Speakers of Russian also have the right to a free press

Opinion editorial by minister Koenders on free press (World Press Freedom Day
3 May 2016).

Freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of the press together form the cornerstone of an open society. But all around the world, that freedom is under pressure: only one out of every seven people in the world lives in a country where a free press is actually a given.

Increasingly dangerous

Journalists should be able to do their work without outside interference, whether they are reporting from the scene, broadcasting from conflict zones or writing critical columns. But journalism is becoming an increasingly dangerous profession. In crisis areas I have seen for myself the risks that journalists take. The arrest of Dutch journalist Ebru Umar in Turkey emphasises once again that press freedom cannot be taken for granted – even for journalists from a country like the Netherlands. Ms Umar’s situation is not unique. I will continue to fully support her and her fellow journalists. In Turkey, and in other countries where a free press is under pressure.

The Russian-speaking region deserves our special attention in this respect. On Friday 29 April I organised an international conference on this issue, together with Free Press Unlimited and the University of Amsterdam. Russian is the eighth-most-spoken language in the world and the first or second language of 260 million people. It is spoken not only in Russia, but also in large parts of Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Russian is the first language of large groups of people in Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Throughout most of the former Soviet Union, Russian is a lingua franca, despite being some people’s second or third language. Many people watch Russian-language television, visit Russian-language websites and consume their daily news in Russian.

One-sided

Of course, the problem is not with the Russian language itself. On the contrary: it is one of the world’s richest languages. Authors like Pushkin, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are among the greats of world literature. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Svetlana Alexievich were awarded the Nobel Prize for their inspiring and socially engaged writings.

But unfortunately, there is a problem with the current news coverage in Russian. It is becoming increasingly one-sided. It is widely known that freedom of speech is under great pressure in Russia. The unsolved murder of the independent journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006 has not been forgotten. And sadly, she is only one of dozens of journalists in Russia whose work has cost them their life: 56 journalists have been killed in Russia since 1992. On top of this, in recent years the Russian government has been strangling independent media with ever stricter regulations, while investing significantly in state-controlled media and in spreading disinformation to audiences both inside and outside Russia. Russia now ranks a less than enviable 148th on the World Press Freedom Index.

Freedom to hold opinions

What is less widely known is that these policies also affect other Russian-speaking countries. Because the Russian language plays such a prominent role in the region, independent voices from the Baltic to Central Asia are at risk of being silenced. The biggest and richest Russian-language media firms are based in Russia. Local, independent Russian-language news outlets in other countries are largely reliant on sources in Russia for news stories and for purchasing licenced programmes.

This means news consumers in Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Latvia have less and less choice. There are still a variety of television channels, websites and radio stations on offer, but the lion’s share of them provide the same content in a different wrapper. Usually only one side of the story is given: the side that suits the Russian government. It is nearly impossible to get a different point of view on news and developments.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the ‘freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’. In other words, access to information and to ideas is a human right. In countries where Russian is spoken this right is at risk. That is why the Netherlands wants to work with other countries and donors to foster media independence and diversity in this region.

Factually correct and open-minded approach

Does this mean the Netherlands intends to combat Russian propaganda, or begin a counteroffensive with our own propaganda? No! Our efforts are not about opposing Russia, but rather, about promoting independent media. We do not want to ban Russian television channels or news platforms, even if they are controlled by the state or are spreading disinformation. We certainly do not want to launch any counterpropaganda. In our own interaction with the press, we maintain a factually correct and open-minded approach. Under no circumstances do we dictate how the media should report on government activities. Counterpropaganda is counterproductive.

What we do want to do is help independent journalists who are interested in reporting the news in Russian. Specifically, the Netherlands is going to contribute €1.3 million to establishing a Russian-language news exchange, a platform where independent media can share articles and news stories in Russian. This project will be managed by the NGO Free Press Unlimited.

In the context of World Press Freedom Day, I would like to draw attention to the challenges to free speech that exist in the Russian-speaking region, because 260 million speakers of Russian also have a right to independent news.

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Bert Koenders is the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands