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The conference was opened by the welcome speech of Matthias Platzeck (SPD), Minister President of the Federal State of Brandenburg. According to him, “It is not only the venue that makes this conference so special but the unusual and high-profile mixture of participants”. On top of that, the topic “Freedom of the Press” and it’s relevance at the moment are even more significant. “Because”, Platzeck said, “freedom of the press is the twin of freedom of opinion.” For 35 years of his life, he was himself witness to the societal effects of lacking freedom of speech. Within the last decade of the then GDR, its press had gotten to a state that did not require censorship anymore, as it was already deeply engrained in the head of journalists and self-censorship had become common practise. A society lacking diversity in opinion and freedom of the press inevitably loses its creativity, thus loses its power which was very feasible in the East of Germany. But Platzeck also voiced his criticism that there is the recurring question in how far the yellow press affects our cultures. He quoted from an interview with philosophy scholar Prof Peter Bieri, published in 2007, in the magazine “Cicero” who called the major tabloids “a crime bombarding people, overwhelming people and working against sensibility, self-determination and recognition of the self. These newspapers destroy our culture.” Platzeck finished that one need not agree with Professor Bieri’s opinion because these aspects are also part of a discussion about freedom of the press and freedom of opinion.

The opening speech introducing the participants to the topic was held by the legendary US journalist Paul Steiger. After his 16-year-long tenure as the editor-in-chief of The Wall Street Journal, during which 16 of his members of staff were awarded a Pulitzer Prize, he founded the non-governmental, non-partisan online news platform “ProPublica” aiming to promote investigative journalism. In 2010, „ProPublica“ became the first online publication to be awarded with the Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism.

In his speech „The Transatlantic Perspective – Freedom of the Press in Europe“, Steiger reminded of the fact that within the past 18 years 827 journalists have been killed whilst performing their duties, 71 of them last year alone. More than 70 per cent fell victim to targeted murders; not caught in crossfire. Fortunately, these nightmares do not apply to the US and Europe. Yet treats to freedom of the press are posed by the rise of the internet and the resulting damage to existing business models as well as the increasing concentration in traditional media. Digitalisation brings many threats and opportunities. Threats - because the drain of profits and revenue in many organisations devoted to gathering and distributing news is reducing the number of talented and trained journalists that they can afford to employ. Opportunities - because the web offers a robust platform to all people who want to report what they see, argue what they believe, excoriate whom they fear and publish what they are given.

This has created a media environment in Europe and Northern America that is freer, more creative and exciting, according to Steiger, but also unless some important steps are taken a media environment that is less reliable. Steiger listed the six biggest threats and changes for traditional media in the new world and pleaded for politicians to take them seriously. They include the rise of the internet destroying the role of major daily newspapers, radio and TV stations as dominant, comprehensive “department stores for news and information”. They still have their loyal supporters, together they still collect billions of dollars and Euros in revenue but they have gone from “must-have-status” to “nice-to-have-status”. In most aspects, the new environment serves the public better than the old because people have access to news at low cost and can also have an input of their own opinion. These threats are just as big as the influence of public opinion by certain interest groups and companies that often lead to abuses of power.

Panel I:
Politics and Power: The Freedom of the Press in Europe

The first panel was held on the topic “Politics and Power: The Freedom of the Press in Europe.” The participants on the podium were Mikhail Fishman, editor-in-chief of the magazine “Russki Newsweek” (discontinued in October 2010), Paolo Mastrolilli, Head of the Rome office of “La Stampa”, Agnieszka Romaszewska-Guzy, editor-in-chief of the TV station “Belsat TV” that broadcasts for a Belarusian audience as an alternative for Belarusian state television and is based in Poland, Anita Rozentale, editor-in-chief of the Latvian, regional newspaper “Bauskas Dzive” and one of the signatories of the European Charta for Freedom of the Press, Ljiljana Smajlovic, President of the Serbian Association of Journalists, “Stern”-editor Hans-Martin Tillack as well as Boyko Vassilev, editor-in-chief of the Bulgarian national TV station “BNT”. The moderator of the group was Astrid Frohloff, ARD-presenter and board member of “Reporters Without Borders”.

In her introductory keynote speech, Agnieszka Romaszewska-Guzy told of a government-critical journalist who had been found dead in Minsk a few days before. Official sources claimed that the 36-year-old family man had committed suicide. “We do not believe that”, said Romanszewska. At the end of her keynote she reminded: “We must not forget that even today there are countries in Europe where freedom of the press has to be fought for on a daily basis. Let us not forget that Western Europe has a privileged position. And let us not forget all the journalists on this continent that have to fight intimidation and suppression and who we should support as much as we can.”

Mikhail Fishman reported of raids of Russian editorial offices by government officials in order to uncover sources. He furthermore explained that he is routinely called in by officials to justify his work.

Paolo Mastrolilli explained that he would be happy to be able to say that, in Italy, the core problem is Berlusconi alone because sooner or later he will not be there anymore and the problem would be solved automatically. However, the issues are rooted much deeper. Momentarily, six journalists are under police protection because they received death threats by organised crime groups, yet this is not the main threat to freedom of the press. A much bigger danger yet is posed by the sustained problems of the media, including ownership and its limitation. In Italy publishing houses are influenced and dominated by big share-holding cooperations and the problem is that these circumstances allow for few independent media to survive.

Boyko Vassilev said that over time Bulgarian journalists have learned to deal with government pressure. According to him, it was much worse 15 years ago. But in Bulgaria freedom of the press is attacked from many angles; the aim of the press is not profit, not information, but it is funded to be the prolonged arm of some vested interest. Vassilev said that the threat to freedom of the press in Eastern Europe is predominantly posed by economical constraints. But he also put some responsibility down to the audience when he said, “we are not threatened by a dictatorship anymore, we are threatened by indifference.” A further major issue is that the public in Eastern and Central Europe does not see the value of public media anymore. “This was a chance missed 20 years ago when public media should have convinced the people that it is trustworthy. Now I think the downfall of public media is imminent and this is bad for us all.”

Anita Rozentale reported that the biggest threat for freedom of the press in Latvia is posed by a lack of transparency regarding the ownership of newspapers. Since the last free national newspaper “Diena” was sold by the Swedish Bonnier Group nothing has become known about the new owner.

In Serbia, the situation is less complex than in other Eastern European states as the threat is posed openly by the government. Liljana Smjajlovic criticised that the introduction of a new draconian media law has not attracted any reprimands from Western European states or the EU. “They are content with the fact that this is the most pro-Western government Serbia has ever has. But what is the point of European integration if, when such a situation arises, nobody is willing to step in?”

But even within the European Union the situation is far from ideal, according to Hans-Martin Tillack who said that in the EU there are many reporters who fear that they have to support the European cause. “Journalists are often the natural enemies of politicians who will try to control information and will try to get back at some of us. Therefore it is very important that journalists stick up for each other and defend each others’ rights.” In anti-terror-laws he identified a further issue for journalism because sources are easily scared off in fear of being identified more easily.

The panel also came to the surprising conclusion that only a marginal threat emanates from organised crime. Paolo Mastrolilli reported that the problem in Italy is regionally determined. And also in Eastern Europe, the influence of the mafia is more complex in that it is linked with politicians and other political interest groups rather than posing an independent, direct threat.

Like Agnieszka Romaszewska-Guzy urged in her keyenote, Hans-Martin Tillack also stressed that journalists should cooperate better. Boyko Vassilev ended the discussion by reminding: “It is up to us as journalists to change things and to support and strengthen particularly the public media; because if we don’t believe in it, no one is going to believe in it.”

  Opening and Panel I

Panel II

Panel III