SPEECH published on 13 Oct 2011

Speech for the OSCE SE Europe Media Conference

Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for the flattering introduction and for this chance to address the first OSCE South East European Media conference on an important subject about which the organization I represent feels very strongly – as indeed do I personally.

The European Broadcasting Union’s basic mission is to strengthen public service broadcasters by ensuring they have the support, resources and, crucially, the independence they need to fulfil their remit of serving the public – as citizens, and not just consumers – in modern democratic society.

Media freedom is one of the EBU’s core values, as it is of the OSCE. It is enshrined in the very first Article of our Statutes. And the EBU devotes much time and energy to defending media pluralism and the independence of national media organizations in the countries in and around Europe from which our membership is drawn.

In March of this year I met our conference host, the OSCE’s Representative on Freedom of the Media, Duna Mijatovic , and we agreed that our two organizations would work together more closely on this issue.

This informal agreement came about during a time when certain European governments were making worryingly brazen moves to obtain greater control of their public service broadcasters, often using the global financial crisis as a pretext to do so.

But a public service broadcaster that is not permitted to operate independently, and is instead commandeered by a government to serve as its mouthpiece, can no longer be described as working to serve the public.

By definition, public service broadcasters treat their viewers and listeners and their online equivalents as intelligent citizens with a right to know the truth. Ideally, they provide information and enable the public to form their own opinions.

The information these broadcasters disseminate, the debates and national conversations that they provoke, the culture and the diversity they promote, the entertainment they provide constitute a bedrock of European democracy.

But I want to be very clear and outspoken: the EBU supports a vital dual media system. Of course public service broadcasters have a very specific role to play. But we are at our best in a pluralistic and diverse media landscape.

Strong and independent newspapers and creative commercial broadcasters are all vital for a well functioning media system that nourishes a society. We need each other. Competition challenges us to strive to increase our quality and drives us to innovate. Of course the various media: radio, television, the internet and newspapers, commercial or public, have different roles to play, but all roles are important to be able to serve a society at its best. Commercial media and public broadcasters have much more in common than that which sets us apart. We share so many challenges that we ought rather to look for the things we have in common than for the things that separate us.

But while free, independent and pluralistic media are indispensible pillars of free-thinking societies, it should not be forgotten that access to other human rights also depends on media freedom.

History is littered with cases where abuse of power, corruption, discrimination and even physical torture have come to light only because of investigative journalism.

It is this role that journalists from all sectors of the media have, the role of watchdog and whistleblower, that holds a mirror up to the powerful, and does not let them forget that they must account for their actions. And this role, I must admit, is often better played by newspapers than by public service broadcasters.

It is the risk that misdeeds will be exposed that engenders more responsible leadership at the top and prevents the socially destructive phenomenon of impunity from taking root. And it is this role that all media play, and it is sometimes this role that is particularly difficult to play by public service broadcasters because their editorial independence is not guaranteed.

Governments must make it a priority to ensure that public service media have the liberty, the resources and the backing they need to work for the people. This can mean legal statutes guaranteeing independent governance and a sustainable funding model. The EBU is well aware that there is no ‘one size fits it all solution’. There is no best model. Social realities must be taken into account when drafting the legal framework.

Threats in any form made against even one member of the media, whether cub reporter or Director General, can have a destructive domino effect on an organization or even a country’s entire media workforce. It can terrify them into silence and self-censorship, and this is usually the intention.

These threats can of course be of violence, but draconian laws controlling and restricting the media can have exactly the same gagging power. In addition, a highly unstable legal framework that leads to a high turnover of Director Generals, for example, together with unclear rules and responsibilities, lead not only to highly inefficient organization but affect the trustworthiness of the media as a whole.

Of course the media have some responsibilities too. The most important one is to respect and act according to the highest editorial values. Journalists have a collective responsibility to maintain and promote the highest professional standards and to refrain from inflammatory reporting and other irresponsible behaviours.

It was in response to the growing number of broadcasters facing obstruction and intrusion as well as financial, technical and political hurdles, that in 2009 the EBU launched the Special Assistance Project, to provide case-by-case support to Members in need. With support from the OSCE, the Slovenian Government, the UN Development Programme and the Open Society Institute, we provide training for editorial staff and consultancies on such areas as management and strategic reform in many Eastern European nations, and also in Tunisia.

We have been active in many countries since then. Just to mention the most recent cases: Hungary, Kosovo, Romania, Croatia, Albania, Moldova, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Georgia and so on.

So to conclude, there have been some successes, and there have been some disappointments in terms of advances and reform of the media landscapes in many countries. Culturally, the Balkans comprise a very fertile corner of Europe, where, sadly, the potential for substantial progress by many of the broadcasters is perpetually hampered by political discord.

An unfortunate example is the volatile situation at BHRT, where Director General Mehmed Agovic has now been unseated from his post three times by the organization’s board, despite subsequent court rulings supporting his right to hold it. BHRT would have such an important role to when it comes to impartial, independent information, fresh and creative entertainment, but also when it comes to a wider role of public service media, such as support in building a nation. I strongly urge those behind this instability to consider the wider implications of their actions and bring it to an end.

It is especially in relatively young countries with very strong and diverse cultural communities – as is the case in Bosnia-Herzegovina – the public service broadcaster has, or better would have, an important role to play. What is the vision of Bosnia-Herzegovina? Are you a country with ‘federations of communities’, the Serbs, the Croats, the Bosniaks? Or are you a collective of primary human beings, living in a country with diverse differences, of which religions and community-based distinctions constitute only one part, along with differences in language, literature, politics, class, gender, and other characteristics?

Public service broadcasters have a common approach towards ‘multiculturalism’. We promote diversity as a value in itself.

I am glad to report that there are a series of self-help initiatives according to the different experiences and areas of expertise. Many countries in South East Europe have high hopes of EU and NATO membership, and are under pressure to carry out root and branch reforms necessary to take steps towards Brussels. But for broadcasters to be able to provide reliable, good quality, pluralistic and diverse programmes that constitute a valuable contribution to society, they must first benefit from stability and autonomy. It seems obvious to me that one of the first things that a government aspiring for EU membership should do is to create a true public service broadcaster worthy of the noblest European values.

I remain optimistic that with our continuing, concerted efforts, we will be able to bring about the changes that the broadcasters and the citizens of this region have deserved for so long.

And there is reason for this optimism: next month in this very city, at a meeting organized by the European Commission and the RCC, together we will launch an ambitious regional scheme – with a very long official title – that will focus on creating sustainable and independent public service media as well as protecting freedom of expression and the media in South East Europe.

Thank you for listening.