“21st Century Challenges to Freedom
of the Press”
Minister President Platzeck;
Lord Mayor Jakobs;
Herr Doctor Gauck;
other distinguished guests.
I first would like to recognize and acknowledge the organizers of this event for focusing attention on this critical issue.
For its part, Freedom House has seen fit to emphasize freedom of the press and freedom of expression precisely because we believe these values are fundamental to other key freedoms, including political and economic freedoms. We also believe a free and vibrant media is indispensible for the health of democratically accountable systems. For this reason, I’ll now seek to explain why the deepening challenges to press freedom that Freedom House has identified over the past several years have much larger implications.
I should start by saying that the title of my remarks - 21st Century Challenges to Press Freedom - is somewhat misleading. Not all of the challenges are modern or new. The accelerated development of communications technologies has created fresh challenges to press freedom that are, on the one hand, complex, evolving and modern in their character.
On the other hand, a host of serious – but more traditional – challenges to press freedom remain. These traditional challenges are especially relevant for the European Union’s neighbors to the immediate east, which more than 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall continue to face large - and in many respects, growing - threats to press freedom. We therefore confront a complex combination of threats - both new and old.
In the short time I have I would like to touch on several of the main aspects of the contemporary threats to free expression. I’ll start with what I would broadly categorize as the new challenges.
Globalization and the new technologies that have accompanied it have afforded unprecedented opportunities for disseminating and sharing information.
This is, of course, in many ways a good thing.
Over the past generation - as the current phase of globalization has gained momentum - openings for more expression have been enabled by advances in communications technology, exemplified by the Internet, but which include other technologies such as mobile phones and SMS, along with various Internet based tools and applications that have made possible a scope and degree of communication previously unimaginable.
Individuals have the means today not only to consume media but using web 2.0 tools to produce their own content. “Citizen journalism” has emerged along with other opportunities for individuals and groups to report, exchange ideas and share opinions quickly and widely. These new technologies have also created opportunities for reformers to organize in new and promising ways in democratic and undemocratic setting alike.
But today we confront a paradox regarding the production of news. As the news media professionals in this room are acutely aware, the recent technological breakthroughs are putting the traditional model of producing news under extraordinary stress. So far at least, the rise of internet-based journalism has not brought with it the rigorous and systematic editorial scrutiny that has been a feature of the newspaper industry.
As newspaper editorial staffs have been reduced, sometimes dramatically, in the new financial environment the capacity to gather and distill politically consequential information has been sorely tested. This is a severe problem in the United States, particularly for newspapers at the municipal and state level. Foreign coverage has also been sharply downsized.
The diverse and liberal media industry that one finds throughout the countries of the European Union is not immune to these challenges either, especially newspaper publishers. A part of the new information landscape is the proliferation of “unmediated” media. Such media have increased the amount of available information but have not necessarily built the trust that comes with knowing that news and information is accurate. The Wikileaks phenomenon is perhaps the best known unmediated media and is forcing audiences to reckon with some complex issues relating to what constitutes news.
So we are at a crossroads. Time and innovation may deliver a new model that enables professionally reported news and the editorial scrutiny that comes with it to prosper again. Mathias Doepfner earlier today eloquently described this challenge. But until a model emerges that is both financially sustainable and editorially rigorous, democracies will be severely challenged to maintain the quality of their democratic systems.
Threat of “Creeping Illiberalism”
In addition to the challenges emerging from technology and economics, another threat that has emerged is political in nature. It could be called “creeping illiberalism.” A new struggle is taking shape between the advocates of free speech and those who are seeking to develop and in some cases legitimize new forms of censorship and control.
Efforts by diverse sources, ranging from autocrats to oligarchs to religious organizations, have attempted to discourage journalists, publishers, scholars, non-governmental organizations, even political satirists, from speaking out or publishing material on sensitive subjects. This illiberalism is rearing its head in a variety of venues.
The United Nations
It includes entities of the United Nations and judicial systems of established democracies where traditions of free expression have long been held sacred. For example, two units of the United Nations system, the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council, pass annual resolutions that call for restrictions on what people can say or write about religions, especially Islam. The principal targets of the resolutions are clearly the democracies of Europe rather than autocracies where both free speech and religious liberty are already heavily constrained.
Another example of this illiberalism is found in China, which has been at the vanguard of innovative and sophisticated methods to control its own citizens’ access to information. Less well known have been China’s efforts to extend its censorship system outside its borders. The controversy surrounding last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair is one example of this. Similar efforts by the Chinese authorities to suppress free expression in democracies – and I would stress that this is in democracies - have occurred in the recent past in settings as diverse as Australia, Taiwan and the United States. While it may tempting to take a path of least resistance to the challenges posed by this illiberalism, it is essential for the democracies to remain vigilant in defending free media and freedom of expression.
But while the challenges associated with globalization and technology - and economic stresses – just mentioned have moved more directly onto the press freedom agenda in recent years, a host of other serious, traditional challenges to press freedom persist. “Freedom of the Press,” Freedom House’s analysis of media independence, identifies these threats. Our annual assessment, which we’ve done since 1980, examines the legal, political and economic dimensions of press freedom in 195 countries.
Crisis of Media in Former Soviet Union
While these “old” threats are evident in a number of regions around the world, the countries of the former Soviet Union suffer greatly from them. We heard earlier during the panels some of the challenges to press freedom in these countries.
Freedom House’s most recent analysis shows that only two of the 12 former Soviet republics are not operating under consolidated authoritarian media conditions. Only two.
Today, more than 80 percent of the people – 230 million people - in the former Soviet Union are living in Not Free media systems, where basic press freedom safeguards and guarantees are denied.
Remarkably, most of the countries of the former Soviet Union, including influential states such as Russia and Kazakhstan, still in 2010 systematically suppress alternative voices and meaningful reporting on politics, corruption and other critical issues. It is fair to say that this region faces a “crisis of free media.” The internet is the principal alternative and challenger to media hegemony and has offered openings for greater expression in the otherwise repressive space of the former Soviet Union.
But “Freedom on the Net,” Freedom House’s analysis of internet freedom indicates that encroachments on the relative freedom of the internet in these countries are growing. Here, too, we must remain vigilant. This crisis of media freedom in Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union has direct implications for Europe that I will discuss in a moment. First, briefly, the key challenges to media freedom in the former Soviet Union region:
The Use and Abuse of Punitive Laws: These include vaguely crafted extremism laws that are all too often used to intimidate or muzzle legitimate inquiry. Criminal libel and defamation laws remain a widespread way to punish the press.
The Consolidation and Control of Media Infrastructure: Authoritarian states are increasingly consolidating control of the media. These methods of control are increasingly sophisticated.
Violence and Impunity: The level of violence and physical harassment directed at the press by both government and non-state actors continues to be an issue in the former Soviet Union, as well some in southeastern Europe. Far too many of these cases go unsolved and these attacks have a chilling effect on media, contributing to self-censorship.
Russia, Belarus, Ukraine
In Russia, for example, high profile murder cases, including Paul Klebnikov and Anna Politkovskaya remain unsolved. The attitude of the authorities is evident in their consistent failure to identify or punish the killers in these and other cases. I would to take this opportunity to acknowledge Chancellor Merkel, who has been a clear - but all too often lonely – voice on the deeply troubling condition of press freedom in Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union.
The environment for press freedom on the EU’s immediate border is problematic. The death last Friday under unclear circumstances of Oleg Bebenin in Belarus, a country also ranked Not Free by Freedom House, is another source of serious concern. And Ukraine, which has in recent years distinguished itself for its relatively open media in the non-Baltic former Soviet Union, is in jeopardy of squandering its important achievements toward building a free media environment. The recent disappearance of journalist Vasyl Klymentyev and the revocation of licenses of two independently oriented news stations have struck a blow against press freedom. If Ukraine’s media sector is brought to heel, it will have serious and negative implications for Ukraine’s democratic prospects; it will also serve as a clear and harmful signal to the rest of the region, which has precious few examples of countries with free media.
Importance of Free Media for Germany / EU
So why is the health of media freedom in the former Soviet Union important for the EU? There are a number of reasons; I will mention two of them. First, there are clear economic benefits to openness. Given the expansion of the economic relationship between the EU, Germany in particular, with key countries in the region, it is in EU strategic interest to encourage and support open and vibrant media in these countries. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect that Germany’s economic relationship with Russia that has grown impressively in recent years will be more durable if media in Russia were able to candidly discuss public policy issues, especially on television. National television in Russia, from which most ordinary Russians get their news and information, is controlled by the Kremlin. The same is true in other countries in the region, including energy states such as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, both of which have deeply non-transparent political and business environments. Improving the condition of press freedom therefore is not of interest only from a human rights perspective but for anyone doing business in these countries.
More broadly, as the European Union – and the United States - seek regional partners on economic and security matters in the Caucasus, Central Asia and Russia, it is in their interest to support free media that can help hold their governments accountable. As we have learned most recently in Kyrgyzstan, it is risky to rely on regimes that operate on the basis of coercion and capriciousness to maintain power. By encouraging and supporting efforts of citizens to hold their governments accountable, we set a foundation for more reliable partners in the long run.
In describing the challenges to press freedom that are taking place on multiple fronts, I’ve given a fairly grim assessment. There are of course very promising aspects of the new information landscape – including those described earlier by Paul Steiger. Excellent reporting continues to be produced by a wide range of news organizations. But clouds have gathered to strongly suggest that the trajectory of press freedom is serious jeopardy.
The panels of today’s conference shrewdly focused on the key spheres in which press freedom is facing is biggest challenges. The economically advanced countries of Europe confront what might be described as post-modern challenges, relating to the integrity of information, privacy and ownership issues and the manner in which democratic societies deal with sensitive issues, including those relating to minorities and religion.
At the same time, countries in the wider EU neighborhood that are still struggling to build democratically accountable systems face challenges – enormous ones – relating to the rule of law, physical violence and intimidation and basic issues of demonopolizing power. Whether these issues are resolved in the foreseeable future in a peaceful manner has real implications for the EU.
The 21st century challenges to press freedom, therefore, are not all new. What we have instead is a complex combination of new and old threats that are challenging some of the foundations of journalism. This will require thoughtful responses from policy makers, the news industry and press freedom advocates if we are to ensure the openness and integrity of the news.
I would conclude by emphasizing that the condition of press freedom and the threats to it cannot be viewed in isolation; freedom of expression is regarded as a fundamental freedom for good reason. Without a free and vibrant press, the quality of mature democracies and the prospects for aspiring democracies alike will be in danger.