Opening Remarks at Conference on Journalists’ Safety, Media Freedom and Pluralism in Times of Conflict

The United States would like to join others in commending the Office of the Representative on Freedom of the Media for convening this conference today and tomorrow. We would also like to thank UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ivan Šimonović, and Mr. Roy Gutman for their statements and their recognition of the role this organization can and does play. The United States strongly believes that freedom of the press is an essential element in prosperous, open, healthy societies, allowing citizens to access a wide range of information and ideas and to hold their governments accountable. Yet, across the globe and within some OSCE states, freedom of the press and the freedoms of journalists and members of the media are under siege.

Journalists in the OSCE region continue to be subjected to acts of violence, including murder. They are attacked for what they have written or kidnapped for the leverage their capture may provide. Impunity for these attacks is all too common. There is no way to eliminate the risk to journalists completely, but participating States must condemn these attacks in the strongest terms, work to bring all those responsible to justice, and take effective steps to improve the safety of journalists. These challenges facing journalists are heightened even further during armed conflicts. The Russia-Ukraine crisis has highlighted once again the vital necessity to support freedom of expression and a free media throughout all OSCE participating States.

This conference is noteworthy for addressing a wide range of issues affecting OSCE participating States. Not only is the physical safety of journalists in armed conflict a real concern, but the secondary effects that armed conflict have wrought on free expression – the use of propaganda to foment hatred, blocked or jammed broadcast signals limiting access to a variety of news sources, and lack of adherence to journalism ethics create additional threats no less severe to media freedom.

Last April, Representative Mijtovic issued a communique on propaganda in times of conflict which aptly highlighted the threat to media freedom that can result when a state abuses these protections to spread false, inflammatory and even bellicose propaganda. The United States welcomes the recommendations of that communiqué, which stated, “Freedom of expression, particularly of political speech, is a vital right in a democracy and implies the existence of a plural and diverse range of voices.” Freedom of expression should not be limited, despite differing viewpoints, even in times of armed conflict.

We appreciate the thorough monitoring by Representative Mijatovic of the media situation in eastern and southern Ukraine, where the ongoing conflict continues to create a hazardous situation for journalists. Representative Mijatovic, your condemnation of kidnappings, disappearances and other attacks on journalists, as well as takeovers of media outlets such as Ukrainian television stations, have been strong and consistent, and should be heeded by all participating States. All those party to the conflict must make clear to their own troops and local militants that attacks on journalists and media outlets are completely unacceptable and must be stopped.

In Russian-occupied Crimea, attacks on media freedom in the peninsula commenced with the Russian incursion. OSCE Media Freedom Representative Mijatovic, who has visited Crimea, described media freedom there as “under siege.” That situation has not improved as arrests, intimidation and harassment by the Russian Security Service and self-appointed local officials have left the peninsula with virtually no Ukrainian or independent media outlets.

De facto authorities have shut down 11 of the 12 Crimean Tatar media outlets, including ATR TV, the last independent television station serving the Crimean Tatar population. Occupation authorities also have banned most Ukrainian language programming, replacing content with Russian programming. Occupation authorities are systematically closing the space for freedom of expression and leading an intimidation campaign that targets independent journalists for detention and prosecution. All residents of Crimea should have access to a wide range of news, opinion, and information.

The importance of this conference cannot be understated. Freedom of expression and a free media are integral underpinnings of a safe and democratic society. We look forward to the discussion over the next two days, and we welcome recommendations on best practices that journalists and OSCE participating States can undertake to continue our support to ensure that media freedom and freedom of expression are preserved even during times of conflict.

Thank you.

Opening remarks as delivered by Chargé d’Affaires, a.i. Kate Byrnes | Vienna, June 15, 2015