"If I have helped journalists, I have achieved my goal" – Dunja Mijatović ends her OSCE term

by Jane Whyatt
Campaigners for press and media freedom need stamina and endurance, and in her two consecutive terms as the High Representative at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Dunja Mijatović has proved she has both.

Dunja Mijatović OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović at the conference on shaping policies to advance media freedom on the internet, Vienna, 14 February 2013. (Photo: OSCE / Colin Peters)

Fluent in five languages, with Bosnian/Croatian/Serban as her mother tongues, Mijatović has defended media freedom across the changing political landscape of Europe. As she comes to the end of her period of office, the chairmanship of OSCE passes to Germany. It is a moment for Dunja Mijatovic to confront the new threats presented by terrorism and the refugee crisis, and to reflect on the experience of the past six years.

Press and media freedom is still under pressure in the OSCE. How did you see the developments in the last years on that issue?

Over the past few years I have witnessed what I see as the greatest threats to free speech and free media in Europe today.

When I came into office in 2010, the OSCE region looked completely different. The threat from Al Qaida and other terrorist organisations had been reduced; the Arab Spring was about to start; Moscow and Kiev enjoyed good relations; whistle-blower Edward Snowden had not revealed the systematic mass surveillance in our societies.

I am not by any means suggesting there were no threats to free media and freedom of expression in 2010, there indeed were. At all times, the freedom to express ourselves has been questioned and challenged from many sides, often blatant, sometimes more concealed. Like today, journalists were harassed, beaten, even killed in high numbers for doing their jobs; critical journalists were imprisoned on all sorts of fabricated charges; Internet regulation was introduced in many parts of Europe; and the financial crisis in 2009 had led to increased media concentration – just to mention a few of the concerns. Still, I would dare to say there was another atmosphere in Europe - one of optimism, trust, hope and expectations. Europe was in many ways going in the right direction.

"We are living in more dangerous times"

Today, as we all know, this has changed dramatically. We are living in more dangerous times. Recent terrorist attacks and new lines of conflict in Europe are fundamentally altering and challenging the way we think about our basic human rights such as freedom of expression and privacy. We see a shrinking place for civil society; journalists and human rights defenders are increasingly subject to harassment, NGOs are being restricted in their activities and media freedom is deteriorating.

It is a sad fact that our very own security has become one of the greatest threats to freedom of speech. At the same time, our societies are marked by an atmosphere with increasing intolerance of dissenting opinions. Taken together, I fear that these factors have created a dangerous mixture of suppression and self-censorship in Europe and beyond.

"Female journalists under attack"

Furthermore, the mounting number of online threats targeting female journalists, who are being singled out and attacked on the internet, often with threats of rape and sexual violence, is also very worrying.

Moreover, the challenges to free media in conflict zones, in particular in and around Ukraine, with regard to journalists' safety are often compounded with the vicious elements of propaganda used to incite war and hatred.

At the same time, we have to acknowledge that while internet, in many ways, has become the new battlefield for free media, it also provides us ordinary citizens the opportunity to easily exercise our right to free expression.

With the background of growing threats (terrorism etc.) what do you expect for 2016 in terms of freedom of expression?

The dangers of censorship and self-censorship are also escalating in the climate of fear in the war against terror. We must acknowledge that the level of security we are currently seeking probably is unattainable in full and that effective and proportionate anti-terrorist laws are needed in the OSCE countries. I do not in any way challenge the legitimate right of governments to fight terrorism and to protect our societies. But the laws should not be misapplied or abused so that they hinder the work of journalists and suppress free media and the right of free expression.

Unfortunately, this is what we see in Europe today. Security laws are being misused to take down critical content online and to imprison critical journalists on fabricated charges of terrorism. With increasing surveillance power to monitor citizens' activities, it is getting more and more difficult for journalists to get information and protect confidentiality of sources.

What do you hope from the German chairmanship?

Germany has put media freedom among its priorities for its chairmanship and my office co-operates closely with the chairmanship on joint initiatives. One of these co-operative efforts is the expert meeting we are hosting together on 12 February on propaganda for war and hatred and media freedom.

I am certain that the German chairmanship will be an important factor to safeguard and strengthen media freedom on the OSCE area throughout 2016.

At the moment we have a debate in Germany on the decline of press freedom and above all on the raise of violence against journalists (see our fact finding mission on that issue here: How does that influence the German chairmanship in your opinion?

I have raised all of these cases with the German authorities and their responses are very encouraging. It is difficult for me to judge how it will affect their Chairmanship. At the same time I know that they took on board the statements form my office and the civil society.

What would you name as most important outcomes from your period as Representative on Freedom of the Media?

It is not for me to evaluate the work and tasks I have performed as the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, I leave that for others to judge. On a personal note helping journalists across the OSCE region has been immensely rewarding. If my work has been helpful to them, to allow them to work, to give them freedom, then I have achieved my goal.

Which are the core regions and issues for your successor?

It will be for my successor to determine his or her own priorities and path. But looking at the current challenges to media freedom, the office will need to continue to be engaged in safety of journalists in all areas and on all platforms. I also hope that in the future your organisation, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, will co-operate more closely with my office.