What it is: OSCE is the world's largest regional security organisation. 55 states from Europe, Central Asia and North America participate in it and help pay for it. Its HQ is in Vienna, Austria. The 55 states have equal status, and OSCE decisions are based on general agreement among them all.

What it means: In 1975, during the Cold War, a remarkable conference took place in Helsinki, following discussions over the previous two years and a USSR proposal dating back to the 1950s for a pan-European security conference. The people attending it, from both blocs of the Cold War, discussed ways of moving towards peace and security, including arms control, diplomacy and confidence-building. They signed the Helsinki Final Act, which led to the founding of a continuing Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE). After the end of the Cold War, the CSCE was reformed from 1 January 1995 as the OSCE. It works on peace-related issues of all kinds, including human rights and ethnic conflict, and its special function is to provide, through the Conflict Prevention Centre, early warning of potential conflicts in Europe, and to help in preventing them from happening. Where that isn't possible, OSCE can provide crisis management and assistance in rebuilding when a conflict ends. It also aims to encourage the rule of law, instead of war (and the crime that goes with conflict) and encourages democratic processes.  Most of OSCE'S work since 1992 has been in European and Central Asian countries formerly associated with the Soviet Union, and in the Balkan countries. OSCE also runs a Court of Conciliation and Arbitration, which settles disputes among OSCE states. There is an OSCE parliamentary assembly, created in 1990, attended by over 300 politicians from all the OSCE states, which encourages and ensures the involvement of each country's government in OSCE's aims. By 2004, OSCE projects included combating human trafficking in Ukraine, running a criminal justice programme in 10 central Asian countries and a rule of law programme in 5 of these, helping to solve water-management problems in Kazakhstan and Kyrgizstan, organising the destruction of ammunition and neutralisation of hazardous waste at former military bases in Georgia, introducing community-based policing in Macedonia, and helping Moldovan public radio to represent the people. OSCE's chief representatives command respect, and it employs experts who are good at teaching their skills and expertise to others. 

The Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights provides election monitors; the OSCE High Commissioner for National Minorities supports groups such as the Roma; the OSCE Representative on the Freedom of the Media warns of violations of freedom of expression in member countries.

Think about it: OSCE has a Special Representative for Free Expression whose task is to monitor the relationship between the media and the state. OSCE's Permanent Council has said that it won't allow the 'war' on terrorism to affect the rights and freedoms of the press, and the Special Representative has said that counter-terrorism 'should not be used as an excuse to limit human rights'. In the Balkans during the 1990s the media, and especially the Serbian press, were controlled by the government, who used them to stimulate conflict. One of OSCE's jobs has been to help 'restructure' state-influenced media, liberating them to represent the people, not sway them - and separating the media from the state isn't easy. A government that wants to control its people also wants to control the information they get. A free press, an efficient water-supply, or the clean-up of weapons chemicals: why are such things crucial to building and sustaining peace? Are the media 'free' where you are? How can you tell? If you sense, or know, that you aren't getting the whole story, what can you do about it? How free are you? And did you know that you could call on OSCE for help?