“The media in a democratic society: reconciling freedom of expression with the protection of human rights” – Luxembourg - 30 Sept. – 1st Oct. 2002 

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Statement by Lydie Polfer

Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade of Luxembourg and Chairman of the Committee of Ministers

at the closing sitting of the Conference on media in a democratic society”- 1er October 2002

Mr Minister,
The General Rapporteur,
Distinguished Members of Parliament,
Journalists and media representatives,
Experts and specialists,
Ladies and gentlemen,

In step with the summing-up given by the General Rapporteur, Mr Aidan White, Secretary General of the International Federation of Journalists, and the concluding speech by Mr François Biltgen, Minister responsible for Communications, who has surveyed the subjects discussed during the conference and extracted the substance from them, I should like, in my capacity as Chairman-in-Office responsible for the intergovernmental strand of the Council of Europe’s activities, to cast my own critical eye over the crucial issue of media freedom in Europe.

My address is intended to complement the admirable conclusions drawn from yesterday’s and today’s discussions and proceedings, which will indubitably drive the activities of the Council of Europe. I shall submit those conclusions to my colleagues, being personally convinced that your contribution will benefit the work in progress. I beg you to regard my message as testifying to the interest and dedication of the Committee of Ministers, in an Organisation whose fundamental goals of safeguarding human rights, promoting democratic values and constantly strengthening rule of law have been central to the priorities and the action of Luxembourg’s Chairmanship.

It is no happenstance that the Luxembourg authorities made it an essential theme of their half-year of activities in the Chair to concentrate on freedom of the press and the media in the broad sense, including associations with all the problems that may arise in the actual exercise of this freedom, from day to day as much as at the level of principles.

Even before I began my term in the Chair of the Committee of Ministers, I signed a memorandum of co-operation with the Secretary General of the Council of Europe for the purpose of supporting the training and promotional activities conducted by the Media Division, under a three-year programme of voluntary financial contributions from Luxembourg. In that specific connection, and in the wake of this Europe-wide conference, I am pleased to be able to inform you that a regional conference, financed thanks to that injection of funds, will be staged in Strasbourg on 17 and 18 October, covering South-East Europe and concentrating on the theme of defamation and freedom of expression. As I see it, this takes on its full importance in a large region of our continent marked by a decade of deadly conflicts – one in great need of reconciliation, and of the medias’ decisive assistance to that end.

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As is so fittingly stated in the introductory document prepared jointly with the Council of Europe Secretariat, there is no true democracy unless individuals are able freely to express their ideas and opinions, and to receive or convey information.

For the maintenance and furtherance of living democracy to be possible, free, independent, pluralist, responsible journalism must exist and be fostered continually.

This description, essential to open societies that are ready to evolve towards ever greater democracy, also follows from Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and the extensive case-law of the Strasbourg Court, built up over a period of more than forty years.

For a good twenty years or more, the Committee of Ministers has repeatedly looked into the many issues relating to the media. It has adopted numerous recommendations, declarations and resolutions of many different kinds, ranging from copyright to media coverage of election campaigns and including safeguards for the independence of public media and strategies to combat tobacco, alcohol and drugs, not forgetting the promotion of media pluralism, the problems of violence in the electronic media, and racist content in video games.

As part of its “monitoring” activities, the Committee of Ministers has already devoted much effort to study of media freedom and the extremely serious problems that can arise in this context. Its findings have been transposed into the work of steering committees and intergovernmental committees of experts and have led to the adoption, inter alia, of important guides to practice for member states such as Recommendation N° 7 of 2000 on journalists’ right not to disclose their sources, and Recommendation N° 2 of 2002 on access to public documents.

Moreover, the thematic “monitoring” by the Committee of Ministers has prompted far-reaching action in the area of freedom of expression and information, namely the appointment by the Secretary General of experts who are at work gathering objective information in all member states. This work, currently in full swing, will be reviewed by the Ministers’ Deputies in early 2003. In addition, several of these experts have taken part in the proceedings of the present conference, for which I sincerely thank them.

The Parliamentary Assembly and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe, which conduct a country-by-country scrutiny of national situations, looking for shortcomings of democracy that may occur, also emphatically draw the attention of the public authorities to the breaches found and make proposals for correcting unsatisfactory situations.

That was the case just last week at the autumn parliamentary session, concerning issues that included freedom of expression and media freedom in Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as in Moldova. In the last few years, moreover, the Assembly has also adopted a number of resolutions of general scope dealing with various aspects linked to freedom of expression and information in the member states …

Such being the case, it would be mistaken to saddle the new member states alone with all the responsibilities and the blame for all wrongs. Admittedly, on the path of democratisation, some of them have yet to get the hang of honouring to the letter the undertakings by which they are bound through their accession to an organisation whose essential goal is to ensure consistent application of the major values on which democratic societies are founded.

What strikes me in this regard is that the new democracies very often possess far more modern legislative frameworks than their elders, introduced thanks to the assistance and expertise of institutions such as the Council of Europe, but that their implementation – associated with the necessary evolution of attitudes and emancipation from the legacy of an undemocratic past – is being achieved only very gradually. Some older member states, on the other hand, should take to heart the criticisms levelled at them regarding the existence of outmoded legislative frameworks and inadequacy of reform in that respect.

Where media freedom is concerned, it is imperative that those who govern understand and accept that the ruling power cannot and must not dictate to the press the type of information that would suit it best. The media have the right, even the duty, to raise queries and to challenge those wielding the power vested in them by the people. Journalists may irritate; their critical pronouncements are often a nuisance but have the advantage of fuelling genuine public debate, founded on interplay of opinions, on a foundation of information freely obtained and made available to the public. We ought not to forget that information is not a stake fought over by politicians and media. It belongs primarily to our peoples.

Indeed, I consider that participatory citizenship cannot be confined to exercising the right to elect or be elected at more or less regular intervals, but must be able to receive the benefits secured by open, ongoing societal debate, only possible with an informed alert public.

A drastic case which, alas, seems to me symptomatic of the grave threats that may overshadow the exercise of freedom of expression concerns Mr Georghi Gongadze, a Ukrainian journalist who went missing two years ago and was found murdered. The investigation is dragging; the information available to the international community is contradictory. The new State Counsel General was on a visit to the Council of Europe at the beginning of September. During his high-level contacts he undertook – as he had already done on taking office in July – to fully elucidate this case which has gone on for too long and whose uncertainties have become very weighty. The Committee of Ministers is encouraging him to do so at the domestic level, meanwhile suggesting the best possible use of international expertise to carry through the inquiry which is in progress.

Disappearance of journalists in our countries in this day and age is disturbing in the extreme. Their persecution or harassment is serious enough in itself. It is outrageous and reprehensible to silence people who cause embarrassment, or to attempt to limit their activities and expression. The ambition of the Council of Europe must be to carry on its efforts to assist in the transformation of the legislative frameworks, but also of normal human attitudes to freedom of expression and information. This is a protracted task which must be undertaken without faltering.

Yesterday during the opening session, the Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe put forward an idea that deserves our close examination. Its substance is to say that blatant violations of freedom of expression and information that place journalists’ physical integrity at risk, for instance, cannot be adequately countered by means of the conventional monitoring procedures, but rather by thinking in innovative terms that respond to the urgency of the situation. Ms Buquicchio, in the event of an unacceptable situation, thus stated the case for a rapid reaction mechanism which would be perfectly conceivable for several partner organisations to develop among themselves, namely the Council of Europe, the OSCE and the European Union. I am in favour of having the officials of the institutions concerned study the feasibility of such an emergency mechanism.

Regarding journalists’ physical integrity, I should also like to mention two important texts, a declaration and a recommendation adopted by the Committee of Ministers in the spring of 1996 and dealing with the protection of journalists in situations of conflict and tension. This grave matter unfortunately retains its immediacy. I have noted that in March 2002 the international non-governmental organisation “reporters sans frontières” (RSF) published a Charter on the same subject. It would be worthwhile to compare the elements selected at the time by the governments of the Council of Europe member states with those identified by the journalists themselves, in order to see how far they complement each other and could coincide, and the extent to which they might diverge or even be contradictory.

The long-standing member states are acquainted with a different brand of problems regarding media freedom, relating more specifically to the economic and commercial conditions of the media sector (multinationals, concentrations of power and, more recently, speculation and weakening of the continental or global structures governing information and mass communication … together with the associated technologies). This is quite clearly an issue beyond the sphere and the abilities of the Council of Europe alone; here at least it can do nothing more than act as a moral force. The issue is more likely to be of concern to institutions with a regulatory function in the economic and commercial fields, such as the European Union and Commission, or WTO and the international financial institutions.

Let us return for a moment to what constitutes the strength of the Council of Europe, namely that is very often at the leading edge. The Parliamentary Assembly is frequently innovative. It quickly appreciated the importance of dealing with the most up-to-date aspects of the question, namely the medium formed by the new information technologies, with the inherent risks of abuses and distortions.

The Assembly very strongly involved itself in the work for the adoption of the Convention on Cyber-Crime, and last Thursday adopted a report advocating the adoption of a protocol to that Convention for more efficient combating of racist, xenophobic or revisionist messages circulating on the Internet, and incitation to hatred.

In this particular context, the new context that has characterised the world since 11 September 2001, I am bound to mention the special responsibility not only of politicians at all levels, but also of journalists and media, in promoting multicultural and interfaith dialogue. Back in 1997 the Committee of Ministers, also taking an innovative stance, adopted two important texts on the special responsibility of the media in this respect, namely Recommendations Nos. 19 and 20 concerning hate speech and promotion of tolerance respectively. As part of the trans-sectoral projects initiated by the Secretary General of the Council of Europe to combat violence and terrorism, it would be useful to reconsider these texts and update them if appropriate.

It would be ludicrous to attempt to reiterate all the substantive issues which you have discussed in the space of a day and a half. Allow me simply to express the hope that he conference which is about to end, and was conceived as a forum for dialogue involving political leaders, academics and media professionals has succeeded in taking stock of the varied, multiple problems that are likely to be felt in all Council of Europe member states and in gathering data on which the Council will be able to work to useful effect in the future.

Convinced that your contribution will enhance the work of the organisation, I shall submit the conference conclusions to the Committee of Ministers which will then be able to refer them to its working groups and appropriate committees.

The results of this conference will also be transmitted to the European Court of Human Rights, the Parliamentary Assembly, the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe, and to our partner organisations, in order to nurture reflection and bring about improvement in situations found inadequate as regards the exercise of fundamental freedoms.

Thank you for your attention.

I also invite the press to join Minister Biltgen, General Rapporteur White and myself for the press conference to be held a few minutes from now.