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Reporters Without Borders Founder Decries 'Cowardice Of Democracies'

Robert Menard in Prague: 'We need to be ruthless."
Robert Menard in Prague: 'We need to be ruthless."
PRAGUE -- Robert Menard is the co-founder of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the Paris-Based international media freedom watchdog. RFE/RL correspondent Claire Bigg spoke to Menard during Forum 2000, a conference held annually in Prague to promote democracy and tolerance.

RFE/RL: You co-founded Reporters Without Borders 23 years ago. How has media freedom changed globally since then? On the whole, are journalists freer today than they were in the 1980s?

Robert Menard: I would say there is more press freedom, of course, than in 1985. At the time, there were communist regimes in half of Europe, it was impossible in 1985 to speak in Prague like we are today. There were many more military dictatorships in Latin America, many more authoritarian regimes in Africa. So globally, press freedom has improved.

But new dangers have emerged for the press. Today, it's less the governments that attack press freedom and human rights than it is mafias, corrupt politicians, religious fundamentalists, and separatist movements that are ready to kill all those who don't share their views. So we have more press freedom, but also more violence toward the media. Just look at the figures. There have never been so many killed journalists -- 87 last year. There were much fewer 20 years ago. At the same time, it's a sign that there are more journalists doing their job.

'Enemies Have Changed'

I'm not opposed to dialogue with authoritarian regimes. But if promises are not held, we need to be ruthless, ruthless with sanctions.
Has the mission, the goals of Reporters Without Borders, evolved over the past two decades?

Menard: Yes, because the enemies of press freedom have changed, things are paradoxically now much more complicated for us. Organizations that defend press freedom and human rights were born and grew up combating dictatorial or totalitarian states. We know how to pressure governments. But it's much more complicated to apply pressure on religious fundamentalists, for example.

I'll give you an example. In the 1990s, there were terrible human rights violations in Algeria that left more than 100,000 dead. In Algeria, civilians, journalists, and human rights campaigners had two enemies -- the Algerian government, but also religious fundamentalists. How do you pressure religious fundamentalists? You can pressure the U.S. government over Guantanamo, but how do you pressure Al-Qaeda? That's why the work of RSF has changed a lot. It's really much more difficult to defend human rights than it was 20 years ago.

How closely does RSF follow events in Belarus?

Menard: We follow them, since it's the last dictatorship in Europe. And I am absolutely stunned by the way the last elections were conducted. The European Union thought there would be some progress during those elections, but there was none. The problem is that as long as Belarus knows it has Russia's support, it will be very difficult to exert pressure. Certain individual measures have been taken against some officials, but we need to go further than that.

A whole section of Europe's left wing is batting its eyelashes at Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, saying he's the man with the answers. But who is the Belarusian government's friend? Chavez. And where does [Chavez] travel to when he visits Europe? To Belarus. So on the one hand you have part of the left that continues to support such regimes, and on the other hand your have a European Union that needs to bang its fist a lot more assertively.

'We Need To Be Ruthless'

Last week, the European Parliament adopted a resolution recommending that travel sanctions against certain Belarusian officials be lifted, on the condition that Belarus eases its new, draconian law on the media.

Menard: Even before the elections, there was a temptation to say, 'Let's open Europe's doors a little wider for Belarus in exchange for cleaner elections.' This hasn't worked. I'm not opposed to dialogue with authoritarian regimes. But if promises are not held, we need to be ruthless, ruthless with sanctions. The problem is that the European Parliament is very concerned with human rights and often does a great job, while other European political bodies -- in particular, the European Commission and the Council of Ministers -- are infinitely more cautious.

I am not comparing today's China with Germany in 1936, but the opening ceremony of the Berlin Games in 1936 was perfect, too.
Reporters Without Borders has called China "the world's biggest prison for journalists and cyberdissidents." Do you think Beijing lived up to its promise to improve its human rights record ahead of last summer's Olympic Games?

Menard: Of course not. Have you seen a single dissident be freed? On the contrary, a number of people were arrested before the Olympic Games to prevent them from meeting journalists. Why did this happen? Because of the cowardice of our democracies.

There are dissidents in China. Have you seen European governments, the European Union, defend them? Mr. [Nicolas] Sarkozy, my president, who now presides over [the European Union], went to the opening of the Olympic Games. How can one do that? It's a country that has no political freedom, no religious freedom, no trade-union freedom, where labor camps operate. Democrats once defended dissidents of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe because many were in labor camps. In the former USSR, it was called the gulag.

'It Will Be A Catastrophe'

In your opinion, should heads of states have boycotted the Olympic Games?

Menard: The difference is that we didn't do business with the former USSR, while economically we need China today. I am shocked by the European Union's actions during the Olympic Games. It was the moment to demand improvement in the sphere of human rights, to demand the liberation of the thousands of political prisoners. Europe didn't fulfill its duty. Mr. Sarkozy and the European Union betrayed us.

I wasn't for a boycott of the Games. I don't think athletes should refrain from participating. The opening ceremony is the moment in the Olympic Games when the country that hosts the Games gives an image of itself. People marveled at the opening ceremony. I am not comparing today's China with Germany in 1936, but the opening ceremony of the Berlin Games in 1936 was perfect, too. Did that make the regime more likable?

RFE/RL: Do you also favor a boycott of the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia's Black Sea resort?

Menard: Of course, heads of states shouldn't go there. There's a problem with how the Olympic Games are awarded. [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin is definitely not a role model when it comes to human rights. And ecologically, it will also be a catastrophe. Have you seen the colossal construction work that will be carried out in protected areas?

The International Olympic Committee is also to blame. The committee tells us that it defends the Olympic spirit, the Olympic charter, which talks about human dignity. In reality, they don't care about human dignity! Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, doesn't give a damn about human rights, human dignity, about the Olympic spirit. The only thing that interests the International Olympic Committee are sponsors and the money they will choke up. I thought that the Olympic movement wasn't only about big bucks, that it also promotes values. I think I was mistaken.

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