Age. Across the OSCE, individual citizens as well as civil society organizations and journalists seek to inform and shape public debate, influence government decision-making, expose abuses of power, connect with one another and join in the great global flow of news, ideas and opinion. The OSCE, and its impressive Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, have played, and must continue to play, a pioneering role within this region and beyond it, in the defense and advancement of fundamental freedoms via traditional and online media.

Today, in a number of participating States, media – particularly independent media — are under pressure to be silent or self-censor. For practicing their profession, journalists are victims of brutal, sometimes deadly, attacks, often carried out with impunity. The Committee to Protect Journalists has noted that 546 journalists have been killed around the world with complete impunity since 1992. Three countries from the OSCE region — Russia, Tajikistan, and Turkey – are on the list of the top 20 countries that CPJ has recorded with unsolved, or in some instances entirely unaddressed, cases of murdered journalists. Many publics in the OSCE region are denied the opportunity to access a range of sources of information.

OSCE states also are part of a growing global trend by governments to restrict Internet freedom, and, by so doing, restrict the exercise via new media not only of the fundamental freedom of expression, but also the fundamental freedoms of assembly and association. These enduring freedoms apply just as much to a communication sent by Twitter or a gathering organized by Facebook as they do to a conversation on the telephone or in coffee shops, or a demonstration in a public square.

As Secretary Clinton has emphasized: “The rights of individuals to express their views freely, petition their leaders, worship according to their beliefs – these rights are universal, whether they are exercised in a public square or on an individual blog. The freedoms to assemble and associate also apply in cyberspace. In our time, people are as likely to come together to pursue common interests online as in a church or a labor hall.”

Almost every aspect of today’s society is being transformed by the rapidly growing number of Internet users, the ubiquitous nature of mobile devices, and the expansion of tools such as blogs, social networking sites, and online media. With two billion people now online, the Internet has become the public space of the 21st century.

It is no coincidence that authorities who try to restrict the exercise of fundamental freedoms by their people, impede the work of human rights defenders and civil society organizations, control the press and obstruct the flow of information, tend to be the same authorities who try to restrict, impede, control and obstruct their citizens’ peaceful use of the new digital technologies.

While the latest connective technologies are the most topical media, we must not lose sight of the fact that newspapers, TV, and radio remain critical outlets for information and opinion for much of the world’s population, including in the OSCE region. These media outlets are no less important and no less deserving of the full adherence to OSCE commitments.

Let me now raise specific concerns about freedom of expression and media freedom in a number of OSCE participating States.

In Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the state retains a tight grip on all media. We urge the Government of Turkmenistan to allow the importation of foreign print media and to relax existing restrictions on foreign and domestic journalists. Last month, Uzbekistan authorities blocked dozens of Internet sites, including those of the New York Times and many Russia-based news websites. At the beginning of September, Uzbekistan unveiled a new government-sponsored social media site—Mulokot—that reportedly is available only to persons with a registered Uzbek cell phone number. There already are indications that the site is monitored and censored.

Although print media are freer in Kazakhstan, authorities have used excessive fines to close small independent newspapers critical of the regime. Ramazan Yesergepov, editor of the weekly Alma-Ata Info, is still in prison for allegedly revealing state secrets while reporting on a corruption investigation. Authorities have blocked a number of popular blogs and media sites under a 2009 law that classifies all Internet content as media, most recently the popular blog platform LiveJournal, on the grounds that extremists had posted blogs on it. Kazakhstan also recently decided that all .kz domain names will have to operate on physical servers within its borders, a move that could build a virtual wall around the Kazakhstani internet that authorities could use to further control content.

We welcome recent amendments to the Criminal Code in Kyrgyzstan which decriminalized libel and urge other participating States with such laws to consider doing the same. Along with the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, we strongly urge that the remaining speech crimes of ‘insult’ and ‘insult of an official’ will also be repealed. More than a year after the violence of June 2010 in Kyrgyzstan, we remain concernedby the closure of Uzbek-language media, particularly in the run-up to elections next month. The August attack by unknown assailants against journalist Shokhrukh Saipov—whose brother Aliher was murdered for his journalism work in 2007—is another example where swift action by the Kyrgyz authorities to investigate and prosecute the crime can help reverse its chilling effect on media freedom.

Armenia also decriminalized libel in 2010, but since then the civil code has been misused to stifle the media through the imposition of heavy fines. Moreover, A1+ TV is still off the airwaves, despite a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights. We hope government will take steps to improve media freedom, especially in light of the upcoming parliamentary elections next year.

In Tajikistan, the government controls most printing presses, newsprint supplies, and broadcasting facilities. The government used this power in 2010 to stop the publication of several newspapers and block access to independent internet websites. Government officials have used lawsuits to intimidate critics. Last June, Urunboy Usmonov, a local correspondent for the BBC who met with members of a banned Islamic group in order to write a story, was arrested on suspicion of belonging to that group. Though he has since been released on bail, he still faces criminal prosecution. Journalist Mahmadyusuf Ismoilov has been held in pre-trial detention since November 2010, charged with inciting religious and national hatred, slander and other crimes after he reported on local corruption.

Although we welcome Azerbaijan’s release of journalist Eynulla Fatullayev and activists Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade, journalists and activists in that country continue to risk fines, beatings and imprisonment for exercising their freedom of speech.

In Georgia, many media criticize the government, but the two primary TV stations with countrywide reach remain heavily influenced by the government. There are also ongoing concerns about transparency of ownership of media outlets despite a law passed in 2010 limiting off shore ownership to 10 percent. We look forward to the January 2012 implementation of legislation designed to address these concerns. There are also reports of direct and indirect pressure on journalists, including the beating by security forces of journalists covering the events of the night of June 25-26, and the government’s tax inspection of Media Palitra shortly after it showed coverage of the events of June 25-26 in a manner unfavorable to the government.

Belarus has a poor record on freedom of expression—including for members of the media. The state maintains a monopoly on information about political, social, and economic affairs. Journalists risk fines and/or imprisonment for publishing views contrary to the official government line. This record further deteriorated with last December’s post-election crackdown; students, members of human rights organizations, bloggers, and political party activists were harassed, beaten, and imprisoned for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of assembly and expression. The further crackdown on independent media included beatings, detentions, convictions, searches, equipment confiscations and other forms of harassment, as well as threats of administrative closures of newspapers. Belarus has periodically blocked social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook and shut down opposition Internet sites. Customers at Internet cafes must present identity documents, and the cafes are responsible for maintaining lists of users and the websites they visit. Authorities routinely monitor emails and Internet traffic. Responding to the “silent protests” that took place in June and July, the government reportedly created “mirror” websites to divert users from accessing independent news sources and blocked access to the popular Vkontakte website before and during protest actions.

In Russia, journalists have risked—and lost—their lives to do their jobs. Paul Klebnikov, Anna Politkovskaya, and Natalya Estemirova and are only three of those who have paid the ultimate price for reporting the news. Journalists covering the ongoing violence in the North Caucasus and official corruption face especially dangerous conditions. Many journalists exercise self-censorship to avoid government pressure.

We welcome the Russian President Medvedev’s statement at the World Economic Forum in January that “Any attempts to limit the Internet or stifle innovation will lead the world to stagnation. Russian will not support initiatives that put Internet freedom in question.” The spread of the Internet undoubtedly has had a positive effect on Russian civil society, providing new opportunities for grassroots organizations to connect with citizens and new platforms to voice alternative viewpoints and hold government accountable. However, problems associated with press freedom for print media have begun to migrate to online media as well. Even when technical blocks or filtering are not deployed systematically, if people are punished physically or through legal action for peacefully expressing themselves online, Internet freedom is constrained. The threats to Internet freedom in Russia range from attacks on bloggers to criminal prosecutions for “extremism”, to the blocking of specific sites by local service providers, denial of service attacks on sites of opposition groups or independent media, and attempts by security services and some regional authorities to regulate Internet content.

In Ukraine, while many outlets for alternative, independent views still exist, the media in general have become less competitive as dominance by the state and oligarchs friendly to the authorities—both national and local—has grown. A number of journalists focusing on corruption at the local level have been threatened or attacked. Impunity for attacks on journalists and the media undermines democracy and the rule of law. It is troubling that authorities have not yet shed light on the disappearance of investigative reporter Vasyl Klymentyev in Kharkiv more than one year ago. And the closed door trial concerning the killing in 2000 of journalist Georgiy Gongadze challenges the right of the public to be informed. It is vital in a democracy that independent media can freely report on matters of public concern.

The United States shares the concern of the Representative on Freedom of the Media and others regarding media freedom in Macedonia. Most recently, the mandates of all members of the management board of the public broadcaster MRT were terminated, a move which could compromise the independence of the broadcaster. When combined with the closure earlier this year of A1 TV and three newspapers accused of tax evasion, we see an overall downward trend, leaving Macedonian citizens with fewer media choices.

In Turkey, scores of Turkish journalists are behind bars, and thousands more are under investigation. A recent survey of journalists indicated that 85.1% of those polled said censorship and self-censorship are definitely common in the Turkish media, while 14.9% said censorship and self-censorship are fairly common. We are increasingly concerned by the restrictions that the Government of Turkey places on Internet freedom. According to the excellent report issued by the Representative of Freedom of the Media, Turkey has the broadest legal measures in the OSCE region for blocking access to websites by specifying 11 content-related crimes, and is considering even further filtering of content. We welcome Ankara’s decision to delay the introduction of new Internet measures, including a nationwide filtering package which members of civil society and industry opposed as a further restriction of Internet freedom. We urge the authorities to respond to their concerns and ensure that any new Internet policies respect a free and open Internet in Turkey.

Digital networks are essential to everyday life in the 21st Century. They empower those working for human dignity and they are an engine of national and global prosperity. At the same time, the Internet’s force and reach make it a target for intrusive governmental regulation. The United States is determined to lead by example and demonstrate by our own actions that increased security and enhanced user privacy go hand-in-hand with keeping the Internet open and free.

All participating States, the United States included, have a responsibility to uphold the solemn OSCE commitments we have made in the crucial areas of freedom of expression and media freedom. We have a responsibility to investigate and prosecute violence against journalists. And we have a responsibility to ensure a political climate that is conducive to the functioning of independent, pluralistic media via traditional and new technologies. We must meet these responsibilities with no excuses and no delay.

 


Deputy Assistant Secretary Melia on Eastern European Democracy

Deputy Assistant Secretary Thomas O. Melia. State Department photograph by Matthew G. Miller.

Deputy Assistant Secretary Thomas O. Melia. State Department photograph by Matthew G. Miller.

As prepared for delivery.

Thank you, Chairman Burton, Ranking Member Meeks, and Members of the Committee. I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you today about the state of human rights and democracy in Eastern Europe. Before I turn to U.S. policy toward this region, Assistant Secretary Michael Posner asked me to send his regards to the Committee, and to emphasize that the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor is keenly interested in working closely with Members of this Committee to address both the challenges and the opportunities in this key region.

President Obama has said that, “Europe is the cornerstone of our engagement with the world and a catalyst for global cooperation.” Certainly, we are all sadly aware that during the last century, Europe was the venue for two world wars and the Cold War. Twenty years after the fall of communism in Europe and the breakup of the Soviet Union, it is appropriate to look at how the region has developed and to note where there has been progress and where there has been disappointment. The Committee is wise to distill lessons learned and to look closely at the challenges that remain.

This is a timely moment to discuss democracy in the region given recent events as well. Lithuania has just concluded a very successful term as chair of the Community of Democracies, and it continues until December as Chairman-in-Office of the OSCE. Moldova has this year seen an orderly change of government and improvements in democratic performance. Turkey and Hungary — both NATO allies and countries in the midst of consolidating democratic transitions – are pursuing major constitutional reforms. And in recent weeks the people of Belarus have found creative ways to protest against harsh repression.

Of course, we hope that we one day achieve a Europe “whole, free, and at peace,” but for now our job is to lay the groundwork for that future. We believe that the consolidation of genuine democracy in Central and Eastern Europe is in fact a pre-requisite for our other goals in the region.

Strong European democracies – with respect for minorities, tolerance of dissent, freedom of assembly and expression, regular and democratic elections, and credible and accessible justice systems that recognize all individuals are equal before the law – are the strongest allies of the United States and bring the best prospects for peace, stability, security, and prosperity in the broader world.

The focus of today’s hearing is “democracy in Eastern Europe” – which I have interpreted to mean Central and Eastern Europe and the European portions of the former Soviet Union, but before I turn to that area, I want to take a moment to make clear that we have an important common agenda even with the most advanced democracies in Europe. Just as the United States strives to build a “more perfect union,” we collaborate with our good friends in Europe to discuss and address continuing concerns in our own countries, like the fair treatment of minorities.

As the Secretary has noted, “[f]ar too often and in too many places, Roma continue to experience racial profiling, violence, segregation, and other forms of discrimination. ” Anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents are too common. Individuals with disabilities struggle to participate fully in governance due to limited accessibility for voting and other aspects of civic life. Members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community face discrimination and violence in many parts of Europe – although we were pleased to see the government of Serbia successfully protect participants in a Belgrade pride parade last year, and I spoke in mid-June at a Baltic Pride symposium in Tallinn.

I begin with the issue of minorities not to find fault with any particular country but to emphasize that we should approach the promotion of human rights with some humility. By talking about our own shortcomings –as strong as our democracy is, and it is very strong the United States is not perfect — we disarm those who claim that promoting human rights and democracy is meddling in others’ internal affairs.

In addition to the matter of how we treat our minorities, I want to add a caveat about our common project of transatlantic integration. The promise of EU and NATO membership has been highly effective in promoting reform and democracy-strengthening on the continent. Ten former Communist countries from the former Yugoslavia and the Warsaw Pact have now joined the EU. In every case, the Democracy Index scores from Freedom House’s Nations in Transit report declined the year after admission to the EU. Membership in these organizations has therefore not resolved democratic concerns in several places.

With that I’d like to turn to a brief survey of the region, beginning with some of the countries we consider more integrated within Europe and moving outward to the eastern border and some of the tougher cases.

Several recent events are cause for significant concern about Hungary’s democratic trajectory. Hungary is an important EU and NATO member. At the same time, we have seen the current one-party government use its unprecedented two-thirds parliamentary majority to lock in changes to the constitution that could solidify its power, limit checks and balances, and unduly hamstring future democratic governments in effectively addressing new political, economic and social challenges. The government replaced members of a media oversight board, for example, with candidates aligned with the ruling party. More disconcerting, the board has been given the power to issue decrees and impose heavy fines – up to $950,000 – for news coverage it considers “unbalanced” or offensive to “human dignity.”

Secretary Clinton stated during her June 30 visit, “As friends of Hungary, we … [call] for a real commitment to the independence of the judiciary, a free press, and governmental transparency.” We are urging the government to temper the pace of change, to be more inclusive and to limit the number of issues covered by so-called “cardinal laws,” which require a two-thirds majority to change. In particular, we will ask the government to carefully reconsider the new law on “the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion and on the Status of Churches, Religions and Religious Communities,” which requires re-registration of all but 14 religious groups, negatively impacting the religious freedom atmosphere in Hungary. We will continue to engage Hungary in a broad dialogue in coming months, as the government works to implement its new constitution.

Albania is another NATO partner – and aspiring EU member – facing challenges to its democratization. While the conduct of municipal elections in May was better than in previous elections, the extremely close race for the mayor of Tirana exposed some of the continuing flaws in Albania’s electoral system. The United States, along with our EU and OSCE partners, expressed our strong reservations about the Central Elections Commission decision to count certain “miscast” ballots that created the perception that rules were changed in the middle of the process. We appreciate the fact that the opposition pursued its complaints through appropriate legal channels. And we note that the Electoral College has made its final rulings on the complaints related to the Tirana mayoral race, thereby concluding the election process. While we now expect all sides to accept the final results once confirmed, we also expect them to follow the recommendations of ODIHR and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission. We urge governing and opposition parties to get back to work on the EU reform agenda and get Albania moving forward again.

There are significant challenges in the rest of the Balkans, and as [Under] Secretary Burns stated earlier this month, “the United States remains deeply committed to helping this region achieve our common goals.” For example, in the Western Balkans, DRL programs are supporting interethnic collaboration, civic education, and access to justice, especially for marginalized populations such as the Roma.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the political leaders have yet to fulfill their most basic responsibility to their citizens by failing to form a state government nearly 10 months since their last elections. We urge Bosnian leaders to move rapidly to form a coalition that is broad-based and inclusive and capable of advancing reforms required for eventual EU and NATO integration. This includes implementing the European Court of Human Rights ruling in the Sejdic Finci case to allow non-Bosniaks, Serbs, or Croats to serve as a member of the Presidency or in the upper chamber of parliament. We remain deeply concerned by the Republika Srpska’s statements and actions attacking the legitimacy of state law enforcement and judicial institutions and the authorities of the High Representative, and suggesting the possibility of Republika Srspka secession. We continue to strongly support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Dayton Peace Accords, and the mandate of High Representative Valentin Inzko.

In Kosovo, the country has achieved much progress in establishing a multiethnic, democratic state in its first three years of independence. The election of President Jahjaga demonstrated political maturity in Kosovo, with governing and opposition parties coming together for the good of the country. The United States, with its international partners, remains committed to strengthening Kosovo’s institutional capacity, expanding its economic development, and supporting a police force and judicial system throughout the country that serves and protects all communities. We remain deeply concerned by the actions of Serb “parallel structures” in the north that obstruct positive change and foster an environment of intimidation. The EU-facilitated dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia has yielded some initial technical agreements to improve freedom of movement, make whole the Kosovo civil registry, and ensure mutual acceptance of diplomas, but there is still much that can and must be accomplished.

I visited Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan last month, meeting with senior government officials, civil society activists, opposition party leaders, and independent journalists. In Georgia, there have been notable developments since the 2003 Rose Revolution. While we have observed improvements in some areas, a great deal of work remains to be done in order to address ongoing concerns about Georgia’s democratic development. It is particularly important that we see substantial progress in advance of 2012 parliamentary and 2013 presidential elections that we hope will mark that country’s first peaceful, fully democratic transfer of power since its independence from the Soviet Union. We are pleased that Georgia has adopted new laws that when implemented will enhance media transparency and facilitate the registration of minority religions as religious organizations.

Georgia should now focus on promoting political pluralism, advancing media freedom, adopting and implementing important electoral code reforms in consultation with the Venice Commission and OSCE/ODIHR, strengthening judicial independence, and ensuring that the freedom of assembly is allowed in accordance with international standards. The United States also continues to press Georgia to bring its labor code up to ILO standards, and address allegations of politically motivated cases against labor activists.

In neighboring Azerbaijan, we are concerned about fundamental freedoms. Elections in Azerbaijan continue to fall below international standards. According to the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), November 7, 2010 parliamentary elections included a deficient candidate registration process, limits on freedom of assembly and expression, a restrictive political environment, unbalanced media coverage of candidates, and problems in vote counting and tabulation. Continued restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly, and association impair political party activities and significantly limit citizens’ right to change their government through peaceful elections.

The imprisonment of independent activists such as Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, opposition party activists such as Jabbar Savalanli, and human rights defender Vidadi Iskenderov, is a continuing problem widely perceived to be politically motivated. We continue to urge Azerbaijan to resolve these and related cases in a manner consistent with the government’s commitments to freedom of assembly and expression. The government should allow the National Democratic Institute and “Human Rights House Azerbaijan” to resume their activities, and permit Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to use national FM frequencies. We urge greater respect for religious freedom, including permitting the registration of minority religions and allowing individuals to manifest their beliefs through religious attire. I raised many of these issues with senior government officials during my visit.

For Armenia, I want to highlight the need for greater media diversity, including both a transparent and fair digitalization process, and for greater respect for independent media outlets such as GALATV. We also support greater respect for religious freedom, including alternative civilian service for conscientious objectors, as the European Court of Human Rights called for in its July 7 ruling. We welcome the government’s recent efforts to create a dialogue with the Armenian National Congress, and urge them to extend this effort to all opposition parties. The government’s release of detainees from the March 2008 post- presidential election violence is also a welcome development; however, we encourage the government to fulfill its promise of a fuller investigation of post-election violence that left 10 people dead, and hold accountable those responsible. Upcoming 2012 elections in Armenia, as in the other South Caucasus countries, are an important opportunity for the government to demonstrate progress in fulfilling its commitments to democratization.

In all three South Caucasus countries, U.S. government programs promote a number of universal values, including democratic electoral processes, and capacity building for defense lawyers, human rights organizations, and independent media.

Across the border from Armenia, we have great interest in the developments of NATO ally, Turkey. As the Secretary noted in her visit to Istanbul last week,

“Our partnership is rooted in a long history and a very long list of mutual interests, but most importantly it is rooted in our common democratic values. …Turkey’s upcoming constitutional reform process presents an opportunity to address concerns about recent restrictions … [on] freedom of expression and religion, to bolster protections for minority rights, and advance the prospects for EU membership, which we wholly and enthusiastically support. We also hope that a process will include civil society and parties…. I hope that sometime soon we can see the reopening of the Halki Seminary that highlights Turkey’s strength of democracy and its leadership in a changing region. I think across the region, people … are seeking to draw lessons from Turkey’s experience.”

Mr. Chairman, these remarks by the Secretary in Istanbul reflect of the importance of our relationship with Turkey, the interests the two of us share regionally and globally, and our strong support for the continued development of democratic institutions and practices in Turkey. Following the June 12 elections, resulting in the re-election of Prime Minister Erdogan and his Justice and Development party, we are particularly interested in how the Turkish people will strengthen their democracy as they rewrite their constitution.

As the Secretary’s remarks illustrate, the United States is a strong defender of freedoms of expression and the press in Turkey. We are closely monitoring the recent arrests of journalists. We have urged that any investigations and prosecutions proceed in a transparent manner and that all defendants be assured due process in accordance with international standards. We note that the OSCE, EU, the Council of Europe, numerous non-governmental organizations, and many Turks have issued statements expressing concern about these actions and other constraints on freedom of expression in Turkey. We hope that Turkey will continue to undertake necessary legal reforms to protect freedom of expression, not only to further its EU accession process but to strengthen Turkish democracy.

We will also be interested to see how Turkey’s constitutional reforms address the situation of minorities, including members of the Kurdish and minority religious communities. A parliament that represents all of Turkey will be a stronger parliament. We also encourage the government to take steps to protect members of the LGBT community, which has experienced recurring violence and harassment.

We have noted the Turkish government’s positive movement in some areas of expanding religious freedom for all, including its decision to grant Turkish citizenship to 12 Orthodox metropolitans in October 2010 and return several important properties to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. We continue to urge the government to reopen Halki Seminary and to recognize the places of worship of the country’s unrecognized religious populations, like Alevis and Protestant Christians, and grant legal personality to the leading Greek, Armenian, and Jewish religious institutions.

Mr. Chairman, Ukraine, like Turkey, is an important partner, but unlike Turkey, Ukraine’s democratic trajectory of late has been distinctly less positive. I visited Ukraine during the second week of July – for the third time in nine months – and met with government officials, the opposition, and civil society.

Establishing the rule of law, protecting minorities and reforming the criminal justice system are central to Ukraine’s future prosperity, democracy, and aspirations toward European integration. As you know, former government officials, including former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, are facing prosecution. During my visit, I emphasized our concern about politically-motivated prosecutions of opposition figures and the potential impact on political competition. When the senior leadership of the preceding government – now in opposition – is the focus of prosecutions, out of proportion with other political figures, this creates the appearance of a political motive. A conviction for Tymoshenko, who was narrowly defeated in the runoff for the presidency last year, would prevent her from standing for election in the 2012 parliamentary ballot.

We urge the government to continue its efforts to develop a new election law that will win the confidence of the public. Key aspects of the law, such as the nature of the voting system itself, have not been subject to debate by the working group. At the same time, we urge the government to deepen its engagement on electoral reform with Ukrainian civil society, NGOs, and a broad spectrum of political parties, and discuss the changes with the international community.

The Obama Administration has continued a long-standing, bipartisan policy of principled engagement with Belarus that centers on our consistent advocacy for democracy and human rights. Long before the recent crackdown, we were pressing Belarus to strengthen its adherence to democratic principles and to its human rights commitments and obligations as a prerequisite to improved bilateral relations. However, the brutal crackdown against civil society, independent media and the political opposition after the December 19, 2010 presidential elections demonstrated the government’s focus was on its own survival rather human rights and democracy.

I went to Minsk in January to demonstrate the U.S. government’s solidarity with the families of the political prisoners, and to consults with journalist, human rights lawyers and others. I also told government officials that it was entirely in the hands of the Lukashenko government whether the country would be further isolated from Europe and United States. In his testimony before you three months ago, Deputy Assistant Secretary Russell laid out our policy response to the crackdown. In coordination with the EU, the United States has imposed travel sanctions on individuals responsible for the crackdown and sanctions on certain state owned enterprises. President Obama publicly condemned the May convictions of opposition presidential candidates, and announced new sanctions against select Belarusian state-owned enterprises. Secretary Clinton called again for the release of all political prisoners in Vilnius in early July. Even as we impose additional measures targeting those in the government of Belarus responsible for the crackdown, we are simultaneously increasing our support for democratic actors. The United States has increased its democracy assistance to Belarus this year by 30%. U.S. assistance efforts are addressing immediate needs, providing legal and humanitarian assistance to those facing repression, preserving access to information to help the Belarusian public stay full informed, and increasing support to both the independent media and civil society.

We have also worked in multilateral fora – including the OSCE and the UN Human Rights Council – to highlight the country’s dire human rights situation.

Despite the continuing crackdown, we have witnessed remarkable developments over the last several weeks. Since June 1, “silent” protests – in which participants gather silently and clap their hands – have taken place across the country. The government responded with mass arrests.

Online protests have been even larger. Over 216,000 people joined a group on Vkontakte (the Russian-language equivalent of Facebook), calling for “Revolution via the social networks” in Belarus. Access to the page was blocked July 3, but a replacement page garnered 20,000 comments in two days. Bloggers and Internet journalists have continued to post videos of police harassment of peaceful demonstrators on YouTube. Security services have ordered the closure of a number of websites, and reports of denial of service and spear-phishing attacks have increased. Failing to completely suppress free expression via the Internet, Belarusian authorities created their own Twitter accounts, using them to send threatening messages.

Perhaps these protests are primarily motivated by the government’s management of the economy, which has resulted in a sharp devaluation of the Belarusian currency, shortages of foreign currency and surging inflation. As my fellow panelist David Kramer wrote in the Washington Post a few weeks ago, “[t]he people of Belarus are signaling they have had enough.” We have no illusions that persuading Belarus’s leaders to change course, support democracy and respect human rights and the rule of law will happen easily or quickly. But let me assure you that the United States will continue to punish those responsible for the crackdown and will increase support for those seeking to build a democratic Belarus.

Mr. Chairman, perhaps the most complex challenge to democratic reform in Europe is in Russia. I had the opportunity to visit Russia for six days in March. In my travels to Moscow, Perm and Yekaterinburg, I acquired a better sense of the diversity of opinion of the Russian people, their mounting unhappiness with the state of affairs and some of the challenges they face in advancing democracy.

Two weeks ago, Secretary Clinton and Foreign Minister Lavrov met in Washington. In addition to working together to address Iran’s nuclear threat, coordinating our diplomatic approach in Libya, consulting closely on the changes unfolding across the Middle East, and discussing such priorities as Afghanistan, missile defense cooperation, and Russia’s WTO accession, they also announced the conclusion of several partnership initiatives reflecting the importance of our relationship. The Secretary and Foreign Minister announced agreements to strengthen procedural safeguards in adoptions and to make travel between the two countries easier for Russians and Americans. At the same time, the Secretary underscored the importance of continuing democratic reform. It is within this context – a partnership of great breadth and strategic importance – that we continue to support a democratic, modern and successful Russia governed by the rule of law.

President Obama told attendees at Moscow State University on July 7, 2009, “… in our own history, democracies have been America’s most enduring allies …” In this vein, our partnership with Russia – its citizens and its government – will grow ever stronger and more durable to the extent that this partnership is based on shared democratic values, norms, and practices. Unfortunately, continued restrictions on fundamental freedoms – rights guaranteed in international and Russian domestic law – hinder the potential of Russian social, economic, and political development, and necessarily limit the possibilities for partnership.

We have concerns that the upcoming parliamentary elections in December may fall short of international standards. Pressure on the democratic opposition and independent media is pronounced. Last month, Secretary Clinton issued a statement expressing disappointment over the Russian decision to deny the registration of the opposition group PARNAS, effectively barring its participation in the December Duma election. Russia has invited ODHIR experts to conduct a needs assessment for an elections observer mission in lead-up to December’s parliamentary elections, and it is important that election officials will extend a formal, unrestricted invitation for this observation mission once the assessment is completed.

We continue to raise concerns about the assaults on freedoms of the press, assembly, and rule of law, particularly the numerous unsolved cases of murdered journalists like Paul Klebnikov and human rights activists like Natalia Estemirova; rampant corruption and impunity as exemplified by the case of Sergei Magnitsky; and restrictions on freedom of assembly for members of groups like Strategy 31, the Khimki Forest Defenders, and for members of various LGBT groups.

We continue to follow the treatment of minorities in Russia, including the application of the so-called “law on extremism” to peaceful religious groups. We hope the Russian government will consider amending the current law, and we strongly encourage Moscow authorities to implement the European Court of Human Rights’ decision of June 10, 2010 and register the Jehovah’s Witnesses Moscow community.

We are also concerned about inter-ethnic tensions and incidents of violence between ethnic Russians and minority groups, as well as by reports of serious human rights violations in the North Caucasus, particularly in Chechnya. These reports include disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture, and retribution against those who report abuses.

Our engagement with non-governmental organizations helps us gain an appreciation for the state of Russian society and encourages these groups to continue their important work. We are encouraged by the expansion of new media and internet penetration across Russia – creating new mechanisms for citizens to communicate, organize, and hold their government accountable – while we continue at the same time to monitor the mounting threats to Internet freedom such as criminal prosecutions of bloggers for libel or ‘extremism,’ to the blocking of specific sites by local service providers, denial of service (DDOS) attacks on sites site of opposition groups or independent media, and attempts by security services and regional authorities to regulate content.

Observing developments in Russia, we recognize there is a thirst for fundamental freedoms. As Vice President Biden stated during his visit to Moscow in February, “Polls show that most Russians want to choose their national and local leaders in competitive elections; to assemble freely; and to have a free press.” That’s also a message I heard when President Medvedev said that “freedom cannot be postponed.”

DRL programs in Russia focus on developing independent media and new media platforms, bolstering local human rights defenders’ capacity to advocate on issues of freedom of expression, assembly, and association; and energizing human rights advocacy working to combat police corruption. These activities are undertaken as part of a wider set of U.S. government programs – modest in the context of such a vast country – to advance democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Russia. Russia’s progress in these areas is essential to the health and productivity of our broader partnership.

Before I conclude, however, I want to share with you a few examples of the broader programs we are pursuing to help support democracy across the region and the globe. In a number of countries in Europe, civil society is facing significant pressure. Secretary Clinton noted this trend more than a year ago, and we have followed up in several ways.

In September 2010, we successfully refocused the UN Human Rights Council on defending civil society through the passage of an historic resolution creating the first special rapporteur on freedom of assembly and association. As Secretary Clinton noted, we hope the new rapporteur’s work “will become an impetus for countries around the world to strengthen protections for this fundamental freedom.”

In addition, the State Department and USAID have invested $50 million in supporting Internet freedom around the world, including Europe, and will have committed an additional $20 million by the end of 2011. These programs can enable activists to get around technical threats and firewalls enacted by repressive regimes, empowering them not merely to access censored content, but also to use new technologies to organize and to tell their stories to the world.

Last month in Vilnius, the Secretary launched the Lifeline: Embattled NGOs Assistance Fund, to help civil society groups with legal representation, cover medical bills arising from abuse, facilitate visits to activists in jail, and help replace equipment that is damaged or confiscated as a result of harassment.

These global initiatives, together with multilateral efforts, bilateral diplomacy and many bilateral and regional programs, comprise our efforts to promote democracy in Europe. We are grateful for the support of Congress — through funding, policy guidance, and oversight – in helping advance freedom.

Mr. Chairman, thank you again for the opportunity to appear before you today. I look forward to your questions.

 


Deputy Assistant Secretary Melia on LGBT Issues in U.S. Foreign Policy

Deputy Assistant Secretary Thomas O. Melia

Deputy Assistant Secretary Thomas O. Melia

Five years ago, here in Tallinn, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender advocates put on the first Pride parade the city had seen. Some in Tallinn didn’t seem to like it. Some people tried to stop the parade, at times even using violence. During the first two Baltic Pride celebrations in 2009 in Riga and last year in Vilnius, participants also encountered protests and even violence. The police and government leaders have protected the Pride parades and have agreed with LGBT advocates who insisted that they go on no matter what. Indeed they should. Indeed Pride celebrations in every part of the world should go on – whether in Tallinn or Moscow or Kampala. Pride celebrations bring together people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender and their fellow advocates to highlight the importance of standing up to prejudice and discrimination. Barney Frank is an openly-gay member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and he has helped to define why we call it Pride. When asked why people are proud of a characteristic that is natural and innate, he said we are proud for standing up against hate, against prejudice, against violence. Especially when it can be so difficult to stand up and say, “This is who I am,” one should be so proud for doing so. I am proud of those here who have done so, and I thank you for demonstrating that pride and showing so many others how they, too, can be proud.

I would like to thank Urmas Vaino for hosting this conference and Estonian Gay Youth (EGN), the Tolerant Youth Association from Lithuania, the Lithuanian Gay League, and Mozaika from Latvia for organizing Baltic Pride events and for inviting me to participate. It is truly a pleasure to be here. I would also like to thank the government officials and members of parliament who are participating in this year’s Baltic Pride events, demonstrating great leadership and support of the LGBT community. The United States joins the European Union, the Government of Estonia, Open Estonia Foundation, and numerous embassies in supporting 2011 Baltic Pride. Today’s discussions have included many that are occurring in my own country: tolerance and acceptance, bullying, marriage equality, and the role of media in discussing LGBT issues, among others. These are important issues to discuss, and I am glad to contribute to them by specifically addressing the inclusion of LGBT advocacy within U.S. foreign policy.

Ambassador Michael C. Polt with Pride Event attendees at Baltic Pride Event in Tallinn Estonia

Ambassador Michael C. Polt (in blue polo) with Pride Event attendees at Baltic Pride Event in Tallinn Estonia

In every part of the world, men and women are subjected to horrific violence, persecution, and threats simply because of who they are or whom they love. We are gathered here today to discuss how we, as governments and individuals, can address this discrimination that harms so many people. Homophobia and transphobia, along with the brutal hostility that accompany them, are often based in a lack of understanding of what it actually means to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. To address these misperceptions, we must work together to improve education and support those who stand up against laws that criminalize love and promote hate.

As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton so passionately stated one year ago, “Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.” Human rights are universal. People cannot be excluded from their protection because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The United States will continue to advance a comprehensive human rights agenda that includes the elimination of violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. We are elevating our human rights dialogues with other governments and conducting public diplomacy to protect the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

Ambassador Michael C. Polt at Baltic Pride Event in Tallinn Estonia

Ambassador Michael C. Polt (in blue polo) at Baltic Pride Event in Tallinn Estonia

We produce an annual Human Rights Report that includes a section on how LGBT people are treated in every country. And last year, we announced a new grant to provide emergency aid to human rights defenders in Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East who are at risk, either because they work on these issues or because of their LGBT status.

The United States is also focused on threats facing LGBT refugees. People are far too often forced to flee their homes and communities to escape threats from their government, their neighbors, or even their own family members. And once they find refuge in another country, they often face persecution within refugee camps or within their new country of resettlement. The United States is increasing its efforts to protect LGBT refugees, who are often among the most vulnerable of populations.

The United States is committed to supporting LGBT communities everywhere. Whether by supporting LGBT advocates marching in Belgrade, leading the effort at the United Nations to affirm the human rights of LGBT persons, or condemning a vile law under consideration in Uganda, we are committed to our friends and allies in every region of the world who are fighting for equality and justice. These are not Western concepts; these are universal human rights.

We have made some progress in recent years, but we have also encountered great resistance and back-sliding. We witness intense and frightening anti-LGBT sentiment coming from the most surprising of places, including from politicians, religious leaders, and celebrities. Such hatred poisons so-called “free” societies. Earlier this year, LGBT advocate David Kato was murdered in his home country of Uganda. He worked to promote the rights of those who struggle daily just to survive in their communities, let alone be accepted by them. Because of his work and because of his status as a prominent LGBT advocate, David Kato’s picture appeared on the cover of a fringe newspaper with a headline that read, “Hang them.” Such public calls for violence cannot go unchallenged. After hearing of his murder, President Obama said that “David showed tremendous courage in speaking out against hate.” President Obama reaffirmed the U.S. Government’s commitment to LGBT communities everywhere, saying, “We do this because we recognize the threat faced by leaders like David Kato, and we share in their commitment to advancing freedom, fairness, and equality for all.”

We each have a responsibility to help break this terrible cycle. The United States has responded by condemning negative actions and raising LGBT issues with government leaders across the world. In Honduras, the United States worked closely with the Justice Ministry to establish a special office devoted to investigating the unsolved murders of over 30 LGBT people. At the Human Rights Council in March, the U.S. co-led with Colombia and Slovenia the international lobbying effort on a joint statement on ending acts of violence against LGBT people, which was signed by Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and 82 other countries—18 more than signed onto any previous UN statement on LGBT issues. This was also the first such statement to call for the decriminalization of LGBT status.

The responsibility is not just for governments and the United Nations, however. Each of us as individuals also has a responsibility to help break the cycle. Whether by confronting bullying when we witness it in schools or on the streets or by helping to inform our friends and neighbors about what it means to be LGBT, we can help to move our world closer to acceptance. As we progress as nations, we also experience an ongoing expansion of what it means to be a citizen in a democracy. Our collective understanding of the issues facing each of us as individuals and all of us as a community continuously evolves. The bar of citizenship rises; we are all expected to understand and respect each other more, as our societies become more inclusive. This progress is not new, however – it has ever been such. At the present moment, the defining question for our generation is whether we will do the necessary to secure equal citizenship for fellow citizens who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Earlier generations did this for women, Jews, Catholics, immigrants, racial minorities, and others, knocking down the barriers that precluded equality and kept them from exercising the rights that had always been theirs.

As Secretary Clinton said, “I hope that each and every one of us will recommit ourselves to building a future in which every person – every, single person can live in dignity, free from violence, free to be themselves, free to live up to their God-given potential wherever they live and whoever they are.”

The United States will continue to challenge the antiquated standards and laws of society that allow for the erosion of human rights, because no free society can thrive when its government or people repress those with the least power and influence. I thank you for the work you do, often in unfriendly, even dangerous circumstances, to advance the rights and dignity of all people. Together, as governments and individuals, we will break this cycle of hatred and violence.

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Deputy Assistant Secretary Melia at the Conference on Journalists’ Safety in the OSCE Region

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Thomas O. Melia

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Thomas O. Melia. State Department Photo by Matthew G. Miller.

Thank you, Dunja, for the warm welcome and for all the work that your office and our Lithuanian hosts have put into making this conference a reality. I am grateful for your including me today on this panel of experts. I value the input that my colleagues have shared today, and I hope to build upon their helpful remarks by sharing some thoughts of my own, as a government official, on what we, the participating States, must do to ensure the safety of journalists.

I am sorry to say that the topic of this conference is all too fitting and necessary. We know, unfortunately, that the threat against independent broadcast, print, and online journalists in our region is very real.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, in its global campaign against impunity, has noted that 546 journalists have been killed around the world with complete impunity since 1992. Three countries from our region – Russia, Tajikistan, and Turkey – are on the list of the top 20 countries that CPJ has recorded with unsolved, or in some instances entirely unaddressed, cases of murdered journalists. These murders are the most tragic cases, but there are hundreds more involving non-fatal violence against journalists that compounds the chilling effect.

Government officials in our region too often cast the reporting of what is happening in their countries as the problem to be addressed, rather than to focus on the underlying social issues that are being reported. Restrictive laws and administrative measures constrain the fundamental freedom of expression and independent media outlets and their employees are subjected to government harassment, as well as threatening actions by private actors tolerated by governments.

Last October a court in Uzbekistan convicted Voice of America stringer Abdumalik Boboyev of “libel and insulting the Uzbek people,” and fined him approximately $8,000. Boboyev told the Committee to Protect Journalists the conviction was in retaliation for his critical reporting on the widespread government corruption, human rights abuses, the weak economy and flaws in the Uzbek healthcare system. In May, the government denied Boboyev an exit visa to travel to Germany, where he had been awarded a scholarship from the Hamburg Foundation for the Politically Persecuted.

In April, Turkmen authorities confined 80-year old Amangelen Shapudakov, a Radio Free Europe contributor, to a psychiatric hospital after he criticized a local government official for corruption in an interview with Radio Azatlyk, RFE’s Turkmen Service. Still, we welcome the Government of Turkmenistan’s pledge to the Chairman-in-Office during a meeting in Ashgabat last week to welcome a visit by Dunja Mijatovic before October, and hope for a frank discussion of this and other cases.

You all well know the challenges – many of you are journalists yourselves, working under repressive conditions despite the grave risks – and we are here today to broach solutions that may well involve governments and journalists working in partnership. I want to note with appreciation the presentation this morning by Professor Mikhail Fedotov, Chairman of the Russian President’s Council on the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights. He presented an analytical framework describing the various components of journalists’ safety, including physical, legal, informational, economic and psychological dimensions of safety. He also spoke about the shared responsibility for journalists’ safety on the part of government, the media, businesses, civil society, and the journalists themselves. Let me be clear: Governments bear the fundamental responsibility to ensure that journalists are free to practice their professions without interference or reprisal by state authorities. We must be frank about this basic governmental responsibility as an essential step in mustering the necessary political will – to combat violence against journalists from any quarter.

As one of the few government officials on this panel today, I wish to focus on three areas where the participating States must take action: First, and quite simply, we have a responsibility to uphold the solemn OSCE commitments we all have made in the area of media freedom. These commitments clearly outline the importance of pluralistic, independent media and reflect our pledges – reaffirmed on multiple occasions – to foster it, not muzzle it. We owe it to ourselves and to our citizens to make them a reality. No excuses and no delay.

Second, we have a responsibility to investigate and prosecute violence against journalists, whether the suspected perpetrators are to be found inside or outside of government. Debates may rage in this room about when it is necessary or whether it can ever be appropriate to restrict speech, but none of us have laws on our books that make murder of, or violence, against citizens – including journalists – acceptable. When cases of violence against journalists languish, when justice is denied for the killing or beating of a journalist just because authorities do not like what he or she says, the rule of law that is necessary for modern societies to function successfully is undermined. Impunity must end.

We welcomed the news from Russia last week that a third suspect in the 2006 murder case of journalist Anna Politkovskaya – apparently the trigger man – had been apprehended, and we hope this will lead to a full public description of the crime and accountability for all involved. We call on Russia to take further steps towards addressing the problem of impunity for those who attack journalists, and will continue to raise the cases of Paul Klebnikov and Natalia Estemirova.

On February 7, unknown assailants attacked and seriously injured Hikmatullo Sayfullozoda, press secretary of the opposition Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan and editor of its newspaper. The United States and the European Union called on the government to conduct a thorough investigation of the attack and prosecute those responsible to the fullest extent of the law.

Third, we have a responsibility to ensure a public, political climate that is conducive to the functioning of independent, pluralistic media. Condemning and prosecuting violence against journalists is one key way to create such a climate. Fostering open, frank public dialogue and debate on the whole range of domestic and foreign issues is also crucial. Government officials can lead by example, set the tone, and make it clear that they respect the role of free media in society, even when they disagree with a journalist’s reporting or views. Government officials can ensure that their ministries and departments establish professional press offices, make documents available to the press, and hold press conferences where journalists can ask – and even sometimes receive answers to – important questions about the functioning of government. Our governments need to do much more than apprehend murderers of journalists; we need to treat journalists as the vital partners in public service that they are.

Unfortunately, that is clearly not the case today in Belarus. The government there continues to severely restrict media by on-going efforts to close two of the few remaining independent newspapers in the country, Nasha Niva and Narodnaya Volya. In addition to threatening and detaining local journalists, the government continues to expel foreign journalists and ban their re-entry. President Lukashenko recently criticized Belarusian journalists who work with foreign organizations and ordered the government to “make sure those media organizations no longer work on our territory.” This is taking Belarus further away from Europe and from the norms of democratic society enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act and many subsequent declarations, including most recently the 2010 Astana Commemorative Declaration.

Political leaders in my own country are often the most disparaged and lampooned of public figures, and are often made to feel as if the press will never give them proper credit for their accomplishments. Former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson once said, “If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read: ‘The President Can’t Swim.’”

The laws and policies that we as government officials are pursuing may be slowed down as public debate rages about them, questions and criticisms fly, and we are forced to more clearly articulate why something is necessary or beneficial – or to reconsider our policies or plans. I understand this all too well, as I came to government after spending much of my career in the non-governmental sector. I went from a life of criticizing and advising governments (not least my own) to a position where I am obliged to explain, to our Congress and to the press, what our policies are and why they sometimes don’t seem to be as effective as we would hope. Having been on both sides of the public dialogue, I can say that in either case, the role of the media is indispensible for illuminating facts, exposing abuses so that they may be corrected, explaining perspectives, and generating public momentum behind deserving policies. We need to commend the work of journalists in the effective governance and development of our societies, not constrain it.

As diplomats, journalists, or civil society representatives, we may cajole each other, point fingers, or win adherents to our sides of the argument in debates around media freedom or the press in gatherings such as this. But that cannot substitute for governments living up to their commitments and demonstrating the will that is necessary to ensure that journalists are protected, that our societies are open, and that the free flow information and ideas serves as a force for innovation, reform, growth and development within our countries, across the region and around the world.

I look forward to the rest of this conference and the ideas it will generate in support of media freedom, the work of journalists, and a successful future for our region. Thank you very much.

 


OSCE Session on Press Freedom

Session 4: Freedom of the Media

The right to know one’s rights, in order to be able to act on them, was framed in the Helsinki Final Act as a founding principle of comprehensive human security. A free media is a vital cornerstone of modern democratic society, ensuring not only free expression — including the reporting of news and competing views on policy options — but also enabling the consumers of news to know their rights and thus, to exercise their rights. This is why we in the OSCE have created a Representative on Freedom of the Media, so ably filled at present by Ms. Dunja Mijatovic.

Indeed, I would like to thank Ms. Mijatovic for raising the recent arrest of journalists at Fort Benning in the American state of Georgia. Her wholly appropriate inquiry has been presented in a formal letter to my government, and we look forward to clarifying the events in question as part of our ongoing effort to ensure that media freedom is fully respected in the United States.

Unfortunately, free and independent media are consistently and severely threatened in numerous participating States. Not surprisingly, where democratic development has stalled or regressed, authorities all too often bring the full force of the state to bear against independent voices, including via frequent tax and other inspections, physical intimidation and even threats against family members. Today, however, I want to focus on two concerning trends: the deployment by governments of defamation or insult laws that improperly constrain free expression by journalists, and the proliferation of new laws and tactics to stifle Internet freedom.

Before that, however, I must return to a topic my delegation raised in Warsaw: physical attacks on journalists in the OSCE region. The United States condemns the heinous attacks on Russian journalists Oleg Kashin and Anatoly Adamchuk and the similar disabling assault on Mikhail Beketov in 2008. We welcome the recent decision to reopen the investigation into Mr. Beketov’s brutal beating and the Russian authorities’ public condemnation of the attack on Mr. Kashin. But the impunity in these and scores of other cases of attacks on journalists must end.

The United States has repeatedly urged participating States to repeal laws criminalizing so-called “defamation” and other expressions of opinion. We therefore welcome the decriminalization of most instances of defamation in Armenia, as we have welcomed decriminalization by eleven other participating States to date, including Georgia and Ukraine. It is critical that civil penalties or other criminal statutes not be applied in order to cripple media outlets.

We join Ms. Mijatovic in calling on Kyrgyzstan to build on the freedom of expression guarantees in its new Constitution and to take further steps to decriminalize defamation.

In Tajikistan and Belarus, libel and slander, especially of high-ranking civil servants, remain criminal offenses.

Likewise, laws in Turkmenistan accord special protections to state officials and symbols, which means that persons can be fined or imprisoned for exercising their fundamental freedom to express opinion.

We call upon Uzbekistan to stop the criminal prosecution of journalists based solely on the content of their reporting. In all, nearly a dozen journalists are known to be jailed in Uzbekistan on dubious charges including extortion, drug trafficking, and “illegal distribution of materials.”

In Kazakhstan, several opposition weekly publications have been subjected to exorbitant fines for “defamation.” According to the local NGO Adil Soz, in 2009 alone 149 defamation claims were filed seeking a total of $17 million dollars in damages. Of those plaintiffs, 69 — about half — were government officials.

While Turkey amended Article 301 of the Penal Code, individuals continue to be subject to criminal proceedings under this and other laws for statements that are deemed to denigrate the “Turkish state” and its founder, symbol, or institutions. Provisions under the Anti-Terror Law are used to curtail free expression on some topics such as Kurdish identity.

We welcome the court decision in Azerbaijan to release bloggers Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli. However, newspaper editor Eynulla Fatullayev remains imprisoned on a series of charges, including criminal defamation, which international and domestic observers consider politically motivated.

Madam Moderator, not infrequently, those charged with insulting or defaming officials are in fact reporting on the very real corruption that afflicts many countries. For instance, Kazakhstan has not released imprisoned editor Ramazan Yesergepov, whose case my delegation raised in Warsaw.

In Albania, Top Channel TV was ordered to pay a huge fine earlier this year to a former government minister in connection with an expose on alleged corruption.

In open, democratic societies, criticizing or lampooning leaders and policies is not met with a harsh governmental response. Satire, especially when focused on the high and the mighty, is a facet of rich social dialogue from which citizens in many countries have benefited. In my own country, in fact, as in numerous participating States, cartoonists and critical commentators do not go to jail or lose their jobs for sharp-edged critiques. Indeed, some win prizes, such as the prestigious annual Pulitzer prize for commentary.

Turning to my second theme, the challenges to free expression in the Internet Age, Secretary of State Clinton has observed that “now, there are more ways to spread more ideas to more people than at any moment in history.” Yet authoritarian governments instead seek to block the free flow of information made possible by modern communications technologies.

For instance, access to the Internet remains tightly restricted in Turkmenistan, where independent online reporters and their families face increasing harassment.

Strict controls on political content and blocking of Internet sites occur in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

In Belarus, Internet legislation reinforces the already tight control and censorship of traditional media.

Meanwhile, Turkish authorities have blocked more than 5,000 Internet sites, many with content on sensitive social and political issues.

Over the past year, Russian authorities, too, have increased pressure on websites exposing corruption and police wrongdoing. Some sites have been blocked as “extremist.” Law enforcement officers demanded that a prominent blogger provide passwords to a discussion forum dedicated to the Raspadskaya coal mine accident, which they then used to disable the forum.

If the participating States in the OSCE are to live up to the promises made when we each subscribed to the Helsinki Final Act, then we require a feisty and combative press — and effective mechanisms to ensure their freedom.

As Ms. Mijatovic said at the outset of this session, it is not enough simply that her office should exist. The governments of the OSCE must act on her recommendations and give real meaning to the Helsinki commitments regarding freedom of media.

In this spirit, the United States today recommits itself to continual improvement in our recognition and enforcement of this vital freedom, at home no less than abroad.

We invite participating States to join us in addressing these concerns and to dedicate themselves to implementing our shared commitments on media freedom.

Thank you.

 
 

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