- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 27, 2000

Something alarming is under way in parts of Europe and the former Soviet Union that cries out for our immediate attention. Freedom of speech, that liberty we Americans hold so dear, is slowly disintegrating and few have noticed as the voices of millions are gradually silenced. A free media allows a vibrant marketplace for ideas, and responsible investigative reporting is a crucial foundation for accountability among public offices and protections for consumers.

In testimony before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (the Helsinki Commission), which I chair, details were presented of the deterioration of freedom of the media in many of the countries that agreed to commitments in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act and subsequent documents of the 55-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The OSCE commitments center on democracy and freedoms we Americans find in the Bill of Rights, including speech rights.

In the course of the past 10 years, 153 journalists have been killed in the line of duty in OSCE countries. Almost one-third of the 34 journalists killed in the world in 1999 died in OSCE countries. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) documented 87 cases of journalists who were held in prison at the end of 1999. They also detailed less headline-grabbing forms of attack: legal action, including fines and imprisonment, threats or physical attacks on journalists or news facilities; censorship, and harassment denying journalists access to information, denying them visas necessary for their work, or confiscating or damaging their materials, and cases of journalists missing, kidnaped, or expelled from a country.

The OSCE representative on Freedom of the Media, Freimut Duve, and his office have been involved in freedom of expression issues in countries as varied as Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Georgia, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Moldova, Uzbekistan, Romania, the Russian Federation, Slovak Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Turkey, Ukraine and in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Mr. Duve's summation is, "It is a bleak picture."

Why is this happening? While I agree with the CPJ about the general economic situation, ownership of the media by elites, and the rise of conflict, we need to recognize that government repression is part of the problem and decry the failure of parliamentary colleagues abroad to fulfill their OSCE commitments. I encourage my parliamentary colleagues in Europe and members of the intelligentsia who have never been that strongly committed to individual rights anyway to stay focused on the fundamental principles of liberty.

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance against an intrusive state, but it appears that traditional European statism has gained sway. We have seen this deterioration occur through the gradual de-emphasis by the OSCE states of holding each other accountable to its commitments. In July, the U.S. delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly meeting in Bucharest, Romania, will raise these concerns with our parliamentary colleagues.

Members of the Helsinki Commission are joining me in asking Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to address freedom of expression issues with the regimes in Central Asia when she visits next week. We are asking her to express our shared concerns in the most public and direct way possible, so that the people of each country in the region know the American people stand behind them in their struggle for freedom and against tyranny.

In Kazakstan, which seemed on the right track in the early 1990s, President Nazarbaev's family members have seized control of the country's media outlets. The opposition newspaper XXI Vek has come under intense harassment and censorship by the authorities and most recently has been forced to suspend normal publication. In an attempt to muzzle independent press and journalists, Kyrgyzstan's President Akaev has initiated a series of costly libel suits against Res Publika, Asaba, and Vercherny Bishkek. Res Publika has been forced to cease publication recently by the authorities, who have imposed stiff fines against the weekly. Uzbekistan continues to impose lengthy prison sentences against journalists and exercises strict controls on mass media. Muhammad Bekjanov, Iusuf Ruzimuradov and Shadi Mariev are each serving prison sentences of 11-15 years stemming from their professional activities. Mr. Mariev's plight is of particular concern given his poor health.

We can only hope that by stepping forth now and strongly standing by our mutual commitment to democracy and individual freedoms especially the freedom of speech we can stem this democratic erosion and prevent the bleak future that is otherwise sure to come.

Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican, is chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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