Speech by Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth at the Annual Colloquium on Fundamental Rights 2016 “Media pluralism and democracy” in Brussels

17.11.2016 - Speech

-- Translation off advance text --

Ladies and gentlemen, dear colleagues,

First of all let me thank the European Commission for putting the issue of media pluralism and democracy on the agenda of this year’s annual colloquium on fundamental rights. The colloquium is an important contribution for us to reassure ourselves of what binds us together as Europeans and what our identity is as a union of values.

It has always been in my interest to strengthen EU instruments which enable the protection of our common values. Germany, together with other member states, is supporting the dialogue on the rule of law and fundamental values in the General Affairs Council.

Freedom of opinion and unhindered access to information are the cornerstones of a functioning democracy. Media play an important role as they are supposed to fulfil the role of watchdogs in uncovering shortcomings and violations of fundamental values. Only free media is able to do justice to their role as the Fourth Estate.

Indeed, liberal democracy seems to be on the defensive in too many places. The basic consensus on a pluralist model can no longer be taken for granted. Populists and nationalists are gaining ground all over Europe. They exploit fear and poison political debates with half-truths and lies. I am deeply concerned. While we are facing a growing trend towards populist polarization, an unbiased, balanced and fact based approach to reporting is more than urgently needed than ever before.

Throughout the world, we are seeing a downwards trend in the conditions for freedom of expression. In more and more countries the media and individual journalists are coming under pressure. And this global trend does not stop at European borders. In fact, Europe’s pioneering role in press freedom is eroding. In several EU countries there is a trend towards restricting the independence of the media through stricter regulation.

Recently, we have seen developments like in the Hungarian media market which reduce the diversity of voices. I regret that the traditional Hungarian newspaper “Népszabadság” was shut down. The political “alignment” of newspapers and media by economic means might be legally permitted. Nevertheless we see it as a worrying tendency because it limits the plurality of opinions which is vital for the functioning of a democracy. With Népszabadság, the Hungarian media landscape is about to lose another informed and well-grounded voice.

Ladies and gentlemen, dear colleagues,

But there are other threats for fact based high quality journalism – for example due to the changed media environment by the digital developments of the 21st century. The more the media environment is changing, we need to assess what the challenges and opportunities for our democratic societies are.

During the last century the role of social media as a platform for articulating political views and mobilizing political support has become increasingly prominent. Blogs and forums have changed the political communication radically, because they enable individuals to state their opinion in public with a potentially unlimited number of listeners. Content can be uploaded and shared with the whole world.

The digital world has no boundaries. This offers risks and chances. The risks are obvious. It is no surprise that “post-truth” became the word of the Year by Oxford Dictionaries. Everybody can spread half-truths online. In our post factual democracy those half-truths or conspiracy theories can even get a reputable cover. The phenomenon of abusing media for propaganda as such is not a new, but the channels have changed. People do get easily the impression that they are not alone with their mindset, with their theories. We have to deal with new forms of interference as bots, troll etc.

Nevertheless, I would like to point out also the positive aspects and chances definitely coming with it. With the convergence of media in our days, this Fourth Estate extends to each and every citizen. Civic online journalism or grassroots journalism can be an effective way of countering the dominant discourse in an unfree or censored media landscape. Online activists can become the fourth power of control if media are controlled or even censored by the state. Online journalism can even be the only source of independent information if media are oppressed in authoritarian regimes.

We have seen the mobilizing potential of especially Facebook and Twitter during the uprisings in Tunisia in 2010 and 2011, the “Jasmine Revolution”. But also within the EU one can see for example the potential of organized online protest during the campaign of Polish civil society against the attempts of stricter regulation of the abortion law.

Personally as a politician I make use a lot of these new forms of communication the internet offers: I work a lot with Social Media, you can find me on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. For me it is a way of working in a very transparent way, I get immediate feedback which can be used as a compass for my political work. But definitely these new forms of communication come with greater responsibility. The digital memory never forgets.

As a committed European I would furthermore see us much more making use of this converged media environment for transnational debates. There is a unique example I would like to bring to your attention: since 2005 the German public institution for political education offers a digital platform called “eurotopics.net”. It covers quality media from all EU member states and mirrors the voices of national media in different languages. Swedish readers can follow Spanish and Portuguese voices and vice versa. Articles are translated into French, English and German.

To further integrate Turkey and the Turkish speaking population in the EU member states as a part of the European discourse, a Turkish language version of eurotopics has been launched at the end of October.

This is something which would not be possible on a everyday basis without the converged media environment. I believe that this is also an opportunity to have a debate on what Europe is built on: values, human rights and the rule of law.

And this is what is under pressure in times of rising populism in the real and digital world. We cannot leave it to those wanting to dismantle our Union of values. Thus, Media convergence offers big potentials for participation of individuals and for the freedom of expression. However, we must ensure that this does not become, eventually, an excuse to justify the disappearance of traditional “offline” media.

The EU, in these days, needs a lively and controversial public debate about its perspectives for the future and media play a key role to channel this dialogue.

New media are not a substitute for high quality media they can only be a meaningful addition.

As Ovid says, “happy are those who dare courageously to defend what they love”.

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