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25 January 2024 afternoon

2024 - First part-session Print sitting

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Opening of sitting num 6

Address: Communication from the Secretary General of the Council of Europe

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

15:34:36

Dear colleagues,

We begin this afternoon’s sitting with a communication from the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Ms Marija PEJČINOVIĆ BURIĆ. This will be followed by questions to the Secretary General.

We shall start, as I said, this afternoon's sitting with a communication from Ms Marija PEJČINOVIĆ BURIĆ.

Madam Secretary General, I want to thank you for your presentation at the beginning of the year, of your vision, of the future of the Council of Europe and what is at stake.

We have 1 hour for this item on the agenda.

You were faced with many crises and challenges during your mandate, to which you swiftly adapted leading the Council of Europe and its staff through uncharted waters.

We are looking forward to hearing your address today to inform us about the major points that you consider of importance to know as an Assembly.

Then we will take the questions of our members after your address.

Madam Secretary General, I am honoured to give you the floor.

Thank you.

Ms Marija PEJČINOVIĆ-BURIĆ

Secretary General of the Council of Europe

15:35:40

Mr President of the Parliamentary Assembly,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Your Excellencies,

Dear colleagues, dear friends,

As always, it's a pleasure to be here with you, and I hope it's not too late to start by wishing you all a very happy New Year 2024.

I would like to begin by paying tribute to Mr Tiny KOX, who has served with distinction as President of this Assembly, and congratulate you, Mr ROUSOPOULOS, on your election as his successor.

The outgoing and incoming Presidents come from different regions of our continent and different political families, but they are united by their belief in human rights, democracy, the rule of law and their unwavering commitment to this Assembly. That's how it should be. For my part, I look forward to working with your new President and with all of you in the months ahead as part of a united and effective Council of Europe. There is no shortage of work to be done: Europe continues to experience some of the most turbulent times in its history.

Since the beginning of my term of office, as Mr President said earlier, there has been a global pandemic, a brutal, illegal and ongoing war of aggression waged by the Russian Federation against our member state, Ukraine, and a deeply alarming trend towards democratic retreat in many parts of our continent, fuelled by the rise of populists and extreme nationalists who often seek to undermine multilateralism and the institutions that support it.

I believe we have responded to these challenges in the right way: by supporting national governments to respond to Covid-19 in ways that protect people's health while respecting their human rights; by excluding the Russian Federation from our Organisation; by supporting Ukraine at a time when it needs us most; and by continuing our normative work of monitoring and co-operating in the face of anti-rights movements that target specific groups - women, LGBTI people, migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and many others - those movements whose campaigns threaten us all. All the bodies of our Organisation have stood firm, including this Assembly, and we are right to continue these battles.

But I have also been very clear on one point: the governments of our member states must also play their part. We need the political will at a national level to enable co-operation at an international level, if we are to halt and reverse the democratic backsliding we are witnessing today.

At the Summit of Heads of State and Government held in Iceland last May, I called on European leaders to assume their responsibilities, and they have done so. The Reykjavík Declaration gave new impetus to our work: not only was there a recommitment at the highest political level to respect the fundamental principles, values and standards of the Organisation, to implement the European Convention on Human Rights and to execute the final judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, but there was also agreement on specific measures that will meet the major challenges of our time. Many of these were unimaginable when the Council of Europe was created three quarters of a century ago.

On all these points, we are moving forward and making progress. In particular, the Reykjavík Declaration gives impetus to respecting a new set of principles for democracy, which will measure the health of our democracies in order to identify backsliding and the help needed to remedy it. We have set up a new committee to take this work forward.

Our work on a new framework convention on the design, development and application of artificial intelligence was also unanimously supported; a process open to countries around the world that has already proved its attractiveness and aims to produce a legally binding treaty, the first of its kind, due to open for signature in May this year. This treaty will aim to ensure that the rise of artificial intelligence can take place in a way that benefits our societies and respects our rights, without weakening them.

Similarly, the Reykjavík Declaration recognised the triple global crisis of pollution, climate change and biodiversity loss, the serious implications of this situation for human rights, and the need for a stronger multilateral response. In this respect, work is underway on a treaty addressing human rights and the environment, and on a new convention to protect the environment through criminal law.

But, of course, the Reykjavík Summit was also an opportunity to provide additional, tangible support for Ukraine and its people: this has been and will remain our top priority.

I am therefore delighted that the European leaderships have approved the project to create a new register of Damage, which will record the losses and damage inflicted by Russia on the ground, and which will be the necessary first step towards an international compensation mechanism. This unique register has been joined by most of our member states, as well as by the European Union and other parties beyond Europe. Its Board of Directors has been appointed, has met and recently elected the former President of the Court, Mr Róbert Spanó, as its Chairman. The first applications should be submitted for processing within the next two months.

Ms Marija PEJČINOVIĆ-BURIĆ

Secretary General of the Council of Europe

15:44:07

With an office up and running in The Hague and a satellite office due to open soon in Kyiv, the register of damage has come a long way in a short time.

This is a statement of our determination that Russia will be held accountable for its crimes, without which a just peace will be impossible.

That commitment to accountability coupled with a determination to help the Ukrainian people also prompted leaders at our Summit to agree on the need to support children in need.

That is why we are now at work on measures to help young Ukrainians who have fled to other Council of Europe member states and who are often traumatised, vulnerable or separated from their parents or guardians.

Our Consultation Group on the Children of Ukraine was set up towards the end of last year.

It encourages discussion and the exchange of information about the policies that can best support these children with a focus on transnational procedures and co-operation so that effective guardianship systems are in place in every country involved. These young people are identified and supported in the best way possible. We are also appalled by Russia’s removal of Ukrainian children to the Russian Federation.

Those children must be returned, and we will continue our efforts to hold Russia accountable for this specific crime through the work of our Lanzarote Committee and the Convention on Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse.

All of this supplements our other ongoing support for Ukraine, including: our advice to the General Prosecutor in the investigation of gross human rights violations by Russia; our Action Plan on Resilience, Recovery and Reconstruction aims to reinforce the country’s institutions through common European standards now and whenever the aggression ends; our readiness to help Ukraine undertake the reforms required for its future membership of the European Union, given last month’s decision by EU leaders to open accession negotiations.

There was, of course, agreement on other issues in the Reykjavík Declaration and on follow up action. None of the this takes away from the range of ongoing and evolving challenges that remain at the heart of what we do, whether that is fighting for freedom of expression and the safety of journalists, ensuring freedom of assembly and association, and pushing back against the use and misuse of laws to prevent lawful protest and shrink civic space, or our work to protect national minorities, minority languages or social rights, or to prevent corruption or human trafficking, or the scourge of violence against women and domestic violence, and gender inequality.

All of this, and so much more, is required not just to stop democratic backsliding, but as the precondition to building a just and resilient society for all, to push forward the frontiers of democratic life and ensure that every individual can live in the safety, security and dignity that comes when human rights are protected, and the rule of law holds firm: a just and resilient society for all.

In November, our member states agreed, upon my proposal, the first real terms increase in the Council of Europe’s budget for 17 years.

In doing that, they acknowledge the urgency of these times, the size of the challenge, and the scale of the additional work that we will carry out.

This Assembly will benefit directly from that increased investment, just as all Europeans will benefit from our work, together, to advance their interests.

Distinguished parliamentarians, this May we will celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Council of Europe. I think it is important to recognise how far we have come.

No other continent has ever put in place a common legal area, protecting and promoting common standards in human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Doing so has transformed the lives of millions of Europeans, and for the better. This is something to celebrate.

But there can be no doubt that the standards we have set are being attacked and undermined, that they must be defended robustly and effectively, and that the new challenges of the 21st century must be held to those same standards for the sake of every citizen.

The Reykjavík Declaration has given us new hope and a renewed determination.

I hope that you will all play your part in the work that follows here in Strasbourg but, crucially, back home in your member states too, advocating for our standards, and pressing your governments to do their part by applying those standards in all ways, at all times, so that this 75th anniversary year is remembered as one in which Europe reset its course, and headed once again towards a future defined by human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

Thank you. I look forward to your questions.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

15:51:09

Thank you, Madam Secretary General. 

We will now proceed to questions to the Secretary General. We will first hear questions from the speakers on behalf of the political groups and then hear a response from the Secretary General to those questions. 

Please will the speakers limit their interventions to 30 seconds. I want to remind the colleagues to ask one question and not make speeches. 

On behalf of the Socialists, Democrats and Greens Group, Mr Stefan SCHENNACH. 

Mr Stefan SCHENNACH

Austria, SOC, Spokesperson for the group

15:51:40

Thank you, Mister President.

Thank you, Madam Secretary General, for your speech, for your information, and for your work, in the name of my group.

I want to ask you in the light of the decision of the Assembly regarding Azerbaijan. You have been in Azerbaijan on an official visit.

Were there not any comments that they didn't want to invite the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe for the election observation?

Aand will you call President Ilham Aliyev about our decision?

 

Ms Marija PEJČINOVIĆ-BURIĆ

Secretary General of the Council of Europe

15:52:26

I was in Azerbaijan at the beginning of December, and that visit was prepared for quite a while. Actually after the war in September, or one-day operation, it was clear that we needed to talk and I needed to go to both countries.

So my primary interest was to go to Azerbaijan and send one message that covers all crucial questions: to repeat to all that all individuals residing in the Council of Europe member states should have full enjoyment of all human rights and freedoms that are enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Council of Europe, that has always been voiced from this House, stands ready to assist in that.

In the beginning and previously, we worked on confidence-building measures. But in this respect, it was very crucial that the Council of Europe bodies could visit the region of Karabakh.

It happened that my visit was scheduled for the beginning of December. In the meantime, the Commissioner for Human Rights indeed went to Karabakh. To me, that was a very good sign, because it was the first time for many years that a Council of Europe body was allowed to go there.

So in this light, I saw this visit also as coming at the right moment. As I arrived, there was an announcement about the exchange of prisoners of war. That was yet another very good sign of goodwill. And of course, as always, we were voicing, again from the Council of Europe, that what is important is that the two countries find a way for a peaceful solution. Because on that premise, both countries have acceded to the Council of Europe long ago. So, that they will resolve the issues in a peaceful manner, in talking and with dialogue.

At that moment, really everything seemed to be setting up the scene for that. I was very much encouraging the peace talks that were also held for several rounds. So at that moment I really could not think that what could have happened like it did happen. I regret that the Parliamentary Assembly was not invited for the monitoring of elections, because this is one of the functions of this House that is very valuable and it has been a democratic culture to invite Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly monitors.

But I still believe that we need to find a way of dialogue. Because I believe that there is a lot at stake, especially peace in the region.

I think talking in times where we have a war of aggression in Ukraine, where you have war in the Middle East, where we have tensions elsewhere in Europe, I think we need to do whatever we can, and all of us, each one within their mandate, to reach that peace.

So my main purpose of being there is that.

Having said that, whenever I go to a member state, I raise all the pertinent issues. So I did this time also in Azerbaijan, the long-standing issues, recommendations of our advisory bodies or our monitoring bodies.

So all in all, my feeling was that it was important, that it was timely, and that the Council of Europe can be of assistance, provided of course that this assistance is required.

I can only say that I encourage that dialogue is pursued, in particular on peace talks, that solutions are found for people who flee from Karabakh. There are over 100 000 in Armenia. I dealt also through sending my special representative on migration and refugees immediately to Armenia to see what the Council of Europe could do.

So indeed we, as a consequence, offer our help. I'm in negotiations, in talks with Armenia, also to visit Armenia. But talks with both countries are already ongoing for some  time, so I think that the Council of Europe can and should assist both countries to find a way to have an answer for people who have to flee their homes, so that they can return in dignity and security. But also that the country... Only a peace deal is possible among themselves to find a way to put the right bases. I think starting with recognising each other's sovereignty, not starting any military or any other action that is hostile, and exchanging prisoners of war, exchanging demining maps. All the issues. Exchanging also information on missing persons.

You know, there are many things they can do, such as putting more confidence-building measures in place and more understanding between the two.

The two have a major role to play, but certainly the Council of Europe can be of help in that.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

15:58:56

 On behalf of the Group of the European People's Party, Mr Pablo HISPÁN.

Mr Pablo HISPÁN

Spain, EPP/CD, Spokesperson for the group

15:59:00

Thank you very much, Secretary General, for your report.

Thank you very much, President, as well.

The independence of judges is one of the pillars of our rule of law. Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights is very clear on this. Regrettably, we have seen in numerous member states, judges are under pressure, and democratic governments are accusing them of practising lawfare at each time they feel the courts adopt decisions against those government's interests while enforcing legislation.

Governments threaten to create parliamentary investigation committees so that judges take their decisions into account. 

I wanted to know, Madam Secretary General, if you had taken into consideration the use of what is provided for in Article 52 of the Convention, in order to deal with the governments that attack and pressure independent judges.

More specifically, whether that is the case in Spain, where from the executive and legislative powers they are modifying laws with the very people being investigated by the judges - being those who draft the bills so as to prevent them from doing their job. 

Thank you very much.

Ms Marija PEJČINOVIĆ-BURIĆ

Secretary General of the Council of Europe

16:00:00

Thank you very much for your question.

I think you raise the pertinent issue of the rule of law, which is one of the three important pillars of the work in this house, and one of the three very important pillars for democracy and enjoyment of human rights.

When you talk about the use of the only article in the Convention that the Secretary General can use, which is Article 52, I can just tell you that I already used it once within my mandate in the case of Poland for breaching in a very obvious manner the rule of law. Article 52, in my opinion, was absolutely necessary. It served the purpose, because it returned back and said that the issue of the rule of law in Poland should be regarded and watched through the execution of judgments, and because there are many judgments of the Court that are now in the execution phase and they deal with lots of pertinent issues to the problem in Poland.

At the same time, I can tell you that my predecessors, in 75 years, not every Secretary General used Article 52. There were only seven times before I did it, that it was used. So, it's really the very very last resort that the Secretary General should use.

At this moment, if your question is if I'm not doing it now, the answer is "no", because it really needs to be seen whether that can be done through other ways. In my view at this moment, I'm not intending to use Article 52 in this case.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

16:02:02

On behalf of the European Conservatives Group and Democratic Alliance, Mrs Pauline LATHAM.

Mrs Pauline LATHAM

United Kingdom, EC/DA, Spokesperson for the group

16:02:07

Madam Secretary General, I'm a little confused.

I understand that the Council of Europe forcibly require their employees to retire as soon as they become 65. And why? Isn't this ageism? Isn't it against a human right?

Ms Marija PEJČINOVIĆ-BURIĆ

Secretary General of the Council of Europe

16:02:32

Well, as you may know, international organisations, like governments, have legal regulations or laws that relate to the age of retirement.

When it comes to the Council of Europe, we indeed have, as you mentioned, the Committee of Ministers. In our staff regulations we adopted 65 as the age of retirement. It is common practice among the co-ordination organisation, because we have several organisations in which we deal with issues pertinent to staff policies and staff regulations.

They all, including others in the international civil service, have the same age fixed for retirement. Thinking whether there would be something to change that, of course, if that is so then the Committee of Ministers will have to review the staff regulations. I see no specificity at this moment to our staff population that would justify changing the current age of 65.

Because I think we are in quite a right place where we are now and for the moment I really don't think we should change that.

At the same time, one should also take into account that at a certain time you have to make adequate turnovers so that continuity of knowledge and staff is there. I think it is only fair that at a certain moment we give a chance to the recruitment of young people, with probably new skills that they may have and that we need for the times.

But I see no contradiction in the values and standards and human rights that this organisation stands for, and the fact that in the regulation we have 65 as the age of retirement.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

16:04:54

On behalf of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, the leader of the group, Mr Iulian BULAI.

Mr Iulian BULAI

Romania, ALDE, Spokesperson for the group

16:04:58

Thank you so much, Mister President.

Madam Secretary General, on behalf of all of us in the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, I want to congratulate you for the great budget we've got this year. And credit goes also to the Committee of Ministers. Everyone is happy in terms of the bodies of this institution with the great amount of resources that have been given and that are to be wisely spent.

The question for you is: do you know of any progress on the issue of the international tribunal for judging the crimes of aggression of Russia in Ukraine? Could you inform us on the progress?

We see attacks with lots of casualties every day from Russia to Ukraine, both in Kharkiv, Kyiv.

Has there been any meeting since the meeting in Berlin and since the last exchange of views we had in Paris? And if not, where will the next core country meetings take place and when?

Thank you.

Ms Marija PEJČINOVIĆ-BURIĆ

Secretary General of the Council of Europe

16:06:00

First of all, thank you for mentioning the budget. I think I did so in the introduction.

But I have to pay tribute to the Parliamentary Assembly, that has always been advocating for a bigger budget. Not only because also this House needed an increase, which we got now, but in general. So I would like to really pay tribute to the fact that you voiced it, and really, of course, I would like to thank the Committee of Ministers, and of course, the Reykjavík Summit and meeting of leaders, when they were setting a new work plan for next time, also were somehow implying that an increase in budget should be there.

So we are where we are, but I think, and I absolutely agree. It's a big responsibility, because we have so... I carry on our programme with that spirit.

Now, as for accountability of the Russian Federation, I think I also covered it quite largely. But let me just repeat: accountability is at the heart of how we want to assist Ukraine against this horrible aggression and its consequences.

We believe that without accountability there cannot be a just peace.

I think that all we need is to get to that moment where justice can be there.

On the accountability page, from day one of this horrible aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine, we started immediately helping the Prosecutor General in the work of collecting evidence. Because for any future compensation of damage, there should be a legal process set up.

So we started with that, we continue. I also talked a lot about the register of damage. That was the very best way that we found that the Council of Europe can assist Ukraine.

This is further down the road on accountability, because full and independent investigations are needed for violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. We believe that register is another path.

Indeed, there was the third accountability pillar, which is the setting up of a special tribunal on the crime of aggression.

For a long time, we were advocating that we have expertise. Indeed we do. We can help in a number of areas, more as experts.

In the meantime, the Council of Europe also joined the core group. In my view, as I recall, the last meeting was held last Friday. There are Council of Europe experts meeting there.

In the meantime, actually, we also found another pathway in which the Council of Europe can be useful and probably play an important role in setting up the register. This is the Council of Europe Convention of 1973 on the Transfer of Proceedings in Criminal Matters, which in reality means that all work towards what is done at the moment in Ukraine could be linked with the future tribunal, or elsewhere in other member states, that can be linked with the whole...

So now there are different ways that are envisaged as to how to set up what would legally be possible.

One way in which our experts are developing possible pathways is this one where we could, with this Convention - so with the legal context that we can use, and expert knowledge in some other pertinent areas - that we can actually be at the core, possibly, in future negotiations for setting up the registers.

Some colleagues call it the third way, but in reality this is it, and this is how we evolved over time of what we can do.

The meetings are taking place quite regularly. I cannot go more into details. But what is sure is that there are already quite clearer ideas. There are still some legalities that need to be clarified, but there are already some quite clear ideas on how this could be, and in particular when it comes to this possibility, this third way, aiming at anchoring a new tribunal on the notion of transfer of criminal proceedings on the basis of this Convention from 1973.

We are ready to play our role. Of course, the members of the core group should agree when to move further on which of the possible pathways.

I know you mentioned the meeting in Berlin, that some in Berlin were looking in quite a positive way to this possibility of using Council of Europe legal framework and expertise in relation to that.

I can only reiterate that we are ready to play our part, but of course, the decisions have to be taken. First, proposals from the core group, and then of course, if it comes to this third way, then some appropriate decisions have to be made in the House.

But I'm glad that we also could, in this area, provide expertise and possibilities to really also do something on this part of accountability.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

16:12:54

On behalf of the Group of the Unified European Left, Ms Laura CASTEL.

Ms Laura CASTEL

Spain, UEL, Spokesperson for the group

16:13:00

Thank you, Chair,

Madam Secretary General,

The Resolution 2513 of 2023 of this Parliamentary Assembly urged Poland, Hungary, Greece, Azerbaijan and Spain to provide information on their use of Pegasus spyware within three months. Did those member states comply with the provision of this Resolution, taking into account that this three-month period has already been met?

Thank you, Madam Secretary General.

Ms Marija PEJČINOVIĆ-BURIĆ

Secretary General of the Council of Europe

16:13:40

Let me set the principle that when there are serious concerns about allegations of illegal cyber surveillance of whoever - political opponents, journalists, lawyers, human rights activists - that we need to recall the European Convention on Human Rights and the pertinent case law, and in particular the Article 8 Right to respect for private and family life, because even any interception of communications by member states, including the national Security Services, must comply with that.

So indeed you mentioned several alleged cases.

The one in Hungary actually already has the judgment, that is now on secret surveillance, and is pending execution under the Committee of Ministers in enhanced procedure supervision. So this is a clear path as to how this particular case is going to be supervised.

In Poland there are legal obligations to provide domestic remedies. I'm aware that the Sejm has set up a special commission to investigate legality, correctness, and purposefulness of alleged use of this spyware between 2015 and 2023.

And in Spain also, there are allegations that authority dismissed the head of the National Intelligence Centre, and there is a parliamentary commission established. So I think if we look at it from this perspective, one can say that, in a certain sense, these issues are addressed or under monitoring.

But it remains, and this is why at the beginning I said that it's a really serious concern. We should, through this case law, come back to what is the first convention to be ratified by a member state, which is the European Convention on Human Rights.

So the application of both is crucial in all areas covered by the Convention in this case, in particular by Article 8.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

16:16:18

Thank you, Madam Secretary.

You know the procedure much better than I do, so you know that I will give the floor to other speakers taking them in groups of three.

I will ask my colleagues to limit their interactions to 30 seconds.

First on the list is Mr Bertrand BOUYX.

Mr Bertrand BOUYX

France, ALDE

16:16:42

Thank you, Mister Chairman. It was pronounced correctly.

Madam Secretary General,

Following the ethnic cleansing that took place in Nagorno-Karabakh at the end of last year, more than 100 000 people were forced to leave their homes and take refuge outside the Azerbaijan border. Most of them are now in Armenian territory. I was able to see for myself the state of material and psychological distress in which they find themselves during a visit I made there last December.

However, the worst distress of all lies in the uncertainty about their future. Many have realised that they do not have Armenian nationality and are afraid to take it so as not to lose their property in Nagorno-Karabakh. Nor do they have Azerbaijani nationality, so that most of them find themselves stateless.

Can you tell us how they are perceived by the Council of Europe? Will they be entitled to the European Court of Human Rights protection at a time when they need it most?

Thank you.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

16:17:40

Second on the list is Mr Koloman BRENNER.

Mr Koloman BRENNER

Hungary, NR

16:17:51

Madam Secretary General,

Among the important objectives of the Reykjavík Declaration, the protection of traditional national minorities was also mentioned and my question is: what concrete measures and plans the Council of Europe has implemented since the Reykjavík Declaration?

I would also like to draw your attention to the fact that we will be electing a new European Parliament in June 2024 and I believe that these issues should be given much higher priority by all member states of the Council of Europe, but especially by the member states of the European Union - including the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, as the ethnic cleansing is occuring there. Thank you very much.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

16:18:42

The third on the list Mr Vladimir VARDANYAN.

Please press the button, Mister Vladimir VARDANYAN.

Mr Vladimir VARDANYAN

Armenia, EPP/CD

16:18:54

Thank you, Mister Chair.

Honourable Madam Secretary General,

Could you please tell us more about the concrete instruments and mechanisms of the Council of Europe that will ensure the protection of the commercial rights of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh? I am just continuing the general line of questions raised.

You said that it was very important that finally the Human Rights Commissioner will get to Nagorno-Karabakh, not you but the Human Rights Commissioner will get Nagorno-Karabakh, and you get Azerbaijan. What do you think, whether these were very belated visits or whether we are actually corresponding to the general idea and main reasons of requesting to send their delegations and rapporteurs?

Thank you.

Ms Marija PEJČINOVIĆ-BURIĆ

Secretary General of the Council of Europe

16:19:46

Thank you for your question.

I'll start with the question of the legal status of refugees- I can only tell you, in general, that this is a matter for the member states. So, the answer must be found where the Armenians who left Nagorno-Karabakh are now, and the state concerned must find solutions.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. We are very concerned about the people, the hundreds of thousands of people who have left their homes, their places, the places where they have always lived, in the space of a few days. Of course, I immediately sent my Special Representative to see how we could help these refugees, these people who found themselves with nothing from one day to the next.

I can also say that in the meantime, I very quickly met the Prime Minister of Armenia, Mr Nikol Pashinyan, here in Strasbourg. I spoke with him, because we had to find answers to the questions that Armenia felt the Council of Europe could answer immediately for the people there. Personally, I wasn't there; I'll probably visit these people when I go to Armenia soon. My Special Representative was there and, of course, informed me of the situation.

I can only say that I can salute the fact that Armenia has really reacted, in a very short time, with very complex solutions to give help, but also places where these people are going to be housed. Of course, it's all short-term, and we need to find sustainable solutions.

When I was in Azerbaijan, one of the questions and concerns I shared with the Azerbaijani authorities was how they could guarantee that the property of people who have fled, who have had to leave their homes, would be preserved. At the time, they assured me - and I think this is the bit which you heard from the Human Rights Commissioner when she went there in October - at that very moment, as far as I understood, everything was intact. What I asked the authorities was to keep it that way, because it mustn't be destroyed, so that people wouldn't be prevented from returning to the places where they built their lives before this crisis.

As far as the Council of Europe is concerned, we're going to do everything we can. But as far as your question is concerned, this has to be managed by the state concerned, because it's a matter for the member states.

Ms Marija PEJČINOVIĆ-BURIĆ

Secretary General of the Council of Europe

16:23:33

The second question was on national minorities.

I think a similar question was asked this morning to the President of the Committee of Ministers. She recalled, and I would recall, because that's very important, the legal framework that we have at the Council of Europe, which is very unique not only in Europe, but worldwide.

We have this Framework Convention on protection of national minorities and the European Charter on Protection of Minorities and Regional Languages.

What I can appeal is that all of our members first become parties to it, because that's the best way to be protected.

How to make the member states who already are part of that apply the measures or the legal framework and policy framework that is suggested, including in recommendations of the two bodies of the two Conventions?

Well, it's, I would say, the Council of Europe's method of work. We work, there are regular visits of those bodies, and then they make recommendations to the states, and work with them. We work also through action plans in some countries in order to remedy the issues where it's needed.

When it comes to some issues, when it's needed, also when the Venice Commission gives recommendations, and I know that in some of the member states that was very important, very crucial, I can only repeat what I always repeat in all my visits that all the recommendations of our advisory and monitoring bodies should be implemented.

Sometimes states have some difficulties for sometimes different reasons. But at the end of the day, all this is set up to be beneficial for each and every citizen.

As I was saying in my introductory speech, the whole idea of the more than 200 conventions and other legislative texts is to make the life of all citizens without any discrimination across 46 member states to the best possible.

As another former President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe I think said when he was introducing his mandate, he recalled another of his countrymen back in the past, who said that if you ask whether we want to have a perfect Europe working perfectly, he said, I paraphrase, that a perfect Europe doesn't exist, but a better Europe can always be achieved.

I think in that respect, and in that view, I would see the Reykjavík call for recommitment to the values, including when it comes to the national minorities.

For the last questions, dealing also with the issue of Armenians who fled from Karabakh, the only thing I can say, I could repeat what I said previously. Within the mandate, we will do whatever we can. I probably didn't mention again the confidence-building measures. That also is one way to approach the solving problems better between the two, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The issue of Armenians who fled from Karabakh is certainly a very urgent one. I think we all should, through the different means and ways that we can from this organisation, assist these people who certainly are in a dire situation, not because they don't have any support. I think no support can replace the normal life and coming back to the place which belongs to you and where you want to live.

I really hope that Azerbaijan will provide for the security and dignified return of all those who would like to return. I think for others, for whatever reasons people do not wish to do so, to find different solutions.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

16:28:46

Madam Secretary General, we have three more questions. But we have only 3 more minutes. So I have to propose, if you agree with me, that we can give the floor to my colleagues and if they will be brief enough to give time to the Secretary General to respond, we can go on.

So, I will ask Ms Ariana MUSLIU-SHOSHI.

Ms Ariana MUSLIU-SHOSHI

Assembly of Kosovo*

16:29:12

Thank you, Chair.

I truly appreciate this.

Madam Secretary General, the terrorist attack on 24 September in Banjska, Kosovo was an alarming development not just for the fragile peace between Kosovo and Serbia but for security and stability in the Western Balkans and in Europe.

The Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy just offered unanimous support for delivering a report on this terrorist attack on Kosovo's sovereignty and territory. Do you consider it important for the Parliamentary Assembly and the Council of Europe to shed light on and offer full transparency of this event?

Thank you.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

16:29:46

 Ms Elisabetta GARDINI is next.

Ms Elisabetta GARDINI

Italy, EC/DA

16:29:54

Thank you, Chair.

Madam Secretary General, I go straight to the question.

You are at the end of your term and there are three male candidates for the position of Secretary General, yesterday we elected the Commissioner for Human Rights, who is a man.

In my view, the excessively strict interpretation of the Juncker directive has led to the de facto impossibility for women to obtain top positions in the Council of Europe.

Do you believe this interpretation can be corrected? What do you think we can or should do to have more female candidates and, consequently, more women in top positions?

Thank you.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

16:30:33

Thank you, Madam Elisabetta GARDINI. Mr Emanuelis ZINGERIS is the last on the list.

Since Mr Emanuelis ZINGERIS is not here, Madam Secretary, please respond to the questions. Thank you.

Ms Marija PEJČINOVIĆ-BURIĆ

Secretary General of the Council of Europe

16:30:44

Very shortly to the issue of stability and security.

I think in these uncertain times, one cannot only but support regional stability across Europe. Regional stability in the Western Balkans, for sure. So, whatever can be done in order to secure that, I think would be welcome, because we don't need more instability and more suffering for people.

For gender equality and leadership, you are right. Last time when there was an election there was gender parity, and I was very happy that I was candidate myself. I can only regret that this time we don't have that.

That brings me back in half an hour. We will have a discussion on women in multilateralism. I think we can discuss in more detail there. I think there is a way to go across our member states, but also across the international organisations for real equality. Working on that, I think, from the position of the Council of Europe, it's not only just another organisation that should work on equality, but it's also the organisation that sets standards, soft or other.

As I always say, we should walk the talk also for ourselves. I hope that for the future for more gender equality and leadership, we should probably also think about how to attract or ask the member states when they propose the candidates, so that it would also be gender balanced.

Now we have what we have. It only replicates probably also the fact that across Europe in general on average our governments and parliaments have three quarters men and one quarter women. So, we have to fight that on different levels, but probably later we can talk more in detail.

Thank you very much.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

16:32:57

Madam Secretary General,

I want to thank you for being with us today. I want to thank you personally for your warmest wishes for my Presidency and overall for your wise experience you served with me while we had our first meeting the very first day that I was elected. All the best to you. Happy New Year. Thanks a lot.

Dear colleagues,

The next item on the agenda is the debate on the Report titled “A Democratic Future for Belarus” (Doc. 15892 and Add.) presented by Mr Kimmo KILJUNEN, rapporteur for the Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy.

We will then hear from Mr Emanuelis ZINGERIS, rapporteur for the opinion of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights. This will be followed by a statement by Ms Sviatlana TSIKHANOUSKAYA, Leader of the Belarusian democratic forces.

In order to finish by 5:45 p.m. I will interrupt the list of speakers at about 5:30 p.m. to allow time for the reply and vote on the draft resolution.

 

I now call Mr KILJUNEN, rapporteur. Mister KILJUNEN, you have 7 minutes to speak now and 3 minutes at the end to reply to the debate.

You have the floor.

 

 

Debate: A democratic future for Belarus

Mr Kimmo KILJUNEN

Finland, SOC, Rapporteur

16:34:03

Mister President,

Dear colleagues,

Dear friends,

Ladies and gentlemen,

It's a very, very great moment for me personally. A three-and-a-half-year process is at the end. We started the report process three and a half years ago.

Particularly, I am very honoured that Ms Sviatlana TSIKHANOUSKAYA, the leader of the democratic opposition in Belarus, might say, my friend, you respect your present by your presence, this report process that we are now ending. That is a great honour. Thank you very much.

Everything started in terms of the report process; after this, and I say it directly, rotten elections in Belarus, the presidential elections in August 2022.

After that, there were some big demonstrations. I can even call that the "Minsk spring or autumn".

Actually, the whole of Belarus demonstrated peacefully against the results of the elections, because everybody felt so in the country. Most of the people in the country felt that Ms Sviatlana TSIKHANOUSKAYA was the genuine winner of the elections.

That's why we can say clearly that most member states haven't actually recognised the regime of Mr Aleksandr Lukashenko as being legitimate. It is important for us to understand the situation.

Since then, political participation, civil society, and free media have been systematically destroyed.

Today we have more than 1 500 political prisoners held in inhumane conditions in prison. Most of them are in total isolation, including your husband, Mr Sergei Tikhanovsky. Ms Sviatlana TSIKHANOUSKAYA, you know the situation in your personal life; harsh repression.

Mr Aleksandr Lukashenko's regime poses a threat to international peace and security, which was indicated by Mr Aleksandr Lukashenko's regime support and environment in Russia and the aggression to Ukraine, the forced landing of a Ryanair passenger plane, and the weaponisation of migration. All of those are clearly threats to internal peace and security.

Am I right in saying the most repressive regime today in Europe is Mr Aleksandr Lukashenko's regime in Belarus?

Mister President,

The Council of Europe actually launched four reports after that. One report on human rights violations made by Ms Alexandra LOUIS; one on electoral reform made by Lord David BLENCATHRA; instrumentalisation of migration by Ms Anne-Mari VIROLAINEN. Those reports were finalised in 2021 and 2022, and this process, the political dialogue report, which originally was named the inclusive national political process in Belarus.

The ultimate end has been asked of me. How does the dialogue end? What are we trying to do?

The ultimate end was that Belarus should become a legitimate member of the Council of Europe, the 47th member of the Council of Europe, respecting human rights, democracy and rule of law, our basic values.

In the report process, there are four premises which were important.

First of all, we supported a peaceful transformation based on dialogue in Belarus.

Secondly, the whole responsibility of changes in Belarus are internal, not forced by external forces.

Thirdly, the contradiction in the country is not between east and west; it was past and future.

The fourth point, it's an inclusive process. Originally, we already tried to create a dialogue between authorities and Belarusian democratic forces, ideally focusing on repression, political prisoners, democratic free and fair elections and the constitutional process.

We were so successful that on 22 January we had a meeting here on our premises. Mr Andrei SAVINYKH, representing the National Assembly, the Foreign Affairs Committee Chair, and Mr Anatoly LEBEDKO, you are here also today heading your delegations from the democratic opposition, discussing constitutional reform.

Everything changed on 24 February, when Russia made this aggression.

Mr Aleksandr Lukashenko's regime support for that one makes it impossible to have any consultations with Russia, with authorities in Belarus, excluding obviously one area: political prisoners, where we have still have tried to do something.

There was a deepening of co-operation between democratic forces of Belarus in very many ways. Nowadays you have the right to use our premises. You have an office here. We have established a contact group at the technical staff level. You are participating in our plenary assemblies regularly on a rotational basis. We have also helped the dialogue among the democratic forces, including the Helsinki Conference which we organised on 11 and 12 January of this year, which helped the report process that we are doing.

As a matter of fact, I can add that the Russian opposition is also interested in having the same type of relation with us.

The report outcome is very clear.

There are a few big issues. I only highlight those few issues, because you obviously have the report in your hands.

First of all, we strongly support the effort by Belarusian democratic forces for, as you yourself say, European aspirations.

The first step in European aspirations is to become a member of the Council of Europe, with those values that we can expect. In the end, or I cannot say "end", one of those elements could also be membership in the European Union.

Secondly, we would deepen now, in the report proposal, the dialogue with Belarusian democratic forces by establishing a representative delegation here on a permanent basis.

Thirdly, we will also have a political phase from our side by establishing a general rapporteur for a democratic Belarus, then compensating this ad-hoc committee which I have been heading up to this moment.

This is an ambitious programme. I hope, and thanks to the plenary, all of you my friends and colleagues, for the support for this process.

My last point is to you, Ms Sviatlana TSIKHANOUSKAYA. Don't you agree that the place for politicians is in parliament, not in prison and in exile?

Thank you very much, Mister President.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

16:41:15

Thank you so much.

Now I call Mr Emanuelis ZINGERIS.

Mister ZINGERIS, you have 3 minutes.

Mr Emanuelis ZINGERIS

Lithuania, EPP/CD, Rapporteur for opinion

16:41:20

Thank you, Mister President,

Madam President, it is great to congratulate you here. That is a great occasion. Madam Secretary General, I am sorry for being late to ask you the question about our executive relations with the free and fair elected President of Belarus, Ms Sviatlana TSIKHANOUSKAYA, this cradle of brave people who representing a government in transition in Vilnius, my country. Thirty-four years ago, we were winning the war against the Soviet Union and we started working together. We remember the time and sorry that we landed after 34 years of liberation against the Soviet communist regime in the moment when you need to be in Vilnius, but we are proud that you are in Vilnius. We are proud of your team. We are proud of what you are doing in the world with your appeals. We are not tired to be on your side.

So in my presentation, I would like to praise Mr Kimmo KILJUNEN's report. Our key issue related to the network of your parties, every party in Greece, social democrats, liberals, Christian democrats in Germany, and here, Poland, obligated to have a connection with your party system. All their leaders are in jail.

Mister President,

All the leaders from all the parties are in jail and they are suffering every day the terrible, terrible behaviours of Lukashenko's KGB. The name, Mister President, is KGB, like in the Soviet time. KGB repressions.

Today, in the morning, the wife of the leader of the social democratic party Mr Mikalai Statkevich was arrested. Ms Maryna Adamovich is now in jail.

I would like to raise the question whether our social democrats, and our voice from the social democratic side, would raise their voices today if ever their wives were arrested in those most terrible circumstances in jail? Where are our Christian democrats and liberals to raise the questions about their brother parties there?

I am very glad Mr Kimmo KILJUNEN that you did your scrupulous work as a rapporteur of opinion, and like a general rapporteur and human rights defender from the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights. We welcome you working in the human rights committees. You're very scrupulously prepared. Thank you for being in touch with President TSIKHANOUSKAYA, with Mr Franak Viačorka, with Mr Anatoly Lebedko. Not only has your son been in prison for three and a half years, we are all on your family's side; we are all on the side of your brave contribution to Europe. We understand how we should be instrumental here in this House.

Thank you to the Secretary General and for our executive part for bringing the scrupulous elements presenting the brave presentation of free Belarus in our building. You have our facilities. You are mentioning your names to be permanently in our meetings. We are trying even to integrate you to the Baltic–Nordic group and would like to say to you that our Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights did not even need to suggest any amendments for your scrupulous report. I am sorry. That is probably the first time it has happened.

And I would also like to mention the excellent event this representative of Belarus society in Helsinki, dear Mr Kimmo KILJUNEN, just two weeks ago, and this was helpful - not only thank you for your scrupulous remarks included in the report.

We were so glad to present here by the Secretary General and by our leadership the Václav Havel prize winners to Mr Ales Bialiatski and Ms Maria Kalesnikava, Belarusian civil society, human rights defenders, independent journalists and academia is behind you. So we congratulate you now. Of course, I have now one idea that we have small passports.

[Speaker is interrupted by the Chair]

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

16:46:09

Dear Emanuelis,

Don't express this idea now, because you are at least 2 minutes over the time. You know that I like listening to you, your experience, and your stories, but we don't have time. We have to be strict.

Mr Emanuelis ZINGERIS

Lithuania, EPP/CD, Rapporteur for opinion

16:46:24

I am ending, dear Speaker.

We are congratulating you again to be elected. With only a final remark.

Being in Vilnius and having 700 km of border with the Lukashenko regime, we are suffering the possibility that Mr Aleksandr Lukashenko and Mr Vladimir Putin will attack the neighbouring countries. That's why, please, listen carefully to our remarks, because we are on the frontline.

We'd like to thank you that we are the representives of 8 million Belarusians here.

President, Madam TSIKHANOUSKAYA, thank you.

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

16:47:01

Thank you so much Mr Emanuelis ZINGERIS, thank you dear Emanuelis.

Dear colleagues,

We have the pleasure of having among us today Ms Sviatlana TSIKHANOUSKAYA, leader of the Belarusian democratic opposition, who will make a statement contributing to the substance of the debate.

Dear Madam TSIKHANOUSKAYA,

We can only admire the resilience, courage and determination of your fellow compatriots and of yourself.

People who have been forced into exile by the repression of the Aleksandr Lukashenko regime.

Two weeks ago, at the Helsinki Dialogue event organised by the Parliamentary Assembly and the Finnish delegation, you declared: "We want to build a Belarus with human rights, pluralism of political opinions, rule of law and diversity. It's a community of values. We should start embracing, exercising and promoting these ideals already today. This is why our close work with the Council of Europe matters so much. Under your leadership, the United Democratic Forces of Belarus have made outstanding progress in co-ordinating and in channeling their efforts to promote the right of all Belarusians, and to strive for a genuine democratic change in your country.

Madam TSIKHANOUSKAYA,

Welcome where you belong: the agora of a unified Europe.

It is my pleasure to give you the floor.

[Applause]

Ms Sviatlana TSIKHANOUSKAYA

Leader of the Belarusian democratic forces

16:48:51

Dear Mister President Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS,

Dear Secretary General Madam Marija PEJČINOVIĆ-BURIĆ,

Dear Mister Kimmo KILJUNEN,

Dear Mr Emanuelis ZINGERIS,

Honourable members of the Assembly, 

I want to thank you all for your support and your solidarity with Belarusian people.

We all came from different countries. We might belong to different parties. But what brings us together here is a commitment to human rights, democracy and peace. These are the very values that the Council of Europe holds so dearly.

Let me congratulate rapporteur Mr Kimmo KILJUNEN and the Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy for the brilliant report on the democratic future of Belarus.

I hope that every European politician will read this report, and we'll put it into action, because it's not just about capturing the drastic situation inside the country. It is showing the concrete steps to free Belarus of tyranny and integrate it into the European Community.

Of course, I hope the parliamentarians will support the resolution today.

You know when we speak about the democratic future of Belarus, we speak about the democratic future of the whole of Europe.

Today the fate of freedom and democracy is being decided in our region. It is being decided on the battlefields of Ukraine, but also in Belarus.

Tyranny is trying to take revenge, enslave our nations and destroy our values.

Tyrants can put people in jail, destroy cities and blackmail us with nuclear weapons, but they will never, and I repeat, never stifle the freedom-loving spirit of the Belarusian and the Ukrainian people.

One of these freedom-loving Belarusians was Mr Mykhailo Zhyznevskyi. Exactly 10 years ago he came to support Ukrainians during Euromaidan. He was shot by snipers, one of the first to die for Ukraine's freedom. Like Mykhailo, dozens of Belarusians lost their lives fighting for Ukraine and for a free Belarus. Belarusians understand that by fighting for Ukraine, we are also fighting for our country, for Belarus.

The fates of our countries are intertwined. Without the victory of Ukraine, a free Belarus is not possible; and without a free Belarus, there cannot be lasting peace in Europe.

Dear friends,

This morning started for me with the horrifying use of new arrests. The regime carried out mass searches and detentions in the homes of families of political prisoners. Some former political prisoners were also arrested.

One of those arrested is Ms Marina Adamovich, the wife of Mr Mikola Statkevich, the leader of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison and has been held incommunicado for one year already.

The regime detains ordinary citizens just for sending parcels of food and clothing. They arrest them, because they support those already behind bars. They punish them for sending donations to Ukraine. In Belarus, solidarity is crime.

Another woman was detained because the regime found a white-red-white flag in her house; her house was smashed, but not her spirit.

You know, I can't stop admiring my people, who despite repressions and terror, continue to fight, to resist and to help each other.

The regime didn't manage to turn the page. It didn't manage to convince people to enter the war against Ukraine. We'll learn to work on the ground. People join initiatives, build communities and demonstrate their desire for changes.

The desire is there, but people need vision of what they are fighting for. What will be after Mr Aleksandr Lukashenko? What constitution will be in our country? Would Belarus move to Europe or remain in the Russian orbit? People need these answers and we have to give them. We already drafted the constitution and a new election plan. We must make sure that tyranny will never happen again in Belarus, and we must make sure that Belarus will not be given to Mr Vladimir Putin as a consolation prize.

Dear friends,

We are living in a very dangerous moment in our history. However, this moment also gives Belarus the opportunity to turn the tide and to make our country part of the European family.

This time is non-conventional; and a non-conventional time needs non-conventional solutions. We need bold leaders and institutions that are able to confront tyrannies. I believe that the Council of Europe is one of them.

Speaking to you here back in 2022, I called for stronger co-operation between the Council of Europe and democratic Belarus.

I said that we need more Council of Europe in the lives of Belarusians and more Belarus in the Council of Europe.

And you heard my call.

You invited Belarusian political parties to participate in the Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. This is the place where our parties can learn from you, share information and gain experience. You provided Belarusians with their own premises here in the Palace of Europe. Most importantly, you stopped any co-operation with the illegitimate regime.

I applaud Secretary General Ms Marija PEJČINOVIĆ-BURIĆ, your team, and the member states for the vision to launch the Council of Europe Contact Group on Belarus. You know the creation of this contact group was truly groundbreaking for our movement. It was the first time that the United Democratic Forces of Belarus forces formalised relationships with international organisations.

Today I heard that the Contact Group agreed to a two-year action plan that will integrate Belarus into the work of the Council of Europe. Today I ask you to go further in our co-operation.

I propose that the Council of Europe start developing a road map for the accession of a future democratic Belarus to the Council of Europe. We can outline the steps and reforms required and start working on them now.

You have invaluable expertise, and we have an invaluable desire to become a part of the Council of Europe. Joining the Council of Europe will be our first step in our path to the European Union.

I know it is bold. I know it is ambitious, but I don't know any reason why we shouldn't start doing this now.

When a window of opportunity appears, and it will, we must be prepared to get Belarus out of Russian claws, to rebuild our country and to restore democratic institutions.

I'm sure that at this critical moment the Council of Europe and its Assembly will be on our side.

Belarus will be a success story. Mr Vladimir Putin will be defeated. Mr Aleksandr Lukashenko will be defeated. We will return our country back to Europe, where it historically belongs.

Dear friends,

I came here today to say that we need you, and we need each other. We must continue to lead the fight against tyranny and oppression. Let me assure you that we will not stop.

Belarusians will not stop until all political prisoners are released, until every Russian solder leaves our country, until we hold trials for crimes against humanity, and until we get our country back.

This is not an easy fight, but thanks to you, thanks to your passion, thanks to your continuous support, I know that we will win.

We are, and we will be, one family: one European family of values.

Thank you.

[Applause]

Mr Theodoros ROUSOPOULOS

Greece, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

16:58:53

Madam TSIKHANOUSKAYA, leader of the Belarusian democratic forces, I want to thank you very much for your statement, which I'm sure has been listened to with keen interest by all the members of this Assembly.

Dear colleagues, we now move to the debate.

We will first hear from the speakers on behalf of the political groups.

And I first call Mr Jone BLIKRA on behalf of the Socialists, Democrats and Greens Group.

Mr Jone BLIKRA

Norway, SOC, Spokesperson for the group

16:59:24

Dear Mister President,

We all see that there are deep political divisions in Belarus between President Lukashenko’s regime and large parts of the population.

We are deeply concerned to see that any and all forms of opposition are being brutally cracked down on, and that the regime shows no sign of ceasing its policy of repression.

Belarus has left its territory and air space at the disposal of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. It has so far refrained from using its own forces, yet recently signed a treaty with Russia on the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. This reinforces our fears about the situation in Belarus and for the people who live there.

Many of those who are critical of the Belarusian regime are carrying out their work in exile. Since she was forced to leave Belarus, Ms Sviatlana TSIKHANOUSKAYA has emerged as the leader of the Belarusian opposition from her base in Vilnius.

When she visited Oslo in December last year, she told us that anyone who expresses opposition to the war in Ukraine is certain to be arrested. Not only those who are against the regime, but anyone who opposes the war is branded an enemy of the regime.

Any Belarusian with a Ukrainian flag in their car or window risks being arrested.

The regime is more isolated internationally now that the EU, the USA and other western countries have imposed several rounds of sanctions. Let me be absolutely clear: sanctions work. This is why it’s immensely important that individual European countries do not let up on the sanctions on their own. This would only weaken the united pressure on the authorities in Belarus.

The condemnation of Belarus and the human rights situation there is clear, in the OSCE, the European Council, and the UN. We often express support for the democratic movement and demand the release of the political prisoners in Belarus. And we have to repeat it, again and again.

I am deeply concerned about political developments in the country and the high number of political prisoners. We will continue to back other international organisations who are working to promote human rights and democracy in Belarus. We will not cease in demanding that all political prisoners in the country be released.

Mr David MORRIS

United Kingdom, EC/DA, President of the Assembly

17:02:23

Thank you.

I call next Mr Paul GALLES.

Mr Paul GALLES

Luxembourg, EPP/CD, Spokesperson for the group

17:02:32

Thank you very much, Mister Chair.

It‘s my pleasure and honour to speak on this very important report on behalf of our Group of the European People's Party and with the support of our Luxembourgish delegation, which had the opportunity to develop a strong relationship with the democratic forces of Belarus in the last months.

We want to congratulate Mr Kimmo KILJUNEN for his very clear and inspiring report. Personally, I consider him as an ally and colleague in the fight for a free and democratic Belarus.

We also greet the presence of Ms Sviatlana TSIKHANOUSKAYA and all the representatives of the democratic forces of Belarus.

The deep and heartfelt friendship is a sign of our common goal of a free Belarus.

Kimmo’s report is a huge step forward towards reaching this goal.

Let me shortly mention that our two recent reports are totally complementary.

While I had last June the honour to make recommendations for the challenges faced by the Belarusians in exile, this report clearly and directly points out the problems and catastrophic political conditions inside Belarus.

As the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, we stand without any ambiguity for human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. All of them are violated by Lukashenko's regime.

It is our duty and strength to challenge the dictatorship and be prepared for a new future of this huge country with its great people and strong culture.

I want to highlight three points in the report:

1. The Lukashenko regime is responsible for its crimes. It‘s not only another way of political interpretation. No, it is a regime committed against all forms of democracy such as free and supervised elections, freedom of speech, and protection of Belarusian language, culture, and identity, which are Belarusian, not Russian.

2. We have to create an even stronger network around the democratic forces of Belarus, starting with us, with the Council of Europe, through means like the Special Representatives, the Contact Group, the parliamentary friendship groups, the dialogue with other international parliamentary assemblies, and by appointing a General Rapporteur for a Democratic Belarus.

3. We will strengthen our support for all the democratic aspirations of Belarusians inside and outside of Belarus. We strongly welcome the plans of the democratic forces to organise democratic elections. We want to give all democratic possibilities and rights to the Belarusians who have fled into our democratic member states, such as identity and travel documents, work permits, access to bank accounts, and much more. It‘s how democracy makes itself unavoidable and even more desirable.

Thank you very much for this report and thanks a lot for the floor.

Mr David MORRIS

United Kingdom, EC/DA, President of the Assembly

17:05:52

I now call Mrs Pauline LATHAM from the United Kingdom.

Mrs Pauline LATHAM

United Kingdom, EC/DA, Spokesperson for the group

17:05:56

Thank you.

Colleagues, I'd like to thank our colleague Mr Kimmo KILJUNEN from Finland for his Report. I'm sure the people of the United Kingdom stand with him with the resolutions and recommendations that he's put forth.

The United Kingdom has a century's old democratic system, and we continue to be a firm supporter of the promotion and upholding of democratic union systems around the world. That's why the plight of the Belarusian Democratic system causes us great consternation.

Hearing the country's inspirational opposition leader, Ms Sviatlana TSIKHANOUSKAYA during our conference in Helsinki a couple of weeks ago, put the problems faced by Belarusians in an entirely new light. She's a strong and inspiring leader and our respect to state should, as Mr Kimmo KILJUNEN expresses, assist the Belarusian democratic forces under her leadership who have made outstanding progress in co-ordinating and channelling their efforts to uphold the rights of all Belarusians and to strive for a democratic change in Belarus.

One particular plight that struck me during our pre-assembly conference was the extent of political imprisonment under Lukashenko's regime. And when you hear from the relatives of political prisoners, it brings it all so much closer to life. It's not academic.

Politically imprisonment is anathema to the United Kingdom. We don't lock people up because we disagree with them. Silencing your opponent just shows you are weak and feeble and unable to justify the policies you want to implement. It does not show courage. It shows fear.

Belarusians are suffering turmoil, grief, and pain under Lukashenko's systematic and widespread repression. And we do not know the whereabouts of several key Belarusian opposition politicians.

To take just three from Mr KILJUNEN's Report:

- Mr Viktor Babariko, an opposition presidential candidate during the 2020 presidential election, who was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment on false charges.

- Mrs Maryia Kalesnikava, a staunch supporter of human rights, was sentenced to 11 years imprisonment on false charges.

- and Mr Sergei Tikhanovsky, another opposition candidate to Lukashenko was also sentenced to 18 years imprisonment on false charges.

Knowing these politicians are just three of about 1 500 of Lukashenko's political prisoners, we should all abhor, but I stand with them in solidarity with their struggle for freedom, truth and justice for their country and themselves.

And I join my colleague, Mr KILJUNEN, to call upon our Assembly's member states to take steps to hold Lukashenko's regime to account and seek redress for its victims together with an effort to step up support for Ms Sviatlana TSIKHANOUSKAYA and the Belarusian democrats striving for change.

Thank you.

Mr David MORRIS

United Kingdom, EC/DA, President of the Assembly

17:09:32

Thank you Mrs Pauline LATHAM.

May I call Mr Arminas LYDEKA from Lithuania.

Mr Arminas LYDEKA

Lithuania, ALDE, Spokesperson for the group

17:09:41

Thank you, Mister President.

Dear colleagues, dear friends [in French], dear Madam Sviatlana TSIKHANOUSKAYA, dear Mister Kimmo KILJUNEN, 

We liberals think that the support to Belarusian civil society was, is and will be a moral imperative of foreign policy of all member states of the Council of Europe.

As we know the criminal taking of power by the illegitimate Lukashenko regime since 9 August 2020 resulted in massive internal repression complicit in the war crimes and the crime of aggression and rapid erosion of Belarus sovereignty, as well as the destabilisation of the region.

While the Minsk regime cares only about its own survival, it continues to destroy Belarus statehood, illegally in contravention to the Belarusian people's will, setting its sovereignty to Russia. While the repressions, breaches of international law, instrumentalisation of migration or other crimes continue, we must go on isolating the criminal and illegitimate Lukashenko regime and intensify the targeted and sectoral sanctions against it.

Following is the International Criminal Court, issuing an arrest warrant for the President of the Russian Federation. A similar scenario involving Mr Aleksandr Lukashenko no longer seems impossible.

We liberals believe in the future in democratic, independent and sovereign Belarus, as much as we believe in the victory of Ukraine. Our support to the people of Belarus fighting for their freedom and dignity will remain unwavering.

It is necessary to continue supporting Belarusian arts and culture initiatives, thus contributing to the unity and solidarity of Belarusian society. Special attention should be given to the initiatives aimed at protecting the Belarusian identity, culture and language.

On the current historical stage, it is important to hear and see the aspirations of the people of Belarus to create a free, independent, democratic European state. A state that follows the principles of the rule of law, respects its neighbours and international obligations.

I am from Lithuania, and Lithuania will further support an ecosystem that would allow Belarusian civil societies who have found refuge in Lithuania to feel safe and continue their activities in the field of support for civil society and democracy. Protecting our values against aggression and dictatorship is our common goal. Therefore, on Lithuania's agenda in its upcoming Presidency of the Council of Europe, we have included the priority to pay special attention to support independent civil society of Belarus that is forced to work in the exile.

There is no doubt. Belarus has historical ties with the rest of Europe and shares the heritage of European culture and identity. Belarus is and should remain part of the European political, cultural and economic space and of the European future.

 

Mr David MORRIS

United Kingdom, EC/DA, President of the Assembly

17:13:41

Thank you, Mister LYDEKA.

I now call Mr Andrej HUNKO, from Germany.

Mr Andrej HUNKO

Germany, UEL, Spokesperson for the group

17:13:48

Thank you very much, Mr President,

Madame Tsikhanouskaya,

As a German Member of Parliament, I have spent a great deal of time with Belarus over the past ten years. I was also an election observer at the last election we observed, the presidential election in Belarus in 2015, and at that time we also hoped that things in Belarus would develop in a democratic direction. And I also did this out of a special German responsibility, because - and I would like to remind you again - Germany was the country that wreaked the most havoc in Belarus during the Second World War. No other country was as affected by the war of extermination in the Second World War as much as Belarus was. And unfortunately, this is not quite so present in the culture of remembrance everywhere.

In 2020 - which was also during the coronavirus period - I think it was in June 2020, I asked the Belarusian ambassador to invite this assembly to observe the elections. Belarus is not obliged to do so, but they did. We formed an ad hoc committee and I was also one of the election observers. Unfortunately, the joint election observation by the OSCE and the Council of Europe did not take place because the Belarusian authorities did not meet all the conditions that the OSCE wanted at the time and we then canceled it.

I think the story might have been different if we had been there. I think international election observers are very important in situations like this. After this 2020 election, which was obviously rigged, Lukashenko and the regime immediately took extremely brutal action against the opposition and at the same time, there was a very massive reaction from the West with very massive sanctions against Belarus and that polarised the situation, so to speak, from my point of view. And it has also led to Belarus being driven into the arms of Russia. Lukashenko has always pursued a pendulum policy for a long time and that has been lifted, so to speak. I find the whole development highly tragic. I also want to say once again that I condemn all the political repression taking place in Belarus. But it is not enough just to condemn. We must consider how we can find a way out of this confrontational situation. There is not enough time for that. I think we need to talk more about possible scenarios.

In view of the fact that this is the 300th anniversary of Kant's birth - that this year is the year of Kant, Immanuel Kant - who lived his whole life in Königsberg, Kaliningrad, not far from Belarus. He wrote a treatise, On Perpetual Peace. And he distinguishes between moral politicians and political moralists. And I think we need more moral politicians than political moralists. Thank you very much.

Mr David MORRIS

United Kingdom, EC/DA, President of the Assembly

17:17:30

Thank you, Mister Andrej HUNKO.

I now call in the debate next Ms Petra BAYR.

Ms Petra BAYR

Austria, SOC

17:17:39

Mister President,

There are hundreds of political prisoners in Belarus and Mr Viktar Barushka is one of these hundreds of political prisoners. He is a businessman in his 30s and he was convicted to seven years in prison. What was his crime? His crime was that he went home after a Sunday protest. He walked home after a Sunday protest and after his detention he was beaten really badly by riot police and after that he had to spend 12 days in a special intensive care unit in a hospital.

There are many MPs who have taken political sponsorships, partnerships for political prisoners in Belarus. I'm one of them. I took the sponsorship of Mr Viktar Barushka. And there are so many people in Belarus who really really criticise their own regime, the Lukashenko regime. And that is very dangerous for them. On the other side, they criticise the regime because of their complicity with the Kremlin, they criticise it because of the war of aggression against Ukraine, they criticise it because of the stolen Ukrainian children, and many more topics.

And many Belarusians support Ukraine, support Ukrainian people, and in doing so they put themselves under risk. They know that they can be detained, that they can be tortured, that they can even be killed because they're doing so, because they are speaking out for human rights and for freedom of Ukraine.

There must be an end to his fake puppet regime, to this fake Lukashenko regime in Belarus, there must be amnesty and freedom for all the political prisoners, and there must be an end of the suppression of Belarusian people. Belarusian people who want to have democracy, who fight for their rights, who fight for the rights of others, who do not do anything illegal, who do not commit any criminal acts, who simply stand up for the human rights, and human rights of others.

And I'm happy that the Council of Europe will contribute to this fight by supporting human rights defenders in Belarus, but also by contributing to the international accountability platform, as the Report of Mr Kimmo KILJUNEN suggests.

I think it's one important step. And I agree with Mr Andrej HUNKO, many more have to follow very concrete activity has to follow, but let's take this as one of many steps on a way to a free, democratic and a Belarus that is built on rule of law.

Thank you very much. 

Mr David MORRIS

United Kingdom, EC/DA, President of the Assembly

17:21:01

Thank you Ms Petra BAYR.

I now call Mr Gustaf GÖTHBERG from Sweden.

Mr Gustaf GÖTHBERG

Sweden, EPP/CD

17:21:08

Thank you, Mr President,

Let me start by saying how great it is to see the true democratic leader of Belarus, Ms Sviatlana TSIKHANOUSKAYA once again in this Assembly. We deeply value your co-operation and work for democracy and freedom and independence in Belarus.

On a more personal note, I'm particular happy that this - which is my first intervention in this very Assembly - is on the subject of democracy in Belarus.

The first time I met Ms Sviatlana TSIKHANOUSKAYA was in early October 2020, only a few weeks into her forced exile, and her work since then is very inspiring.

As co-chair of the Parliamentary Friendship Group of the Swedish parliament, I'm also happy to report the not very shocking news that we are still in unwavering support of her cause from this parliament.

Mr President, it is with horror that we take note of the recent waves of repression and raids against ordinary people inside Belarus.

Two days ago, almost 150 persons were detained. Most of them are former political prisoners and their families.

And it is clear that the Lukashenko harassment will continue, which cannot be tolerated.

It is therefore crucial that the Council of Europe must continue to have the developments in and the future of Belarus high on our agenda.

This report is paving the way for further actions to denounce the dictatorship of Lukashenko, but also supporting the democratic forces.

This is very important, both to the 1500 political prisoners right now that are being arbitrarily jailed because of their activities for freedom; it is important for their relatives, some of whom are present in this very hemicycle; it is important for those kept in the dark, forced to silence, deprived of their democratic rights; it is important to Europe and to the future of Belarus.

Mr President, I would like to remind you also that several steps can be taken outside this very Assembly in order to support this course.

The Swedish government announced its new Belarus policy in November last year.

The government appointed for example an official representative to be the contact person for the Belarusian democratic movement in exile. I call on other governments to follow. I know with gratitude also that the report suggests the appointment of a general rapporteur for democratic Belarus.

Finally, two weeks ago, some of us met, as has been mentioned, in Helsinki to further facilitate dialogue between this Parliamentary Assembly and the democratic forces of Belarus.

I'm very grateful to Mr Kimmo KILJUNEN and for hosting us in Helsinki and also for the report that he has been drafting. He has done a tremendous job. I'll be happy to vote totally in favour of it.

Thank you very much.

[Sporadic applause]

Mr David MORRIS

United Kingdom, EC/DA, President of the Assembly

17:24:07

Thank you Mr Gustaf GÖTHBERG.

I would like to call next Ms Beatrice TIMGREN from Sweden.

Ms Beatrice TIMGREN

Sweden, EC/DA

17:24:16

Thank you, Mister President.

Belarusians are filled with despair and deep sadness, especially when they talk about their home country. To them, it seems nothing ever gets better in Belarus, only worse. The newspapers repeat the same old official view of the government or president. People only try to share safe opinions on everyday life. Speaking out about political issues is risky. You never know who might overhear and report you. Even participating in a protest against the government can lead to imprisonment. This deeply affects the people. The families of the protesters can suffer, too. In other words, there is no freedom of speech, which is the foundation of democracy.

The economy in Belarus does not grow much. It is mostly controlled by the government, and earnings are only about 8 000 per person per year. Money from other countries is shrinking because of the sanctions due to Belarus being too close to Russia.

Mr Aleksandr Lukashenko has been the leader since 1994, and it looks like he will be for the rest of his life. There does not seem to be any change for this to get better. It is also because Mr Aleksandr Lukashenko often does what Russia wants. Even in the terrible actions on Ukraine, Belarus is used by Russia to launch attacks on Ukraine.

The government of Belarus is not only oppressing their own people, but it is also a big threat to safety for all of Europe. Russia is using Belarus to attack Ukraine and to prepare its soldiers. This serious situation needs our full attention and strong action.

It is very important to support the people in Belarus who want democracy. The work of the Council of Europe to help democracy and human rights is critical. We must not forget what is happening in Belarus. Letting the political prisoners who fight for democracy go free is really important for the Council of Europe.

I hope we, in this Assembly, can play a major role in supporting these goals and helping bring a positive change to this area.

Thank you.

Mr David MORRIS

United Kingdom, EC/DA, President of the Assembly

17:27:33

Thank you Madam TIMGREN.

I now call Mr Nuno CARVALHO from Portugal.

Mr Nuno CARVALHO

Portugal, EPP/CD

17:27:41

Thank you, Mister President.

First of all, let me congratulate the rapporteur and of course congratulate the lead of the Belarusian democratic forces. And say that when we look at a country like Belarus, I think that we all need to realise that the way that this country is being led by Lukashenko is actually the will and represents the will of someone like Putin.

And that same will, that same desire is the one that he also wants to impose in Ukraine and also wants to impose in several other European countries.

So this Report is very very important regarding not only what happens in Belarus, but also because it unveils the will, the desire of someone like Putin. And the threat that he represents for Europe, for all the democratic European countries.

So all the efforts that we may make available for all the democratic forces, all the ones that are fighting for democracy in Belarus, is also a fight that is much much more alike the one that we can find in Ukraine, because it is a fight that delineates, elevates a frontier between democratic Europe and the other forces that Putin represents.

So, I would just like to leave this debate with a reflection regarding the sanctions that are being imposed in Russia and also in Belarus. And we need to reflect if these sanctions are the ones that are appropriate, are the ones that are correct for a change that needs to happen in Belarus. Because that change may also represent a change in the future for other countries, especially the one that we need to change right now: which is one leader in one country, which is Putin.

That's the one that we need to change.

Thank you,

Mr David MORRIS

United Kingdom, EC/DA, President of the Assembly

17:29:45

Thank you so much Mr Nuno CARVALHO.

I do now call Mr Yuriy KAMELCHUK from Ukraine.

Mr Yuriy KAMELCHUK

Ukraine, EPP/CD

17:29:54

Thank you.

Dear Chairman, dear Colleagues,

The democratic future of Belarus is important not only for Belarusians, but also for the whole world. We must help the democratic forces of Belarus break the shackles of the Kremlin, preserve its identity and restore true sovereignty.

Lukashenko's totalitarian regime took away the right to choose their future from the Belarusian people. But it's not forever.

Belarus has the potential to become a modern, democratic and prosperous country in the heart of Europe.

To make this possible, we must support civil society and independent media in Belarus to ensure freedom of speech and information openness.

Today, unfortunately, Belarus remains one of the countries where freedom of the press is very limited; where the freedom to learn the native language is very limited.

In the eyes of Lukashenko's dictatorial regime, speaking Belarusian is a sign of opposition to it. The unrecognised president Lukashenko should be ashamed of himself for this, but instead he houses Russian Iskander nuclear missiles and is proud of it. The international community has already imposed sanctions against the Belarusian regime and provides support to Belarusian activists and the opposition.

The international community should continue to put pressure on the Lukashenko regime, demanding that it respect human rights and hold elections according to international standards.

Solidarity and support from the international community will help the people of Belarus to return to democracy and once again experience freedom of will, choice, development, and Belarusian identity.

Thank you.

Mr David MORRIS

United Kingdom, EC/DA, President of the Assembly

17:31:59

Thank you, Mister KAMELCHUK.

I now call, excuse my pronunciation, Ms Ana TSITLIDZE, from Georgia.

Ms Ana TSITLIDZE

Georgia, EPP/CD

17:32:12

Thank you.

First of all, I want to express my deepest respect to the Belarusian people, and especially to Sviatlana.

I know how difficult this struggle is. I know how painful this struggle is.

Sometimes it seems there is no hope. But you should know, you are a hero. Not only Belarusian people, but all of them who believe in democracy.

After the Russian aggression against Ukraine, democracy has become even more important.

It's so disheartening to witness the decline of democracy in our region. Belarus stands at the forefront of this challenge.

As we discuss the democratic future of Belarus, we cannot ignore the political prisoners of Georgia. The third president of Georgia. A man who did a lot for the democratic development of Georgia and for European integration. His name is Mr Mikheil Saakashvili.

He is now in prison, jailed by a pro-Russian oligarch, Mr Bidzina Ivanishvili, and the pro-Russian government of Georgia.

He's the man who firstly opposed Mr Vladimir Putin in 2008 during the Russian-Georgian war.

Despite the fact that Georgia receives candidate status under the conditions of the Russian oligarchy system, and under the conditions of the pro-Russian government of Georgia, Georgia's European integration and democratic development are under threat.

In this challenging time for Europe, for Belarus, for Ukraine, for Georgia, it's so crucial to stand together.

If we stand together, we will win. Democracy will win.

Thank you.

Mr David MORRIS

United Kingdom, EC/DA, President of the Assembly

17:34:49

Thank you, Ana.

I must now interrupt the list of speakers. The speeches of members on the speakers list who have been present during the debate but have not been able to speak may be given to the table office for publication in the official report. I remind colleagues that the type-written texts can be submitted, electronically if possible, no later than 4 hours after the list of speakers is interrupted.

I call now Mr Kimmo KILJUNEN to reply to the debate.

Mister KILJUNEN, you have 3 minutes.

Mr Kimmo KILJUNEN

Finland, SOC, Rapporteur

17:35:24

Mr President, colleagues,

Thank you very much for your remarks - very important contributions from all of you.

Ms Sviatlana TSIKHANOUSKAYA, excellent speech, excellent profound speech. You were not only looking back, you were looking forward.

You said very clearly that the destiny of Ukraine and Belarus are intertwined.

You clearly said that without Ukraine winning you cannot actually build a democratic society, but you also said very clearly, without democratic sovereign Belarus, there will not be peace in Europe.

Actually I would like to take it one step further: your democratisation process, your Europeanisation process in Ukraine and Belarus will also help Russian people to change their society and that obviously is a crucial thing also for all of us to recognise.

You were right when you say we will win with common values. Why?

Because every people, every citizen, every human,obviously like our values; every human likes that human rights are respected in every society.

Every people like democracy, people's power, and every human likes that their rights are respected.

That's why in terms of history we are working on the winning side.

That's an inevitable process and our organisation is important for that.

You also stressed that, please, here, the Council of Europe build up a roadmap for further supporting Belarusians to be integrated in the European institutions and structures, obviously the first step in our organisation as the Council of Europe.

I can tell you something more: actually, yes, we are helping and we try to contribute for the road map, but we have already built a road. We have taken in one year's time major steps in helping the processes that you are speaking of, and obviously the report which we are now hopefully unanimously agreeing here, is one step further on that road building that we are doing.

I can give several examples, but I think only one example that my good friend Mr Emanuelis ZINGERIS mentioned, is that we try to integrate your delegation, coming delegation, your politicians here in our Assembly as part of our political groups, not only the political committee works, but political groups, and even supra-regional groups.

We decided already in our Nordic Baltic NB8 group to welcome you to participate in our work.

That's a common interesting example only of how we can help collaborate further and deepen our co-operation.

Mr President, I am pretty sure that we will win because, as I said, we have common values: human rights, democracy and rule of law.

Thank you.

[Applause]

Mr David MORRIS

United Kingdom, EC/DA, President of the Assembly

17:38:41

Thank you, Mr Kimmo KILJUNEN for your passionate speech.

May I now call to the floor the Chair of the Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy, Mr Bertrand BOUYX.

Would you like to take the floor, please?

You have 3 minutes.

Mr Bertrand BOUYX

France, ALDE, Chairperson of the Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy

17:38:55

Thank you, Mr Chairman.

I would like to speak on behalf of the Committee as we bring to a close this instructive debate on a democratic future for Belarus.

I would like to express my deepest gratitude for the exchanges shared today: our commitment to a democratic future for the people of Belarus has been clear, unwavering and continuous.

I warmly thank Ms. Sviatlana TSIKHANOUSKAYA for her renewed presence among us today, and I salute her work, that of the democratic forces of Belarus, as well as her bravery in the face of brutal and inhuman repression.

I welcome the proposals in the Resolution, which received the unanimous - and I do mean unanimous - support of the members of the Political Affairs and Democracy Committee: it reinforces and underlines our unequivocal support to the democratic forces of Belarus.

My thanks and appreciation also go to our rapporteur, Mr Kimmo KILJUNEN, for his tireless work in preparing a comprehensive Report that has been at the heart of our discussions - as I also witnessed when I was a parliamentarian on this Council of Europe.

Our gratitude aside, of course, we must not ignore the seriousness of the subject at hand. Following the fraudulent elections of 2020, over 50 000 people were unlawfully detained for political reasons.

I reiterate the Assembly's firm condemnation of this repression, and we demand - and I do mean "demand" - the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners.

What's more, Lukashenko regime's involvement in Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the forced landing - as repeated by our rapporteur - of a Ryanair civilian airliner and the weaponisation of migratory flows have shown that the Lukashenko regime also represents a threat to international peace and security. To honour its obligations under international law, the actions of the Lukashenko regime must cease.

In conclusion, I once again express my gratitude to Ms Sviatlana TSIKHANOUSKAYA and Mr Kimmo KILJUNEN, and urge everyone present to support the Resolution, which embodies our shared vision of a democratic future for Belarus.

Thank you for your support.

Vote: A democratic future for Belarus

Mr David MORRIS

United Kingdom, EC/DA, President of the Assembly

17:41:28

Thank you, Mister BOUYX.

The debate is now closed.

The Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy has presented a draft Resolution and a draft Recommendation. 12 Amendments have been tabled to the Resolution, and no amendments were tabled to the draft Recommendation. We will consider the draft Resolution and then the draft Recommendation.

I understand that the Chairperson of the Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy wishes to propose to the Assembly that Amendments 1, 11, 12, 4, 5, 6, and 7 to the draft Resolution, which was unanimously approved by the Committee, should be declared as agreed by the Assembly. Although Amendments 2 and 3 were also unanimously approved by the Committee, they are consequential on Amendment 9, so we will consider them individually.

Is that so Mister BOUYX?

Mr Bertrand BOUYX

France, ALDE, Chairperson of the Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy

17:42:25

Exactly, Mister Chairman.

Mr David MORRIS

United Kingdom, EC/DA, President of the Assembly

17:42:29

Thank you, Mister BOUYX.

Does anyone object? If so, please ask for the floor by raising your hand.

As there is no objection, I declare that Amendments 1, 11, 12, 4, 5, 6, and 7 to the draft Resolution have been agreed.

I understand that the Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy also wishes to propose to the Assembly that Amendments 8 and 10 to the draft Resolution, which were rejected by the Committee  with a two-third majority, be declared as rejected.  Amendment 9 was also rejected by the Committee with a two-third majority, but as it is consequential on Amendments 2 and 3, we will consider it individually.

Is that so Mister BOUYX?

Mr Bertrand BOUYX

France, ALDE, Chairperson of the Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy

17:43:33

Yes, absolutely, Mr Chairman. There's no ambiguity.

Mr David MORRIS

United Kingdom, EC/DA, President of the Assembly

17:43:39

Thank you, Mister BOUYX.

If no one objects, I will consider these Amendments to be rejected. Is there an objection?

Amendments 8 and 10 to the Draft Resolution are therefore rejected and will not be called.

 

I call Mr Yuriy KAMELCHUK to support Amendment 9.

You have 30 seconds.

Mr Yuriy KAMELCHUK

Ukraine, EPP/CD

17:44:22

Amendment No. 9, in the Draft Resolution, we would propose to replace Paragraph 5 with the following paragraph.

"In a situation where freedom of speech, assembly, and association are curtailed, and opposition and political parties are dissolved, and their leaders and members are persecuted, freedom of the media is not respected, not credible domestic and international electoral observation is allowed and there is no redress against this violation, there cannot be free and fair elections. The Assembly therefore regards the parliamentary election to be held by the Lukashenko regime in February 2024 as another travesty of democracy allowing the authorities to perpetuate the grip on power despite the real will of the Belarusian people, and announces that it will not recognise the results."

Mr David MORRIS

United Kingdom, EC/DA, President of the Assembly

17:45:26

Thank you, Mister KAMELCHUK.

Does anyone wish to speak against the Amendment?

The Committee rejected the Amendment by a two-third majority.

I shall now put the Amendment to the vote.

The vote is open.

The vote is closed.

I call for the results to be displayed.

Amendment 9 is rejected because there is no majority.

 

I call Mr Kimmo KILJUNEN to support Amendment 2. You have 30 seconds.

Mr Kimmo KILJUNEN

Finland, SOC, Rapporteur

17:46:50

Now I'm actually a bit confused about what No. 2 is.

Sorry to say "open", because we principally agreed all together, and we are in favour. Now the question is that I can't actually even see what Amendment 2 is. In the last point, also, when there was a question, "should somebody be against", you didn't ask what the rapporteur's opinion was there, because, obviously, I would explain why the two-thirds majority was against Amendment 9.

Now I don't actually see Amendment 2. What is the content? Could you read it?

 

It's very clear here that Amendments 2 and 3 are actually in the same item as Amendment 9. When the Committee rejected Amendment 9, we had already agreed to Amendments 2 and 3. So, it's the same issue. That's why there's confusion, because we have already agreed on that as a whole.

It's a duplication.

Mr David MORRIS

United Kingdom, EC/DA, President of the Assembly

17:48:25

Amendment 2 and 3 have been moved.

Does anyone wish to speak against it?

Just Amendment 2.

Amendment 2 is agreed.

The Committee unanimously approved this Amendment.

I shall now put the Amendment to the vote.

The vote is now open.

The vote is now closed.

Amendment 2 is agreed.

I call Mr Kimmo KILJUNEN to support Amendment 3. You have 30 seconds.

Mr Kimmo KILJUNEN

Finland, SOC, Rapporteur

17:49:30

It is exactly the same point that we already agreed unanimously. Number 3. That has already been agreed unanimously by the Committee.

Mr David MORRIS

United Kingdom, EC/DA, President of the Assembly

17:49:40

Does anybody wish to speak against the Amendment?

The Committee unanimously approved this Amendment.

I shall now put the Amendment to the vote.

The vote is now open.

The vote is now closed.

Amendment 3 is now agreed.

 

We will now proceed to vote on the draft Resolution contained in Doc. 15892 as amended. A simple majority is required.

The vote is now open.

The vote is now closed.

I call for the result to be displayed.

The vote is now adopted.

 

We will now proceed to vote on the draft Recommendation contained in Doc. 15892. A two-thirds majority is required.

The vote is now open.

The vote is now closed.

The draft Recommendation document is now adopted.

Joint Debate: Countering SLAPPs: an imperative for a democratic society / Guaranteeing media freedom and the safety of journalists: an obligation of member States

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC, President of the Assembly

17:56:11

I suggest you take a seat.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The next item is our joint debate.

We will first hear the presentation of the Report "Combating SLAPPs: an imperative for a democratic society" by Mr Stefan SCHENNACH on behalf of the Committee on Culture, Science, Education and the Media (Doc. 15869). The opinion of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights will be presented by Lord Richard KEEN (Doc. 15879).

Next, Mr Mogens JENSEN will present the Report of the Committee on Culture, Science, Education and the Media entitled "Guaranteeing media freedom and the safety of journalists: an obligation for member states" (Doc. 15821).

We are due to finish examining these texts, including votes, at 8 p.m. We will therefore have to interrupt the list of Speakers at around 7.40 p.m., so that we can hear the Committee's reply and proceed with the necessary votes.

I remind you that the rapporteurs each have 7 minutes to present their report and 3 minutes to reply to Speakers at the end of the general discussion.

Mr Stefan SCHENNACH, rapporteur for the Committee on Culture, Science, Education and the Media, has the floor.

Mister rapporteur, you have 7 minutes.

Mr Stefan SCHENNACH

Austria, SOC, Rapporteur

17:57:45

Dear Colleagues,

The joint debate we are now starting concerns two complementary reports, which deal with serious threats to media freedom in Europe.

My colleague, Mr Mogens JENSEN has captured the essence of his report by pointing to the positive obligation which member states have to safeguard media freedom and the safety of journalists.

In my report, I am insisting on the dangers that Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, commonly referred to as SLAPPs, represent for the foundations of our societies.

Let me remind you what we are talking about: SLAPPs. SLAPPs are a manipulation of the judicial system; they undermine its inherent protective role by misusing it and weaponising it to curtail freedom of expression on issues of public interest, which is a pre-condition of any democratic process.

SLAPPs threaten people’s right to know and their informed democratic participation in public debates. SLAPPs do not affect only journalism, but also peaceful protest or boycotts, advocacy, human rights causes, whistleblowing, academic comments, or simply anyone speaking out against the abuse of power. This is why countering SLAPPs is an imperative for a democratic society.

To give you an idea of the extent of this phenomenon, I will just share a few figures: according to the “CASE coalition” against SLAPPs in Europe, 820 SLAPP cases were identified in 2023 in 35 European countries. The median value of damages claimed was €15 000. In many European countries, this amount is higher than the annual salary of a journalist, for example.

During the preparatory work conducted within our Committee on Culture and Media, all the analysis by the experts and testimonies of victims of SLAPPs, reinforced my conviction that we are dealing with a key, complex, issue, which has been underestimated until recently and is now emerging with a tremendous impact on journalists and media, but also on many other actors in public participation. Today, all of them have high expectations of the outcome of our work, and I do hope that we will not disappoint them.

A first obstacle to overcome if we want to counter SLAPPs effectively is to give it a proper definition. At present, the absence of a common definition of SLAPPs in national laws is for those who initiate them a guarantee of their impunity. The draft resolution, which we have submitted for your consideration, proposes one initial definition and refers to SLAPPs as “abusive litigation and legal tactics designed to prevent, hinder or sanction public participation”.

To develop this further, the draft resolution also identifies two traits of SLAPPs, which recapture the double threat that SLAPPs represent on the one hand, to public participation and media freedom and, on the other hand, to the proper operation of the judicial guarantees which our states have put in place to safeguard and enforce citizens’ rights.

We, parliamentarians of the Council of Europe member states, should mobilise our own legislature, for it to ensure robust procedural protections against SLAPPs to all their victims. The report and the draft resolution point to a series of measures. Among them, I will highlight in particular four lines of action, which I consider indispensable if we want to succeed in stopping SLAPPs:

First, establishing a procedure for the early dismissal of SLAPPs. This should be one of the pillars of our response to this threat. The law should clearly indicate what the prerequisites are for deciding such an early dismissal. To me, there are two of them: first, the legal action in question should threaten public participation. To say it differently, the legal action should undermine freedom of expression on an issue of public interest. If this is the case, the second pre-condition for an early dismissal would be the existence of sufficient elements for the courts to judge that the litigation is of an abusive nature or is manifesting as ill-founded. We do know that when initiating a SLAPP, the claimant’s intention is that it should be as long as possible, because this is one of the chilling-effect factors; thus, our response should be to avoid this.

Second, where the abusive nature of the claimant’s action is established, the defendant should be awarded timely and full compensation of damages, including non-patrimonial damages. This includes the psychological impact.

Third, a court should have the power to impose punitive damages or a fine on the claimant.

Last, but not least, we need to ensure legal and financial assistance for the defendant, and also psychological support where the defendant is a natural person.

The good thing is, at the moment, the European Union, the Council and the Parliament, agreed to make a Directive against SLAPPs. The Council of Europe ministers also decided with the experts steering committee to do that, and we are doing also.

It is so important that the Council of Europe is doing that, because our part is the United Kingdom, and the United Kingdom is not really the paradise for SLAPPs.

I hope, with this common strategy, in Europe we can really fight against this limit to democracy and limit of information.

Thank you so very much.

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC, President of the Assembly

18:06:30

Thank you, Mister Schennach. You have lived up to your tradition of being an inexhaustible man.

I now give the floor to Lord Richard KEEN to present the opinion of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights.

You have 3 minutes.

Lord Richard KEEN

United Kingdom, EC/DA, Chairperson of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights

18:06:55

Thank you, Mister President.

Dear colleagues,

The Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights was requested to provide an opinion on the report Countering SLAPPs: an imperative for a democratic society.

Unfortunately, the rapporteur for opinion Mr Davor Ivo STIER is unable to be present. He asked me to speak on his behalf in my capacity as the Chair of the Committee.

The rapporteur Mr STIER would like to congratulate Mr Stefan SCHENNACH, as would I, and the Culture Committee for what is an excellent report. It is timely and highly comprehensive.

We're particularly grateful for the report's thorough analysis of the work of a wide variety of actors who are engaging on this issue, including national governments, the Council of Europe, the Commissioner for Human Rights, NGOs, and some journalists' associations.

The report demonstrates that SLAPPs are used widely in Europe to target journalism, advocacy, communication, and other forms of free speech, and that SLAPPs threatens to stifle the public debate, which is essential for the proper functioning of a free society.

The Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights, which unanimously adopted its opinion, is in full agreement with the report's conclusion that there are inadequate legal protections for the targets of SLAPPs, leaving a large range of actors vulnerable to the obvious stifling effect.

The Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights is also very much in a position to welcome the contents of the draft resolution, which urges members states to enact a range of anti-SLAPP measures, as well as the draft recommendation which urges the Committee of Ministers to adopt a strong recommendation on countering SLAPPs.

The Committee only proposed some amendments on the Draft Resolution with the aim of further strengthening it.

On behalf of the rapporteur, I would like to thank Mr Stefan SCHENNACH and the Committee on Culture, Science, Education and Media for its engagement with these Amendments.

I would like to conclude by once again congratulating the rapporteur and Committee on Culture, Science, Education and Media. The report provides a thorough assessment of why SLAPPs are such a threat to freedom of speech.

It is high time that Europe addressed this problem. The resolution and recommendation are an important contribution to this.

Thank you.

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC, President of the Assembly

18:09:35

Thank you, Lord KEEN.

I now give the floor to Mr Mogens JENSEN, rapporteur for the Committee on Culture, Science, Education and the Media, for his Report "Guaranteeing media freedom and the safety of journalists: an obligation for member states".

You have the floor, Mister JENSEN.

Mr Mogens JENSEN

Denmark, SOC, Rapporteur

18:09:55

Thank you very much Mister President, dear colleagues,

Following more than one year of discussion and exchanges of use with partners and experts and preparation in the culture committee and after the adoption of the culture committee on Monday 4 December 2023 of my report, we now reach the last step with this debate in plenary.

It also marks the end of my two-year term as a Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe rapporteur on media freedom and safety of journalists.

The title of my report clearly refers to the obligation to all member states to guarantee media freedom and our Assembly constantly reminds them that media freedom and safety of journalists are a cornerstone of true democracy. No system can claim to be truly democratic without free and pluralistic media.

But quite sadly, state authorities and political forces in power are in many cases the sources of threats to media freedom and safety of journalists.

Report after report, we are forced to acknowledge that drawbacks at the media ecosystems of European states are not corrected.

Even worse, the actual situation of media freedom in Europe is worsening. Surveys and analyses from partner organisations, as well as statistical data on threats to media operators and journalists, point to negative trends.

At the end of November 2023, 68 journalists and media professionals were detained in five member states of the Council of Europe.

If we add Belarus and the Russian Federation, 125 journalists were jailed across the continent as we opened our part-session this Monday 22 January 2024.

I'm also appalled by the fact that some killings of journalists are still unresolved, or that we see a lack of political will to carry out proper investigations. We cannot accept this impunity.

Some cases which I refer to in my report are more recent; others date back several years, but it's never too late to bring killers of journalists to justice. I hope that the justice will be achieved in all cases mentioned in the report.

Dear colleagues,

Murders of journalists are unfortunately only the tip of the iceberg.

In my report, I identify four main trends of threats against media and journalists in Europe.

First: figures on threats to women journalists are quite alarming. Around three quarters of women journalists and media workers were victims of verbal aggression and psychological violence. One third of them practiced self censorship on social networks to avoid online violence. We must take this very, very seriously and put an end to the targeted harassment of women who take risks to inform us.

Second: legal harassment of journalists is increasing. It can take many forms, such as abusive, administrative or criminal penalties, house arrest or detention, accusations of text offences, and allegations of possession of drugs, incitement of hatred or blasphemy, breaches of curfews, hooliganism, involvement with organisations deemed hostile to the authorities, breaches of laws on public gatherings and public order and extremism or terrorism.

Whatever form it takes, a threat has the same objective: intimidate, detain and reduce journalists to silence.

Third: there is a clear black backsliding on the independence of public service media governance and financing. Public service media are under pressure and have suffered significant falls in levels of trust in recent years. Their missions adequately funded, and the procedures for the appointment and dismissal of their managers are not transparent enough, and do not preserve their independence.

In a time of disinformation and media consumption on social media, we need public service media nationally, but also at a local level to make sure that information is not biased by commercial or political interests.

Fourth,

I will stress media capture. The phenomenon whereby persons in power take direct or indirect control over journalist content without using force has amplified in recent years in Europe.

Concretely it includes control over public service broadcasters, instrumentalisation of media regulatory bodies and political appointees, distortion of the media market in favour of pro-government media and the creation of a circle of loyal business people to control private media in the government's interest.

We need robust regulations to counter this phenomenon.

Finally, I want to remind you that Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine brought the risks for journalists to a new level. In 2023 around 12 000 journalists have been accredited by the Ukrainian authorities. Unfortunately 12 of them were killed in 2022 and three more in 2023.

The Russian aggressors have destroyed communication and media infrastructures. In the Russian occupied territories, the internet is being diverted towards Russian installations and is therefore subjected to propaganda and censorship.

This level of destruction has no equivalent in recent European history. It means to silence the media and to stop the public from being informed in an independent manner.

Dear colleagues,

The draft resolution we discuss today reflects this situation. It expresses concerns, in particular on specific issues, such as the high level of harassment targeting journalists in Azerbaijan, the expanding phenomenon of media capture in Hungary and Serbia and the alarming number of journalists detained in Türkiye.

Today we have, together, to take a strong stand and prompt concrete action by all European countries.

The resolution which I hope that you will back today is in essence actually a constructive call on our countries to engage in the campaign of the Council of Europe for the safety of journalists launched in October last year.

All our countries should take active part in this campaign by designing and implementing national action plans for the safety of journalists and by reviewing the legal and institutional frameworks, removing or correcting norms which are used as weapons against freedom of expression and media freedom.

As of today, 32 member states have nominated their focal points for the national campaign on the safety of journalists. This is a very promising start but I hope during this year, all member states will designate their focal point and adopt the national action plans. You can help to do so.

I will conclude by saying that the problems faced by media and journalists in Europe are the symptoms of a much deeper sickness. Threats to media freedom are sicknesses of the crisis of our democracies, where the rule of law is challenged by movements or individuals who want to impose their views by all means, including physical violence, economic domination and legal harassment.

We definitely have an obligation to change this.

Thank you very much.

 

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC, President of the Assembly

18:18:56

Thank you, rapporteur.

We will now move on to the general discussion.

I would remind you that speaking time is limited to 3 minutes per speaker.

We will start with the speakers on behalf of the political groups, and I give the floor, on behalf of the Group of the European People's Party, to Ms Karin BROUWERS from Belgium.

Ms Karin BROUWERS

Belgium, EPP/CD, Spokesperson for the group

18:19:20

Among the most important pillars of a true democracy are media freedom and thus a safe environment for journalists to do their job, especially female journalists.

As Thomas Jefferson said: "the only security of all is in a free press".

Today, we will vote this Report, these Resolutions and Recommendations at the right time in this important year with many elections all over the planet.

Unfortunately we see more and more trends that endanger a healthy media ecosystem. Social media and digitalisation have become disruptive factors, but there are more.

The financing of public media services, as well of commercial media has come under pressure.

The first victims are those non-commercial media outlets and media that are the expression of local perspectives or of cultural diversity.

We see further an excessive media concentration. Especially rural communities are at risk of becoming local media deserts where their citizens do not receive independent and pluralistic information. This is why I asked for a specific report on media concentration in our Committee meeting in Vilnius in 2022, and so I'm delighted this important topic will be further examined by this Assembly in the near future.

The current Belgian EU Presidency, with minister Benjamin Dalle, will work to get the Media Freedom Act passed at EU level.

The transparency of ownership of media companies is one of the key elements in this proposed act. Concerning the safety of journalist, I want to stress that in October 2022, the Belgian region of Flanders followed the good practice of the Dutch PersVeilig.

I urge other member states to establish a similar website and agreement between the media sector, the police, and the prosecutor's office.

Lastly of course I support the interesting Report and Resolution on the increasing phenomenon of SLAPPs, another worrying threat to democracy across Europe.

The different recommendations to tackle these lawsuits are of vital importance, as all individuals that raise issues of public interests are under threat, not only journalists, activists, people of NGOs, trade unions, and other groups. Since instances of SLAPPs are growing and endanger our democratic society on a broad basis, we demand that our governments and national parliaments take all measures necessary to protect people from SLAPPs.

And on behalf of the Group of the European People's Party, I want of course to thank the rapporteurs and express our support on the draft Resolutions and Recommendations.

Thank you.

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC, President of the Assembly

18:22:52

Thank you, Madame.

I now give the floor, for the European Conservatives, to Ms Eka SEPASHVILI.

 

Ms Eka SEPASHVILI

Georgia, EC/DA, Spokesperson for the group

18:23:08

Thank you.

Let me take a speech and say some words about the report "Countering SLAPPs: an imperative for democratic society".

First of all, let me congratulate the rapporteur Mr Stefan SCHENNACH, for a report which addresses important issues that democracies face today in our common realities.

Strategic lawsuits against public participation.

Of course it is very important and very crucial to identify such cases and support media freedom and freedom of expression from public society representatives, from media, from activists, and so on.

But on the other hand, we should be very cautious and very careful in order not to make mistakes in such approaches.

I mean that when we are speaking about SLAPPs cases, the evidence is that facts and arguments should be sound and clear in order not to harm policymakers, or public servants, or decision-makers when they are performing their tasks, and not to impede efficient work of same.

Of course, the fact that a person is a media or civil society representative or an activist does not give them the right to manipulate or fabricate disinformation.

Sometimes they are creating a false perception amongst the population and among voters. This is harmful to the reputation of the person which is very hard to restore – such a kind of reputation.

We should be very careful when identifying SLAPPs cases.

In this regard, we should remember that human rights are universal rights and we should exercise and try to [include] everybody among them when we are speaking and when we are identifying the SLAPPs cases.

Overall, we must, of course, execute and combat against SLAPPs cases, but always remember that public servants, decision makers or policymakers have their rights, and such kind of evidences should be sound. Rule of law should be maintained in every case.

Thank you very much.

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC, President of the Assembly

18:26:06

Thank you, Madame.

I now give the floor, on behalf of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, to Ms Yevheniia KRAVCHUK.

Ms Yevheniia KRAVCHUK

Ukraine, ALDE, Spokesperson for the group

18:26:19

First, dear colleagues, and dear rapporteurs, I would like to thank you for your work and also for these rich discussions that we had in the Committee and the exchanges of views all last year.

Mr Stefan SCHENNACH, I would like to thank you first for the topical issue that you have raised. SLAPPs are one of the biggest threats to media pluralism and freedom of speech. They are often used by powerful individuals or organisations to intimidate and silence critics, including journalists and activists, who speak out on matters of public interest. Individuals may self-censor to avoid the risk of being sued. Our task is to prevent the fundamental principles of journalism and democracy from being undermined. I strongly advocate for the respective resolution and urge those present to support it.

Mr Mogens JENSEN, now let me thank you for the timely report. And, of course, media freedom and the safety of journalists are vital in any democratic society and we should not take it for granted because we see the backsliding in many democratic countries.

In terms of war, the vital importance is even more obvious, as it comes to an issue of documentation of war crimes and facts which will form the basis for the restoration of justice. The example of Russia demonstrates how media capture, legal harassment and smear campaigns against journalists, disinformation and aggressive propaganda can be used for curtailment of democracy inside the country and gaining the support of aggression and justifying this aggression directed outside, for example, to Ukraine. Russia used murder, kidnap and the torture of journalists as a method of intimidation to prevent the spread of truth about the war. Despite serious threats, Ukrainian journalists and many of their foreign colleagues have shown incredible courage and dedication in documenting war crimes to inform the world about the genocidal violence Russia is using against Ukraine.

You mentioned those who were killed in this war and some of them were my friends. I knew them personally, I am a journalist myself, so it is not merely statistics in the paper. And these casualties are an irreparable loss for the media community. Sitting here in this nice warm hemicycle in the heart of Europe, we should keep in mind that journalists are reporting the biggest war since the Second World War right now and they put their lives at a great risk to keep us all informed.

I would like to express my gratitude for the attention to the Ukrainian context and urging the member states to provide targeted support to Ukrainian media and journalists from Ukraine which is reflected in the draft resolution. Also, I fully support the provisions on the improvement of the legislative framework, and enforcement of Council of Europe standards concerning the right of freedom of expression, media freedom and the safety of journalists.

I urge you all to support this resolution and join the campaign for the safety of journalists for acting more effectively altogether.

Thank you. 

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC, President of the Assembly

18:29:20

Thank you, Ms Yevheniia KRAVCHUK. As you can see, I'm improving.

For the Group of the Unified European Left, we move on to Ms Anne STAMBACH-TERRENOIR.

Ms Anne STAMBACH-TERRENOIR

France, UEL, Spokesperson for the group

18:29:37

Thank you, Mister Chairman.

First of all, on behalf of my group, I would like to pay tribute to the quality and importance of the work of the rapporteurs.

Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights enshrines the right to freedom of expression.

As your reports attest, this fundamental right is in retreat today. The number of alerts registered by the Council of Europe's Platform for the Protection of Journalism has more than doubled in eight years. The coalition against SLAPPS in Europe has recorded an increase of more than 43.5% in the number of SLAPP proceedings since 2010, and no country is immune.

Behind these figures are human beings who are threatened, who live in fear, who are deprived of their fundamental rights and the freedom to inform, to inform us.

Colleagues,

These two reports should ring alarm bells in this House.

For some years now, conflicts have been multiplying all around us. It is often said that the first victim of war is the truth. Journalists and independent media become targets.

The instability caused by this geopolitical context also serves as an alibi for certain governments to curb the exercise of fundamental freedoms. In Türkiye, for example, journalists, politicians and lawyers are regularly locked up in an attempt to silence them.

At the end of 2023, 132 journalists were in detention in Europe. Of course, we are thinking of Mr Julian Assange, who has been locked up for almost five years in a high-security prison in the UK, and whose possible extradition to the USA would, according to the Commissioner for Human Rights, "have a chilling effect on media freedom".

Moreover, we've reached record inequality in the world and in Europe. According to the NGO Oxfam, the 10 wealthiest men in the world have more wealth than 3.1 billion people on this planet.

As a result, the world's wealthiest individuals can constitute real poles of power, and according to your report, Mr Stefan SCHENNACH, over 40% of the main instigators of SLAPP proceedings are private companies run by businessmen.

You mention, for example, the multi-billionaire Mr Vincent Bolloré, head of the group of the same name, who has brought more than 20 defamation suits against lawyers, journalists, and NGOs investigating allegations of human rights violations. Well, typically, the Bolloré group is the symbol of financial interference in public debate in France, a country in which nine billionaires, including Mr Bolloré, own 90% of the media, directly influencing editorial lines and, at the very least, leading to self-censorship on the part of journalists.

SLAPPs suits and threats, whether they come from public or economic and financial powers, are all aimed at the same goal: to intimidate and silence those who wish to report on a matter of public interest.

We must act.

Your two reports, gentlemen, highlight the failure to comply with the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights. This is unacceptable. Member states must take steps to ensure that they are fully implemented.

We need to work against media concentration to guarantee plurality of information and the possibility of independent, critical discourse in our countries.

We must also tackle corruption, both in the media and in the judiciary.

The member states of the Council of Europe must harmonise their standards, protecting the right to a fair trial and freedom of expression to prevent ill-intentioned and powerful people from defying various legislation.

Finally, we hope that our new Commissioner for Human Rights will put the issue of freedom of expression at the top of his list of priorities, and work closely with the other institutions of the Council of Europe to move things forward.

Colleagues,

It's also up to us to seize upon these resolutions to take action in our respective parliaments, because, to quote rapporteur Mr Mogens JENSEN, "Media freedom is a public good".

Thank you very much.

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC, President of the Assembly

18:32:57

Thank you, Madame.

On behalf of the Socialist, Democrat and Green Group, I give the floor to Mr Kristoffer LINDBERG.

Mr Kristoffer LINDBERG

Sweden, SOC, Spokesperson for the group

18:33:05

Thank you, Mister President,

Honourable members,

It is about democracy. I want to express my gratitude to both the rapporteurs, who through these reports, put our attention to a fundamental pillar of our democratic society – media freedom and the safety of journalists and civil society.

The media and civil society act or serve as guardians for the democracy. Journalists in particular have a certain role in monitoring and reporting on various institutions, including the government and other authorities. Journalists have the task of scrutinising and exposing irregularities or abuses of power, which is fundamental to maintaining accountability and the rule of law.

This mission can only be carried out through free media and independent journalists. As highlighted in the report, we all know the alternatives if this crucial pillar isn’t allowed to work – disinformation, propaganda, and a distorted perception of reality; something we unfortunately see in certain places here in Europe.

The situation for media freedom in Europe is declining. Crimes against journalists, including harassment, illegal detention, violence, and even murder, are clear examples.

Other examples are those highlighted in the report on countering SLAPPs, which concerns our entire civil society. For instance, activists and whistle-blowers are, through SLAPPs, intimidated, harassed, and silenced.

When it comes to detention, the case of Julian Assange, publisher of WikiLeaks, who is pending extradition to the United States, accused of espionage, should be considered, in accordance with the Assembly’s Resolution 2317 (2020). As we can read in the report, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe also has expressed concerns about the allegations against Mr Assange.

All member states have an obligation to stand behind media freedom, not only in theory but in practice, as well as prevent the occurrences of SLAPPs.

Member states therefore must act forcefully against threats and hatred directed at journalists and other civil society actors, to safeguard democracy and people's right to information.

We can only admit that it is a significant failure that we need to discuss this within Europe. We can do better, and it is our collective duty to protect and preserve the values that form the foundation of our democracy within Europe.

Thank you.

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC, President of the Assembly

18:35:46

Thank you, Sir.

We will now take the list of Speakers.

I call Mr Yunus EMRE, from Türkiye.

Mr Yunus EMRE

Türkiye, SOC

18:35:57

Thank you, Mr Chairman.

First of all I would like to start my speech by extending my appreciation to the rapporteurs of the Reports currently under discussion.

As highlighted in the Report on the SLAPPs, SLAPP lawsuits have evolved into a global concern that demands attention not only in Europe, but worldwide to safeguard the principles of a functioning democracy, freedom of expression and the people's right to access information.

In democratic societies, neither economic power nor political influence should give anyone an advantage over the truth.

Particularly, in matters of public interest, those who take risks and speak out, including journalists, activists, and academics, should feel legally secure.

The rising number of SLAPPs has resulted in self-censorship, political polarisation in public life, which is detrimental to people's right to access accurate information.

Let me consider the distortions in the principles of freedom of expression, rule of law, and democracy. These lawsuits result in significant losses for the defendants in terms of time, money, and other resources.

This underscores the imperative of establishing legal obligations at the Council of Europe level.

It is worth noting that a number of states in the USA have implemented legislative regulations against SLAPPs.

For instance, in California, a person who believes they have been subjected to a SLAPP lawsuit has the right to request dismissal of the case within 60 days.

This example is significant in preventing the time loss associated with prolonged legal proceedings.

Moreover, efforts have been made within the European Union to enact legislation addressing SLAPP lawsuits.

While precautions against SLAPP lawsuits may be susceptible to abuse, the key to preventing such abuse lies in guaranteeing the right to a fair trial.

It is crucial that these precautions do not obstruct access to justice for those with legitimate claims.

In conclusion, we must not lose sight of the fact that SLAPPs are increasingly posing serious risks to freedom of expression and democracy, and there are extensive social interests at stake that require careful consideration.

Thank you.

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC, President of the Assembly

18:38:48

Thank you, Sir.

Now, I am going to try very hard: Ms Arusyak JULHAKYAN from Armenia, please.

Ms Arusyak JULHAKYAN

Armenia, EPP/CD

18:38:56

Thank you, Chair.

Dear colleagues,

As Council of Europe member states, we have committed ourselves to upholding the principles of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.

One fundamental aspect of these principles is the protection and promotion of freedom of expression as the cornerstone of democracy.

It is not just a privilege, but a right enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, reflecting our shared commitments to a free and open society.

In an era where information is a powerful force, we must recognise the pivotal role that journalists play in preserving the foundations of our societies. Their work is supposed to be not only a beacon of truth, but also a check on power, a guardian of democracy, and a voice for the voiceless.

The safety of journalists is not just a matter of individual rights, but a collective responsibility.

Member states must enact and enforce laws that safeguard journalists, investigate and prosecute those who threaten or harm them, and create an atmosphere that encourages the vibrant and diverse media landscape.

A free press is essential for a flourishing democracy, and its protection is incumbent upon each and every one of us.

From this aspect, one of the crucial steps to be taken is the decriminalisation of insult and defamation by all the member states.

It's weird to have defamation as a criminal offence in the 21st Century, while being a part of the democratic world.

But here, not only good laws and regulations are important, but also the judicial practice. Let me bring the Armenian example. When we decriminalised insult and defamation in 2010, this became another tool for the political and business elite to financially oppress the journalists and media outlets.

As the courts during the first period after the decriminalisation used to impose the highest fines on media outlets and journalists, as compensation for insults and defamation, thus making them close down.

Fortunately, shortly we received judgments from the constitutional and cassation courts of Armenia, which significantly contributed to the regulation of the judicial practice, and explained how the civil code provisions concerning the compensations for insult and defamation should be interpreted by the judges.

Dear colleagues,

Safeguarding media freedom and ensuring the safety of journalists is not just an obligation, it is a cornerstone of our shared commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law, within the council of Europe.

So let us stand together resolute in our determination to protect those who hold power accountable, and to contribute to the flourishing of our democratic societies.

Thank you.

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC, President of the Assembly

18:41:56

Thank you Madam.

I now call on Mr Sorin-Titus MUNCACIU from Romania.

Mister MUNCACIU?

We continue with Ms Sona GHAZARYAN from Armenia.

Ms Sona GHAZARYAN

Armenia, ALDE

18:42:23

Dear colleagues,

Recently there has been an increased focus on reports regarding the decline of democracy within member states.

Instances such as restrictions on freedom of speech and the periodic arrest and imprisonment of journalists are indicative of democratic backsliding.

These two Reports have been discussed both in Paris and Strasbourg. I commend the rapporteurs for their very well-penned Reports and insightful information.

In both the Committee meetings and in today's discussion, my thoughts were centred on how our Organisation, which stands for human rights, can effectively safeguard democracy, as we all understand that democracy serves as a defender and guarantor of freedom of expression and guarantees the ability of journalists to conduct their professional duties.

As a representative of a legislative power, we face numerous challenges when addressing initiatives related to the freedom of speech. It is worth mentioning that initiatives driven by positive motifs, can sometimes result in negative consequences, underscoring the delicate balance required.

I completely agree with the rapporteurs that definitions must be very clear so that it doesn't depend on a person.

I find myself pondering whether conventional education equips individuals to confront contemporary challenges. Does it fail? Do graduates possess sufficient media literacy to differentiate fake news from real? It prompts reflection on potential shortcomings, both within our Parliamentary Assembly and at the national level.

It is crystal clear that education is the only way to preserve democracy. We need to concentrate on reports of positive cases of such members states where through education, they managed to prepare their citizens for the new challenges.

Even those surveys and analyses from partner organisations point to negative trends among member states, but there are still success stories.

As a delegate from Armenia I am proud to say that Armenia improved its position in the 2023 World Press Freedom Index published by the Reporters Without Borders international organisation.

This year Armenia is ranked 49th among 180 countries. Last year it was 51st and 63rd respectively.

The 2018 Velvet Revolution made us be proud of reforms which brought us Armenians closer to the Council of Europe's freedom of expression standards.

Particularly independent and online media outlets have demonstrated their ability to serve the democratic function of the media.

In summary, the scrutiny of decline of democracy underscores the need for a very serious protection of democratic values.

The pivotal role of education in preserving democracy is evident, and success stories highlight the positive impact of reforms.

Let us focus both on challenges and success as we navigate the complexities of safeguarding democratic principles.

Thank you.

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC, President of the Assembly

18:45:53

Thank you Madam.

I now call on Ms Christiana EROTOKRITOU from Cyprus.

Ms Christiana EROTOKRITOU

Cyprus, SOC

18:46:03

Thank you, Chair.

First of all, I would like to congratulate the rapporteur for this excellent report.

The critical issue highlighted in this report, namely the increasing and pervasive use of SLAPPs across Europe, poses an imminent threat to journalism, advocacy, communication, and the broader spectrum of free speech – essential elements for the proper functioning of a democratic society.

The report accurately underscores the inadequacy of the existing legal framework that does not sufficiently protect persons or entities targeted by SLAPPs, leaving a wide array of actors, including journalists, media organisations, activists and whistleblowers vulnerable and exposed to the unsettling effects of these legal tactics. It is imperative that we respond to this tool of intimidation and silencing as a matter of urgency.

As a parliamentarian and lawyer, I fully endorse the draft resolution's call for member states to enact a comprehensive set of anti-SLAPP measures, while strengthening the integrity of defamation and privacy laws. Specifying legal definitions, and introducing additional specific anti-SLAPP measures can provide member states with the necessary tools to apply a more comprehensive and targeted approach to counter this issue, while monitoring their due implementation. By addressing such insidious abuses that burden defendants and stifle dissent, we can ensure that these practices will not be used as tools of intimidation but rather serve their intended purpose of protecting individual rights. Besides, such abuses not only obstruct the free flow of information but also place an undue financial and legal burden on defendants, often leading to a chilling effect on their willingness and determination to seek justice.

Measures may include stricter standards for initiating such claims, penalties for frivolous lawsuits, and mechanisms to expedite the resolution of cases to prevent prolonged financial and emotional strain on defendants. In doing so, we acknowledge the need for a robust legal framework that safeguards the freedom of expression and ensures that individuals and organisations can participate in public discourse without the fear of retribution.

All voices, particularly those of journalists, advocates, and the civil society, must not only be heard but also be duly protected from undue legal harassment. By fortifying our legal defences against SLAPPs, we affirm our commitment to fostering an open and democratic society, uninhibited by the threat of legal intimidation.

For, in democratic societies, it is unacceptable for legislation intended to protect individual rights, to be manipulated in order to silence those who seek to unveil the truth.

Thank you

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC, President of the Assembly

18:48:50

Thank you Madame.

I now call on Mr Yuriy KAMELCHUK from Ukraine. I don't see him.

We'll move on to Mr László TOROCZKAI from Hungary.

You have the floor.

Mr László TOROCZKAI

Hungary, NR

18:49:12

Thank you, Mister Chair.

I would like to address our grandchildren, not you – especially not those politicians who are destroying Europe with their open borders policy or with their censorship.

We want a truly free word and freedom of speech. This report talks about attacks on journalists and free media. All these attacks on journalists must be condemned and prevented. There is no question about that. But this report is extremely incomplete and one-sided because there is government propaganda and then there is the propaganda of international, but mostly US-based financial circles and global corporations. The report does not mention the latter.

There is not a single word about social media, for example, which is now the most important form of media, and social platforms have much more power and influence. They influence voters with their algorithms, with political censorship and they can also influence the outcome of elections.

Today, everyone can be a journalist. Anyone can create videos and articles and publish them on social media platforms reaching many more people than traditional media ever could. The owners of social media hold as much power as governments. In fact, their power is even bigger.

While it is difficult, the people have the chance to change government by an election or by replacing bad politicians. The owners of social media are mostly American billionaires – [who] are untouchable. They can do anything. Nobody elected them, yet they rule. They can censor and silence opinions they do not like. They constantly censor – among other things – news related to migration but they do the same, they apply double standards when they allow the traditional male–female roles, relationships, and the traditional family model to be attacked in the most violent way but also the increasingly aggressive LGBTQ propaganda is not allowed to be criticised.

For example, four years ago, Meta deleted my Facebook and Instagram pages without any explanation. Meanwhile, it turned out that a rival political party in Hungary was behind Facebook's censorship. I filed a lawsuit against Meta but despite winning the case and being ordered by the court to reinstate my Instagram page, to this day Meta has not done so. Meta is committing an openly illegal act and no-one cares. This is what they do to millions of people. When you talk about free media, consider this as well.

Thank you very much.

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC, President of the Assembly

18:52:19

Thank you.

I now give the floor to Ms Olena KHOMENKO from Ukraine.

Ms Olena KHOMENKO

Ukraine, EC/DA

18:52:27

Fellow colleagues,

Freedom of expression and public participation are two pillars of our democracy.

As Ukraine moves forward in our European integration process, it's imperative to recall that media reform was one of the initial steps to start in negotiations.

At the same time, a key concern, also recently underscored by the World Economic Forum, is the escalating risks of disinformation, especially in the upcoming wave of crucial elections this year all over the world.

As parliamentarians, we have a dual responsibility to protect the integrity of information and to ensure the public participation is not just a formality, but a genuine democratic practice.

The threat of disinformation is especially acute in the view of Russian aggression. Our adversaries would not hesitate to explore and to exploit every possibility to undermine our democracies. This calls for an increased watchfulness against foreign interventions, masquerading as a legitimate expression of free speech.

For instance, in the resolution on the situation of the children of Ukraine unanimously adopted earlier today, we stress the need for assessment of the journalist participation in propaganda campaigns organised by the Russian Federation or Belarus, concerning Ukrainian children deported and forcibly transferred by Russia.

It is especially important given Russia's use of media representatives, including international journalists, to justify and whitewash its war crimes.

However, in our pursuit to safeguard our institutions, we must also be careful not to overstep and violate the very freedoms we aim to protect.

Our response to these challenges must be dual.

Firstly, we must reinforce our legal frameworks to protect journalists and public participants from SLAPPs and other forms of intimidation.

These legal shields are not just the protection of individuals, but also are pillars that preserve the inviolability of public discourse.

Secondly, we must foster a culture of critical thinking and resilience against misinformation. This involves supporting educational initiatives and promoting media literacy amongst our citizens.

We must equip our people with the tools to critically assess and engage with it. Our actions today will define the strengths of our democracies tomorrow. Together we must ensure that our societies are not just informed, but also actively and meaningfully engaged.

Thank you, dear colleagues.

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC, President of the Assembly

18:55:38

Thank you, Madam.

I now call on Ms Aysu BANKOĞLU from Türkiye.

Ms Aysu BANKOĞLU

Türkiye, SOC

18:55:47

Mister Chairman,

Dear colleagues,

January is month of sorrow in Türkiye. An investigator journalist and author Uğur Mumcu who dedicated his life to democratic and secular society, was murdered by a bomb attack, 31 years ago, on the 24th of January. Writer and journalist Hrant Dink was murdered, 17 years ago, on the 19th of January. Journalist, Metin Göktepe was murdered on January 8, 1996.

We all call them as a martyr of democracy.

Therefore, discussing the right of freedom of expression in our January session is meaningful for the Turkish public opinion.

I support and appreciate Mr Mogens JENSEN's excellent and timely Report.

Authoritarian governments increasingly exert pressure on both traditional media and social media in recent years.

In this context, populist discourse and governmental practices have a profound impact on journalists. Those who uncover government errors often become targets, face threats, detentions, and censorship.

Restricting media freedom is primarily a political initiative targeting the public’s right to access accurate information. National security, war, or terrorism are mostly used as a pretext. For example, in Türkiye, 43 journalists were arrested last year. Unfortunately, this is an attempt for the normalisation of oppression, digital authoritarianism, and auto-censorship. Thus, legal practices and policies protecting press freedom against authoritarian governments must be developed throughout Europe.

Although the law, institutions, and boards of governments to ensure media freedom seem to exist in theory, they lead to many problems in practice.

It is very important that the governments act in full respect of the principles of European Convention on Human Rights as a fundamental reference guaranteeing the right to freedom of expression and the safety of journalists. I must underline that many domestic court decisions fail to comply with the recommendations of the Venice Commission and the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights.

I hope the Report will become a basic reference to correct all the wrongdoings in each and every member state.

Thank you.

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC, President of the Assembly

18:58:39

Thank you, Madam.

I now call on Mr Levan BEZHASHVILI from Georgia.

You have the floor.

Mr Levan BEZHASHVILI

Georgia, EPP/CD

18:58:47

Thank you, Chair.

Honourable members,

A free and vibrant media is the cornerstone of any democratic society. This discussion carries weight not only for Georgia but also for the broader principles that underpin our shared commitment to democracy, transparency, and the protection of human rights. One of the primary challenges facing journalists in Georgia is a persistent threat to their safety. The Georgian government still has not punished organisers of violent actions. Primarily, the organisers of 5 July 2021 massive attacks on journalists are still unpunished, who brutally assaulted 53 journalists, and unfortunately, Mr Lekso Lashkarava, a cameraman at the Pirveli channel who died a few days after he had been beaten at the police centre.

We are concerned about witnessing the spread of anti-Western propaganda and constant attacks on our international partners by the government-controlled media in Georgia that not only undermine the values of democracy and freedom but also derail European aspiration of the Georgian people.

This is a problem in social media as well. Facebook shut down hundreds of fake accounts and pages linked to the Georgian government and the ruling party, which had been used against European values and spread fake news.

Moreover, the government has launched criminal cases against opposition media managers and owners. Many journalists reported incidents of censorship, government interference and legal actions designed to silence investigative journalists.

Additionally, financial pressure on media outlets has led to a concentration of media ownership, limiting the diversity of voices and perspectives.

In conclusion, I urge the Council of Europe to closely monitor the situation in Georgia and address the challenges faced by journalists. We must advocate for the creation and enforcement of laws that protect media freedom and stand firmly against any form of intimidation or harassment directed a journalists in Georgia and around the world.

Thank you.

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC, President of the Assembly

19:00:59

Thank you.

I now give the floor to Mr Peter FRICK from Liechtenstein.

Mr Peter FRICK

Liechtenstein, ALDE

19:01:07

Thank you very much, Mister President,

Dear Chairman, ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to begin by thanking the rapporteurs for their important work.

In recent years, we have seen an alarming increase in attacks on journalists and free media.

Since 2015, 49 journalists have been killed in the member states of the Council of Europe alone.

Over 60 are currently in prison.

The vast majority of these are in Türkiye, Azerbaijan and the temporarily occupied Ukrainian territories.

The Council of Europe's Platform for the Protection of Journalists fulfils an important function in this context.

Threats and violations of media freedom are systematically documented and grouped together.

On the one hand, this allows us to recognise negative trends and country-specific challenges to be identified, which can be counteracted through targeted reform processes.

The platform also serves as an important early warning system for the protection of journalists and media professionals.

As parliamentarians and politicians, it is also our responsibility to contribute to the protection of free media and media professionals.

The SLAPPs, strategic lawsuits against media professionals and civil society discussed in the report, are just as unacceptable as threats and hate speech.

The work of free and independent media is essential for the functioning of any democracy.

The protection of journalists and other media professionals is therefore of paramount importance.

Thank you very much.

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC, President of the Assembly

19:03:06

Thank you, Sir.

And now we'll hear from Mr Christophe LACROIX from Belgium.

Mr Christophe LACROIX

Belgium, SOC

19:03:14

Thank you, Mister Chairman.

Ladies and gentlemen,

My congratulations to you, Mister President, on your constant improvement in your knowledge of foreign languages. You've improved your accents over the years, and I congratulate you on that.

But let's get back to the serious subject of press freedom and how to effectively guarantee the safety and security of journalists.

As a trained historian, I'd like to take a step back 200 years. Two hundred years ago, the Belgian Constitution of 7 February 1831 enshrined five essential freedoms: freedom of worship, freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of association, and assembly, freedom of education and, finally, freedom of the press, clearly stipulating that censorship could never be established.

The Belgian National Congress, in 1831, when it drew up this article, which has never been modified since, wanted to be as absolute as possible. This has enabled Belgium, in particular, to welcome thinkers but also journalists, such as Karl Marx or Victor Hugo.

Journalists are often at the root of the discovery of politico-financial corruption scandals and abuses of power: Watergate, the Panama Papers, Cambridge Analytica, WikiLeaks, Qatargate.

It really is a democratic counterweight, and democrats must get behind our journalists. It is intolerable that journalists should be harassed, threatened, imprisoned, tortured or murdered.

The latest figures in the Reporters Without Borders report are damning for Poland, Hungary, Serbia, Türkiye, and Azerbaijan. This must stop.

Let me remind you that journalists are also victims of wars. Ten journalists lost their lives in Ukraine. Seventy-nine journalists and media professionals were killed in Gaza.

In all legal cases involving journalists, it is obviously important to protect them from extradition to countries that practice torture. The case of Julian Assange springs to mind.

I would like to thank and quote points 10.3, 10.4, 10.5, 10.6 of Mr Mogens JENSEN's resolution, which regulate media financing against capitalist conglomerates, often linked to authoritarian or extreme right-wing systems, in order to guarantee absolute freedom of the press.

I will conclude, Mister Chairman, dear colleagues, by quoting an author who, in 1847, had this to say about freedom of the press. His name was Jean-Baptiste Bivort.

"Under the aegis of freedom of the press come threatened freedoms. It fights relentlessly even when it fights without success. Its defeats, when supported by public opinion, are still triumphs. So, it has been rightly said of the freedom of the press. Let all other freedoms perish, and let it remain with us, other freedoms will be reborn. Let the freedom of the press perish, and little by little you will see all other freedoms diminish and fade away."

Thank you for your attention.

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC, President of the Assembly

19:06:38

Thank you, Mister Historian.

I now give the floor to Mr Thomas PRINGLE, from Ireland. I don't see him.

We're going to Mexico with Ms Olimpia Tamara GIRÓN HERNÁNDEZ.

Ms Olimpia Tamara GIRÓN HERNÁNDEZ

Mexico

19:06:59

Thank you, President.

Guaranteeing media freedom and guaranteeing the safety of journalists is an obligation of the Mexican state.

The constitution of the united Mexican state establishes under Article 6 that "everyone has the right to access information" and "everyone has the right to freedom of expression".

That includes the right to practise as a journalist, freely and safely.

Within that context Mexico has decided to shoulder that responsibility of shouldering of protecting and promoting these rights.

Mexico has created an environment which is conducive to the practice of journalism. Within that environment, journalists can indeed carry out their work without fear of reprisal or any violation of their physical integrity.

Now this obligation means that the state must take measures to prevent, investigate and to punish any attacks, and indeed make sure that various protection mechanisms are put in place.

The purpose here is to ensure the safety and integrity of journalists.

If I may, I would like to mention some of those protection mechanisms.

We have for instance a mechanism to protect human rights defenders and journalists.

It is a federal mechanism, whose main purpose is to provide protective measures both at an individual and collective level, which are afforded to journalists and human rights defenders when they are in a situation of risk.

For example, they can be equipped with panic buttons, with surveillance cameras, they can also have bodyguards and furthermore support is provided to any victims.

Secondly, I would mention the National Human Rights Commission, an independent body whose purpose is to promote and protect human rights in Mexico. In the case of a breach of freedom of expression against journalists, then the National Human Rights Commission is allowed to issue recommendations which are addressed to the government, and can also provide advice to the victims concerned.

Thirdly, I would mention the homologated protocol for the protection of journalists, a mechanism that is used by the agency responsible for dealing with crimes committed against the freedom of expression, known in Mexico as La Fiscalía Especial para la Atención de Delitos (FEADLE). This particular protocol draws up measures together with the authorities in order to deal with any threats against journalists.

Fourthly, I would mention the specialised units for crimes against freedom of expression.

These are units that are managed by our Special Prosecutor for crimes against freedom of expression, and the purpose of the specialised unit is to investigate and investigate crimes against freedom of expression and to protect journalists.

It is important to note that notwithstanding all of these measures, we do still face some challenges when it comes to the protection of journalists in Mexico.

That is why the current administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has really stressed the importance of continuing to strengthen these mechanisms to ensure even more, greater safety for journalists.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been faced with many challenges and has really shown his determination to strengthen the protection mechanism afforded to journalists for their safety and press freedom.

That said, the Mexican state has committed itself to guarantee press freedom, to guarantee the safety of journalists, it has committed itself to promoting a safe environment in which the full exercise of the freedom of expression is respected, notwithstanding it has to be that there are still some important challenges that we need to address when it comes to the safety of journalists in Mexico.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to conclude by mentioning that this year, the Mexican state and the Council of Europe have been collaborating for 25 years - 25 years now that we have been working together with you in order to better protect human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

We have learned a lot from this experience, 25 years down the road.

We really appreciate the fact that we can participate in the work of this Parliamentary Assembly, the fact that we can work with your institutions really allows us to make sure that we can set up a framework which is conducive to all of these issues.

Thank you. 

 

 

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC, President of the Assembly

19:11:38

Thank you, Madam.

After this 4-minute trip to Mexico, we return to Europe, to Malta, with Ms Cressida GALEA.

Ms Cressida GALEA

Malta, SOC

19:11:56

Mister Chair, 

Esteemed colleagues,

I would like to, first of all, thank the three rapporteurs of the recommendation and the resolution for their work on the documents in front of us. 

Freedom of expression and media freedom are the cornerstone of any democracy. They are two vital pillars for a pluralist democracy, as they ensure a holistic exchange of information and provide crucial checks and balances on the governing institutions. 

Undoubtedly, freedom of expression cannot be secured without the protection of journalists. Over the last few years, there has been increasing discourse and attention to the need for anti-SLAPP measures not only on a national level, which has been an issue of particular concern but also within international organisations, including the Council of Europe, the European Union, the United Nations and the OSCE. It is important to continue to discuss such measures at all levels and put forward well-researched recommendations towards improving the protection and safety of those brave enough to challenge those in power.

Journalists and the press hold governments to account. They bring us, the politicians, to what can sometimes be a much-needed reality check of where we stand as representatives and what and how we can do better.

SLAPP proceedings can drain the pockets of those who should be provided with the means to carry out their work diligently without the distort of unjust and unfounded libel and/or defamation sues being filed against them. It is for this reason that, as outlined in both the recommendation and the resolution, measures must be taken to protect all media actors in our home countries and also Europe and beyond. This includes but is not limited to providing adequate resources, ensuring the protection of the press and asserting that there is no form of hindrance to the freedom of expression and of the media.

Colleagues, allow me to take the opportunity to highlight elements of the work of the Maltese government over the last years and particularly, over the last four months. Through the Media and the Defamation Act, the right to freedom of expression was strengthened. Among others, criminal libel was abolished. Also, a number of anti-SLAPP provisions were introduced, which removed the possibility of the filing of precautionary warrants against journalists and the filing of multiple lawsuits against the journalist on the same effects. We have tabled a new legislation in parliament to further strengthen this fourth pillar of democracy. These bills were originally proposed by the committee of experts of media, which was set up to analyse our laws and identify those gaps that could be used against journalists and hinder their work.

This legislation also followed consultations that were held with key stakeholders including the OSCE Representative on the Freedom of the Media together with the Institute of Maltese Journalists, and then continued dialogue with the family of Ms Daphne Caruana Galizia, whose murder was a watershed moment for my country.

Furthermore, a dedicated single point of contact was established within the Malta police force specifically for journalists so that they feel more comfortable to also approach the police. As part of the threat assessment, the alleged victim or journalist is given some advice on personal protection measures and regular feedback.

Furthermore, training sessions are organised in collaboration also with the Association of Journalists to train the police forces to deal with media relations. Following the call by journalists as well as NGOs to have more consultation on such important legislation, the Maltese government acceded to District West and also reopened the consultation process to ensure as broad as possible input and views. A white paper will also be issued in the coming weeks with revised media reform laws on, and it will be holding another round of public consultation.

A government that protects its journalists and provides the tools for our media to operate in a secure and open environment is not afraid of the pen being mightier than the sword.

Collective and consistent actions, both as individual countries and as Europe, are needed to be truly effective, presenting tangible results in the media and the press. The Maltese government remains steadfast in this effort both nationally and internationally in different forums.

Our commitment is clear in the priorities of our...

[The Speaker was interrupted by the President].

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC, President of the Assembly

19:16:39

Sorry.

We now turn to Ms Seda GÖREN BÖLÜK, from Türkiye.

Ms Seda GÖREN BÖLÜK

Türkiye, NR

19:16:50

Thank you, Mr Chairman.

Dear colleagues,

During the Second World War, which lasted almost three thousand days, 69 journalists were killed.

The same number of journalists were killed by Israel in Gaza in less than 3 months. The number of journalists killed now stands at 118 including 9 women, and this number continues to rise.

More than 80 journalists have been injured, and 25 journalists have been detained by Israel. A total of 63 press organisations have been bombed. Some journalists have been beaten.

The Israeli administration kills, beats and abuses journalists in order to conceal the crimes it has committed.

To better explain the scale of Israel's continuing brutality, the use of white phosphorus shells by the Israeli army in densely populated civilian areas of Gaza is proven by photographs taken by international agencies.

Today, journalists in the Gaza Strip are torn between their duty to inform, and the fear of being killed. If we don't act now, Gaza will no longer have an eye, because there are few journalists left, given the constant risk to their lives.

Dear parliamentarians,

You may say that this report has been prepared for journalists living in Europe, but you must realise that Israel is depriving us, the citizens of Europe, of our right to unhindered access to information.

Tuesday was an unfortunate day for this Assembly. One of our colleagues uttered this exact phrase - and I quote: "If these journalists are killed, I won't go and mourn them." And, no Sir, they are not terrorists or those who propagate terrorism: they are journalists who work for AFP, for Reuters, for your right of access to sound and correct information.

We should be the leading organisation for the defence of human rights.

The Parliamentary Assembly should take the lead in ending censorship and protecting the right to life. We must now assume our historic role and responsibility because, as the title of this report says, guaranteeing the freedom of the media and the safety of journalists is an obligation of the member states of this Council.

I pay tribute to all the journalists who lost their lives in Gaza in the course of their duties.

My final words for the whole Assembly: the people of Gaza have been starving for days. If we don't do something to open the gates at the Rafah Border Crossing, Israel won't need weapons or bombs to kill or destroy a people.

Thank you for your support.

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC, President of the Assembly

19:19:45

Thank you Madame.

We now turn to Mr Rostyslav TISTYK from Ukraine.

Mr Rostyslav TISTYK

Ukraine, EC/DA

19:19:56

Thank you, Mister President.

I express my gratitude to the rapporteur for addressing the vital issue of media freedom and the safety of journalists, which is fundamental to a true democracy.

Media freedom as a pillar of democracy becomes especially important in modern conditions, when the world is affected by information wars, manipulations, and propaganda.

Today Ukrainians feel this influence especially painfully. In the conditions of the information war with Russia which is hundreds of times larger than the front line, the freedom of Ukrainian and international independent media acts as a barrier against manipulation and disinformation. Independent journalists and mass media are the voice that helps Ukrainians to withstand the test of truths in the information storm to maintain hope and faith.

Media freedom is also important in the context of preserving national identity and defending sovereignty.

Being at the epicentre of geopolitical events, Ukraine has the opportunity to present its truths through independent mass media and wage an information struggle to support its interest end values.

Ensuring media freedom is recognition of the right of every citizen to access diverse and objective information.

Journalists and editors must be able to work without fear of pressure and harassment, providing citizens with access to information that is important and objective.

Instead dictatorships always seek to keep their motive secret, shielding themselves from public scrutiny and citizens' scrutiny. In dictatorial regimes where there is no media freedom, people are deprived of the opportunity to receive objective information and express their opinions freely. This leads to manipulation, propaganda, and a lack of critical thinking.

As of January 2024, since the beginning of the full-scale invasion of the Russia Federation on the territory of Ukraine, the occupiers have killed at least 79 media workers. 79.

According to data of the international federation of journalists, among the dead were 16 media persons who were performing professional duties, 9 media worker victims among the civilian population, and 54 mass media representatives who mobilised for the defence of Ukrainians to the ranks of the armed forces of Ukraine.

Russia's attacks on communication infrastructures reflect threats to media workers.

I completely agree with the speaker that the intention is obvious: to silence the media and prevent society from getting independent information.

The destruction of communication infrastructure has the dual purpose of not only impeding the work of journalists, but also impeding journalistic work and efforts to uncover the truth and bring perpetrators of war crime to justice.

I call on you, esteemed colleagues, to join this tireless effort to preserve media freedom in Europe and around the world and to pay tribute to the journalists who died in Ukraine while performing their civic and professional duty.

I ask everyone who is there to honour the memory of our heavenly heroes of the media.

A moment of silence, please.

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC, President of the Assembly

19:23:27

Thank you for your contribution.

We will continue with Ms Blerina GJYLAMETI.  She is not here.

And then Mr Gusty GRAAS, from Luxembourg.

Mr Gusty GRAAS

Luxembourg, ALDE

19:23:49

Thank you, Mr Chairman.

The debate on guaranteeing the freedom of the media and the safety of journalists has its rightful place in this house; all the more so as we currently find ourselves in a situation where this freedom is deteriorating.

The report by our colleague, Mr Mogens JENSEN, takes stock of the growing trend towards exposure to professional risks. Media professionals are being attacked, threatened and intimidated - if not outright imprisoned, tortured or even murdered.

Since the beginning of the year, 4 journalists and media assistants have died. To date, Reporters Without Borders has counted a total of 547 detainees.

These detentions are all the more regrettable when they take place in Council of Europe member states. I'm thinking here of Azerbaijan and Türkiye.

That's why I never tire of pointing out that journalists' rights to freedom of expression, media freedom and safety are by no means a given, not even within this organisation.

In Belarus, the imprisonment of journalists for political reasons has become commonplace. To make this situation more visible, I have decided to show my support by sponsoring the editor-in-chief of a leading independent Belarusian media outlet, Mr Aliaksandr Mantsevich.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Council of Europe's Platform for Strengthening the Protection of Journalism is in the same spirit: we need to raise awareness.

Allow me to briefly illustrate the media landscape in Luxembourg, which proudly ranks 20th in the latest RSF's World Press Freedom Index.

The legal framework has been revised for 2021, with new subsidies for the press. However, in a country as small as mine, one wonders about the embarrassment that the proximity between the press and politicians can cause. Threats against journalists or, more recently, cartoonists, are now unfortunately part of everyday life here too.

The new government is well aware of certain persistent shortcomings, which is why the "status and protection of journalists" is enshrined in its coalition agreement.

The aim is to create an environment that is safe and conducive to free expression - and consequently also to democracy. The Luxembourg authorities will continue to work in favour of media pluralism and the quality and reliability of information.

I would like to conclude by saluting the normative role of this Assembly.

While we have no legislative powers of our own here, we do act as national legislators in our respective member states.

I shall certainly pass on the recommendations of this text to the Luxembourg executive.

Thank you very much.

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC, President of the Assembly

19:27:08

Thank you.

We now turn to Mr José María SÁNCHEZ GARCÍA from Spain.

Mr José María SÁNCHEZ GARCÍA

Spain, EC/DA

19:27:23

Thank you very much Mister President.

There are many statements made in these two draft resolutions. We can compare them and agree that freedom of expression and freedom of  information are essential in our democracies.

Furthermore, we can agree when it comes to the draft resolution on SLAPPs, the types of measures that are required here.

Having said that, we also need to acknowledge that these two draft resolutions have to be compared to the whole question of hate speech, which is criminalised in practically all of our member states.

Allow me to refer you to the first point in the draft recommendation: "Member states have a positive obligation to promote an environment that is safe and conducive to the participation of everyone in a public debate, without fear, even if their opinions are not in line with the ones held by official authorities or by the majority of public opinion".

This can happen quite often when people speak about hate speech.

People are expressing themselves - not in a criminal fashion - but with a different means.

That needs to be recalled in this context

These two draft resolutions protect journalists and the freedom of the media, but at the same time acknowledge that the texts are not realistic. We can't share the logic that underpins these texts.

Another point that puzzles me: when it comes to a clear difference, not a hypothetical one, between the situation that prevails among ordinary citizens and political leaders, they are constantly confronted with negative campaigns against them. Sometimes they need to turn to the courts and litigation to defend themselves. There seems to be different standards applied to ordinary citizens or politicians who are not much liked by hegemonic forces. I do have to specify this because, as a lawyer myself, I have litigated and these cases have led to convictions. Remember the context here.

These reports are well and good but not entirely realistic.

When we talk about freedom of expression for the media and journalists, there are a number of issues addressed here which need to be mentioned, for instance, independent media and protecting independent media. But what if you don't have independent media in a state? What if you have irrelevant media – they might be free but they are completely irrelevant – or media concentration?

There are countries such as Spain, with audiovisual media where you have absolute control and monopolies.

Item 5 in the resolution says all of this should be governed in accordance with gender ideology. What does that have to do with freedom of expression or freedom of information? I think it is misplaced.

Point 11, the second draft resolution - as usual, what a surprise, we mention Poland, Hungary, Serbia andTürkiye. They are supposed to be the ones most responsible for any attacks on media freedom or journalist freedom.

This is something more to do with political parties than anything else.

 

 

 

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC, President of the Assembly

19:31:32

Thank you.

I now give the floor to Ms Nadejda IORDANOVA from Bulgaria.

 

Ms Nadejda IORDANOVA

Bulgaria, NR

19:31:39

Thank you, Mr Chair.

Distinguished colleagues,

Mr Stefan SCHENNACH,

Mr Mogens JENSEN,

First allow me to congratulate you for the excellent work.

I would also like to congratulate the Assembly for having a joint debate on countering SLAPPs and guaranteeing media freedom and journalist safety.

We have two resolutions that cover different aspects of one of the biggest pillars of the democracy that we, as free people, want to live in.

Without free media there can be no democracy, and all our freedoms will be put at risk.

I specifically want to stress upon the importance of Paragraph 10.5 of the media freedom resolution, which is about public service media.

In the past four years, Bulgaria has significantly improved its performance in the RSF World Press Freedom index, climbing 40 positions in the ranking.

For this steady progress to continue, I support the work on efficient and comprehensive legislation which will guarantee the sustainable financing of public media. This is crucially important for turning public media into a real guarantor for trustworthy information as a counterweight to disinformation campaigns.

In addition, we need to foster public media's role in electoral campaigns so that the voters can make a well-informed choice.

According to official UNESCO statistics, 2023 has brought a worryingly sharp rise in journalists killed in war areas. From 20 in 2021, to 38 in 2023.

The final three months of 2023 have been the deadliest since, at least, 2007 with 27 journalist killed.

The journalists, unfortunately, work in an increasing militarised environment. Therefore I call all of you to urge our countries to put further pressure on warring parties and demand that reporters' safety be fully guaranteed while they fulfil their professional duties in conflict zones.

I should also share with you that the SLAPPs resolution is a subject of my professional passion.

It is our duty to implement effective guarantees, that no corporation or politician could silence a journalist by misuse of claims.

At the same time, we should also guarantee that every politician, corporate official, or any other person has effective access to justice in case his or her good name has been harmed. It is a difficult balance to be made, and it is our duty to do it.

We, in our country, already started working on new legislation regarding SLAPPs, and this report and this resolution will be great support.

Dear colleagues, I urge you to vote for both resolutions.

Thank you.

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC, President of the Assembly

19:34:56

Thank you, Madam.

I now give the floor to Ms Laura CASTEL from Spain.

Ms Laura CASTEL

Spain, UEL

19:35:04

Thank you, Chair.

Dear colleagues,

SLAPPs are a form of lawfare seeking to silence civil society organisations, activists, and media to impeach the right of citizens to be informed.

Just a close example. The Open Dialogue Foundation publishes information about human rights violations in Kazakhstan. As a retaliation, the secret services filed a collective criminal complaint in Belgium, using internal communications of this Assembly to discredit them.

Another related case took 6 years to be closed by the court in Belgium.

With respect to media freedom and safety of journalists, the reports remind us that they are cornerstones of democracy and that only last year there were registered 60 journalists and media professionals detained in Europe, which is to say, dear colleagues, a bunch of democracy locked up in jail by some member states of the Council of Europe.

Let me share other examples.

Mr Julian Assange, five years in a British high-security prison, so Council of Europe soil, facing extradition and a 175-year sentence for publishing war crimes and torture. A real whistleblower and a real scandal. This Assembly should call for his release right now.

Azerbaijan, Council of Europe soil, has 240 political prisoners, most of them journalists accused of receiving illegal funding from abroad for revealing systematic violations of political rights perpetrated by Azerbaijan. And they still ask why their credentials have not been ratified by this Assembly.

Let me conclude with two Spanish cases.

Mr Pablo González, a journalist detained in pre-trial detention in Poland in solitary confinement, with no evidence. Polish authorities have extended his detention for the seventh time. So, dear colleagues, in February he will have served 2 years. Two years, colleagues, without a trial and incommunicado. A clear black hole situation in a Council of Europe soil.

The last case is Mr Jesús Rodríguez, editor of La Directa, an online investigative media in Catalonia. He has been charged of terrorism for demonstrations, peaceful demonstrations supporting the Catalan political prisoners. The real motive behind his indictment is the retaliation for uncovering the espionage operations of the Spanish police forces and revealing their infiltration in peaceful Catalan social movements.

Dear colleagues,

Those reports demonstrate that state authorities, including the judicial branch, are in most cases at the origin of those threats.

That is why these two reports are so important.

Media freedom is a public good, a key asset for democracies. We, as the Council of Europe, need to remain united in defending journalists, activists, human rights defenders or whistleblowers: all of them.

Thanks to both rapporteurs for their amazing work.

Free Assange, free them all!

Thank you.

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC, President of the Assembly

19:38:42

Thank you, Madam.

The last speaker will be Mr George LOUCAIDES.

Mr George LOUCAIDES

Cyprus, UEL

19:38:47

Thank you, Mister Chair, 

Allow me first to congratulate our rapporteurs for their excellent work.

Dear colleagues,

Safeguarding the freedom of the press and an independent and pluralistic media is vital for a strong functioning democracy. Any form of restriction, control, or manipulation is a clear violation of the basic human right to freedom of expression and information. The number of cases that threaten media freedom is steadily rising in Europe, including an increase in smear campaigns, libel suits, and SLAPPs, which harass and intimidate journalists into silence and submission. Even more troubling is the fact that the number of countries concerned is also at an increase, as well as the fact that many of these cases remain largely unresolved.

The fast decline of media freedom and deterioration of journalists’ safety demands our full attention and our immediate action. Important positive steps have been taken towards endorsing feasible collective strategies, such as establishing the Platform for the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists and acknowledging, during the 4th Summit in Reykjavík last May, that the Council of Europe stands at the forefront in setting and upholding the standards on freedom of expression.

At the same time, it is very unfortunate that our joint effort to ensure an independent and pluralistic media, also provided a platform for European governments to lobby for certain clauses that would actually allow for exactly the opposite result. This was the case recently when, through the efforts to achieve a political agreement at the EU level on the European Media Freedom Act, certain countries, including my own country, Cyprus, regretfully promoted the provisional use of spyware for surveillance and monitoring of devices used by journalists for “national security” purposes.

In contrast, it is imperative that we accelerate efforts to establish national legal frameworks guaranteeing the safety of journalists and other media players, as stipulated in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and actively endorse the Campaign for the Safety of Journalists, launched last October. In addition, dear colleagues, we should prioritise creating comprehensive anti-SLAPP regulatory frameworks, promoting common financial support and retribution funds and strengthening pertinent national laws by including deterring penalties in order to guarantee legal and procedural protection against SLAPPs.

Finally, dear colleagues, talking about media freedom, human rights and democracy, while more than 75 journalists have been killed in the Gaza genocide, or when Julian Assange, one of the world’s foremost journalists has spent almost five years without having been convicted, in a British maximum security prison for the crime of publishing the truth, is utterly appalling.

Thank you for your attention.

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC, President of the Assembly

19:42:12

Thank you, Mr George LOUCAIDES

We must now interrupt the list of speakers.

Registered speakers who have been present during the debate but have not been able to speak may submit their typed statement within 4 hours to the Session Office, for publication in the minutes.

This text must not exceed 400 words and must be transmitted electronically.

I call for the Committee's reply and give the floor to Mr Stefan SCHENNACH, rapporteur.

You have 3 minutes, Mr SCHENNACH.

Mr Stefan SCHENNACH

Austria, SOC, Rapporteur

19:42:47

Thank you very much Mister President,

First I want to thank everyone who was participating in this debate.

Mostly it is right that the freedom of press, the freedom of opinion, open speech is in danger.

For Ms Yevheniia KRAVCHUK and Ms Anne STAMBACH-TERRENOIR, I have an example.

You all know who Mr Yevgeny Prigozhin was. He was one of the big movers of SLAPPs, because when you wrote that he was the boss of the soldiers, then in the UK he moved to the court, and then you paid for it because you had to defend yourself.

Why do we have the figures about the SLAPPs? Because the Council of Europe has a perfect website for journalists under pressure; and a website for SLAPPs. Please whenever you can, tell people to use those websites.

Then I want to say thank you to our conference in Riga. The pen is mightier than the sword. That was really a very, very impressive conference from the president of that time.

I want also to thank Mr Roberto Fasino and Mr Marc Gruber because in our Committee on Culture, Science, Education and Media, these are the best experts we have, but there should be also a woman, and this woman is sitting in London, ​​Ms Beatriz Maja Brown. I must say it is not so many times that somebody impressed me as much as this woman, who is an expert of the British government against SLAPPs. 

And then Ms Nadejda IORDANOVA from Bulgaria - I never miss a moment to remember one of the most brutally murdered journalists, Ms Victoria Marinova. She was an investigative journalist and she was killed in an extreme way.

Then, I want say to those who spoke about Mr Julian Assange. You are all right. Four years ago we had an amendment in this plenary. It was adopted that he should be freed immediately - but it was four years ago. I can only tell you, as I know in the committee, there is the next amendment which is also very good adopted, and we should take care for Mr Julian Assange.

Mister President,

Thank you very much.

Sorry now, I'm 30 seconds over.

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC, President of the Assembly

19:46:28

Thank you.

I now give the floor to Mr Mogens JENSEN, also for 3 minutes.

Mr Mogens JENSEN

Denmark, SOC, Rapporteur

19:46:37

Thank you very much, dear colleagues and thanks for the very, very positive reception of my and also Mr Stefan SCHENNACH's report.

Just a few remarks, Mr Stefan SCHENNACH said what has to be said about Julian Assange and his case. It is mentioned in my report, but also I will support the amendment, putting it into the resolution.

To Mr László TOROCZKAI from Hungary, I just want to say you would like this resolution also to talk about the power of social media. This is not for this report. In 2022 we had a report on that on the control of online communication, and we are also preparing a new report on the public regulation of the freedom of expression in digital media. So, we are working on this item, but it is not a part of this report. This report is about the professional media, and professional journalists. There, I also would like you, perhaps, to notice what is written about Hungary and the role of Hungary when it comes to media capture. There is some work to do, for you as a parliamentarian. I hope you will take part in it to better the situation also in Hungary.

Ladies and gentlemen, as I told you earlier, it is my mandate as a rapporteur of this Assembly on media freedom and the safety of journalists. It has been a great pleasure for me to fulfil this role in the last two years. I wish all the best to our colleague, Ms Valentina GRIPPO, who is now taking over this challenging task for the next two years. Indeed, the adoption of our report today is not an end to that work. It is a new beginning.

I want to remain optimistic despite the difficulties that we face. The fact that all our countries are engaged in a constructive process, such as the Campaign for the Safety of Journalists, should bring us hope. However, we must now be coherent and now we must make this campaign a success story.

We should feel accountable, be more responsible and also act more rapidly when problems are detected. We need to show more commitment and to do more to safeguard media freedom more effectively. Each of us should do this at a domestic level, and we must work together at the level of the Council of Europe as well.

On behalf of all the journalists, all the media workers, and all the media in Europe, I want to thank you again for a very, very good debate and also for your support today and during the last two years.

Thank you very much.

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC, President of the Assembly

19:49:52

Thank you, Mister JENSEN.

For the Committee, may I give the floor to Mr Birgir THÓRARINSSON, who is Vice-Chairman of the Committee.

Mr Birgir THÓRARINSSON

Iceland, EPP/CD, Vice-Chairperson of the Committee on Culture, Science, Education and Media

19:50:06

Mr President,

Dear colleagues,

With the joint debate that we held today, our Assembly is closing a new very important chapter of our work: to safeguard media freedom.

The report on SLAPPs by Mr Stefan SCHENNACH points to measures that are needed to uphold journalists, media and civil society organisations in their role of watchdogs and their contribution to inform public participation.

Mr Mogens JENSEN's report on guaranteeing media freedom and the safety of journalists is a snapshot of the situation in Europe, which regretfully is deteriorating.

Our reports pointed out serious threats against media and journalists, such as killings and harassment, which must be confronted. But it is also important to make sure that political and regulatory conditions are fulfilled to let journalists carry out their public service mission daily and in our countries.

These two complementary reports are a wake up call for us, and I hope that we will all proactively promote in our countries the guidelines included in the resolution on which we are going to vote.

We should all commit as individual members, national delegations, and as the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council Europe to actively support and engage in the campaign for the safety of journalists.

This year marks not only the 75th anniversary of our institution, it is also a year with key elections in Europe; for the European Parliament, but also on a national level in Finland, Portugal, Slovakia, Lithuania, Belgium, Croatia, Iceland, North Macedonia, Austria, Georgia, Romania, and Moldova.

These elections are important for all of us.

Moreover, there is a war going on in Europe which affects the work of journalists reporting on it, as well as the whole media ecosystem which is subject to informational disorders.

Free and independent media are an essential part of the democratic process. By making sure that citizens are properly informed at this difficult time as, Mr Mogens JENSEN said, it is our obligation to guarantee media freedom. And as Mr Stefan SCHENNACH pointed out, what is at stake here is the proper functioning of our democracies.

I would like, Mister President, to thank again our two rapporteurs, Mr Stefan SCHENNACH and Mr Mogens JENSEN, for their excellent work, and I hope that you will support the draft resolution and recommendation that our Committee has submitted to you.

Thank you.

Ms Mariana GÓMEZ DEL CAMPO GURZA

Mexico

20:03:06

(Undelivered speech, Rules of Procedure Art. 31.2)

 

Journalists all around the globe face constant and increasing risks, from censorship and persecution to violence and, in extreme cases, murder. These actions are not only an attack on individual rights but also on truth and our reliability on institutions.

My country´s situation in this particular matter is very alarming; the violence toward journalists has reached a critical level. As you may know, México is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalism. In the last few years, 43 journalists have gone missing and murdered.

Furthermore, it is disturbing to see that our President Lopez Obrador has been verbally attacking journalists in public media, which makes the situation more critical for them because it creates an environment of hostility and fear. That is why the Member States and the Observers must actively commit to protecting journalists and the freedom of speech of the media.

We must acknowledge that the attack on journalists is an assault on the very essence of democracy and our right to access information. In this regard, the international community is responsible for addressing this challenge.

We must condemn and fight against impunity associated with violence against journalists. The countries must actively commit to investigating and prosecuting these felonies, making sure that these acts do not remain unpunished.

Moreover, governments must apply effective programs and mechanisms to protect journalists, especially in high-risk locations, always warranting a safe environment for their jobs.

Within public speech, leaders need to avoid language that would encourage violence toward journalists. Press rights are fundamental for any democratic society.

Therefore, we must strengthen global institutions and organizations that defend the freedom of the press and the protection of journalists. These actions will surely contribute to a safe environment for independent journalism.

We all share the responsibility of ensuring journalists can do their jobs without retaliation. The freedom of the press is not only a right of the journalists; it is the right of every citizen to receive free and diverse information.

I would like to encourage all Member States to take effective action to ensure the safety and freedom of the media. Only through our commitment, we will be able to live in societies where truth and liberty prevail.

Mr Mustafa CANBEY

Türkiye, NR

20:03:08

(Undelivered speech, Rules of Procedure Art. 31.2)

 

Dear President,

Dear Colleagues,

Freedom of expression and the safety of journalists are important pillars to protect and promote democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. I would like to underline that member States must be vigilant to safeguard and uphold freedom of expression and information.

I also would like to emphasize that media freedom is guaranteed by the constitution in Türkiye. Article 28 of the Turkish constitution states that, "Everyone has the right to freely express, publish and broadcast their views and opinions."

I want to emphasize once more that Türkiye is a state that upholds rule of law. Investigations against those who are claimed to be “journalists in prison” are not due to journalistic work but due to their acts in support of terrorist organizations. It is critical to recognize that journalism, does not provide immunity to evade accountability for criminal activities, especially those related to terrorism.

As a former journalist and current MP, I can clearly state that Türkiye protects media freedom and freedom of expression better than most countries. Every individual has the right to express their opinions without fear of censorship.

When it comes to the critical issue of media freedom and safety of journalists, there is no state that demands our attention more urgently than Palestine.

World War II resulted in the deaths of approximately 60 million individuals, and only a total of 69 journalists lost their lives. Since 7 October, Israel killed 112 journalists in three months and this number continues to increase day by day. How can we consider this atrocity as normal! Israel does not only kill journalists to silence them, but also targets their families with unimaginable brutality.

Bombing civilian infrastructure indiscriminately and deliberately targeting and killing journalists violates all norms of international law. Israel has committed war crimes by targeting journalists in the line of duty. We condemn the Israeli occupation army's attacks against journalists in the strongest terms.

Thank you.

Ms Sevilay ÇELENK ÖZEN

Türkiye, UEL

20:03:10

(Undelivered speech, Rules of Procedure Art. 31.2)

 

It is often pointed out that SLAPP lawsuits are the most widely used mechanism for persecuting journalists in Turkey today, with countless investigations, arrests and trials. This criticism is also voiced by the Venice Commission.

The best-known examples of SLAPP lawsuits against journalists are on the basis of the Disinformation Law passed in 2022 and the Anti-Terrorism Law. Journalists risk their freedom as soon as they write about illegal acts involving high-ranking state officials or influential figures in the civil or military bureaucracy. The accusation of discrediting people fighting against terrorism is the reason for many lawsuits against journalists. In the case of disinformation, the offense depends on the conditions that the disseminated news threatens national or public security, that there is an intention to spread panic and fear among the population, and that it obviosly disturbs public peace.

Given the fact that we are facing a judiciary that can no longer be characterized as impartial in any way, the Disinformation Law, with its vagueness and non-objective conditions, has become a means of making the last channels of breathing space inaccessible to us.

With the mainstream media completely under the control of the AKP, there has been a significant migration to social media. In Turkey, 80 percent of citizens are social media users. The disinformation law, also known as the censorship law, was an expression of a very serious attack on these spaces.

Yes, there are the regulations like disinformation law in other parts of the world, yes, even in Europe. But it is very important what they call disinformation, what they punish and what they do to solve this problem. In Turkey, after controlling the mainstream media almost completely, the ruling party is now controlling social media and internet news channels with this law.

The right to freedom of expression must be strongly protected. This is the guarantee of a democratic Europe. And a democratic Europe is an indispensable prerequisite for peace and democracy in the world.

Vote: Countering SLAPPs: an imperative for a democratic society / Guaranteeing media freedom and the safety of journalists: an obligation of member States

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC, President of the Assembly

19:53:15

Thank you, Mister Vice-Chairman.

The general discussion is closed.

We now come to the first report on "Combating SLAPPs: an imperative for a democratic society" (Doc. 15869).

The Committee on Culture, Science, Education and the Media has presented a Draft Resolution (Doc. 15869) to which 12 Amendments have been tabled, and a Draft Recommendation (Doc. 15869) to which no amendments have been tabled.

We shall first examine the Draft Resolution.

I have been informed that the Chairman of the Committee on Culture, Science, Education and the Media wishes to propose to the Assembly that Amendments 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 11, 8, 9, 12 and 10, which were adopted unanimously by the Committee, be deemed adopted by the Assembly.

Is this the case, Mister Vice-Chairman?

Mr Birgir THÓRARINSSON

Iceland, EPP/CD, Vice-Chairperson of the Committee on Culture, Science, Education and Media

19:54:18

That's correct.

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC, President of the Assembly

19:54:22

Are there any objections?

If so, please raise your hand.

I can't see any objections.

Amendments 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 11, 8, 9, 12 and 10 to the draft resolution are  agreed.

 

I have also been informed by the Chairman of the Committee on Culture, Science, Education and the Media of the following: Amendment 3 was rejected by the Committee by a two-thirds majority of votes cast.

Is this the case, Mr Vice-Chairman?

Mr Birgir THÓRARINSSON

Iceland, EPP/CD, Vice-Chairperson of the Committee on Culture, Science, Education and Media

19:54:58

That's correct.

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC, President of the Assembly

19:55:01

If no one objects, – does anyone object? – I will consider this amendment definitively rejected.

Does anyone object?

There are no objections. There are no objections.

Amendment No. 3 to the Draft Resolution is rejected and will not be called.

 

We will now proceed to the vote on the Draft Resolution. A simple majority is required.

We proceed to vote on Doc. 15869 (amended) on "Combating SLAPPs: an imperative for a democratic society".

The Resolution was accepted by 49 votes to 2, with 4 abstentions.

Well done to its author.

 

We will now move on to the Draft Recommendation on the same subject. A two-thirds majority is required. This is Doc. 15869.

The Recommendation is accepted by 48 votes to 1, with 4 abstentions.

Congratulations to its authors.

 

We now come to the second report, entitled "Guaranteeing media freedom and the safety of journalists: an obligation for member states" (Doc. 15891).

The Committee on Culture, Science, Education and the Media has presented a Draft Resolution (Doc. 15891) to which 3 Amendments have been tabled, and a Draft Recommendation (Doc. 15891) to which no amendments have been tabled.

They will be referred to in the order in which they apply to the text as published in the collection of Amendments.

 

We shall now examine the Draft Resolution.

I have been informed by the Chairman of the Committee on Culture, Science, Education and the Media that Amendments 1 and 2 were rejected by the Committee by a two-thirds majority of votes cast.

Is this the case, Mister Vice-Chairman?

Mr Birgir THÓRARINSSON

Iceland, EPP/CD, Vice-Chairperson of the Committee on Culture, Science, Education and Media

19:58:07

That's correct.

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC, President of the Assembly

19:58:10

If nobody objects, I consider these amendments definitively rejected.

If there is an objection, we'll have to check that it has the required support of 10 people.

Does anyone object to this proposal?

There are no objections.

Amendments 1 and 2 to the draft resolution are rejected and will not be called.

 

We now come to the discussion of the last amendment.

Mr Andrej HUNKO has the floor to support amendment no. 3.

You have 30 seconds.

Mr Andrej HUNKO

Germany, UEL

19:58:53

Thank you very much, Mister President,

This amendment is a reminder of our request from January 2020 in the resolution following the release of Mr Julian Assange.

I believe this is important, a few weeks before the hearing on 20 and 21 February in London, which will probably the decisive court hearing.

We clarify our position here once again; hence this amendment.

I ask for your support. Thank you very much.

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC, President of the Assembly

19:59:34

Mr Andrej HUNKO has spoken in favour of the amendment.

Does anyone wish to speak against the amendment?

I don't see anyone.

I ask for the opinion of the committee.

Mr Vice-Chairman?

Mr Birgir THÓRARINSSON

Iceland, EPP/CD, Vice-Chairperson of the Committee on Culture, Science, Education and Media

19:59:51

In favour.

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC, President of the Assembly

19:59:52

The committee is in favour.

 

We will now vote on the amendment.

 

The amendment is accepted by 36 votes to 8, with 3 abstentions.

 

We now come to the draft resolution. A simple majority is required.

This is Doc. 15891 as amended entitled "Guaranteeing media freedom and the safety of journalists: an obligation for member states".

 

The draft resolution was accepted by 49 votes to 2, with 4 abstentions.

 

We now come to the vote on the draft recommendation contained in Doc. 15891. I remind you that a two-thirds majority is required.

 

The draft recommendation is adopted by 46 votes to 1, with 4 abstentions.

 

Congratulations on your vote.

 

The next meeting will take place tomorrow at 10.30 a.m. in accordance with the agenda for this part-session.

I would ask our colleagues who will be leaving Strasbourg this evening and will no longer be sitting tomorrow to please deposit their voting cards in the ballot box provided for this purpose, at the exit to the hemicycle.

The meeting is now adjourned.

We wish you a pleasant evening. Thank you for your attention.

The sitting is closed at 8 p.m.