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Europe: Report Exposes Loopholes In Human Rights Convention

Washington, 19 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A U.S-based organization which supports worldwide freedom of the press says that from 1992 to 1996, the European Convention on Human Rights was used more than 1,000 times in 109 countries to justify the persecution and oppression of the media.

The World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC), a non-profit organization of national and international news media organizations, makes the claim in a recent publication called "Perverse Result: How the European Convention on Human Rights Supports Global Restrictions on Press Freedom."

According to the report, at issue is Article 10, Section 2 of the 1950 European Convention of Human Rights. The report says this particular section provides a loophole for governments to justify unfounded restrictions on the press.

The report explains that while Section 1 of Article 10 declares "everyone has the right to freedom of expression," Section 2 sets out eight categories for possible restrictions on the press. The report says these categories are routinely used in many countries to justify harassing, fining, jailing, and even killing journalists, as well as suspending, closing, fining or otherwise penalizing newspapers, magazines and other broadcast outlets.

Says the report: "It is profoundly disturbing that ideas contained in overwhelmingly useful human rights documents serve to legitimize abuses against a fundamental human right. It should surprise no one that when you say the press can be restricted, that is what people do."

Marilyn Greene, Executive Director of WPFC, told RFE/RL that the report came about as a result of a meeting in Strasbourg in late October 1996 between leaders of several press freedom organizations and then-Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Peter Leuprecht.

Greene says a representative from the WPFC asked Leuprecht: "If you had 200 examples of how [the principles of] Article 10, Section 2, have been used around the world to justify shutting down newspapers, closing radio stations, jailing journalists and similar things, would you be ready to say that this is not what had been intended?"

Greene says Leuprecht replied: "Sure. Do you have such evidence?"

At that time, Greene says the WPFC had not compiled the evidence, but set out to do so. The result, says Greene, is the recent report which was handed over to the Council of Europe -- for which the Convention is a guiding document -- last December.

Greene says the report examines a total of 3,714 cases of reported actions against journalists and the news media from 1992 to 1996.

Cases of abuse are broken down into 11 categories of restriction: national security; territorial integrity; public safety; preventing disorder and crime; protecting health or morals; protecting reputations or rights of others; preventing disclosure/confidential information; maintaining authority/impartiality of judiciary; can't tell exact basis of restriction; not enough information on incident; and does not apply.

Of those cases where a definitive cause was able to be determined, the report says the highest number of abuses, 394, came under the category of "protecting the reputation or rights of others."

Several East European countries and nations of the former Soviet Union were named as committing offenses in this category. Among the worst offenders were Croatia, Romania, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine, the former Yugoslavia, Slovakia, Bosnia, and Bulgaria.

Of those countries, Croatia and Romania were cited with the most offenses -- six each. The offenses ranged from "damaging the image" of the country by printing "insulting" articles about government and public officials, to the closing down of certain media and the jailing or harassment of journalists.

In Croatia, most of the offenses involved the shutting down or fining of various media for "damaging the image of the country" in various reports. Also cited as an abuse was the Croatian parliament's passing of an amendment to the nation's penal code that would make it an offense for journalists to commit "slanderous or insulting offenses" against the president of Croatia.

Romania's offenses were largely violations against various journalists for reporting unfavorably about the government. Also cited were proposed additions to Romania's penal code which would require long prison terms for "damaging the reputation of public officials" and other offenses.

Belarus was also noted as having committed particularly serious offenses against the media.

Among the violations listed is the case of Galina Drakokhrust, the wife of a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondent, who was believed to have been beaten by assailants because of her husband's coverage of the political opposition.

Other abuses listed in Belarus include the firing of Nikolai Galko, editor of the newspaper Narodnaya Gazeta, for his alleged failure to "carry out his duties" after the newspaper was deemed to be critical of the president's drive to reunite Belarus with Russia, and the "repeated harassment" of journalists who cover the political opposition in the country.

Overall, the report observes that of the 3,714 cases it studied, it is notable that very few incidents occurred in Western Europe. On the other hand, says the report, there is "ample evidence" that the principles found in the European Convention were used as models by a number of states in drafting constitutional or legislative provisions.

Says the report: "The distinction between the situation in Western Europe and some other countries, especially those in the developing world or in the former Soviet bloc, may rest on the comparative strength of democratic traditions in such places. What restrictions are 'necessary in a democratic society' -- the present guide of the European Court of Human Rights -- may be seen very differently in countries that have, or have not had, strong democratic traditions at present or in the recent past."

The report concludes that support for any kind of restrictions, in places where authoritarians rule only "strengthens the hand of officials desiring to justify restrictive practices." Therefore, says the report, the European Convention's provisions, and similar ones elsewhere, should focus on prescribing rights and not on providing detailed lists of how to restrict them.

Greene says that as of yet, the WPFC has not received a reply from the Council of Europe. She also acknowledges that the report falls short of actually calling for the removal or revision of the controversial article.

Says Greene: "We don't want to tell them what to do. We try not to be political. Our purpose is merely to point out that good-sounding documents can sometimes have very unfortunate and unintended consequences."