Europe's new free-press policeman

Can Désir alone keep our news unfettered?

WHEN HARLEM DÉSIR took up the reins as the Representative on Freedom of the Media for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), he had a tough act to follow. Dunja Mijatovic, his predecessor, had a formidable reputation: see for example this speech by Freedom House president David J. Kramer. Not only that, but the process of agreeing a successor was drawn-out and mired in controversy (see "The fight for a free media divides the OSCE, August 2017).

Now, four months in post, Désir was in London last week to meet meet press-freedom activists, regulators and government representatives. He also gave me this brief interview.

Knowledge of the OSCE in Britain in not great. Founded in 1975, it has the status of something like a mini-United Nations for its 57 member countries. These include the United States and Canada, most European states, Turkey and most constituents of the former USSR. Members are signatories to a Treaty that accepts that treatment of their citizens are legitimate matters of international concern, and all have ambassadorial representation at the OSCE.

Its main areas of work are arms control, human rights and freedom of the media.

Désir, as Representative on Freedom of the Media, leads the OSCE's work monitoring and attempting to enforce unfettered expression in the 57 countries of his bailiwick.

He comes to this after a long and occasionally colourful career in French politics. He came first to national prominence in the early 1980s as a founder of SOS Racisme - perhaps a Gallic equivalent of the Anti-Nazi League. Despite a sometimes turbulent history, this organisation endures and has spin-offs elsewhere in Europe.

Since then he has led the French Socialist Party and been a member of the French Parliament; a minister in Manuel Valls' government between 2014 and 2017; and a member of the European Parliament. It is an impressive resumé - even if some suggest it is that of a party loyalist rather than a dynamic leader, as Tracy McNicoll did in Newsweek.

[NUJ President Tim Dawson; © Lucy Adams]

Speaking to a round-table of activists and representatives in London last week, he certainly displayed a granular grasp of UK issues - mentioning Clause 40 of the Crime and Courts Act (which would have the defendant pay both side's costs in a libel case unless signed up with an approved press regulator), the Investigatory Powers Act and the challenge to the legacy media posed by Facebook and Twitter.

He also discussed the nuanced process of persuading OSCE members such as Turkey and Russia to comply with the international standards of free expression implicit in their membership of the OSCE.

These are not inconsiderable challenges. At one recent OSCE meeting in Vienna, the Russian ambassador dismissed accusations of Vladimir Putin's state-sponsored information aggression - focussing instead on what he said was UK victimisation of RT, initiated by Ofcom.

Shortly afterwards his Turkish counterpart announced that concern about imprisoned journalists in his country was overblown - "and anyway President Erdogan has established a program to train up 2000 new journalists". That these would act as replacement for their jailed colleagues was clear - if unstated".

Neither intervention went unchallenged. Condemnation and backstage browbeating, however, are the only real weapons in Désir's armoury.

Despite this, he remains one of only a handful of supra-national authorities whose responsibility it is to defend press freedom. Indeed, although technically David Kaye, the United Nations special rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, serves a broader remit, Desire's role is unique in focussing exclusively on the media.

As the UK decouples from the EU, journalists lose an important potential ally in any confrontation with illiberal governments threatening media freedom. That elevate's the OSCE's importance and that of its representative on media freedom. However Désir performs, the institution he represents is one to which all British journalists should pay increasing attention.