"Strong democracy implies media freedom"

"The way ahead includes empowering media to deal with violations of media freedom and freedom of expression, promoting digital and media literacy, fostering the right to freedom of information and encouraging media diversity also in national minority languages"

Source: CorD
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(Tanjug)
(Tanjug)

As he approaches the second anniversary of his posting in Serbia, the Head of the OSCE Mission to Serbia, H.E. Ambassador Andrea Orizio, speaks to CorD about the importance of reforms in the area of the judiciary and the fight against corruption and organized crime, while he also announces the upcoming staging of a regional meeting in Belgrade on support to anticorruption institutions and corruption prevention, where best practices will be shared with regional, international and OSCE experts.

Your Excellency, you have served as Head of the OSCE Mission to Serbia since October 2016. How satisfied are you with your cooperation with the state in the areas that form the foundation of the OSCE Mission – strengthening institutions, the rule of law and media freedom?

– Overall, I am very satisfied with the level and quality of cooperation that we have with our partners in Serbia.The Mission provides expertise and assistance, which is valued and requested, in its relevant mandated areas – security cooperation, rule of law, democratisation and media – in order to help Serbia fully exploit its remarkable human capital and secure its rightful place in the region and in Europe. We are working together with our partners on a daily basis on specific projects, which are tailored to the needs of the country in the precise areas that you mentioned, including the fostering of an independent and impartial judiciary, and overall strengthening of the rule of law, the freedom and professional level of the media etc. I find the high level of awareness of challenges in Serbia, even at the highest level, extremely encouraging. Since I came, I strengthened our capacity to adapt our assistance to the changing needs and emerging challenges of Serbia, including migration and the fight against violent extremism.

The OSCE Mission received several invitations to formally observe the recent local elections held in Belgrade. Why did you opt against this step?

– We did not opt against this step. Simply, within the OSCE, the Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) is mandated to observe elections. Generally, ODIHR does not observe local elections, although there have been a couple of exceptions in the past. Moreover, even when we talk about general elections, election observation takes place exclusively upon invitation of the State where elections are taking place. One of the OSCE’s major successes is that all participating States tend to seek observation, although there is no binding decision to do so. Serbia has consistently requested OSCE/ODIHR assistance when holding national elections.

How serious do you consider the complaints of the opposition and certain observer organisations implying a series of irregularities, disorderly voter lists and pressure exerted on voters?

– Since we did not observe the elections, we do not have direct insight into possible complaints. There is certainly always room for improvement in any country, also when it comes to general elections, the ODIHR last year published some relevant recommendations that its representatives were able to start discussing with relevant Serbian interlocutors. Their report outlines the areas where Serbia could grow. Coming back to the recent Belgrade local elections, I would note that some CSOs, such as CRTA, did not consider irregularities to have taken place on a large scale. On the other hand, while some parties and individuals raised concerns about the fairness of the electoral campaign, the reporting of accredited CSOs, focusing mainly on the pre-electoral campaign and media coverage of contenders, stressed the biased media coverage, blurred lines between public duties and party activism, and the misuse of public resources for campaigning. Such observations seem somehow to echo some of the ODIHR’s previous recommendations.

You recently participated in the final public debate on amending the Constitution in the area of the judiciary. What are your impressions from that meeting?

– We, as the Mission, decided to support the debate in Belgrade on constitutional amendments, as an inclusive and useful tool. I was very glad to participate in it together with Prime Minister Brnabić and Justice Minister Kuburović. This was a very clear sign of engagement in the process being provided by the Serbian Government at its highest level. There I stressed the importance of discussion and reform – not for the sake of the international community, but primarily in the interest of Serbian citizens. An inclusive approach and transparent debate are essential. Nevertheless, what we deem important is that suggestions, concerns and observations coming from Serbian institutions themselves are carefully taken into consideration. Here I’m primarily referring to the Supreme Court of Cassation, the High Judicial Council, the State Prosecutorial Council, as well as professional associations of judges and prosecutors, academia and civil society. The Mission will continue to support an open dialogue on this crucial topic, which will help define where standards are placed on the rule of law, as Serbia decided to start this reform in order to address previous shortcomings and strengthen judicial independence.

Do you share the assessment contained in the EU Strategy for the Western Balkans that the region suffers from “state capture”, with corruption evident even at the higher levels of the state?

– The fight against corruption is certainly a priority and a challenge for any country and any society. On the other hand, the OSCE and the EU are two different organisations with different mandates, political characteristics and operational mechanisms. It is therefore inappropriate for me to comment on EU documents, since I represent the 57 OSCE participating states, many of which are not EU member states. The reforms that the Mission supports, however, can also be used by the Host Country in furthering its declared strategic aim, and the issues identified by the EU are certainly deserving of attention. The OSCE Mission to Serbia is actually very active in collaborating on the fight against corruption and organised crime. We have facilitated very good cooperation between the Serbian ministries of justice and the interior, as well as the prosecutors for organised crime and their counterparts in other countries that have particularly good expertise and mechanisms in these areas, such as my home country of Italy. As the regional dimension is essential, we will soon organise in Belgrade – together with the Serbian Anti-Corruption Agency – a very important regional meeting on support to anti-corruption institutions and corruption prevention, where best practises will be shared with regional, international and OSCE experts.

Do you believe the formation of special prosecution centres and courts for fighting corruption in Novi Sad, Kraljevo and Belgrade, which began working as of 1st March, will contribute to fighting corruption more efficiently?

– This is definitely a good step in the right direction. It is important for this network to cover all the different areas of Serbia, as corruption is a phenomenon requiring constant attention, in Serbia and elsewhere. The full empowerment of prosecutors, the harmonisation and coherence of legislation, as well as its implementation, are also of crucial importance.

You have stated repeatedly that there can be no strong, democratic society without media freedom. How would you rate the atmosphere in which journalists in Serbia work and the government’s attitude towards them?

– Media freedom and the safety of journalists are recognised as some of the most important democratic issues. This is precisely why the OSCE has established an independent office in Vienna to address this issue: the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media. The Mission is engaged in fostering improvements in two main areas: professionalism in media and freedom of the media itself. The Mission has supported the development of a Media Strategy with the Ministry of Culture and Information and professional associations, and we expect that this document will address the most important issues in freedom of the media, such as: transparency of media ownership, independence of editorial policy, safety of journalists, and protection of public interest in the media, also on the basis of the public debates we supported. Rapid technological development opened many new doors for freedom of expression and journalism. It is therefore important that journalists, academics, media lawyers and civil society get more involved and stand side by side in shaping standards and technologies that will better match the needs of the community. We are simultaneously working on media literacy, especially with the younger generations, also together with several universities. The way ahead includes empowering media and civil society to deal with violations of media freedom and freedom of expression, promoting digital and media literacy, fostering the right to freedom of information and encouraging media diversity also in national minority languages. We work with all associations and stakeholders on the media scene, with no distinctions and no prejudice, using inclusiveness as our guiding principle.

You have been familiar with this region since the time you served in the Italian Foreign Ministry. How would you describe the Western Balkans today –as a powder keg or as a region heading assuredly towards the EU?

Indeed, I was lucky enough to already be familiar with the region, as Italian Balkans Director until 2016, and with Serbia, a country where I very easily felt at home. Seen from my previous Italian perspective, simply Europe did not look complete without the Western Balkans and without Serbia, a country which is called on to continue playing its stabilizing and responsible role in the region. With my OSCE hat on, I am certainly integration neutral, but I see the opportunities and remaining challenges of the region even more clearly. I think the overall target should be to become able to transform all the enormous existing potential into a full reality. We help Serbia in its modernization and ambitious reforms path, then it will be up to Serbia, and to each individual country in the region, to decide what direction to take, with a modernized structure to rely on. As Europe itself is passing through transforming processes, the key idea should be to strengthen the rule of law, primarily in the interest first of all of citizens and in order for them to be masters of their own future. I believe all ingredients for this are on the table. Western Balkans is an area of great opportunity for Europe and for the world, and a region that can also play a leading role, as a provider of stability, economic growth and security. At the same time, nothing should be taken for granted. The remaining fragilities can be only overcome with joint efforts of all sides.

Do you believe the Brussels Dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina can emerge from its current crisis and that the Community of Serb Municipalities in Kosovo could soon be established?

– This issue is outside of the mandate of the OSCE Mission to Serbia. However, dialogue in itself is the best and only way to settle disputes in a sustainable way. It is a two-way street and requires broad support and mutual efforts, which are objectively difficult but feasible if there is a common understanding of a higher added value in finding a viable compromise.

It seems that great hope is being placed in the young people who should contribute to raising the quality of dialogue in the region. Do you think their voice is heard sufficiently?

– The OSCE always stands ready to support initiatives that promote peace, security and cooperation. Youth can play a decisive role in shaping history, overcoming fears and improving their countries and the region. Young people are also pioneers of change in the way they communicate. When we talk about the central role of connectivity in the region and in Europe, we should not only think of highways, railways or information technology – all of which are essential factors – but also and first of the youth and human beings. The OSCE Mission to Serbia and the OSCE Presence in Albania promoted youth exchanges that had resounded remarkably in the social media spheres of both countries and helped substantially improve mutual knowledge and understanding through dialogue (#OSCEyouth). The same group of young people, through the project “Women of Albania and Serbia: We Can Do It!”, produced the documentary film “Kismet”, featuring the personal experiences or stories of eight young women from Serbia and Albania who are breaking gender stereotypes and forming cross-cultural links. This is all thanks to constant cooperation among Serbian and Albanian institutions, ministries and civil society, supported by the OSCE.

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