Waving not drowning

By Saia Tsaousidou, AEJ President

Published in New Europe

The future of Europe is an intensive industry these days. It creates usually harmless and absorbing jobs, but I have to say the European Policy Institutes Network (EPIN) makes my head swim.

”A network of 34 think-tanks and policy institutes in 25 countries,” EPIN, itself, announces ”to further mutual understanding in the deliberations about Europe’s future, publishing expert analyses…commentaries….national debates.” Good luck with that. There is no doubt that many more tanks that have escaped EPIN’s net.

Whither Europe? It reminds me of those stomach-churning essay questions at school, like Whither Orthodoxy? Dear battered Europe, with your dozen weary stars symbolizing unity, solidarity, and harmony – remember? Now it’s your put-upon leaders, masked-up for the apparently endless pandemic, all who are facing an uncertain future when the COVID crisis does finally end.

Who are we; what should we Europeans do? And what is the new role for journalists, cornered by the economic turmoil brought about by the brilliant, but corrosive invention of the Internet, which I believe is a large and important one?

I draw inspiration from the time when there were just six members of the European Community. Brave, optimistic colleagues founded the Association of European Journalists 60 years ago to take an active part in creating a sense of European awareness, deepen understanding of European affairs, and informing public opinion about them.

I am proud to lead an association that has not lost sight of that simple, if far-from-straightforward, goal. Europe is why we exist and what we defend.

Thanks to COVID, and the cyber-onslaught from Russia and China, Europe’s institutions have finally woken up to the need to defend what we risk losing. Devoting serious resources to fighting fake news was a good start, and more funds are coming on-stream with initiatives like the Media and Audiovisual Action Plan (MAAP) and, let’s hope, effective EU legislation to fight what is rightly termed Big Tech’s “surveillance capitalism”.

Untroubled by anything except making a profit, Big Tech has in the last 10 years become the perfect, and apparently unstoppable, conduit for data manipulation and disinformation for Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Putin and others, including ISIS. It has in short order derailed the democratic process and sidelined trustworthy news.

It is hard, however, to exaggerate the need for reliable information during a global pandemic. A huge proportion, almost a third, of medical “information” on the Web is false or misleading, according to a recent scientific study. WhatsApp is, apparently, the favorite facilitator for fake news, followed by Instagram and Facebook.

In practical terms, that means ensuring that independent media survives and the training and encouraging of young journalists, from genders, continues.

That, too, is my central ambition as AEJ’s president.

Most of the old print institutions are dead or dying. A new generation needs support in learning not just new media, but also what serious reporting looks like, in whatever form. The next generation also needs to be trained in entirely new skills. Among these are identifying the tricks used to spread public confusion and how to expose idiotic superstitions like QAnon.

Almost as crucial is learning how to confront the nationalist rabble-rousers encouraged by Russia Today and the chauvinistic psychoses they have provoked in France, Germany, Hungary, Austria and nearly everywhere else.

Thanks to the Internet, everything moves quickly. We need to do the same. A new near-invisible war is gathering pace, which is steadily and deliberately undermining what holds Western democracies together and makes them worth living in.

Russia is becoming the model for despotic countries like Belarus – and, I fear, Poland and Hungary. Moscow is closing in, not just on its own journalists, but also on all foreign media who are targeted under Russia’s ever-changing 2012 “foreign agent” legislation. They are hit with huge fines for not accepting the Kremlin’s so-called “labelling requirements”.

Only recently, Moscow announced it would ban Twitter in a month’s time if it failed to remove “certain content”. The Russian government has already sued Twitter over posts supporting street protests against the jailing of opposition leader Alexey Navalny. Russian regulators on March 10 throttled Twitter for supposedly encouraging child pornography, drug use, and suicide.

Europeans have been sleep-walking into all this. There is a shocking acceptance, for example, of Cambridge Analytica’s blatant role in manipulating the Brexit referendum with Russia’s covert help, with Trump cheering it on. Was that debacle the beginning of a tacit acceptance of an apathetic, un-European sort of anti-freedom that surrenders to the idea that Europe is “just a collection of unelected bureaucrats”, as our enemies love to say?

The EU urgently needs tough, resilient, and credible media to defend it and its values. Back in 1962, that was part of the European idea. I insist that independence and freedom is still at the core of any Europe worth its name. It will only survive if we act and think like Europeans.

The six-year presidency of my predecessor, Otmar Lahodynsky, a long-time Austrian/Brussels correspondent, was exemplary. He spoke and wrote about Europe, organized seminars and workshops and invited Commissioners to speak at our congresses.

Just before I took over, Otmar organized creative and practical Zoom conferences with Commission Vice President Vera Jourova, and with the new OSCE’s head of Media Freedom, Teresa Ribeiro. Both of those meetings are bearing fruit.

In the not-so-distant-past, former Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker would physically come to the Brussels press club every two weeks. That is as it should be. No, it is not a matter of cozying up to the powers that be, but because of a common European understanding that is dear to the AEJ and who we are. It is an understanding og what is at stake and of how we can and must work together.

Almost as significant, I think, is the AEJ’s trans-national team-work I want to encourage. In Bulgaria – a country which stubbornly sits at the bottom of the list for European media freedom – Irina Nedeva, our Disinformation specialist, is a tireless campaigner and organizer of classes for non-journalists in media literacy. She is a model for the kind of AEJ I am honored to lead.

‘Waving not drowning’, to play on British poet Steve Smith’s words.


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