Free European Media conference: "While we look into the future we also have to look to the past"

By Jane Whyatt

Europe’s media freedom community is meeting on February 15th and 16th in the historic setting of Gdansk’s European Solidarity Centre for the Free European Media conference, to build support for critical journalists under threat. In an interview with ECPMF the President of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) outlines the challenges and hopes.

Mogen Blicher Bjerregård "Leaders are not defending the freedom of the media but attacking it" Mogens Blicher Bjerregård, EFJ President

Under the banner of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), delegates have a wide-ranging agenda of current concerns. They also draw on the town’s heroic history of fighting for free speech, with Lech Walesa as a star guest. Walesa led the Solidarnosc (solidarity) uprising in the 1980s and was Poland’s second president after the fall of communism.

The President of the European Federation of Journalists Mogens Blicher Bjerregård, who is also a member of the Executive Board of the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, told ECPMF in an interview why this is a crucial meeting for journalists in Poland and across the continent. The Free European Media conference will also see the official launch of Blicher Bjeeregaård's new book, with the same title as the conference, about the threats to media freedom in Europe. You can read the Poland chapter here

In 2016 you were on the team of fact-finders, visiting Poland to investigate media freedom violations - for example the political purge of more than 100 broadcast journalists who were considered ’too liberal’ for the PiS government, elected in November 2015. What has changed since then?

The interim media law was passed. [editor's note: it reformed public service broadcasting and gave the government direct control over hiring and firing of broadcast journalists] And that’s also why we are here now - to gain some more knowledge about its effects. But it is also important to say that this conference is not just about Poland, but about the whole of Europe. However, Poland is one of the places where media freedom is put under pressure, compared with what we would normally see in the EU. There’s a hostile environment towards media and journalists. Leaders are not defending the freedom of the media but attacking it.

There are a number of different EFJ member organisations in Poland and some of them warmly support the new measures that the PiS government has taken to reform the public service broadcaster TVP/Radio Poland. How dfficult is it to separate these party political leanings from trade union representation and fighting for media freedom?

It’s difficult and this is something that we must deal with in the future, to make sure that journalists are working independently for their profession, free from political ties. This is not only happening in Poland, you see it in other countries, too: journalists are more politically involved than before and therefore more divided. We need more unity among journalists, and more unity inside the unions. And that’s a very difficult task because we’re going into the internal affairs of the trade unions. One must be careful not to impose something on journalists that they should not be asked to do. This is a mutual thing that we need to work on, and there is no simple answer to this. Trade union work is demand-driven. We need to have a lot of internal discussions.


Please find here all the information on the Free European Media conference in Gdansk, Poland, where also ECPMF's legal advisor Flutura Kusari will speak in the panel "How legislation violates media freedom"

In your new book, you set out your analysis of the state of media freedom in Europe. How optimistic are you, given all the pressures on journalists today?

I am basically an optimistic person and I believe that we can make changes if we stand together, and that’s why it is important that this is a European event. Because only by being Europeans standing together and understanding the challenges we are facing, can we have a common approach to our institutions. We need to improve media freedom in Europe, this pillar of our democracies. It’s our duty to meet these challenges now. It’s high time.

Gdansk, and specifically the shipyard, was the birthplace of the Solidarnosc movement - led by the trade unions - that resulted in the overthrow of Poland’s communist regime. The leader of that movement Lech Walesa is a keynote speaker at the conference. What does he represent in terms of media freedom?

We are here because it is very symbolic: this was the place where the new democracies in Europe were born during the 1980s. Looking at the situation in Poland now it is important to go back to this very place where it all started so that in a symbolic way maybe we can start again. That’s why it is important to have Walesa here. It is important while we look into the future we also look to the past.

Speaking of the past. The museum in Gdansk is being re-furbished, obviously in order to change the way that Polish history is portrayed. And there’s this new law as well that goes along with it, which makes it illegal to imply any Polish involvement in the Holocaust. What do you think those developments mean in terms of media freedom, since they also affect not only Polish but also foreign journalists?

A: It’s really damaging! And it’s a challenge that this is happening now because this shuts peoples mouths in a way that is totally against media freedom and free speech. I really don’t have words to describe this, and that shows again why it is so important to have free media: to have an environment in which you can speak freely without being told from the top what the country is all about.