Access to official information and the ability to protect the identity of sources are key factors that shape conditions for investigative journalism, which is vital for any democracy. The Office of the Representative on Freedom of the Media surveyed the Organization's 56-country region to evaluate these factors.
The survey, completed in May 2007 and supported by the 2006 Belgian OSCE Chairmanship, found that societies of the OSCE participating States permit more access to information than in the past. But weak laws and prosecution against the media still harm investigative journalism.
Based on some 60 reports by governments of the participating States, OSCE field missions, national NGOs and experts collected over a year, the survey highlights a number of best and not-so-good practices in key areas: access to information, sanctions for handling classified information and the protection of sources.
The OSCE Representative uses the findings to promote legislative change aimed at improving conditions for investigative journalism. Readers can find the survey's summary or the country reports on the Representative's website.
Freedom of information: better implementation needed
"In the past ten years, most OSCE nations have passed good laws to balance the public's right to be informed with government classification needs," says Miklos Haraszti, the Representative. "Yet in most countries this balance is upset when it comes to journalists' daily struggle with secrecy.
"A sounder mechanism of protection is also required for anonymous sources who provide information to journalists. This is a precondition for healthy journalism, which is able to reveal and successfully combat corruption and maladministration, thereby exercising effective public control over governments."
Forty-five OSCE participating States have freedom of information laws that enable citizens, including journalists, to demand data from all levels of their governments.
In a number of states, however, the survey showed that freedom of information policies remain no more than paper. Even some established democracies tend to backtrack on openness due to increased security concerns, the survey found.
Sanctions for breach of secrecy
The survey revealed that in most "new democracies" - for example in Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Russia and some other states - the criminalization of "breach of secrecy" is still not limited to officials in charge of protecting secrets. Any citizen who plays a role in passing on or publishing classified data may be punished for disclosure of secrets.
The OSCE Representative has registered dozens of such cases involving journalists.
"It is unacceptable that in fighting leaks the prosecutors punish journalists for receiving them. OSCE participating States must limit prosecutions to officials, introduce a mandatory public-interest test and oblige the courts to consider the public interest value when it comes to the publication of secrets," says Haraszti.
Protection of sources
Almost all OSCE States recognize in law the importance of protecting journalists' confidential sources. But in practice less than half offer adequate protection from court orders to disclose sources.
Over the last few years attempts by prosecutors in some "old democracies" to make journalists identify their anonymous informants have provoked a huge outcry in the media community and international organizations. This is part of the reason why national courts have largely allowed journalists to keep their sources secret despite recurring attempts by prosecutors to uncover them.
In Belgium, a separate "shield" law was adopted in 2005 to establish proper protection of sources. In Germany, this important media right was confirmed in the recent "Cicero" ruling of the Constitutional Court.
In the United States, although most of the individual states have some form of protection, there is no "shield" law at the federal level. Journalists have been prosecuted as a result of this legislative gap.
The survey, Haraszti says, encourages changes across the OSCE region that can help give rise to more effective investigative journalism in the service of democracy.
For more information on the survey, please see the links on the right.