Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks at the opening of the plenary session of the Conference on Media Freedom in Russia and the OSCE Region, Moscow, November 6, 2019 (source):
Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Desir, colleagues,
First of all, I would like to thank the organisers and personally the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir for choosing Moscow as a venue for the conference, his personal participation and the participation of his team.
The conference participants will discuss important matters related to ensuring freedom of the media in the OSCE area. This topic looms large these days. Unfortunately, violations of the rights of journalists, as well as discrimination against media resources, are becoming more common in the OSCE member countries. This practice directly contradicts the provisions of the Helsinki Final Act, the documents of the Vienna meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) (1986), the Copenhagen (1990) and Moscow (1991) meetings and the Conference on the Human Dimension of the CSCE. By signing these consensus agreements, the participating states committed themselves to promote free dissemination of all forms of information, including from abroad – I would like to emphasise this specifically – and improve the environment for the professional activities of foreign journalists at home.
Today, we are witnessing a situation where a number of countries, including those that openly refer to themselves as model democracies, grossly violate OSCE commitments to ensure freedom of the media, expression of opinion and equal access to information, and display intolerance to alternative points of view.
The attempts to impose on the international community non-inclusive and non-transparent initiatives to regulate the media and the internet in circumvention of the universally recognised multilateral platforms are causing deep concern. An event held in London and proudly titled “Media Freedom Conference” is the most recent case in point. The British authorities and hosts simply did not allow Russian representatives – journalists and diplomats – to attend it.
We think that the goal of such behind-the-scenes projects attended exclusively by the “insiders” is to erode the existing universal and non-discriminatory media freedom standards, to introduce biased regulation of information resources, to divide them into “ours” and “theirs,” “deserving” and “not deserving” trust and, to put it bluntly, to introduce political censorship. This not only leads to fragmentation of the global information space, but seriously undermines trust and mutual understanding in state-to-state relations as well.
Russian media resources fully feel the pinch of this policy. An atmosphere of hostility and mistrust is ramped up around them in many countries, and their representatives in foreign countries are faced with numerous obstacles in carrying out professional activities from denied press passes and accreditations to deportation and even arrest.
I will mention on a separate note the situation in Ukraine, where the murders of journalists Andrei Stenin, Anton Voloshin, Igor Kornelyuk and Anatoly Klyan in 2014 remain unresolved to this day. In Ukraine, 86 Russian television channels and 181 internet pages have been blocked, not to mention hundreds of banned books and films in Russian.
The outright infringement of the rights of Russian media in a number of OSCE countries has become part of a campaign which, as President Putin pointed out at the Kremlin yesterday, aims to artificially and crudely reduce the space taken by the Russian language in the world.
We believe that the OSCE must not only give a principled assessment of all instances of pressure on journalists, but also resolutely seek to cut short the vicious practice of suppressing alternative points of view and introducing a ban on the profession. I would like to point out the role that Mr Desir is called upon to play in these efforts. Your competent opinion is heeded. Taking this opportunity, I would like to once again express my gratitude to you for your personal participation in releasing former head of the RIA Novosti Ukraine website Kirill Vyshinsky, who was arrested by Kiev for doing his job as a journalist.
Russia has consistently spoken in favour of preventing any further erosion of freedom of speech. We are promoting this approach at the UN, UNESCO and the Council of Europe and, of course, the OSCE. We will always protect journalists.
A year ago, the OSCE Ministerial Council in Milan adopted, on our initiative, a decision, which Mr Desir just mentioned, on the safety of journalists. This is the first consensus-based document on media in the past 25 years. I would like to note Mr Desir’s contribution to coordinating it.
A regular meeting of the OSCE Ministerial Council will be held in Bratislava next month. To follow up on Milan success, we plan to put forward a draft decision on ensuring free access to information. In it, we will suggest reaffirming the existing obligations of the organisation’s member states, which were unanimously adopted at the initiative of our Western colleagues at OSCE events in the 1990s. These obligations include respect for the right of the media to freely collect and distribute information, the right to access foreign news services, and the right of the public to receive information without interference by the authorities. In the Charter for European Security adopted in 1999, all heads of state and government of the OSCE countries pledged to provide proper conditions for unfettered internal and, importantly, cross-border information flow. The need for a clear, with no reservations, reaffirmation of these obligations is obvious, since lately they are conveniently forgotten by those who initiated their adoption in the 1990s, i.e., during the period when, following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the end of history was announced. Now that the history has arisen, the West has become afraid of fair competition in the information space and other areas as well.
Given the trend to tighten media regulations in the OSCE countries, we believe it is important to open a dialogue with a view to building consensus on how to tell quality journalism from propaganda. As a first step, a roundtable discussion could be held at the OSCE with the participation of the professional communities from the participating countries. I hope that a constructive response will follow. The sheer number of participants in this conference gives hope. The conference is designed to create a truly partner-like atmosphere for a candid and mutually respectful discussion of freedom of speech issues without some being “teachers” and others being “students.”
Today, as never before, it is important to develop common and generally acceptable approaches to the range of issues related to access to and distribution of information. In any case, Russia will continue to ensure unhindered professional activities for all journalists without exception in full accordance with its international obligations, and advocate for an honest and equal dialogue under the auspices of the OSCE. I believe that such a dialogue can be used to review the issues that inevitably arise between the OSCE states objectively and without politicisation. We will be guided by the golden rule of the OSCE – the principle of consensus. I am convinced that if everyone is guided by the desire to reach a common agreement, everything will come to pass.
Question: Reporters Without Borders has advanced the Journalism Trust Initiative to survey the media for editorial political views and editors’ personal data at all levels. You have mentioned this topic in your remarks. Will you enlarge on it?
Sergey Lavrov: This is not just an initiative by this specific journalistic NGO. It is supported by the French government, and this is a known fact. In parallel, it [RWB] promotes initiatives that pursue the same goal – to inform users on where to find the right kind of information. But even finding is irrelevant: they would like to provide users with information needed by certain persons as soon as they click this or that news when making a search. Promoted by the French government, this initiative is taking shape. It will be part of the events at next week’s II Paris Peace Forum, which I have been instructed to attend. It will include a special Q&A session. So we are certain to discuss this theme. This is part of our dialogue with our French colleagues. We mentioned it in September of this year, when Moscow hosted, after a long break, the Russia-France 2+2 talks (foreign ministers plus defence ministers).
But let us return to the RWB initiative: I cannot agree with OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir. To the extent that I have studied and tried to understand this initiative, it is about classifying the media. It does not describe the media as “white” and “black” or “banned” and “permitted.” It is simple: as soon as a person wants to find information on some specific topic, modern technologies will retrieve what Reporters Without Borders believes is right. Alternative points of view will have to be searched for. They will not be blocked, of course, but it will take time to find them and many will just settle for the estimates prioritised by Reporters Without Borders.
Mr Desir and I spoke about journalism regulation innovations during our bilateral meeting this morning, before this session began. I mentioned the RWB initiative and certain innovations that some European countries, specifically France, had introduced in their laws. The National Assembly has passed a [relevant] law, and, as far as I understand, it did so, at that moment, without the Senate’s consent. I don’t know if the consent was obtained ex post facto, but the law has come into force. Pandering to fears that the media can influence election processes (although, to be honest, we did not see any proof that anyone had influenced election campaigns in France), this law envisions that if a relevant regulator decides that this or that journalist or this or that media outlet tend to interfere with the elections, this media outlet can be stripped of its license within 48 hours by a judge without any adversarial processes or debates between claimants and defendants. I think this is also a bit over the top in when it comes to the approach to freedom of speech.
All of this must be discussed. There are questions to be posed to us. Mr Desir has listed a number of these. We are not evading this discussion. Quite the contrary! As I already mentioned in my opening remarks, we suggest starting a professional discussion, in an informal roundtable format, on how journalists themselves feel about their jobs and where they see the red lines.
Question: What is, in your opinion, more adequate: self-regulation or the external regulation of processes? Talking of external regulation, which option is better: interstate regulation or that based on hybrid systems?
Sergey Lavrov: Humans are imperfect creatures, therefore ideal self-regulation is impossible. Regarding external regulation exercised by the state, any state agency also consists of people, and nobody is perfect. This is a complicated matter. It seems philosophical, to some extent, but it also has an applied meaning.
For example, various countries treat different phenomena differently. Some country may designate certain organisations as terrorist groups, but another country thinks otherwise. In some countries, certain sects violate local legislation regulating religious activities, while some other countries recognise these sects as pillars of freedom of religion.
There are other examples, including sex education for children. Some countries introduce it as early as in kindergartens. As I am an imperfect creature, my hair stands on end when I see some news reports [in this connection]. And some countries are proud of this. All this amounts to everyday phenomena. How should journalists cover these processes in their respective societies? Many people are interested in these real processes. This is a very complicated matter.
We are convinced that the total lack of authority never yields any positive results in any sphere of human activity. Journalists should independently work out their own professional approaches in a responsible manner. Considering matters mentioned by me, there is no one-size-fits-all approach for the entire world, for each state or for each journalist community. But, nothing will happen, unless we start seriously discussing these topics. But, quite often, as soon as you suggest exchanging opinions on topics mentioned by me in a multilateral format, to realise that each side is entitled to its own opinion and to find an approach that would not traumatise the civilian population and people in general, they tell us that we hamper freedom of speech because the sex education of children is a task they have always striven to accomplish, and that they will now promote this subject in all spheres of life. Supporting sects is also considered essential. But, if everyone starts stubbornly clinging to one’s own principles, then nothing good will come of it. It is necessary to search for a compromise solution, while unfailingly and unconditionally respecting civilizational, cultural and historical traditions and values that exist in every society. And we will defend our culture as well as our traditions, including by legislative methods.
Question: You mentioned an initiative on providing unimpeded access to information, including to foreign media outlets. Russia intends to submit this initiative to the OSCE Ministerial Council for consideration. Several weeks ago now, the State Duma urged the Foreign Ministry to study the possibility of stripping some foreign media outlets (that allegedly violate Russian legislation, primarily Deutsche Welle) of their accreditation. Do you consider it necessary to deprive the German media outlet and other media resources of their Russian accreditation?
Sergey Lavrov: We discussed this with Harlem Desir prior to the current session. The Foreign Ministry does not support ideas aiming to deprive any media outlet of accreditation. By the way, Kiev hosted a similar event last year. Journalists from the Russian Federation wishing to attend it were not admitted. We did not hamper anyone during today’s event. If they are interested, Ukrainian journalists have every right to attend this event.
Speaking of Deutsche Welle, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said just a few days ago that they were terminating political advertising projects. When Deutsche Welle virtually called on Russian citizens to take part in an unauthorised protest, and when the US Department of State and the US Embassy in Moscow published routes to be followed by the opposition, does this amount to political advertising or something else?
Today, it is very important that journalists set their own internal moral limits. We have invited Deutsche Welle representatives to the Foreign Ministry, and a deputy of Information and Press Department Director Maria Zakharova spoke with them (http://www.mid.ru/ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/3759389#12). They admitted that this was not really tactful in the context of the developments that unfolded in Moscow at the time. It is one matter to cover them, but it is another matter to prepare them. In effect, they were involved in preparing those unauthorised protests, offering tips and even inviting people to take part in them. Media outlets are not supposed to fulfil this function. I repeat, we do not consider it necessary and possible to impose any restrictions. Unlike other countries that ban RT, Sputnik and other Russian resources and which create serious obstacles hampering their activities (they refuse to receive their representatives and to accredit them), we want to honour our obligations, including freedom of the press and freedom of speech. We don’t want to respond in kind.
Question: You just mentioned about Russian media and diplomats not being allowed at a media conference in London, and this happens elsewhere, too. Have you thought or analysed why it is happening only to Russian media?
Sergey Lavrov: Of course. There is nothing to analyse. It is all our fault. The last thing I heard was that the riots in Chile, in Santiago and other cities, are all Russia’s doing. I have nothing to say here. It is the same story over and over: nobody provides any facts. They simply labelled RT and Sputnik “propaganda tools” but why, nobody bothers to prove. All they say is, just read what they write. No problem, let’s read and listen to CNN and other media. Look at the dialogues between CNN and Fox News and the methods used in this type of journalism. I think it will be a rather illuminating experience.
Going back to why it is our media outlets that are turned away from events, this happens for the same reason as why we still do not know what happened to the Skripals in Salisbury last year. Nobody will show or explain anything. When it happened and the majority of EU countries started to expel our diplomats all at once, we asked them if the UK had provided them with any other information besides its public claims that it is “highly likely” that Russia had done it. With downcast eyes, they whispered that no, nothing else had been provided but more specific facts had been promised in the future. So later, I went to the trouble of asking every one of my colleagues with whom I discussed this matter whether the British had eventually given them the facts proving Russia’s involvement in the Skripals’ poisoning. And once again, with the same downcast eyes and embarrassment, they whispered that no, they had not seen any more evidence apart from what had been said publicly.
Similar things happened in the case of the Malaysian Boeing. Dutch prosecutors claim that the investigation is not finished; yet we are already required to pay compensation. When we ask about any data from Ukrainian radars, recordings of communication between Ukrainian air traffic control operators or satellite images taken by the United States, we receive no response. But Russia is still to blame.
The fact that it is the Russian media outlets that are being discriminated against indicates Russophobia, their attempts to somehow justify their own failures, and, as a result, dishonest and corrupt competition practices. When RT took a place among the global media that began to demonstrate its exploding popularity, the same methods came into play as those used for eliminating competition in the economy, in military and technical cooperation – namely, sanctions, denial of access, and bans on purchases from Russia and trips to Russia. All these measures are tarred with the same brush.
Question: You mentioned the problem of discrimination against Russian media in the OSCE countries. How do you feel about the discrimination of Russian-language media in a Russian region, even one as special as Kaliningrad? For example, the Novye Kolyosa newspaper I edit has been published since 1995, but now they refuse to print it and distribute it in retail chains because I am not coordinating the editorial policy with Governor Anton Alikhanov. What am I to do in this situation?
Sergey Lavrov: I have not heard about this. So before I can give any sensible response, I need to listen to the other side, because I do not want to have the powers of a French judge, who can revoke licences alone, without a defence lawyer.
So I would be grateful if you would give me a statement on what happened. It is not exactly the competence of the Russian Foreign Ministry, but the Union of Journalists, and its chairman, Vladimir Soloviyov, is here now. I am hearing about this for the first time, and you have given me only one point of view. But you have achieved your goal: you have been heard not only in the Kaliningrad Region, but also beyond it.
Question (to Harlem Desir): I have been a member of the Journalism Trust Initiative (JTI) for a year and a half. So far, I have come to the following conclusion: transparency ends where political motivation begins. Don’t you think the concept of “white lists” of media outlets introduced by Reporters Without Borders is in conflict with the whole idea of JTI? Could this not lead to a division of Europe’s information landscape, building a new virtual wall?
Sergey Lavrov (adds after Harlem Desir): I would like to take over where Harlem Desir left off – the need for the OSCE to deal with all the problems existing in this area. The Reporters Without Borders case is very symptomatic not only in journalism, but also in other areas, in particular, in the field of compliance with obligations to destroy chemical weapons.
In recent years, those countries that fail to quickly impose their rather dubious approaches at universal platforms have shown a clear tendency towards creating various club-type partnerships while formally serving time at universal organisations. In particular, our French colleagues (we discussed this with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian) have created an international partnership to combat impunity in the use of chemical weapons, for example, in Syria. There is an international Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), and a convention that regulates everything that needs to be regulated. But our Western colleagues had a problem with interpreting the authority of the OPCW Technical Secretariat. They have continued to push their policy in this organisation, while at the same time creating partnerships with countries that are more agreeable to them and share their dubious approaches outside the multilateral universal platform.
Unfortunately, in my opinion, the initiative of Reporters Without Borders is fraught with the same problem, because they are taking this controversial approach outside the universal framework of the OSCE and trying to form a position outside the universally recognised platforms, which will be later presented as the ultimate truth. That worries me. I fully support the idea that all of us should reaffirm our commitment to considering all European and Euro-Atlantic problems within the OSCE framework.
In addition to what I said, in response to one of the previous questions about the different countries’ approaches to terrorist organisations, sects, and to raising children, it would be appropriate to recall the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It is universal; all OSCE countries, including the US and Canada, are parties to it. Commitment to the freedom of speech, freedom of expression is listed among the first obligations of this Covenant. It is further stated that the freedom of speech and freedom of expression can be limited by the laws of the respective state for reasons of protecting the country’s morality and national security. We often forget about this, but it also applies to journalists.
So I propose that we consider this aspect as part of the roundtable we would like to organise with journalists from all the OSCE countries, and that we ask Harlem Desir and his team to analyse this clause in the International Covenant and distribute their interpretation of that clause in modern conditions among the participating states.