It’s also conventional wisdom that credibility of journalism is at an all time low. Just take a look at new figures from the US: or think of the campaign in Germany against the ‘Lügenpresse’.
Threats against journalists are getting more and more common. Take a look at the mapping done by Index on Censorship.
It’s also slowly, but steadily, becoming conventional wisdom that governments, parliaments, international bodies and – even worse – citizens all over Europe don’t care about fundamental rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom in general. According to reports from Freedom House, these years the world has been getting less and less free!
Yale professor David Bromwich just published a long article in London Review of Books about freedom of expression, where he notes that "‘free speech has seldom been a common intuition, and it’s not a universal experience. It matters to the few, much of the time, and to others at upredictable times". He goes on to state that the last two generations of left liberals have forgotten the arguments for free speech.
That’s why governments can get away with the hollowing out of free speech and other fundamental democratic rights. But yes, there is opposition from numerous human rights institutions and the media community.
In May I participated in the World Press Day in Helsinki, organised by Unesco. Looking at the declaration from the conference, there is no lack of enthusiasm among all the national and international NGOs fighting for press freedom. The declaration is a strong paper: But nevertheless, press freedom is cut back in almost every European country. We have to realise that after a long period with better and better human rights at least in Western Europe - and certainly in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism - we are now fighting just to keep fundamental rights as we know them. We are fighting to prevent a general international rollback of freedom of expression and other human rights.
We in the ECPMF, our member organisations and a great many other unions, political parties and personalities, are protesting on the internet, in conferences, in media, in petitions and wherever we can get an audience.
Problem is: It doesn't work!
When you look at the recent development in Turkey, in Russia, in Poland and in Hungary, you cannot help feeling helpless.
All these members of the UN are violating the Declaration of Human Rights. These members of the Council of Europe or OSCE don’t care, when they meet criticism from officials from these important organisations – seen as progress for humanity. In some cases, also members of NATO and the EU suppress editors, journalists, cartoonists, photographers and other professionals from the media. They violate theirs and everybody else’s human rights.
We, the ECPMF, have protested in general terms and in many specific cases. So have other NGOs from the media world. But president Erdogan doesn't care, president Putin doesn't care, Poland's grey cardinal Kaczynski and his puppet in the president's palace, Andrzej Duda, don’t care, prime minister Orban doesn't care. And when freedom of the press is cut back in more established democracies in the name of fighting terrorism, there is no public outcry.
The trend these days is to violate established international law – a convention is no longer binding. Just look at the way European governments handle the refugee crisis.
To stress my point, I would like to come back to the Finlandia Declaration from this year's World Press Day. As already said: It's a strong declaration. But almost nobody listened. I’ve searched the internet, and here mostly NGOs like the ECPMF wrote about the Finlandia Declaration. I’ve only been able – outside Finland - to find it mentioned in a few important media outlets, i.e. The Hindu and al-Jazeera!
But what about media dealing with media? Not much better. Article 19 just on 29 September praised "a ground-breaking resolution on the safety of journalists" adopted by the UN Human Rights Council. It's an important document. Journalists are killed, attacked, jailed and threatened every day.
I took a look at the websites of the three Scandinavian unions of journalists. The resolution wasn’t mentioned at all. And these websites are central for journalists here – more than 90 percent of Scandinavian journalists are members of the unions!
As said: our present approach doesn’t work!
So what is to be done?
The first mportant point is to follow developments.
We, the ECPMF, and other NGOs in the media world shall continue to do what we already do, and do well: collect facts; protest when freedom of the press is violated; support journalists who are threatened and media facing difficulties; and ask governments and international organisations to observe their obligations and live up to their own promises about free and transparent societies.
This is an ongoing process, and to me all NGOs in this field are getting better and better at exchanging facts, tricks and experiences. All information needed to see that something is going wrong is available and easy to find.
But as noted, this is certainly not enough.
The second important point is to organise and mobilise – we have to get broader parts of society to see the importance of the problem.
All NGOs should improve their performance when it comes to membership and public events. As journalists and media workers, we have access to the press. I don't mean to slander colleagues present here when I note that because of our access to the media, we have in general neglected to appear at public events. Lectures and teach-ins are not trendy, but we have to invite people to listen to us – and join public events when possible.
As an example of what I'm thinking of: Danish PEN will use the upcoming Danish Book Fair to inform the public on the developments in Turkey. We should show films and have public discussions in that context, and so on.
We have to work with segments of society benefitting from free speech: the audiences of theatres, opera houses, libraries, museums. We have to prepare material that can be distributed in museum shops.
We have to organise happenings to reach the man in the street.
Doing this, we have to use the full monty of social media, where more and more people are getting their news. This we have to learn. Short and efficient prose. Photos and videos. Cases. Press freedom shall become the talk of the town – otherwise we will not be able to set the agenda.
We have to reach out to the citizens and build alliances to defend the fundamental rights we have and – hopefully – also improve them. When governments won’t listen, we have to turn to their electorates.
Here in Germany, the Alternative für Deutschland is these months proving what the founder of the Green Party, Petra Kelly, told me in an interview (1983): Presidents and ministers will only listen the moment they realise that we are stealing their voters. The Green Party managed to get the environment to the top of the political agenda – in my eyes a very positive influence. The same cannot be said of the AfD's influence.
We shall, of course, not establish new political parties, but we have to get to fellow citizens outside our own media world to see that even if they don't see themselves in the frontline, that's actually where they are.
At the first session of this conference – in a few minutes – we will discuss the threats against press freedom and free speech in detail and hopefully come up with a range of good ideas.
What we have been doing till now clearly doesn’t work. Fundamental rights are cut. We have to turn the tide.
The author used a version of this text as his keynote speech at the ECPMF's European Media Freedom Conference 2016.