AUSTRIA: Press Freedom Situation in South East Europe

AUSTRIA, AUSTRIA, 06/02/2007, 10:50

The Vienna-based South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), a network of editors, media executives and leading journalists in South East Europe and an affiliate of the International Press Institute (IPI), is deeply concerned about the worsening situation for journalists in the South Eastern European (SEE) region. The murder of the Armenian-Turkish writer and editor, Hrant Dink in Turkey on 19 January 2007 shows once again that journalists may easily become victims in the fight for press freedom and freedom of speech. Dink worked as the columnist and editor-in chief of the Agos weekly newspaper. He started this paper in 1996 as a bridge for better understanding between the larger Turkish population and the Armenian-Turkish community. For his reporting, he received a six-month suspended sentence on 7 October 2005 under article 301 of the penal code for insulting Turkishness. In December 2005, a Turkish court opened a new case against Dink after he expressed comments about the court's original decision. 

SEEMO hopes that, after a 17-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of killing Dink, there will be a full and transparent investigation by the Turkish authorities. SEEMO also hopes that article 301, which in its opinion is a legal absurdity, will be removed from the Turkish penal code. 

The killing of Dink is a reminder that there are still a number of unsolved cases of journalists killed because of their reporting in the SEE region. There are three such cases in Serbia. SEEMO calls on the Serbian officials to investigate the murder of Slavko Curuvija, owner of the Belgrade daily Dnevni Telegraf and the magazine Evropljanin, as well as the murder of Milan Pantic, a local reporter for the Belgrade daily Vecernje Novosti. Curuvija was gunned down near his home in the centre of Belgrade on 11 April 1999, while Pantic was murdered on 11 June 2001, in the central Serbian town of Jagodina. SEEMO calls on the Belgrade authorities to investigate once again the murder of the journalist Dada Vujasinovic on 8 April 1994. 

SEEMO is also alarmed about the December 2006 criminal defamation charges laid against Dogan Harman and the daily newspaper Kibrisli, where he is the publisher and editor-in-chief. Dogan and Kibrisli are charged with allegedly insulting officials in the Turkish controlled area of Cyprus, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. SEEMO believes that criminal defamation and insult laws are an anachronism that should be removed from every legal system. Moreover, public officials need to be afforded less, not more, protection from defamation than ordinary citizens. The world's leading courts, including the European Court of Human Rights, and leading inter-government organisations, support the decriminalisation of defamation.  

With the above in mind, SEEMO is concerned by the decision of the Romanian Constitutional Court to annul a parliamentary decision removing defamation from the Romanian Criminal Code. SEEMO asks Romanian officials to stop jailing journalists and to end the criminalisation of insult and libel in Romania. In addition, in her December 2006 decision, the Romanian Minister of Justice, Monica Macovei, attacked freedom of the media in her country. The Emergency Ordinance 131/2006 was adopted regarding free access to the personal information of the staff belonging to the Department for the Investigation of Offences, Organized Crime and Terrorism (DIICOT). The Emergency Ordinance represents a new threat to privacy and to freedom of the press. In 2006, SEEMO protested the decision of DIICOT investigators to remove information saved on computers belonging to several Romanian journalists. The removal of information was made without any foundation in law.  

Regarding press freedom developments in Bosnia and Herzegovina, SEEMO notes that on 12 January 2007 the Vice Prime Minister of Republika Srpska, Ante Kasipovic, announced a boycott of the Bosnian-Herzegovian state-wide public broadcaster and its TV channel BHT 1. According to SEEMO, this is a clear attempt to apply political pressure on the editorial independence of a public broadcaster.  

Commenting on these press freedom violations in the SEE region, SEEMO Secretary General, Oliver Vujovic, said, "SEEMO strongly condemns these threats and attacks, as well as any government or state action that restricts the work and movement of journalists. I am very concerned about the worsening working conditions for journalists in the SEE region at the beginning of this year; particularly as many of the cases show that pressure was exerted by politicians or their representatives."  

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