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Let Media Freedom Ring: An Interview with Dunja Mijatovic

“Courageous journalists are really suffering nowadays.”

So said Dunja Mijatovic, who should know. In the event that you don’t, here are the numbers: 118 journalists were killed last year, the end of an eight-year period during which one died every week. 221 journalists were jailed last year, the second-worst year on record.

What's remarkable about Mijatovic’s cognizance of the plight of reporters today is that, as the Representative on Freedom of the Media to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, she's in a unique position to help. Where you might think governments don't want pesky journalists shining a light on their actions, the OSCE, which is composed of 57 participating states (including the United States), believes you can't have security without a free press (along with the usual stuff, from arms control to democratization to human rights).

Adding to the personal risk for reporters, internet freedom is on the decline for the fifth consecutive year. Free media outlets are under pressure in Russia and Turkey. Award-winning journalist Khadija Ismayilova faces a nine-year sentence in a case that seems to be connected to exposing state corruption in Azerbaijan. Journalists were charged for covering police brutality in the United States.

Enter Mijatovic. As her time in the position comes to a close, we spoke briefly to the Representative about the challenges of fighting for media freedom, what common challenges exist from Bosnia to Boston, and how her job—and the state of journalism in the world—has changed.

You became Representative in 2010. How has the job/issues facing it changed in the past five years?

The challenges are greater. The problems are more present and more visible. This is related to conflict in certain areas in OSCE, but also outside—terrorism, extremism, and many other things. I would say, after almost six years, it seems we are living in a more dangerous time. A time to be more concerned about our human rights, our fundamental rights in general.

Aside from what it says on your website—what is it that you, personally, are trying to do in this position?

The main issue is really to protect one of our fundamental human rights: expression. With that, freedom of the media. The other is safety of journalists, offline and online. The mandate, if you look at it, is quite broad. It depends on what you see and think is important… [The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media] is the only inter-governmental media watchdog in the world. I have direct access to the governments, but I’m also working closely with civil society. And to help journalists in prison for the work they did, the charges they are facing. The problems are really different in different areas. But across the whole region, journalism is in danger. Courageous journalists are really suffering nowadays.

What do you see as being the biggest threats to media freedom in Europe today and why/what are the most pressing situations?

Safety, online and offline, the fight against terrorism and extremism—it depends about which region in the OSCE you are talking. I’m looking not just at specific countries, but the challenges journalists are facing globally. The latest project we did recently was on the dangers female bloggers and journalists are facing. This is something happening across the region, in all democracies. When it comes to intervention, it’s really a case-[by]case basis. There’s almost not a day where I do not have to intervene. But I’m also trying to work with journalists. You also have an issue related very much to propaganda related to Ukraine. Soon—probably in the next two weeks—I’m going to issue a publication on how to deal with propaganda and tackle this really controversial issue. [Between the time of this interview and the time of publication, the OSCE and Reporters without borders organized a two-day seminar to bring together young journalists from Russia and Ukraine.]

Do you get the sense that Americans think of issues of media freedom in Europe—including places like Georgia, like Azerbaijan—as being relevant to them/us? And how would you convince the American media and politicians and people that, say, freezing Rustavi 2’s assets [the television channel most sympathetic to the opposition in Georgia] matters?

I don’t know that, to be honest with you. But each and every participating state, including the United States, has an obligation to the OSCE. In my job, I do not really go into this, do I have to convince an American or a Brit or a Bosnian. …I had many interventions in the United States on this [confidential] source freedom. I think that it is relevant in the same way that everything that’s happening in media freedom in the United State is relevant to Europe. I react on certain cases that I see as something to be a threat to journalists or media freedom in general. …The most powerful thing I have in my toolbox is my voice, in order to raise attention or a little red flag when I see that there are problems. And the problems are across the region. All these things need to be discussed …What I’m also calling for is more cooperation for human rights organizations across the region.

You're originally from Bosnia. Do you think the fact that you're from the Balkans or so-called "Eastern Europe" lends you a different perspective?

Probably. Coming from a post-conflict environment, post-war environment, experiencing how important it is to preserve our fundamental values, particularly in times of conflict and not to take it for granted, gives me this additional perspective. Like when I was in Crimea last year—the media was the first to be a target. But then again, the time is also changing, and we have more and more new challenges, and that’s why I think it’s important to look at the threats the way they are and to try to tackle it by raising a voice, and also by working with civil society and journalists.

And finally – We’ve spoken about what’s gotten worse, but how have they improved? Is there a situation in which you've seen media freedom increase?

There are countries trying to adopt better laws. But then again, I can think of my part of the world, the Balkans. Very good laws were adopted, but then when we talk about implementation…it’s not present yet. There are examples of journalists being released from prison—what I would say little steps—that I welcome. I’m not pessimistic, but I’m realistic. It would be very difficult to say that there are “success stories,” just based on the statements I’m making every day. Positive changes are very rare, unfortunately.

This interview has been condensed and edited.


Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Previously, she was the associate editor at New America. Her writing has appeared in The Economist and Slate, among other publications. She received her bachelor's in Russian Literature from Columbia and her master's in Russian and East European Studies from Oxford. She has conducted independent research on the topic of Soviet dissidence in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, as a Fulbright grantee, in Bremen, Germany.