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Global Media Forum

Cybercrime legislation is posing a threat to press freedom

Recent studies on press freedom have shown a worldwide downward trend in access to press freedom, along with an increase of attacks on journalists. Frane Maroevic of the OSCE told DW what is causing this development.

Deutsche Welle: New reports published on and around this past International Day of Press Freedom in May about the situation in Europe imply a worrying trend in parts of the continent. What is the situation of Europe with regard to press freedom?

Frane Maroevic: We see constant threats and issues. Last year, our media freedom representative Dunja Mijatović had to issue around 250 public intervention statements covering 45 countries [out of 57 OSCE states] - so this is quite a high number with regards to media freedom and freedom of expression. Unfortunately, most of our work still is very much focused on the safety of journalists and the impunity that follows attacks, which is much more of a problem in the regions of Southeast Europe, the Caucuses, but also the Russian Federation and Ukraine. The problems affecting countries of the continent of Europe are also something that our office is fairly concerned about. I think most notably what we are seeing is a trend of new legislation which is mainly designed to fight terrorism and fight various other forms of crime which can be used negatively to affect freedom of the media and freedom of expression. What we are talking about is general terms that are being introduced and legislation which would ban and prohibit activities such as extremism, terrorism and so on, which are quite broad in general. So that's something that the representative has outlined is quite a problematic issue and it's an issue that spans our geographical range.

Another issue we are seeing when it comes to safety are online threats against journalists and media workers; there is an increasing trend against female journalists who are being harassed and threatened in fairly horrific ways. We have noticed are the threats against female journalists that are in a way different in nature to how male journalists are threatened because they are usually attacked both as a journalist and as a woman with quite horrific threats of violence, rape, death and so on.

According a study published this year, only 13 percent of the world's population enjoys a free press. What are the major reasons for this?

There are a number of challenges to free press throughout the world. And there are different challenges to different countries in different regions of course. I think there is a general issue that those in power need to understand that they need to allow a free flow of information, a free flow of criticism, and even the criticism which is difficult, problematic or even offensive - and that is what we are seeing. Also on some of the issues I mentioned already - somehow our own security is becoming quite a difficult issue when it comes to our fundamental freedom, freedoms of expression - there is a tendency, of course, which is quite right, and the countries have a legitimate obligation to increase security, to ensure security for their citizens, but that becomes problematic when that starts encroaching upon our basic and fundamental human rights, such as the right to freedom of expression. So there needs to be a way to ensure that both our security and our human rights are respected at the same time. Because without our human rights, we cannot say we enjoy full security. There should not be a compromise there and vice-a-versa without a secure situation, without physical security, we cannot fully enjoy our human rights. So there is quite a strong need to ensure both elements are being fully respected.

Regarding Germany's Boemmerman affair, the German government has allowed Turkey to bring charges against the comedian for disparaging comments he made against Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan in a standup act earlier in the year. What kind of an implication does this have on freedom of expression?

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Well, we view it very seriously and the OSCE representative made a public statement on this issue on the 15th of April where she expressed her concern about Germany's decision to go ahead with the prosecution of Böhmermann. From our perspective, this shows that there are legislative problems in Germany that allow prosecution of journalists and media workers under the criminal code for something they say. From our perspective, elected officials should not use criminal legislation, especially when it comes to sanctioning journalists. This should not be the case, whether it's in Germany or anywhere else. And, in a way, they need to have a high tolerance for critical or even offensive speech. There is no such human right to not be offended, while there is the quite clear human right of freedom of expression. So views that may insult, offend or shock others are very clearly covered under freedom of speech, and have been upheld by the European Court of Human Rights on numerous occasions. So for us, also this is an opportunity where we would call on all the countries to decriminalize all forms of defamation and insults.

How has the spread of the Internet and access to information impacted journalism?

Well, if you look at the broader issue, Internet and connectivity which comes therewith, has brought unprecedented abilities of people to communicate with each other, to communicate information in real time, to comment, to become part of the journalistic process as well, which they were not able to do before. So it has been amazing, but of course, at the same time, there have been attempts by a number of authorities to limit access by their citizens to online content through legislation that blocks, through administrative decisions that introduce blocking or prevention of certain content. And that's quite dramatic and quite difficult. And the Internet of course, in a way, has become the realization of the original Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which allows us the freedom to communicate or distribute information or express ourselves through any means possible without any regards for, in a way, frontiers. And that's what it has done.

But of course this brings challenges - legally, for example, where certain content may be legal in one country, and not legal in another. And that's something that the countries need to find a way of addressing as a way of ensuring freedom of expression and freedom of the media at the same time. So it's still a process, but we are already talking in terms of safety and security; the Internet, like any other tool, has also been misused by criminals, and terrorists and others. So there is also a legitimate need to look at certain activities online which are by their essence illegal or threatening. There needs to be a way of addressing and ensuring freedom of expression, but there also needs to be a way to ensure that there is a way to prevent illegal activities which have nothing to so with freedom of expression and spreading information.

Do you think that might be the largest threat to free speech at the moment - legislation on terrorism and crime?

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Frane Maroevic

Well at the moment it can be because it's not so wide-spread, it's still relatively in early stages of development, so it's important to highlight the issues now. But as many countries are looking toward each other for best examples or best practices in this area, it could be important that the balance towards freedom of expression is moved. Balance is the wrong term because you shouldn’t balance them but that freedom of expression is much more strongly taken into account when such discussions are taking place and such drafts are being considered.

What do you make of the developments going on in Hungary and Poland regarding the media?

Well, starting off with Hungary, the OSCE representative intervened in cases to do with media freedom in Hungary and the legislative changes the country introduced as far back as 2010, expressing her very serious concern about legislation that was being introduced, in Internet media legislation, which could limit freedom of expression and media pluralism, especially, so this has been very much an ongoing process by the representative and she has been quite vocal about her concern regarding media freedom issues in Hungary. While we have seen some small positive steps, the situation has not been particularly positive in general. When it comes to Poland, also recently, there have been a number of interventions by the representative - public statements - outlining her concern about the developments regarding changes to the legislation, but also changes to the selection procedure of the management of public service broadcasters and changes that took place with regards to public service broadcasting in Poland. I think the latest intervention when it comes to Poland was in December of last year, but there are also current changes, legislative changes underway, which we are monitoring.

Are you worried that this might have any kind of domino effect?

Well when the representative has criticized them, we have seen that many countries have actually referred to the fact that such problems also exist with regards to countries that are already members of the European Union, so they cite them as an example - a rather negative example - rather than a positive example.

Are polarizing trends and the sensationalization of certain political events posing any kind of threat to press freedom?

Well I think that's difficult to say. As a security organization, we look at press freedom as an element of security and human rights in general as an element of security. And while there would be a general concern about certain rhetoric and activities that could negatively impact on certain minority groups and so on, in terms of general debate on freedom of expression and freedom of the media, it's much more difficult because also extreme views, unpopular views, strong views are also part of a general, vibrant debate and as long as there is a debate in the society in the name of freedom of expression, I think that's a positive thing. What we have looked at, for example, is the issue of reporting on refugees and it's very positive that certain media organizations have been looking into revising their ethical codes to deal with the issues of how to report on the refugee crisis and so on. So that in a way can be seen as a positive learning process in a way as well.

Frane Maroevic is the director of the office of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Representative on Freedom of the Media. He will be joining two panels at the Global Media Forum, discussing "Selective truth - caught in the web of information and interests" and "What is in the public interest? Figuring out Internet intermediaries."

Interview conducted by Sarah Berning

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