Ladies and Gentleman, dear colleagues,
I feel very privileged and honoured for being given this opportunity to address this important international event today. This year’s topic is particularly relevant to me because it does not only address the question of human rights but it also tackles the question of media freedom and free expression as fundamental for the enjoyment of human rights and for the monitoring of our societies’ adherence to those rights. Fighting for the right to speak freely, openly and without fear must remain or become the priority for governments. Not just for the so-called new or emerging democracies but also for old and established democracies.
With more and more people being connected to each other, be it through the Internet or mobile phone technology, the right to freedom of expression and particularly the right to unhindered and unfiltered information, have a even more crucial role to play in protecting and defending all other human rights worldwide than this might have been the case only 20 years ago.
As free and independent media are essential to scrutinize and condemn human rights abuses, it is no surprise that the right to freedom of expression is one of the first rights to fall victim to oppressive regimes or abusive authorities. This, as we know, is equally valid for freedom of the press.
Nevertheless – we do not always appreciate the existence of these freedoms. Too often – particularly in established democracies – we take them for granted and only value their importance when they are tampered with by state interference and control. Too often it is the case that we only know how crucial these rights are and how determined we must fight for them once we are deprived of them. We should and must not forget that, without free media, citizens won’t be able to access information and, therefore, won’t be able to exercise their right to vote in an effective manner. They – we – will not be able to take part in public decision making. Without free media and the right to speak up we will not be able to point out wrongdoings by governments, individuals or businesses. We will not be able to hold those people we elected accountable and we are unlikely to see an increased sense of responsibility by those in power.
These structures, in their short-sightedness, do not understand that without the expression of ideas and opinions and the publication and distribution thereof in the media no single society can and will develop and advance effectively, be it in the political, social, economic and maybe most importantly in the artistic and cultural sense. Media freedom and freedom of expression are the cornerstones of functioning, accountable and flexible democracies and are the driving force of social and cultural progress.
Sadly, one fact holds true: freedom of the media is questioned and challenged by many and everywhere. And it goes without saying that the indicators are not encouraging. We only have to look at the latest reports by media advocates like Reporters without Borders, Freedom House, Article 19 or the Committee to Protect Journalists. I only have to look at my Office’s work and experience: Today, in the 21st century, it is still very dangerous to be a journalist, a photographer, a member of the media, a family member of a journalists or even have lunch with a journalistic source. It takes a lot of courage and professional conviction to uncover, to report, to publish – so that all of us, here in this room, receive the news, are informed, get the bigger picture and can form our opinions. We could in fact ask ourselves why this is the case.
All the journalistic work should not be taken for granted. Each year journalists are mudered in the OSCE region and we call ourselves a club of democracies.
Let me give you one figure: Over the past five years, more than 30 journalists have been killed in the OSCE region. Equally alarming is the authorities’ far-too-prevalent willingness to classify many of the murders as unrelated to the journalists’ professional activities.
If murder is the most extreme form of censorship, it is not the only one being practiced. Indeed, journalists are often subject to other forms of violence, such as physical attacks, threats, imprisonment, psychological and administrative harrasment.
What can we do to fight these attempts? I think that all of us have a role to play. We should not forget that the media are reporting to us, to you and me and they deserve our protection. In fact, we owe them our protection.
This brings me to the unique role of my Office, which was created in 1997 as the world’s only intergovernmental media-freedom “watchdog”. It is my Office’s duty to remind the 56 participating States to live up to the standards to uphold and foster media freedom that they agreed to as members of the OSCE.
Reminding the members of their commitments is not an easy task. I can testify that challenges for the media are brought to me on a daily basis. The opposition my work sometimes faces gives me, although very small, a glimpse of what individual journalists around the world are too often facing when simply doing their jobs.
As my job is not only to monitor, to warn and to wag my finger, but in a way also to be or to remain optimistic and to spread this optimism, I take the view that, despite all the challenges media freedom is exposed to today, we also see that the globalized world, our ever growing connectivity, our technological advancement does offer new opportunities to bolster media freedom
We already live in the digital age, a time in which we can create truly democratic cultures with participation by all members of the society. And in only few years from now this participation will virtually include most of the world’s citizens.
With new-media technologies, we can now access and consume whatever media we want, wherever, whenever and however. Therefore, we can really say that with the Internet, the right to seek, impart and receive information have been strengthened. But let us not be naïve. Access to and the use of global or regional information is of course subject to education, to media literacy and to multilingualism.
So, despite progress, some challenges and preconditions remain. And the first one is surely access to the Internet. Without this basic requirement, without the means to connect, without an affordable connection, the right to freedom of expression and freedom of the media become meaningless in the online world.
Secondly, it will not be enough to provide citizens, particularly in rural or less-developed parts of this world, with a connection and web-compatible devices. For consumers to become what we call “netizens” it is indispensible to understand the information first of all, and also to know how to critically assess, how to process and how to contextualize it. The technological advancement in order to reach out to all has to go hand-in-hand with education, with programmes on media literacy and Internet literacy.
But it remains true that, in our globalized world where education, information, personal development, societal advancement and interaction, and participation in political decision making are to a great extent realised through the Internet, the right to access the web becomes a cornerstone for the fundamental right to freedom of expression. The right to seek, receive and impart information not only includes the right to access but presupposes it.
The third challenge is to contest those governments who fear and distrust the openness brought along by the Internet. In an age of rapid technological change and convergence, archaic governmental controls over the media are increasingly unjust, indefensible and, ultimately, unsustainable.
These attempts to control the Internet are growing. We witness not only that more and more countries pass legislation aimed at regulating or controlling the web, we also see more and more governments trying to put the topic on the international agenda. While the latter is surely needed to keep the Internet open and global, there are fears by many that more political attention might lead to more regulation and therefore to a greater fragmentation or nationalization of the web.
In an attempt to get an idea of the state of affairs of how freedom of expression is regulated,, my Office commissioned a first OSCE-wide study of laws and regulations related to freedom of expression and the free flow of information on the Internet. The study will assess how national Internet legislation and practices comply with existing OSCE media freedom commitments and relevant international standards.
I am happy to announce the first result of that study will be presented and discussed during one of the side events this afternoon here at this forum.
I also hope that more international organizations and media advocacy groups will continue embarking on similar projects so that together we can get a clear picture on where we stand. And from there we can see what we have to do to ensure that not only the Internet remains free but that more and more people can enjoy their right to speak freely and without fear on and through it.
There is a long way to go, as we know, and the bad news is that we will never reach the end. The good news, however, is that, if we all stay committed and more often remember the importance of a free and independent media and fight for it, we will be able to see some progress.
Thank you very much!