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Address by State Secretary Stephan Steinlein at the presentation of the Bonn International Democracy Prize 2014 to the organisation Reporters without Borders on 18 November 2014

19.11.2014

-- translation of advance text --

Jürgen Nimptsch,
Erik Bettermann,
Mr Rediske,
Mr Deloire,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to begin by passing on greetings from Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who is very sorry not to be able to attend this important award ceremony himself. However, he has taken the time to offer you his personal congratulations:

[Video message]

I can only reiterate the sentiments of Foreign Minister Steinmeier: It is a good thing that journalists are active in places where some in positions of power would rather be unobserved. And it is good that they are active in places where the language of communication is no longer words but weapons. For speaking frankly is a fundamental requirement for freedom and democracy – speaking frankly also from places of conflict.

And that is what Reporters without Borders seeks to contribute to – day by day, month by month, year by year.

Let me give you an example: Ladies and gentlemen, have you heard of Radio Erena?

Radio Erena is an independent exile radio station for Eritrea, a country in which until now all media reporting was controlled by the state and independent media are not tolerated. Thanks to Radio Erena, which was established with the help of Reporters without Borders, tens of thousands of Eritreans now have regular access to an independent news source. This is one of hundreds of examples of the crucial work and tireless commitment of Reporters without Borders in the interests of media freedom.

Mr Deloire, the outstanding dedication of your organisation to promoting freedom of the press and of expression is an important part of international efforts to boost democracy. Strong and independent media play a vital role in communicating democratic and rule-of-law principles and defending human rights. For this we owe you thanks.

However, if the media are to fulfil their essential watchdog role, they need a sound economic foundation and acceptance within society. Today we also want to remember that! Today in Germany and many other Western countries we can see that this is no longer something we can take for granted. Allow me, therefore, to share a few observations on the situation of the press in Germany, a country whose newspapers have sent many journalists out into the world until now.

Germany’s media landscape is currently in serious crisis. Over the last ten years, the sector’s sound economic foundations have been rocked. Half of income from advertising has been lost, while at the same time the circulation of newspapers and magazines has fallen by a third.

Until now the print media have responded mainly with cutbacks, many of which have affected foreign correspondents. Weeklies such as Stern and SPIEGEL have halved their network of correspondents within the last 15 years, and the news agencies are also cutting back on their staff.  

I don’t think this is the right policy in the long term to keep loyal readers who are willing to pay for good stories. But I’m not just talking about economic factors here. In my opinion the newspapers ought to remind themselves of the important role they play in awareness-raising, democracy and human rights throughout the world. They need to remember that their reporters and correspondents do more than just run up travel expenses. They inform their readers and also help put injustice, oppression and violence in the global spotlight, where they are exposed, condemned and not tolerated.

Yet the German media sector is experiencing not only an economic but also a credibility crisis. Media-bashing has become fashionable, not only in social media on the Internet but also in several bestsellers. The newspapers’ monopoly on the right to interpret information and events has come under pressure.

I don’t want to go into detail about the reasons for this at this point. I want to focus on another issue, particularly with regard to the work of Reporters without Borders. The media face constant pressure from reader expectations. Good reporters have to be aware who they are writing for. They must be conscious of their role and their responsibility towards their readership. Only through reliable, varied and free reporting will the media be able to safeguard their role as the guardian of freedom and democracy in the long term. And only through such reporting will the media ultimately be economically successful!

Ladies and gentlemen, the essence of press freedom is that people are able to express their opinions freely without fear of retaliation or punishment. Globalisation has not changed this. On the contrary, democracies and open societies depend on access to independent and varied sources of information.

That is the only way to prevent politicians doing whatever they like and injustice from being masked by the veil of censorship.

Yet even if we or you manage to help give the free and independent media a little more leeway in places, some questions remain unanswered. For the free and independent press can only reach its full potential if it has a wide sphere of influence and is recognised by broad sections of society. Access to independent media is therefore at least as important as the independent media themselves.

Of course it is good if the printed press is given free rein in a country. Yet if radio and television remain under state control, often little has been gained. That is why it is sobering that in spite of rapid technological advances in the media sector, around two-thirds of the world’s population still have no access to independent media, most of whom live in less developed regions and emerging economies.

Since it was founded in 1985, Reporters without Borders has been working to change this situation. And for this, you deserve thanks and respect. In my view few tasks are more difficult. And few tasks are more important.

The work of Reporters without Borders therefore rightly has a high international reputation. This is reflected not least by the fact that your organisation, Mr Deloire, enjoys consultant status with the United Nations and UNESCO.

I would particularly like to honour the commitment of all the workers from Reporters without Borders who demonstrate courage and expose themselves to personal risk in many places throughout the world to defend human and fundamental rights.

In addition, Reporters without Borders is instrumental in raising awareness and providing education through information campaigns, reports and the annual publication of the Press Freedom Index, which is studied with great interest, not only in the Federal Foreign Office.

The statistics published by Reporters without Borders in the most recent Index indicate that the threat to journalists and recently also bloggers has reached new, distressingly high levels. In 2012, according to the figures, 88 journalists and 47 bloggers and amateur journalists were killed in the course of their work. This was the highest number since Reporters without Borders started to publish these annual figures in 1995. In 2013 more than twice as many journalists were kidnapped worldwide in comparison with 2012 – an increase from 38 to 87. At the end of 2013, 178 journalists worldwide were in prison as a result of their work.

These statistics are depressing, and each number stands for the specific fate of courageous individuals.

And we must not forget that most of these victims of violence are not well-known international journalists. Often they are local reporters known to hardly any of us here who are often almost totally at the mercy of local powerholders.

For that very reason the various forms of assistance provided by Reporters without Borders to journalists throughout the world is crucial, including provision of training programmes and protective gear for reporters in danger. Reporters without Borders also supports independent media based in a difficult environment, such as Radio Erena.

This engagement is supplemented by international campaigns directly targeting heads of state, ministers and international organisations. It is therefore no coincidence that Reporters without Borders played a significant role in the unanimous adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1738 on the protection of journalists in conflict situations on 14 December 2006.

I sincerely hope that we will not allow ourselves to become discouraged by the increase in violence against journalists.

For this reason, I want to urge you to continue your impressive efforts to promote democracy and the protection of fundamental freedoms! Keep shattering people’s complacency as you work for press freedom throughout the world! And if necessary, do the same with us!

To this end I wish all those who work for or support Reporters without Borders renewed energy, persistent courage and endurance, and when the going gets tough, the luck and assistance you need to survive these situations unharmed!

Thank you very much.

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