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Dunja Mijatović` statement on propaganda in times of conflict

As the current crisis in and around Ukraine demonstrates, propaganda and deterioration of media freedom often go together to fuel a conflict, and once it starts they contribute to its escalation.

The need to stop propaganda is frequently being used as a reason for blocking and jamming television and radio signals or imposing other restrictions to freedom of expression and freedom of the media. Taking into consideration the broadness and vagueness of the term propaganda, and its direct link to political speech, its blank prohibition would violate international standards for the protection of free expression and free media.

To address these dangerous practices, the Representative issues this communiqué with the following recommendations to OSCE participating States:

  • Stop manipulating media; stop information and psychological wars.
  • Ensure media plurality and free media as an antidote to propaganda.
  • Refrain from introducing new restrictions; existing laws can deal with extreme propaganda.
  • Invest in media literacy for citizens to make informed choices.
  • Reform state media into genuine public service broadcasting.

Freedom of expression, particularly of political speech, is a vital right in a democracy and implies the existence of a plural and diverse range of voices. Shocking, disturbing and offensive content should be combated with counter arguments and debate. The best and most effective mechanism to neutralize the impact of propaganda is the existence of an open, diverse and dynamic media environment. Propaganda is dangerous when it dominates the public sphere and prevents individuals from freely forming their opinion, thus distorting pluralism and the open exchange of ideas. No matter how loud certain outrageous voices are, they will not prevail in a competitive and vibrant circulation of ideas. Rather than engaging in censorship, States should protect and promote free and equal access to the marketplace of ideas regardless of format and technology.

No one should be restricted from expressing a certain view. Instead States should ensure that different views have an equal chance to be presented. If propaganda amounts to incitement to hatred and violence, proper and proportionate measures may be applied using existing international and national human rights instruments. According to the OSCE commitments, in particular, the Copenhagen (1990) and Moscow (1991) Documents, only those restrictions that pursue a legitimate aim and are clearly defined by law are acceptable.

There are specific tools that already exist in the area of media regulation for dealing with biased and misleading information. These include rules on balance and accuracy in broadcasting; independence of media regulators; prominence of public service broadcasting with a special mission to include all viewpoints; a clear distinction between fact and opinion in journalism; transparency of media ownership, etc.

As an effective response, States should support and promote the existence and effective implementation of ethical standards by different media actors and invest in media literacy to empower citizens to make informed and sober choices. An understanding and respect for those standards by media actors, as well as transparency of the media, are essential to prevent and minimize the dangers of propaganda.

Today in the 21st century, as it was in the past, state media is the main vehicle of propaganda. As it is dangerous for peace and security, it should be transformed into true public service media or privatized.

Dunja Mijatović
OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media
Vienna, 15 April 2014

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