If There Are No Journalists, We Will Not Know What is Happening in the Dark Parts of the World

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Iran Review’s Interview with Dunja Mijatović
By: Kourosh Ziabari

On the second day of the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum 2015 held from June 22 – 24 in the German city of Bonn, a group of journalists, including me representing Iran Review, had the chance to talk with Dunja Mijatović, a prominent European expert on media law and regulation and OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media. OSCE is the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and is known to be the world’s largest security-oriented intergovernmental organization, working on a range of issues including arms control, human rights and freedom of press. OSCE’s member states come from various geographical regions; from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in Central Asia to Canada and the United States in North America and Norway, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom in Europe. It also has some “partners for cooperation” in Africa, Asia and Oceania.

Dunja Mijatović has a long experience in media regulation and press freedom. In 2007, she was elected Chair of the European Platform of Regulatory Agencies, and became the first woman to assume the post. She had previously chaired the Council of Europe’s Group of Specialists on Freedom of Expression and Information in Times of Crisis. She had been a lecturer at the University of Sarajevo, University of Banja Luka and the Belgrade Academy for Political Excellence.

In the interview Ms. Mijatović gave to us after her plenary session at the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum 2015, a number of issues were discussed. Below is the full text of Ms. Dunja Mijatović’s Q&A session with us. The questions posed by Iran Review are indicated with “IR” initials.

Q: A major theme of the talk you just gave was how social media are making diplomacy more difficult these days. Is it necessarily a bad thing that diplomats are being held more accountable through any social media that they’re participating in?

A: Well, I think it’s a good thing not just for diplomats but for all public officials in order to be able to reach out to their audience to engage in a constructive dialog via Twitter and Facebook, for example. We just heard that German Foreign Minister is using Facebook and is trying to reply to all the questions there. So, it is in a way of exposing people more, but it’s also offering more opportunity for all of us to be part of the global society and to engage in these interactions. Of course there are threats and there are problems and this is everything but not traditional diplomacy. However, we have to embrace it and we have to use it for the benefit.

Q: Just a quick follow-up: how do we balance a diplomat’s desire to promote their own narrative and their own story with a journalist’s need to get the actual, real story?

A: I think there is no balance there; those are two different things. I mean, diplomats’ trying to send their message is something the journalist can use, and do with it whatever they wish to do in order to make a story. So, it’s in a way a source of information and a point of contact also for the journalist to reach out to some diplomats that are more open and more accessible than others. But then again we come to the essence of journalism; the journalist is the one deciding in which direction the story will go.

IR: How is OSCE trying to promote freedom of speech and freedom of press within the European mainland, not necessarily in the Middle East? As you know, there have been many reports of the violation of press freedom and freedom of speech in Europe itself. So, how is your organization trying to promote these values and uphold these values within its geographical boundaries?

A: Well, a challenge of our day is how to uphold the values when it comes to human rights in general. The OSCE is the organization for security and cooperation which starts in a way from Vancouver in Canada and U.S. moving to Europe, the Middle East, Russia, all the way to Mongolia. The diversity of societies and different cultures and traditions is something that we have to take into account. But as I just said at my panel, the countries with the old tradition of democracy and free speech should be the one leading by example. And there are examples of violations and threats particularly when it comes to legislation that can potentially affect free speech and free media, but at the same time we have to be very realistic. We need to see in which countries we see systematic abuses of free speech and freedom of the media. And here I talk about safety when journalists are threatened, beaten, imprisoned, but also killed in streets of some cities. This is not happening, if you say, in the mainland of Europe. There are huge differences and we have to be realistic. But at the same time, we should not shy away of pointing the finger if we see there are violations, because sometimes in certain societies – and I’m from Bosnia and Herzegovina, I’m from Sarajevo, we do forget how important it is to preserve the rights of every person. So here I’m not talking only about journalists but the right of every person to freely express himself or herself.

IR: I have a follow-up question. It was about three years ago when the Eutelsat and other European communication providers took Iran’s round-the-clock English language news station Press TV off the air over the allegations that it abused the codes of media ethics. You might have heard about it. So, what’s your reaction to that and the fact that there are times when the Europeans try to silence those voices which they don’t find favorable to their interests?

A: I’m not familiar with this particular case but there are countries taking down certain channels that do violate certain rules. So, I do not think that not just this channel or any other channel is taken down by the satellite providers or whoever is in charge if there is no reasoning for it. Of course you always have to be cautious and to see if this is for political reason or it is really because this channel is inciting hatred or promoting division among people and this sort of thing. So, we have to look at this on a case by case basis. But I’m very vocal when it comes to banning anything, because I think it’s the wrong way of dealing with things, but at the same time we need to be very careful if it is related to violence or call for violence of any kind. This is not freedom of speech and this is anarchy, and it needs to be dealt with based on the rule of law.

IR: And when it comes to investigating the content and the coverage of the media, do you think that the media really need to be judged on the basis of what they publish, what they air or what they broadcast?

A: Of course, because that’s their face. Their mission is what we see or what we hear on certain channels. And that’s why we have in most of democratic countries regulatory authorities that are dealing with the issue of content, not to mention when it comes to again violence or incitement to hatred, that the court or judiciary needs to look at it. So, the media is also not untouchable. They are the face to public and they need to make sure that this face stays untouched when it comes to code of ethics and professionalism. And here I’m not against provocative journalism, journalism that is courageous and investigative, but there is also something that we need to preserve and that’s to be professional at the end.

Q: I would like to ask you, what are your recommendations to the journalists who are working on sensitive issues like conflicts zones, or the investigative journalists who have a very risky job? How should they preserve themselves and their work?

A: The first thing I say is to “stay safe”. That was my message to journalists in Crimea in Simferopol in 2014 when I visited Crimea. The first thing that they need to make sure is to stay safe because nowadays it seems that journalism is a very dangerous profession. And that’s why we all from international organizations need to engage more with the journalist associations in order to make sure that the journalists are safer. Just last week, I had a big conference; my office organized a big conference in Vienna where we spoke about journalism in conflict zones and how to preserve plurality, professionalism, and safety. It is a challenge and what you need is courage; courage to be investigative journalist, who is revealing problems in the society, who is reporting form the conflict, who is reporting of people being killed, innocent people being slaughtered – all these stories that we unfortunately still hear in 21st century. And if there are no journalists, we will not be able to know what is happening in some dark parts of the world. That’s why I think apart from safety, we need to preserve a real investigative journalism that is, in my opinion, under threat at the moment.

Q: Given the access that diplomats have today to speak directly to people, do you still see a welfare state-owned media?

A: No, I think state should get out of media. They should not own media; they should support public service broadcasting with all possible means in order for public service broadcasting to be financially and operationally free and independent. It is a huge challenge, particularly for the countries in transition. Here, I talks about the Balkans and some other states that are still struggling with making sure that they are efficient professional public service broadcasting. But state-owned media is not something that I would like to see in the 21st century in any part of the world, because that means full control by the governments when it come to content and I cannot call it anything but pure censorship.

Q: Which measures OSCE should apply to protect the safety of journalist in the frozen conflict areas, especially in Transnistria? I’m coming from Moldova and you’ve probably heard about the case of a journalist named Mr. Sergei Ilchenko who is sent to prison and accused of espionage in Transnistria?

A: Well, I work a lot in Moldova with the government and with the civil society. I was there last year and I’m planning to go soon again. There are many issues that I like to address, but unfortunately when it comes to frozen conflicts like the situation in Transnistria or Abkhazia city in Georgia or in any other part of world, it is difficult to move as the OSCE representative on the freedom of media because of the limitations of my mandate. I do talk with the civil society; I do talk with the journalists; I do talk with the Moldovan government, but my limitations are there when it comes to so-called authorities in Transnistria. Nevertheless, I do raise my voice when I know that journalists are affected and in all cases I did raise these issues. When it comes to frozen conflicts, this is a challenge for all international organizations, not just the OSCE. There are no recommendations because of frozen conflicts and that is why it is quite difficult to move around under such circumstances. But what I can say is that Moldova did take some very important steps in order to open that and in order to accept international norms when it comes to free speech, but much more needs to be done particularly now when there is a huge challenge in terms of propaganda and other issues that are very important.

Q: How can we combat this propaganda?

A: You have to do this as a journalist. This is something that is very important, because propaganda should not be fought with the same tools as they are propping it up. So, it is very important that the public service broadcasting is transformed. If you talk about Moldova, there is a decades- long struggle with public service broadcasting that is not efficient. Not enough has been done, and this is something that I’m raising with Moldovan government constantly. There are certain laws that are adopted in order to block certain channels, but that’s not enough. There is a need to engage with the society; there is a need to offer plurality of voices. And when the conflict is there, it’s difficult to do it overnight; it is not something that we can solve in short-term. The engagement of the society at large is needed in order to tackle these issues.           

Key Words: Journalists, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Social Media, Diplomacy, Human Rights, Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Press, Middle East, Systematic Abuse, Press TV, Coverage of  Media, Mijatović    

*Photo Credit: Ahmad Al-Bazz, European Youth Press

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