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Harlem Désir: No Strong Society without Strong Media
Civil Georgia, Tbilisi / 6 Oct.'17 / 09:54

Harlem Désir, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media. Photo: OSCE/Micky Kroell

Civil.ge spoke about the press freedom developments in Georgia and the region to OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir, who visited Tbilisi on October 2-4 and met with the country’s authorities, as well as the representatives of media and civil society organizations.

My first question relates to your priorities as the new OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media. On September 11, you addressed the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting and listed four priorities in your new position. Could you tell us more about them?

As I said during the meeting with the civil society representatives from all the 57 participating states, my first priority is the safety of journalists. We are still facing a situation where journalists are threatened, attacked, arrested, and some even killed. Unfortunately, more than 170 journalists remain behind bars in the OSCE area. So, safety and freedom of journalists, as well as the protection of safe conditions for their work, is a basic right for the press. Participating states took very clear commitments in the OSCE regarding the protection of journalists, and they have to be respected. We have to fight against impunity. Unfortunately, most of the perpetrators of attacks or crimes against journalists are not prosecuted, and so this is my first priority.

The second one is to ensure that the freedom of the media will be preserved in the face of security challenges. We see everywhere, because of terrorism, because of conflict, a kind of a trend to limit the free space of press, of internet especially. In most of the cases where journalists are prosecuted, it is done under the accusation of threats to national security, complicity with terrorism, or being directly involved in terrorism. We see this in Turkey, for example, and more widely on the internet. There are new laws and regulations adopted which tend to justify closing of websites and suppression of content based on security arguments. This could lead to abuse, to disproportionate actions which would be used to shut down the voice of dissent.

The third priority is to ensure media pluralism, the diversity of the source of information. This is a big challenge in the time of media concentration, due to technological evolution and economic trends, and this is something we must look at. There also is a more traditional aspect - the balance between public sector and private sector television, and the regulation of those sectors. This is still very important.

My fourth priority is to deal with fake news, disinformation, propaganda, which is a very important threat. But we have to deal with it not with censorship, but with promotion of the quality of journalism, media literacy, and diversity of information. And this is also a huge challenge.

Georgia’s media freedom ranking in the Freedom House report has worsened for the third consecutive year. At the same time, we often hear serious concerns from media watchdogs and civil society organizations both inside and outside the country. In particular, due to the court case against Rustavi 2 TV. What is your take on the overall state of media freedom in the country, and specifically, the Rustavi 2 TV case?

Georgia is a country with a very diverse media landscape. Its strong commitment to freedom of expression, to freedom of the media is an achievement for the country. During my meetings in Tbilisi I have learned that the amendments to the constitution will ensure and guarantee even more access to information, free access to internet, with the latter being considered as a human right in the constitution. I also looked at the independence of the communications commission and of the Public Broadcaster. Overall, I think there is a clear, strong support in the Georgian society and institutions for the principles of freedom of the media and freedom of expression.

Nevertheless, there is always a possibility to go forward, there are always challenges, and the Rustavi 2 TV is a case which has been followed very closely by my predecessor. There is now a decision pending at the European Court of Human Rights, and we are waiting for the judgment. But, whatever the decision is regarding the ownership, we will be monitoring the independence of the editorial team and the journalists working for Rustavi 2. This is very important for us. And also more broadly – diversity and pluralism of the media and the TV landscape in the country.

You have been meeting politicians in the country and what is the message that you are conveying in this light?

First, the need to maintain strong support for the principle of freedom of the media, of pluralism of the media, of independence of the Public Broadcaster. Second, the fight against impunity regarding the safety of journalists. We have been very concerned by the situation in the case of Afgan Mukhtarli and his abduction. The inquiry is ongoing, but we are waiting for a full and transparent investigation on this case. This is very important, because there are journalists who are finding safe haven in Georgia because of the tradition of free expression in Georgia.

We also discussed the proposal which was made in the past by the Prime Minister about the media ombudsman’s office, for which my office was asked to propose an analysis, and we presented a report drafted by an expert. 

We have discussed many issues, and I am absolutely convinced that strong cooperation between my office and the government will go forward. Every year we organize the South Caucasus media conference, a gathering of representatives of the media, and journalists from all over region to promote freedom of the media, and it is very important that Georgia remains the country which is an example for the region.

The Georgian government’s initiative to introduce the media ombudsman office voiced immediately after the controversial Supreme Court decision over Rustavi 2 TV was met with cautious skepticism by the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media. Why was that so?

As the expert explains in this report, strong consensus is required about the idea of establishing the new institution, which could be of help to deal with the issue of pluralism of the media. The idea was voiced after the problems of the Rustavi 2 TV, and I think it is interesting that the government and the Prime Minister are looking for a way to ensure that in such situations there is an independent, non-political, non-partisan mechanism able to address the problem. The expert has looked at the proposal, has met with parliamentarians, representatives of the media, academics, and his very careful conclusion was that there is not a strong consensus at this stage. It does not mean that it is not an interesting idea, it could be discussed further, and there could be further steps as described in the report.

From my discussion yesterday, I also feel that there is a need to look forward in this proposition, before taking a decision. Now it is up to the government and the Parliament to look at the best way to ensure good regulation of the TV system, TV broadcast, which is experiencing very important changes due to the technological evolution. The regulations are based on as much openness and freedom as possible, which is very good, and that should be preserved, with a very liberal approach to the right for any company to create television.

I met yesterday with journalists of a lot of new television channels, which I think is very important. At the same time there is this amendment to the law on the Public Broadcaster, which will have an impact on the whole sector since it will enable the Broadcaster to use commercial advertising for financing its activities. So, there is a need to have a system which will ensure that, at the end, Georgia will have strong media pluralism - strong Public Broadcaster with a guarantee of editorial independence for the journalists, along with diverse private sector with several actors of different views and different types of media. This is something that is very difficult to establish in any country, and I do not think that there is a single ideal model, and that is why we are ready to bring assistance and ongoing support to Georgia. That is what we have discussed yesterday with the authorities and with all the representatives of the media that we have been meeting. 

The disappearance and the subsequent detention of the Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli caused a serious public outcry in Georgia. What is your understanding of this incident and your assessment of the Georgian government’s reaction to it?

As I have said, it is a case of major concern us, we will be discussing this situation with the Azerbaijani authorities. It is not acceptable to abduct journalists and, of course, in Georgia it is necessary for the inquiry that has been opened to be conducted and concluded in a transparent and complete manner.

In your speech at the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, you said over 170 journalists are in prison today. Over 90% of them are behind bars in Turkey, on terrorism charges. Journalists remain behind the bars in other countries as well, including Azerbaijan and Russia. What is your take on the situation?
As I recall, participating states have taken upon themselves commitments regarding freedom of the media. Our role at the Office of the Representative is to intervene with early action when there is a violation of this commitment and when journalists are jailed just because of their work, under false accusations of terrorism or threats to national security. So, we have been doing this.

Unfortunately, I am very worried about the trends in several participating states. Despite the fact that in some countries we have managed to have journalists released, sometimes they are released from jail but put under house arrest, the accusations remain and there is still the threat of conviction. So this is a day-by-day battle.

I am waiting for the results of the trial of Cumhuriyet in Turkey. Several detainees have been released, including Kadri Gürsel. It was a very moving moment that when we were meeting at the HDIM gathering he was still in jail. So, this shows that the international voices, the fact that we call on the participating states to observe their commitments, as well as the actions we have taken regarding Mehman Aliyev of the Turan Agency in Azerbaijan, are useful. In Mehman’s case, however, he is unable to go back to his work because there are still accusations of tax fraud pending against him and his agency.    
We want to have a frank discussion with each of these states on the fact that the press must be free; that we understand security concerns, we understand the need to fight against terrorism, as for example, in Turkey, but journalists who do inquiry on terrorist group are not terrorists. They are not responsible for the crisis in the country. On the contrary, a strong society, the resilience of the society in front of the crises rests on freedom of the press, freedom of the media. There is no strong society without strong media and strong freedom of the media.
Russias disinformation campaign has become a major issue in Europe. In Georgia, this has been the case for a number of years. How should modern governments, facing such aggressive weaponization of media tools, find the proper balance between the national security and the freedom of speech?

It is always very difficult to deal with propaganda and the attempts to destabilize the countries through means of information. There are many types of propaganda, including through the social networks, which are an effective tool of propaganda used by some states. I think, the Georgian authorities have made the right decision, which is to combat propaganda and fake news by debunking the false information, by maintaining freedom of expression, by promoting access to quality and credible information, and not by answering with censorship.
So, the good answer is to promote media literacy, to ensure that the citizens will be able to check information, to verify the source of information, to reinforce their trust in the good media and the good information. That is why we try to encourage all initiatives of self-education of professional journalism based on the ethics principles.

I think, in this new era of news – when you have the internet and you do not know whether the information is real or false, or manipulated, it is very important to know that there are professional media outlets which publish only verified and double-checked information and inform the citizens honestly.

It is important that there are as many media outlets, newspapers and televisions, as possible, which are committed to this principle, so that there is diversity in their messages, but all of them try to promote quality and ethical journalism in the face of the fake news, hate speech, propaganda. I do not think we will manage to avoid the fake news; it is a part of our new reality and it will remain to be so in the future as well because everyone can post any kind of a message on Facebook, on Twitter, can openly blog and there can also be the governments which might try to manipulate opinions. The good answer, therefore, is not to censor, not to close sites and blogs, but to allow the quality and professionalism to be strengthened.

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