Interview with the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir

September 11, 2017/ By Fairpress

Mr. Désir was appointed as the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media on 18 July 2017 for a period of three years. His activities, as the OSCE RoFM, include observing media developments as part of an early warning function and helping participating States abide by their commitments to freedom of expression and free media.

According to his Bio published on OSCE website, prior to this position, Mr. Désir was French Minister of State for European Affairs since April 2014; and a Member of the European Parliament for three consecutive terms from 1999 to 2014. Mr. Désir served as Vice-President of the Socialist Group of the European Parliament from 2004 to 2009 and as First Secretary of the French Socialist Party from 2012 to 2014. In October 1984, Mr. Désir co-founded the French not-for-profit association “SOS Racisme”, whose objective is to fight against racism, anti-Semitism and all other forms of discrimination. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy from the Paris I Sorbonne University.

FP: As someone who has an activist background, what was your drivefor the engagement as the OSCE’s Representative on Freedom of the Media?

Harlem Désir: I wanted to put both my civil society and political background at the service of this mandate, which is at the crossroads of human rights commitments and diplomacy.

FP: How would you describe the current situation of free media across the OSCE region?

Harlem Désir: In many OSCE participating States, the media situation is in a constant decline. In the past year alone, we have witnessed hundreds of criminal investigations launched by authorities against critical voices and more than 150 journalists are currently in prison. We see many different legal instruments used to silence dissenting voices, such as accusations of supporting terrorism, criminal defamation lawsuits, and charges of economic crimes. This is appalling and a clear violation of OSCE commitments on freedom of the media.

FP: What are, in your opinion, main challenges in the OSCE region related to media?   

Harlem Désir: For me safety of journalists will always be the number one priority. This also includes the growing problem of online threats and intimidation, with female journalists being specifically targeted with often sexual and otherwise graphic harassment. These threats have become part of daily life for many, leading often to self-censorship. It is of utmost importance that law enforcement bodies, and of course the media organizations and editorial offices too, take these issues seriously to ensure that women who are targeted with online abuse have all necessary support and recourse.

Without question, impunity continues to be one of the leading challenges in terms of media freedom, though certainly not the only one.

Another key issue for all OSCE States is how to safeguard media freedom whilst fighting terrorism. When it is not narrowly and precisely defined, legislation, aiming to combat terrorism and terrorist propaganda, can easily be misused to limit freedom of expression. This is a very serious threat and I will work with the OSCE States to help them not to violate the fundamental human right to freedom of expression in their efforts to combat terrorism and violent extremism.

Additionally, the change of the media landscape has enabled faster proliferation of disinformation, propaganda and what is sometimes referred to as “fake news”. These are not new phenomena, but today’s technology allows for much faster distribution. In response we see some officials either blocking or banning media outlets, or creating legislation to make dissemination of “fake news” and propaganda illegal. This is indeed problematic for media freedom.

Furthermore, the information we consume today is increasingly produced and distributed by a small number of large media owners. The digital transformation of our society accelerates this development, as advertisement revenue is channeled away from the traditional media, and in particular from print media. Working conditions and wages of journalists are deteriorating, their independence is at stake. On top of that, in many countries, local media is now an endangered species. In many smaller towns and in rural regions, there are simply no investigative journalists left to fulfil the essential role of media holding local authorities and officials to account. This has a negative impact on the quality of our democracies, and we need to look deeper into the consequences from a media freedom perspective, especially when it comes to the rapid erosion of media pluralism.

FP: What can you, as OSCE RFoM, do to address those challenges?

Harlem Désir: There are many ways. The 57 States have given me a mandate to speak out when media freedom commitments are being violated. This is just the most public part of my mandate. In addition I will work directly with all the governments to assist them in improving media freedom; I will work with the media, with the civil society, journalists’ organizations, academia, experts, think-tanks to address a broad range of issues that journalist are facing today.

Governments, but also the citizens have to understand that any attack against journalists and media workers is an attack on our freedom of expression, on our freedom to question and to criticize.

FP: How would you observe a media situation in South East Europe (SEE) countries? What are, in your opinion most pressing media issues in this region?

Harlem Désir: The media situation in South Eastern Europe is, just as in many other OSCE regions, very vulnerable and subject to intense political pressure. It is worth mentioning that several countries in the region have solid legislation in line with international commitments and obligations. However, the actual implementation of this legislation is often problematic.

Safety of journalists and impunity for attacks and crimes committed against them remain the biggest problem in the region. Attacks against journalists happen and this is, above all other issues, my first priority.

Furthermore, the economic situation and independence of media outlets, including the public broadcasters, political influence in editorial policies, self-censorship and media literacy are other issues that need to be properly addressed in the region. Governments, journalists, civil society, international organizations and all other stakeholders must coordinate their efforts to ensure that the media environment is one in which journalists can do their job for the benefit of all of society. My Office has very good cooperation with the respective authorities in the region and enjoys a good reputation within the media community, which is beneficial for a constructive dialogue.

FP: What would you like to be remembered for after your mandate as OSCE RFoM ends?

Harlem Désir: As a strong defender of free media and bringing together the OSCE participating States and the civil society for freedom and security.


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