BRUSSELS, 2 May 2007 - Societies have more access to information than ever before, but weak laws and prosecution against the media diminish journalists' investigative abilities, said the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Miklos Haraszti, presenting the results of a survey on media access to information in the 56 OSCE participating States in Brussels today.
The event was held to mark World Press Freedom Day, which is commemorated on 3 May.
"In the past ten years, most OSCE nations have passed good basic laws to balance the rights of the public to know with government classification needs. However, in most countries this balance is upset when it comes to journalists' daily struggle with secrecy," said Haraszti.
He noted that freedom of information laws were in vigour in 80 per cent of the OSCE participating States, including 'old democracies' such as the UK, Switzerland, and Germany, and 'new democracies' such as Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan.
"I see this as a contribution to the Helsinki principle of the free flow of information. But equally important for free press is what is classified as a secret. The survey reveals that most governments define State secrets too broadly and thereby hide too much information that is important for society," Haraszti added.
Speaking about criminal codes, he said that in at least 29 OSCE participating States the criminalisation of "breach of secrecy" is not limited to those who have a duty to protect the secrets but mechanically extends to each and every citizen who played a role in passing on or publishing classified data. The survey lists dozens of cases when journalists have been prosecuted for handling confidential data.
"It is unacceptable that in fighting leaks the prosecutors punish journalists for receiving leaks. OSCE participating States must limit prosecutions only to officials and introduce a mandatory "public interest test" and oblige the courts to consider the public-interest value when it comes to publications of secrets," said Haraszti.
Almost all OSCE nations recognize in law the importance of the protection of journalists' confidential sources but only less than a half offer adequate protection from coercion by the judiciary to disclose sources. Prosecutorial methods include "contempt of court" charges in the United States, which result in imprisonment, and raids on editorial premises and wiretapping journalists' communications in Europe.
Ambassador Bertrand de Crombrugghe, who represents Belgium at the OSCE, added: "The 2006 Belgian OSCE Chairmanship supported this key project to help media workers obtain official information without impediment or fear of prosecution. Belgium made media a priority of its chairmanship in order to raise awareness of the role free media play in a democratic society. "
The survey is based on information provided by governments of the OSCE participating States, and by responses from OSCE field operations and media NGOs.
The survey results were analyzed by Privacy International director David Banisar, and the published summary reflects on these findings.
The summary of preliminary results of the survey can be found at:
Access to information by the media in the OSCE region: trends and recommendations
The survey in full, with all country reports, is available at:
Access to information by the media in the OSCE region: Country Reports