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Lack of transparency, restricted flow of information fuel conflict, hamper long term peace, says ARTICLE 19

(ARTICLE 19/IFEX) - The following is a 14 August 2008 ARTICLE 19 press release:

Conflict in South Ossetia: Lack of Transparency and the Restricted Flow of Information Fuel the Conflict and Hamper Long Term Peace

ARTICLE 19 is very concerned with the obstructions placed on the free flow of information, including through the targeting of media professionals, in the South Ossetia conflict, and insists that any long term prospect for peace requires an information regime respecting diversity and pluralism.

Heavy civilian casualties have been reported as a result of the conflict in the disputed region of South Ossetia. Reports of civilian dead and wounded vary, with numbers and circumstances difficult to independently verify, due to difficulties in accessing the region and the on-going fighting, and presence of troops.

The lack of verifiable information is fuelling mistrust, misrepresentation and disinformation, thus exacerbating tensions and fueling the conflict. Populations from all sides in the conflict and refugees are experiencing many difficulties in accessing factual information about the events and the whereabouts of their loved ones.

Truth and freedom of expression are some of the first and greatest casualties of war. The South Ossetian conflict has been no exception.

At least five local and international news staff have been killed and another ten wounded.

Early in the conflict, the Georgian government banned the transmission of Russian television into Georgia due to the alleged use of propaganda to justify the conflict.

News reports on both sides of the conflict are replete with rumours, allegations and counter-allegations of ethnic cleansing, genocide, and other intensely worded crimes which demonise the other side and deepen hostilities.

There are also numerous reports of interference with websites. Hackers have reportedly infiltrated several government sites, replacing content with propaganda. One report claims that hackers altered the front page of the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website to show pictures of President Mikheil Saakashvili interspersed with images of Adolf Hitler. Russian websites have reportedly also been infiltrated.

Respect for freedom of expression and freedom of the press, and the free flow of information will be an invaluable and essential element in the effective implementation of the cease-fire and the promotion of peace.

"ARTICLE 19's work in conflict regions, including in the so-called frozen conflicts, has shown that access to comprehensive and accurate information increases people's sense of security whilst the lack of reliable information fuels insecurity. Information is also fundamental to resolving key concerns in the aftermath of conflict, such as ensuring respect for human rights, government accountability and achieving sustainable peace," said Dr. Agnes Callamard, ARTICLE 19 executive director.

The free flow of information is an essential foundation for the wider debate on the nature of the conflict and broader issues of accountability, both of which are critical in addressing the root causes of the conflict. Freedom of expression is also necessary for adequate reporting on the conflict itself and for addressing human rights abuses, both as a cause of the conflict and a factor perpetuating it. So is an independent and professional media, able to report freely and without fears. This requires the removal of all administrative, economic and political pressures, and the tight state-control of information, the end to the persecution of journalists who have not conformed to the system, better training and self-regulation.

ARTICLE 19 calls on Georgia and Russia to fully respect their international obligations on freedom of expression and the free flow of information.

ARTICLE 19 calls on the international community to insist that any long term prospects for the region is largely dependent on an information regime that maximises diversity of views, investigative reporting, and a free flow of information, and to support the right of the media to operate independently and free of political pressures.

For a copy of ARTICLE 19 report: Covering Conflict - Reporting on Conflicts in the North Caucasus in the Russian Media, please click here: http://www.article19.org/pdfs/publications/russia-conflict-report.pdf

For a copy of ARTICLE 19 report on access to information in Abkhazia, please click here: http://www.article19.org/pdfs/publications/abkhazia-foi-report.pdf

ARTICLE 19 is an independent human rights organisation that works globally to protect and promote the right to freedom of expression. It takes its name from Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees free speech.

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