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East: Curbs On Freedom Of Expression A Source Of Concern For OSCE

Munich, 17 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) says it is concerned that several member governments restrict freedom of expression and freedom of the media despite having signed commitments not to do so.

OSCE's media commissioner, Freimut Duve, yesterday named Belarus, the Slovak Republic, Croatia, Turkey, Ukraine and Central Asian countries as areas where he is making special efforts to improve the situation.

In an address to OSCE's permanent council in Vienna, Duve recalled that the governments of the 54 OSCE states had all accepted an agreement on media freedom at a conference in Moscow in 1991. Part of it says that the public has the right to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority, regardless of frontiers. The media have the right to unrestricted access to foreign news and information sources..

Duve, who is a Social Democratic member of the German parliament, was appointed as the media commissioner in December last year after several governments had expressed concern about the media situation in some countries. As a publisher in the 1970s and 1980s, he published the works of Czech President Vaclav Havel and Mario Soares` manifesto against the dictatorship in Portugal.

Duve told the OSCE today that Belarus was a serious problem. He said he met Belarus foreign minister Ivan Antonovich and "discussed specific concerns related to journalists and freedom of the media."

Duve said Antonovich gave him a very detailed suggestions for future cooperation. However Antonovich acknowledged that the implementation of freedom of expression by the authorities "continues to be deficient in practice."

Duve told the OSCE that "re-establishing the right to free debate without fear in Belarus remains an essential need." He said President Alyaksandr Lukashenka had personally endorsed this objective earlier this year but since then he had introduced legal amendments including criminal penalties for defamation of the president and increased the fines for actions directed against his dignity and honor. Duve said he had urged the Belarus government to withdraw these amendments.

Turning to Slovakia, Duve told the OSCE meeting he was concerned about the media sections of the amended electoral law and by the failure of the Slovak government to respond to OSCE's concerns.

"This law, as it is now, could deprive private electronic and local media of the right to cover the election campaign for the parliamentary elections in September," Duve said. He said that he submitted suggestions for improving the law to the Slovak government in May but they were not taken into account.

Duve also said that the Slovak Council for Radio and Television Broadcasting recently adopted a number of recommendations on the role of the electronic media. He said he wrote to the government asking for more details about the recommendations and hoped to receive a reply in the near future.

Duve said that in a recent visit to Croatia he identified three major issues which in varying degrees hamper the development of a free and independent media. The first was a distribution system which had been described to him as having close links with the government. The second was the numerous legal suits filed by government officials and others against the media under criminal libel and defamation statutes. The third was the difficulties faced by Croatia's independent media in competing with state-owned radio and television.

"We will remain engaged with Croatia to deal with these and other issues restricting the development of free and independent media," he told the meeting.

The OSCE commissioner also told the meeting that before the parliamentary elections in Ukraine in March he had raised some concerns in writing to the foreign minister. He said these concerned "had not diminished" since the elections. He had not yet had a reply to his letter. Duve did not identify the problems in his address to the OSCE meeting. But talking to journalists later, he said they included such matters as "who can use what media in an election campaign." Without going into details, he also said that "some people had been accused of having created certain media for election purposes."

Duve also said he had discussed freedom of expression in Turkey with the government, with parliamentarians, with journalists and with non-government organizations. He said he had been told by Turkish officials that the government was preparing a bill which would broaden the existing concept of freedom of expression.

Regarding Central Asia, Duve said he was making preparations to visit the region later this year to discuss restrictions in some countries on freedom of expression and freedom of the media. He did not identify the countries or the abuses of press freedom which he would investigate. But he said there was what he called "a very difficult media situation" in some parts of central Asia.