Dozens of press freedom watchdogs are calling on Azerbaijan and Tajikistan to cease efforts to block reappointment of the OSCE's (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) top media rights official.
French diplomat Harlem Desir, who was appointed the inter-governmental body's press freedom representative in 2017—one of OSCE's top four positions—has been lauded by international rights groups as a staunch advocate for press freedom in the OSCE region.
In late June, the foreign ministry of OSCE member state Azerbaijan blocked a package of preliminary renewal mandates for all top OSCE officials and issued a letter of protest over Desir's pending reappointment in particular.
On Friday, some 29 international press freedom groups led by London-based Article19 issued an open letter to Azerbaijani and Tajik officials—who, the letter states, made a similar threat—condemning their efforts to "weaken the essential watchdog function of the [OSCE] mandate."
"As the COVID-19 pandemic showed, ensuring media freedom is more important now than ever," said the dozens of signatories, which include Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the Committee to Protect Journalists, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, Freedom House, PEN International, and the European Federation of Journalists. "We urge the Governments of Azerbaijan and Tajikistan and all OSCE participating States to uphold their international commitments and to support the renewal of the mandate of Mr. Désir before it expires on 19 July."
The OSCE's consensus-based structure means even a single detracting vote can scuttle any reappointment. Although OSCE members can vote to renew the top four leadership appointments individually, the threat of abstention over Desir alone could leave his role vacant until OSCE reconvenes in September.
"Azerbaijan and Tajikistan—the countries with the worst press freedom records in the OSCE region (apart from Turkmenistan)—have succeeded in blocking the reappointment of @harlemdesir as @OSCE_RFoM," Tweeted RSF's Rebecca Vincent on Friday. "Shameful."
If they succeed in blocking Desir's reappointment, Vincent told Malta-based digital news outlet The Shift, these two countries will "effectively evade OSCE scrutiny.”
In its 2020 annual World Press Freedom Index, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders ranked Azerbaijan 168 out of 180 countries. It ranked Tajikistan 161.
In January, Desir called on Tajikistan to grant accreditations to RFE/RL’s entire Tajik Service, saying "journalists must be able to work 'freely without undue restrictions.'" RFE/RL, one of VOA's congressionally funded sister networks, has been locked in a longstanding accreditation battle with Dushanbe.
In February, he called on Tajik officials to release jailed independent journalist Daler Sharipov, who often reported on the country’s human rights and religious freedom violations.
I wrote to the authorities of #Tajikistan calling for the immediate release of journalist Daler Sharipov. Media must be able to investigate and to publish, including on the Internet, without fear of reprisal. #Journosafe— OSCE media freedom (@OSCE_RFoM) February 3, 2020
Desir has issued at least a dozen official statements criticizing Azerbaijan's stifling press restrictions since assuming his OSCE post in 2017, most recently condemning the Supreme Court's decision to block access to Akhbor.com for an April 5 report on the country’s first alleged death from the coronavirus pandemic.
On July 6, a news outlet run by the Baku-based Trend News Agency published an editorial entitled "People like Harlem Désir made OSCE turn into instrument (sic) for political orders."
"Azerbaijan considers Désir’s activities to be biased, non-objective and non-independent, ... [which] is a gross violation of the representative’s mandate," the editorial states. "Désir speaks from an anti-Azerbaijani and pro-Armenian position."
A team of OSCE negotiators have been leading conflict resolution talks since 2016 when the long-frozen Nagorno-Karabakh border dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia began flaring up again.
Azerbaijani and Tajik officials did not respond to VOA's requests for comment at the time of publication.