Speech by Foreign Minister Baerbock at the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum

17.06.2024 - Speech

“At the moment, there are no loud voices coming from Afghanistan, so we must raise our voices for them. We must be the voices for those who have no voice.”

These are the words of Ali Sajad Mawlaee, an Afghan journalist, who left his country after the Taliban took power in 2021.

Today, he lives in Pakistan. He was able to continue reporting in exile with the support of the Deutsche Welle programme Space for Freedom.

To me, his story highlights two things: It shows the enormous power of journalism. Of all of you present here today.

The ability to tell stories that would otherwise go unnoticed.

To ask questions that would otherwise go unanswered.

To hold accountable those whose power would otherwise be unchecked.

And to be the voice of those who cannot be loud enough to be heard at the moment. Like many people in Afghanistan.

But this man's story also shows that independent journalism is under pressure - worldwide.

According to Reporters Without Borders, press freedom has declined in almost every region of the world.

One reason for this is that journalists are too often becoming targets in wars and conflicts.

In 2023, an estimated 120 journalists were killed while doing their job. Almost two thirds of them in Gaza alone. That is unacceptable.

We are also seeing autocratic regimes across the world increasingly cracking down on independent media. And their tools have become more varied. Digitalised. Meaning that they are not always easy to detect.

Maria Ressa will be speaking shortly about her own experience. When we met in her home country, she told me about the lies that were spread about her and her family on social media. How she received 90 hate messages online every hour, how she was subjected to sham lawsuits and arrests.

She once described these messages as “death by a thousand cuts” for our democracies. That is precisely why these instruments are so dangerous. Because their effects are insidious, often unnoticed in the beginning, coming from many sides at once and not in one big blow.

And I just heard from Mr Limbourg, while we were walking here, about a similar story from a human rights activist in Ethiopia. It happens every day, everywhere on our planet.

We as societies have to stand up against these threats. Let's not forget: where press freedom is under pressure, freedom itself is in danger – for all citizens. That is why Germany is so committed to media freedom.

And, obviously, the crucial question is: what can we do to strengthen these independent voices?

To me, there are two main areas for action.

First, we must protect the physical spaces in which journalists can do their work. People like the journalist from Afghanistan.

Or people like the 29-year-old Enaam Al Noor from Darfur. As a journalist, she reported on the Sudanese civil war. On rape and targeted executions. On a refugee shelter that was burned down by militias, leaving dozens of children with nowhere to go, with nobody at their side.

Eventually, when her own family came under fire, Enaam Al Noor had to flee, as well. Today, she lives in Uganda and produces radio features on the situation in Darfur for those who are still there.

She is being supported by the Hannah Arendt Initiative, the programme of the German Government that provides protection for journalists, in which we cooperate with partners from civil society such as Deutsche Welle Academy and the Spaces of Freedom programme.

We have already supported 5000 journalists in this way, quite literally giving them a space to work.

I was honoured to just meet a couple of them a moment ago, from Russia, from Belarus and also from Ukraine. One journalist from Ukraine, who used to live in the East, in Donetsk. She told me: you know, when you are now cheering the European Football Championship, I remember that I was a speaker at a stadium in Ukraine for UEFA, but then I had to flee.

She also talked about her reporting with Deutsche Welle being the last connection to her home region. She told us that sometimes there are these few wonderful moments, when she sees some of her old school friends leaving a comment under one of her reports, and she knows they are alive.

So it's not only about freedom of media, it's not only about strengthening independent voices and our democracy, but it's also about not forgetting about the people back home. This is why we initiated the Hannah Arendt Initiative.

And this is why I'm so thankful for all of your work here at Deutsche Welle, because together you can show that we are stronger when we stand as one.

So journalists can continue to raise their voices and thereby make the voices of people in their home countries heard.

That brings me to my second point. We have to make sure that technology does not distort the digital spaces for independent journalistic voices.

Two weeks ago, we witnessed the culmination of the world's biggest elections taking place in India. We saw an impressive electoral process with almost a billion people called upon to vote.

And we saw why some called this the first “AI election” in history. During the election campaign, candidates gave speeches that were simultaneously translated into 14 languages by an AI app.

AI-generated voices called voters on the phone to promote policies and candidates. AI certainly brings great opportunities to elevate people's voices.

But in India, we also saw hundreds of deepfake videos emerge during the election campaign. Fake speeches by politicians, fake messages from Bollywood stars.

And I believe, if we look at our elections, this is just a taste of what is to come.

AI makes disinformation campaigns cheaper, easier and more effective.

Campaigns that are capable of undermining trust in democratic institutions, but also in independent journalists. Like Maria Ressa.

That is why, again, we have to think about how to handle this situation, like back in the days during the emergence of the internet. It has such a big, positive dimension. And it won't go away. But we have to be prepared for the negative sides. This is why we are pushing for international regulation of AI.

We want to be able to harness the great potential of AI, but at the same time, we want to make sure that it is used fairly and ethically.

Take the AI Convention that we adopted at the Council of Europe last month. Or the AI Act of the European Union that the Council of the EU just approved. Those are concrete steps to ensure that basic rights, the freedom of expression and protection from discrimination also apply to AI.

Because we need to shape this technology in a way that keeps human beings in control, that benefits all our societies. We know that this will be a task for an entire generation, not only for journalists, not only for politicians, but for all parts of society. But if we don't start addressing this task now, we will risk falling behind.

And let me be clear: We should not make the same mistake twice.

When the big social media platforms emerged in the 1990s, we did not realise the challenges that this ground-breaking new way of interacting would entail. Today, we have learned that we cannot leave it to a handful of CEOs and algorithms to shape the rules on how millions of people communicate.

That is why the EU enacted the Digital Services Act, which obliges large tech companies with more than 45 million users to delete false information more quickly.

These solutions are important to make sure that independent voices are not silenced, that our platforms are not flooded with fake news, that journalists can do their job.

And that is part of an even bigger question: how do we make our societies more resilient, not just against the challenges of technology, but also against the rise in hatred and propaganda that we are all exposed to? You, as journalists, we as politicians, and all of us as members of open societies. I'm glad that we are about to discuss these issues in a minute.

One thing is clear: independent journalism is a cornerstone of our democratic system.

And this is why I want to thank you all.

I want to thank you, not only as journalists, but as people.

For holding those in power accountable.

For telling the stories that would otherwise go unnoticed.

For giving a voice to those who would otherwise go unheard.

And, by doing so, making our democracies more resilient.


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