Today is international Human Rights day; a day to celebrate the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. We should all take a moment to think about the rights that everyone in the world deserves, no matter where in the world they happen to be born.
Many of us don’t see firsthand the suffering of citizens at the hands of repressive regimes, or those persecuted because of their religious beliefs. We rely instead on written press, news channels, blogs and other online news sources. But we don’t often pause to consider the ramifications for some of those who act as the eyes and the ears of the world. In many countries journalists and bloggers put their security, and in some case their lives, at risk to report.
Last month I travelled to Azerbaijan, where freedom of expression and the media continues to be threatened. Only last Friday another journalist was arrested and sentenced to pre-trial detention. Khadija Ismailova’s case continues a spell of systematic targeting of journalists often ending in prison sentences being handed out to free speech advocates. But Azerbaijan is far from alone in eroding the freedom of independent media. In fact, apart from the Baltic States, no post-Soviet country is considered by Freedom House’s 2014 annual report to have a free media, and only North Korea fares worse than Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
The safety of journalists continues to be a serious concern in Russia, which restricts independent media and alternative voices. This is symptomatic of a wider deterioration of human rights. For example, under the so-called “Foreign Agents” law, all non-governmental organisations (NGOs) receiving foreign funding have to register themselves. I met three Russian NGOs last week in Basel and heard from them the difficulties that they now face. And Russia’s last independent TV channel, Dozhd, could be forced to close when a new law banning commercial advertising on paid cable and satellite television channels comes into force on 1 January.
There are some positive developments in the region, where Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan are deemed partially free, but more needs to be done. Media freedom is a vital way of ensuring that those who infringe human rights, including governments, are held to account. Next year the FCO will be launching a campaign throughout the former Soviet Union region, working with international partners, to impress upon governments the importance of this issue and to help protect journalists’ rights to report freely without fear of reprisals.