7th European Ministerial Conference on Mass Media Policy - Kyiv, 10-11 March 2005 

To be checked against delivered speech

Speech of Maud De Boer-Buquicchio, Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe

Photo: Viktor Yuschenko and Maud de Boer-Buquicchio at the opening of the conference | Victor Pobedinsky/UNIAN

Ministers,
Ladies and gentlemen,

“We are witnessing history on the streets of Kyiv,” wrote one of the participans in an online discussion forum created by BBC last December when the “Orange Revolution” became a household word across the world. Thanks to the dynamism of the media, the whole world could follow every new development in the crucial democratic saga in Ukraine and, at the same time, everyone with access to the Internet could join in a worldwide discussion on the breathtaking events.

2004 will certainly go into history books as an important year not only for Ukraine but for Europe as a whole. We all were impressed by the restraint and maturity shown by the people of Ukraine in bringing about democratic transformation peacefully and in accordance with the rule of law, and we all felt a sense of pride to see that the culture of democracy is taking root across our continent. After Georgia and now Ukraine, it will be much more difficult than before for any European government to force its people to accept rigged elections.

It is symbolic and highly appropriate that a European Ministerial Conference on Mass Media Policy takes place in Ukraine at such a crossroads in time. The “Orange Revolution” showed us not only the power of the people. It has highlighted once again the power and crucial role of free, pluralist media, which is one of the pillars of a democratic society. Freed from fear and vestiges of self-censorship, the media in Ukraine were not only witnessing and recording history at the end of last year – they were making history, along with people in the street, along with politicians, by providing truthful information and serving as a medium uniting all progressive forces in the country. We all saw what the media can achieve when they regain public trust in the fairness of their reporting.

It comes as no surprise therefore that creating a sound legal framework for independent media – a constant Council of Europe preoccupation – will be one of the most important elements in Ukrainian reforms to come, as was acknowledged by President Viktor Yushchenko when he addressed the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe a few days after his inauguration in January this year.

The events in Ukraine have certainly filled many of us with a new kind of optimism. We feel that the years spent on patiently fostering dialogue about the European standards of democracy, human rights and the rule of law are finally bearing fruit. It will be for historians to determine what was the role of the Council of Europe and other international organisations in facilitating the “Orange Revolution”. I would dare to say, with full respect to our media colleagues, that it was much greater than reflected in the media coverage of events in Ukraine in November and December 2004, and went beyond the observation of elections.

The work of the Parliamentary Assembly and its rapporteurs on Ukraine served for years as the voice of European democracy in this country. Through its Parliamentary Assembly and its Venice Commission, the Council of Europe was involved in bringing the process of planned constitutional amendments, which concerned the office of the President, into line with fundamental European standards. The Council of Europe has also for years provided training for Ukrainian judges at all levels – and it was the ruling of the Ukrainian Supreme Court which opened up a way for a peaceful solution to the crisis.

Today, we must seize the momentum generated by the “Orange Revolution” to re-assert our standards in the media field and expand the boundaries of European media and communications policy. The Council of Europe’s recommendations in this area, often triggered off by Ministerial Conferences like this one, serve as a reflection of best European practice. There are certain key elements here: guaranteeing the independence of public service broadcasting, promoting transparency in public affairs, ensuring the protection of journalists. It is encouraging in this respect to hear that there is progress in the investigation of the murder of Georhiy Gongadze, following the commitment made by President Yushchenko before the Parliamentary Assembly in January. The Gongadze case has become a symbol of the fight against impunity for crimes targeting journalists. We are convinced that the solution to this case will not only do justice to Georhiy Gongadze and his family, but also send a very strong message to the rest of the region – that there can be no social rest until justice is done.

The present Ministerial Conference will address many different challenges facing European countries as they define their media policy. In this field, we are certainly going through a period of profound change, when many issues of importance may become blurred. But we must not be side-tracked. We must never forget our duty to make sure that freedom of expression and information continues to be fully respected. We must resist the pressure from different forces that seek to undermine the values on which our democratic societies are founded, to curb our freedoms for the sake, for example, of greater security. We must counter any attack on media freedom.

The themes of this Conference reflect the major socio-political currents which have an impact on present day European media policy. Any period of crisis – and the current campaign against international terrorism can certainly be considered as such – calls for a reflection on the role and responsibilities of the media. At the same time, we should always remember that allowing the widest possible freedom of expression and information is often the best way to release tension and avoid confrontation.

It is our firm belief that freedom of expression can also help to combat and prevent terrorism, and that the fight against terrorism does not justify extraordinary restrictions on the media. It is the duty of the state to facilitate access to information and to ensure respect for editorial independence, even in times of crisis. For their part, media professionals have the responsibility not to contribute to the aims of terrorists and to refrain from hate-speech and incitement to violence. They should also respect the dignity, safety and private life of victims, and the presumption of innocence of terrorist suspects. These principles have been clearly reaffirmed in the Council of Europe Declaration on Freedom of expression and information in the media in the context of the fight against terrorism, which was adopted by our Committee of Ministers last week.

The media can play an important role indeed in solving crisis situations. Political authorities are increasingly using the media as a part of negotiations with terrorists, and in some cases media coverage has helped to generate unprecedented demonstrations of international solidarity, contributing to a positive outcome of terrorist dramas. Next week, this issue will be discussed at a hearing on terrorism and media, organised by the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly in Paris, which will also look at such questions as media strategies used by terrorists and editorial choices and responsibilities of the media.

The impact of globalisation on the media is another challenge to deal with. How to maintain diverse local media in the face of increasing competition from global media companies? Small local media, much as small enterprises and family businesses, contribute to the rich cultural diversity which makes our continent so unique, and which we need to preserve.

Last but not least, you will be addressing the question of media regulation in the Information Society. The Council of Europe work in this field is closely linked with the World Summit on the Information Society. In a political message to the first phase of the Summit, held in Geneva in 2003, our Committee of Ministers stressed that the traditional media, including local and community radio, have a vital role in producing and distributing diverse and high-quality content in the information society, as well as providing moderated platforms for public debate. From the Council of Europe point of view, independent public service broadcasting has a special mission to ensure access to information and culture for all citizens, and the public service principle should be maintained and developed in the digital environment through a range of digitised public information services. At the same time, we stress the importance of providing access for all to new technologies, which is the only way to allow the media to exploit the full potential of the information society.

The Council of Europe itself tried to practice what it preaches when preparing the Conference. Draft political texts were made available online at different stages of the preparations, and anybody interested was invited to send in comments. Several organisations took the opportunity to do so, showing also the importance they attach to our work in this field. The Steering Committee on the Mass Media took this feedback from the field duly into account when drawing up the texts before us today. Another innovative feature was the organisation of an NGO Forum two days ago here in Kyiv, and I welcome the contribution of the civil society to our debates.

I would like to thank warmly the authorities of Ukraine for hosting this very important Conference, and I look forward to its input for our future work in taking the European media policy to new frontiers for the benefit of our 800 million citizens, our work in building a Europe of thriving independent media, a Europe where pluralism of ideas and a free exchange of opinions underpin our striving for a better quality of life.
I wish you every success. Thank you.