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Europe: Rights Body Seeks Common Ground On Media Freedoms

Ministers from the 46 member states of the Council of Europe have met in Kyiv to discuss the media in the 21st century. Much of the debate centered on the rights and role of the media in the fight against terrorism. Clear divisions emerged, with some member states arguing that restrictions are necessary. Others rejected any government involvement in the way journalists cover crises.

Kyiv, 15 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The debate polarized participants in the conference on 10-11 March. Two schools of thought emerged.

One school -- led by Russia and Turkey -- was more concerned with the content of coverage that the rights of the media.

The other, led most vocally by Sweden, advocated near total media freedom and rejected government interference.

The tensions were evident in the summaries offered by Council of Europe officials.
"If the feeling is that the restrictions [placed] by the authorities on the [ability] of the media to report on a terrorist event [are] excessive or [have] been excessive, then there should be the possibility to go to court. And that is exactly why it is necessary to set an appropriate regulatory framework for all these matters, so that the courts also have a foot on which to stand."

Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, a deputy head of the organization, defended media freedoms, but also indicated that restrictions are necessary. She said measures imposed by authorities must not be disproportionate, but added that the media must not accord disproportionate attention or offer a platform to terrorists.

Asked by RFE/RL who has the final say in determining the balance, Boer appealed to the courts and national legislation.
"If the feeling is that the restrictions [placed] by the authorities on the [ability] of the media to report on a terrorist event [are] excessive or [have] been excessive, then there should be the possibility to go to court," Boer said. "And that is exactly why it is necessary to set an appropriate regulatory framework for all these matters, so that the courts also have a foot on which to stand."

However, laws clearly differ among the Council of Europe's member states. Turkey's representative, for instance, put the burden of proof squarely on journalists and their "professional ethics."

"The basic rules are especially [relevant to the content of] the information," said Tuerkan Sebnem Bilget, a top official at Turkey's Radio and Television Supreme Council. "[It] should be accurate, confirmed, fast, and not provocative. That's the most important part."

Bilget said laws in Turkey allow for strict measures to be taken against media outlets whose coverage of terrorism is seen as faulty, although she said such laws are being relaxed. Earlier, she said a TV or radio station's license could be temporarily revoked, but that more recently fines have become a key instrument.

The Russian representative at the Kyiv conference similarly argued that the media needs to enforce self-regulation in order to prevent terrorists from "moving the battlefield to TV screens."

Leonid Nadirov, deputy minister at the Ministry of Culture and Mass Communications, said Russian journalists last year signed an "anti-terrorist" convention after authorities concluded media coverage of the deadly Moscow theater siege in 2002 had not been conducted "with a full understanding of how to behave in such situations."

During the Beslan tragedy last fall, however, he said the convention's ethical rules "ensured the situation was much better" and that, among other things, "footage was carefully selected."

Nadirov suggested that other Council of Europe member states initiate similar "training" programs.

Such views were fiercely opposed by veteran BBC reporter Kate Adie, who participated in Kyiv as an expert. She criticized the Russian government for cutting live coverage of the Beslan crisis. She also said the press in the United States is being subjected to the worst political pressure of the past 50 years. Adie argued for as few curbs on coverage as possible.

Her view was strongly defended by Sweden.

Kerstin Persdotter, a top official at the country's Foreign Ministry, told RFE/RL that she "believes exactly in what Kate Adie said."

Persdotter said only editors can guide reporters' coverage: "The idea [that we object to] is that to show the faces of terrorists and their victims on TV [is wrong], that we have to control this, that we have to conceal some things [in terms of media freedom], that we have to have special journalists whom we trust and we can tell things, that it is right to have curfews, that it is right to stop information [from being spread]. And that's absolutely not [right]."

However, there appears to be widespread acceptance in many of Europe's larger countries that some form of media self-regulation is desirable.

The host of the conference, Ukraine, was the focus of an interesting debate. Ministers in the new government last week signed a letter criticizing media outlets in the country for overly critical coverage.

One of the signatories to the letter, Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Tomenko, chaired the Kyiv conference. He referred in his speech to the "shadow politics" that he said is being pursued by owners of many TV stations and newspapers in Ukraine.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Tomenko said Ukraine's new government supports press freedoms and is not afraid of criticism. But he said the government is worried by what it sees as a "near monopoly" of ownership of most of Ukraine's media outlets:

"Let me be more specific," Tomenko said. "For example, the son-in-law of former President Leonid Kuchma, Viktor Pinchuk, is the owner or co-owner of four national channels, apart from many regional ones."

Tomenko also said that the emotions that ran high during the Orange Revolution should now be tempered. He appeared to suggest that owners of Ukrainian media outlets are to blame for stoking passions. He said the government would like to see them offer reporters social guarantees and the right to refuse specific instructions affecting the coverage of current events.

For such a high-level event focusing on media policy, the conference in Kyiv attracted scant interest. The 46 ministers and hundreds of officials present were observed by a mere dozen or so journalists.

This is largely due to the relative lack of power of the Council of Europe. The body deals with human rights and standards of democracy, but is largely powerless to enforce its decisions.

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