OSCE Representative promises to defend free media for democracy's sake


28 January 2021

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by Jane Whyatt

Protecting the safety of journalists – and especially the thousands of media workers who identify as women and face online threats and harassment – is important to the mission of  Teresa Ribeiro. The Portuguese media expert is the new Representative on Freedom of the Media at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). In an interview with The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), Dr Ribeiro talks about surviving COVID-19, supporting people facing gender-based harassment and reviving the core concept of press freedom as an essential pillar of democracy.


ECPMF: What are your priorities in terms of protecting the safety of journalists, both in terms of physical dangers and online threats?

A: Every attack and each threat against any journalist is one too many. We recently published a third edition of our Guidebook on this issue, and it rightly addresses the safety of all media workers in all situations. How to distinguish between a physical assault on a TV-crew during a demonstration, an online smear campaign against a female journalist, a threat with expensive legal procedures against a newspaper publisher, or the detention of a critical reporter? We need all voices, and we need them now more than ever. Therefore, I would rather not prioritise, but instead put all my effort into restoring the fundamental idea, both with authorities and with the public, that having free and pluralistic media is the only way our democratic societies can thrive.


Q: Your period of office coincides with a global COVID-19 pandemic, which brings extra restrictions on freedom of the press in many countries. What is your message to governments and to journalists and media workers with regard to these additional curbs?

A: The COVID-19 pandemic has presented us with great difficulties, on many levels. The illness struck me last year, and it was a terrible experience. I fully understand that we need to do all we can to protect the health of every one of us. At the same time, however, I am very worried that this crisis amplified existing tendencies that hamper the freedom of expression. The distrust against media that provide news that do not fit people’s “bubble”, for instance, has grown substantially in the past year. At the same time, many authorities used this crisis to fulfil their desire to strongly cut back on critical voices. We should therefore be very vigilant when authorities come up with new decrees, and we should ensure that such emergency measures are proportionate and removed once they no longer serve a legitimate purpose.

Q: The pandemic also has a big impact on journalists’ ability to earn a living. How should governments and media outlets react to the financial implications of lockdown?

A: This is another very concerning issue. All over the OSCE region, we witnessed a strong economic downturn for journalism. There have been financial cuts for publicly funded media and a substantial decline in advertisement revenues, with costs on the rise. At the same time, I am glad to say that there have been some very promising initiatives to support media. Some States have provided emergency funds and direct state-aid to the press; they offered tax-credits, VAT-cuts or a reimbursing and lifting of broadcasting license fees; some have distributed direct bonuses to journalists and financial packages to freelancers who could not work during the crisis; while others supported public service broadcasters with an extra fund.


Q: From our monitoring project Mapping Media Freedom www.mappingmediafreedom.org, we know that female journalists and media workers are often the target of gender-based threats, violence and hate speech. How will you address this issue during your mandate?

A: As you might know, our office has a special project on the Safety of Female of Journalists Online in place for some years now, which has become an important platform for raising awareness on this issue. I am very proud to say that just recently we have launched a comprehensive Resource Guide. This book assists the States and non-State actors across the OSCE region in taking real actions to tackle the problem that affects us all. It presents practices and examples of ways in which international standards and commitments can be realized, and with 40 concrete actions, it provides a systemic multi-stakeholder approach for actors that are central for creating a safe and enabling media environment.


Q: How can the European media freedom community help to reinforce your work on defending human rights across the region?

A: Let me begin by saying that I very much look forward to a fruitful co-operation. I am currently making a first round of introduction meetings with State and non-State actors, trying to listen and learn and to see where we can reinforce each other’s efforts to make sure that freedom of expression can thrive in our region. I think it is important that we alert each other on situations that affect media freedom negatively, including legal developments and political decisions, and in specific cases where a journalist is threatened, intimidated, detained or assaulted. My door is always open, while I will keep reaching out to all members of the media freedom community.