The fight for a free media divides the OSCE

IT TOOK TWO SWELTERING days in Vienna's Hofburg palace to arrive, but when the superpower showdown came, it was excoriating. The seething Russian government representative led off: "this conference has been anti-Russian", he barked. "I have heard unfounded accusations, fake news and lies. How dare you gang up on Russia in this way?".

© Tim Dawson

The OCSE in session

His US counterpart was soon on his toes. "People have stuffed this room with proxies, placemen and fellow-travellers who have read out long, pre-prepared statements to deliberately crowd out the good-faith dialogue. It is a fact that Russia has illegally occupied Ukraine and that it continues to prevent free expression in that peninsular".

Seeing two governments' representatives trading such unnuanced blows is quite a spectacle.

[NUJ President Tim Dawson; © Lucy Adams]

The meeting was the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe's media freedom conference (19-20 June 2017). The proceedings were dominated by raging hostility between Russian and Ukrainian representatives. Skirmishes involving Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Kazakstan and Azerbaijan provided a fractious backdrop.

The OSCE's origins lie in the mid-1970s when it was established as a sort of regional, specifically-focussed United Nations: 57 nations are now members. These include the entire EU, all the other countries in geographical Europe, most of the old Soviet Union, the United States and Canada. Member states maintain ambassadorial delegations to the OSCE, which is headquartered in Vienna, Austria.

Among its most important work is that of the Representative on Freedom of the Media - an individual with a sizeable office who acts as a media watchdog for member nations. The decriminalisation of defamation, the safety of women journalists and combatting hate speech feature in its recent work. The OSCE centrally currently has nearly 600 observers in Ukraine to monitor the ceasefire in that country.

The meeting took place in the OSCE's main chamber - a room on the scale of a minor airport terminal. At the centre of the room, a rectangular table is occupied by the national delegations. Behind these, sit several rows of NGOs, trades unions, interest groups and individual journalists - more than 200 people in all.

© Tim Dawson

Kate Adie

Kate Adie delivered a blistering keynote to open the meeting. Her unwavering commitment to journalism shone no less bright than the day nearly 40 years ago that she burst into British national consciousness, crouching behind a car on live TV to report the SAS storming the siege of the Iranian Embassy in London.

"Freelances and local journalists sustain the worst casualties at the hands of their own governments", she said. She accused the Turkish authorities of locking up "dozens of senior journalists" and denounced any system of "balance" that requires being even-handed with evil. Her conclusion was pointed: "whether I am standing before you as a BBC reporter, a correspondent from the Morning Star or the editor of Knitting Monthly, I am the same - a journalist - and it is journalists of all types that we must defend."

Then we were back to the odd world of international relations where the main purpose of debate is to make your point, regardless of the likelihood of contradiction - not least because sessions generally end without conclusion.

The Turkish ambassador was soon on his feet: "A free media is essential for a free society and freedom of expression and is an important part of Turkish human rights". He lamented that terrorism and the current state of emergency were making life difficult in his country, but promised that a government programme was already providing training for 2000 new journalists.

Istanbul-based Erol Önderoglu, the Reporters Sans Frontières representative in Turkey, was having none of it. "The crackdown in Turkey is unprecedented, there is a clear attempt to liquidate the human rights movement, journalists are being forced to leave the country and the Turkish judiciary is entirely controlled by the government".

Then attention shifted back to the Black Sea. Ukrainian government officials declared that "Russia is waging information war on Ukraine". Before the meeting was over, the Armenians, Azabaijanis, Kazakhs and Georgians had intervened in similarly pugnacious terms.

Along the way, there was much to learn. A fragile accord has been achieved between the journalists' unions of Russia and Ukraine, if nothing else on the need to find Stanyslav Ajeev, who disappeared in Donbas a fortnight ago. Nevertheless, the two organisations spent more time trading verbal blows than celebrating their entente.

Gavin Rees from the DART Centre Europe and former Reuters photographer Finbarr O'Reilly delivered a fascinating overview of the way that trauma affects journalists. A quarter of people are potentially susceptible to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but there are no effective predictors of who is among them.

© Tim Dawson

David Mikkelson

Fake news was the cause of despair, bewilderment and anger. Whether the scourge is ancient or modern, the product of laziness or wickedness or even a term that remains useful were aerated without agreement. David Mikkelson, founder of fact-checking site www.snopes.com, demonstrated - with a widely-reported story of separated twins unwittingly marrying - that even well-resourced news organisations like the Daily Mail, the Evening Standard and the Mirror can fall for unsophisticated fakery.

During a debate on the safety of reporters and photographers, I suggested that being a member of a journalists' union was a significant safeguard. By gratifying chance, three audience members subsequently related that their own release from imprisonment was due, in part, to pressure applied by their collective organisations.

The sound advice and hoary war stories could not hold back the simmering hostilities for long, however. Soon we were back to Russians thumping their chests as they spoke of family members buried in Crimean soil juxtaposed with Ukrainians who had departed their homeland clutching their worldly belongings in single suitcases.

This outrage is emblematic of deeper problems as the OSCE, sadly. The Mandate holder, who leads the Representative on the Freedom of the Media operation, performs a vital role. The last incumbent, Dunja Mijatovic, completed her term in March 2017. A successor must be nominated by their home nation and approved by all 57 members. An initial list of nine candidates was considered, but were ultimately vetoed by one member - thought to be Russia. A further round considered a single candidate, who received a black ball from a difference member, on the grounds that a contest with just one candidate was no contest at all.

In the absence of a Mandate holder the obviously-capable Frane Maroevic heads up the organisation. Few doubt, however, that with every passing month the organisation is weakened. An improbable coincidence of vacancies requiring supranational agreement will exacerbate the situation. The International Federation of Journalists has joined with a group of other NGOs to demand that the mandate be filled at the earliest opportunity, and there is talk of a plausible candidate in the air. Those concerned with media freedom the world over will be hoping that this is true.

For all that the failure to find agreement is damaging the OSCE's standing, however, it is also proof of its purpose. Were it without authority, governments would not expend capital thwarting its work. And far removed though its endeavours might seem from council meeting write-ups or filler packages about the unseasonal weather, its voice is one that repressive governments fear. They might not buckle to its will, but many seem sufficiently thin-skinned that international opprobrium can, on occasion, be surprisingly effective.