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OSCE Media Rep Sees 'Alarming Increase' In Violence Against Journalists

A protest action for press freedom in Kazakhstan in June 2009, highlighting the case of Ramazan Esergepov, a journalist serving three years in prison for revealing state secrets. Rights groups say the case was politically motivated.
WASHINGTON -- The OSCE's new representative on freedom of the media has decried an "alarming increase" in restrictions and violent reprisals against journalists in the former Soviet Union.

Dunja Mijatovic, a native of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is in the third month of her role as the head of media freedom for the 56-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Eurpe, whose mandate includes issues such as security and human rights.

Testifying June 9 before the U.S. Helsinki Commission on her first official visit to the United States, Mijatovic said that mounting examples of repressive laws and unpunished attacks are expanding the OSCE's "hall of shame."

Short term efforts to combat the trend, she said, include "relentless" awareness-raising until deeply entrenched obstacles are overcome.

"Violence against journalists equals violence against society and democracy," Mijatovic said, "and it should be met with harsh condemnation and prosecution of the perpetrators. There can be no improvement without an overhaul of the very apparatus of prosecution and law enforcement, starting from the very top of the government pyramid."

Unfulfilled Promises

The very top of the OSCE leadership pyramid has proven problematic for media freedom, as well.

Kazakhstan, over protests by international NGOs, assumed the chairmanship of the bloc on January 1. Soon after, the country's leaders pledged to clean up their troubling human rights record and ease restrictions on the press.

Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE's new representative on freedom of the media
Mijatovic told the congressional panel that after more than five months as the head of the OSCE, there is little to show in the way of results.

"When it comes to the plans and promises that Kazakhstan made -- I mean, those promises were made to the 56 member states," Mijatovic said, "what I can see is that only one promise that is on the list of promises is in a way tackled: cosmetic changes to the law for registration for licensing of broadcasters."

The most recent murder of a journalist in the OSCE region occurred in Kazakhstan. Gennady Pavlyuk, an independent reporter from neighboring Kyrgyzstan, was thrown from a building in Almaty with his hands and feet bound last December. He died six days later, on December 22. Authorities have yet to prosecute the perpetrators.

'Terminal Disease'

Unsolved murders of journalists extend far beyond Kazakhstan. Mijatovic told the committee that OSCE member Russia has the highest number of journalist murders, most notably rights reporter Anna Politkovskaya and investigative journalist Paul Klebnikov. Both cases remain unsolved.

Mijatovic also highlighted the murders of Slavko Curuvija in Serbia, Elmar Huseynov in Azerbaijan, and Georgy Gongadze in Ukraine, whose widow was present at the testimony.

Sam Patten, senior program manager for Eurasia at Freedom House, a U.S.-based rights watchdog, spoke alongside Mijatovic. After a brief period of improved media freedoms in the early 1990s, he said, conditions in the former Soviet countries have worsened precipitously.

"We see media freedom and the lack of media freedom -- attempts to repress and restrict the right to expression -- as operating in many ways like a terminal disease," Patten says. "A terminal disease, like cancer, either regresses, at which point it's possible for the body to heal, or it metastasizes and becomes much worse.

"We see what's currently happening in the OSCE environment, and particularly in the former communist countries of the Soviet Union, in a very negative trend."

Hope For Improvement

Mijatovic did see some hope for improvement, however. Georgia, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine, and Bosnia and Herzegovina are among the 10 OSCE countries that have decriminalized defamation and libel, which analysts say have been used as pretexts to clamp down on the media. Armenia is moving to amend its defamation laws, as well.

In the long term, Mijatovic said she also sees great potential in the Internet, which she said has become the latest battleground for media freedom.

"No matter what governments do, in the long run, their attempt to regulate the Internet is a lost battle," Mijatovic said. "People always find ways to obtain the rights that are denied to them. History has shown this over and over again."

In the short run, however, she admits that cases like those of the imprisoned Azerbaijani bloggers Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade, who were convicted of hooliganism for publicly criticizing the government, will continue to mount.