Speech by Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel at the 2017 Henri Nannen Journalism Awards ceremony

27.04.2017 - Speech

Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Krug,

Thank you very much for this invitation. The problem with being a politician invited to talk about journalists is that you have to be careful not to be too nice, for then everyone thinks you’re sucking up to them. Nor can you say what you think, for that only causes trouble.

But joking aside, I was very happy to accept this invitation and did so out of firm conviction, for – as the first contributions have made clear – there is something going on at present which affects you as journalists, as well as the rest of us. We’re not quite sure how to resolve this situation, how to deal with it. That’s why I believe it’s perhaps also possible on an evening like this, when awards are being handed out to journalists for the work they’ve produced about politicians, to talk as a politician. Although, it has to be said that just as journalists aren’t a homogeneous group, nor are politicians.

However, award winners personify the power generated by a journalism which is free, inquiring, interested and informative. That’s why this evening is such a great event.

At the same time, I can’t help thinking about those colleagues who haven’t been awarded prizes in their countries but instead have been put in prison for their journalistic work.

Deniz Yücel’s situation really brings this home to us. A German-Turkish correspondent of a German newspaper, he’s facing serious criminal charges – charges which are incomprehensible to us – for simply doing his job. He has now been in prison for more than two months, treatment which is both unnecessary and completely disproportionate.

The first visit to Deniz Yücel in prison two weeks ago was important, but it wasn’t nearly enough. We not only want to provide him with regular consular assistance, we want to see his release.

Here in Germany, Deniz Yücel is perhaps the best known journalist in prison. However, we shouldn’t forget the others. Neither in Turkey nor elsewhere. The latest figures from Reporters without Borders show how dramatic the situation is. In 2017 alone, eight journalists have been killed. Some 200 journalists are in prison, as are more than 150 online activists.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Every one of these cases is an intolerable encroachment of individual freedom - a threat to the person concerned - and indeed a curtailment of freedom of the press in general.

And these cases are much more than that. They indicate the direction in which any given country or society is moving. We can all see that liberal democracies at any rate are more on the defensive while authoritarian states are more on the offensive – even if we’ve experienced developments to the contrary during the last few weeks, especially in Europe.

Freedom of the press is not an accessory or luxury in which we can indulge when times are good. These freedoms are part of the DNA of every democratic society. They are part of our understanding of a constitutional state.

Unfortunately, when we look around the world, we have to admit that massive infringements of freedom of the press are far too common.

That’s actually paradoxical given that most governments have clearly stated their commitment – also through binding international treaties – to protect freedom of the press.

Although there should actually be consensus on protecting freedom of the press, I’m often told during talks with other government representatives that freedom of the press is a Western concept which isn’t really compatible with their own culture.

However, there’s a danger that this will result in a quite fundamental misapprehension, namely that the so-called Western values should primarily be understood in geographical terms. The Russian Foreign Minister once told me that we were living in a post-Western age. That Western values were only supported and appreciated by those who grew up in a Western culture. We have to combat this idea of the West. For freedom, democracy, the rule of law and human rights aren’t confined to one geographical area. Rather, they should apply universally to everyone on this planet. Sometimes, as some of the work for which prizes are being awarded today makes very clear, these Western values are championed more by demonstrators in Tahrir Square than by governments in countries which lie in the West geographically speaking.

Ladies and gentlemen,

When forcefully criticising problems abroad and resolutely campaigning for things to change, we should, however, never be self-righteous.

For supposedly rock-solid values such as freedom of the press and fair debate in the media aren’t always in the best of health in the so-called West either.

In my view at least, the American presidential campaign was not a shining example of how to treat each other fairly, especially with regards to communication with and via the media. However, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that what we experienced during the campaign was, in my opinion, the outcome rather than the start of a trend. For it has to be said that fake news is much older than the current debate about it. Sometimes we have to be careful and critically analyse even phenomena of which we approve. That applies not only to politicians but also to journalists and enlightened citizens. We have to examine whether what we ourselves consider right is actually based on facts. There was a lot of fake news in the past which was declared to be true but was later found to be false.

When I see that the presence of publishing houses from other European countries is evidently viewed critically in Poland while, at the same time, public broadcasting institutions have been prompted to toe the government line, we notice that this problem seems to go far beyond what we thought.

This is not just about freedom of the press. It’s also about how NGOs, civil society and academics are treated. At least when they’re not criminal or connected to criminal activities. We’re seeing NGOs laws everywhere, including in the heart of Europe, which we normally only associate with autocratic states. Even in Europe, such draft laws are being introduced in an attempt to intimidate society.

We have to admit there are problems here in Europe when we look at the situation in Hungary, where academic freedom is being called into question and where the state is again exerting its authority, thus threatening the freedom and very existence of press organs.

The fragility of freedom of the press in Europe, as well as freedom of expression, should make us more aware that even here in Germany we have to actively protect this fundamental democratic value. We cannot take it for granted.

We shouldn’t therefore just complacently pat one another on the back and say: “Everything is fine in our own country, that couldn’t happen here.”

It’s true, as has been clearly demonstrated this evening, that there is a lot of critical, in-depth, young and surprising journalism here in Germany.

Journalism which places news in a context and puts us politicians on the spot by posing tough and critical questions.

For the best way to combat the intolerable talk of the “lying media”, which is supposedly in cahoots with politicians, is to ask tough and persistent questions and conduct interviews with “firm politeness” when necessary.

I’d intended to welcome Ms Slomka at this point, but I don’t think she’s here this evening. But not because of me! For we still plan to go for a beer together. We’ve been wanting to do that for the last four years ...

But seriously, I hope that more journalists will come to us politicians well-prepared and that they’ll challenge us. For that makes it clear what we stand for as a society, what our DNA is: a competition of ideas and arguments. What we don’t want, of course, is a consensual mishmash.

Journalists are not a fourth power. They’re not a branch of government authority. They’re not part of the state. Thank goodness. They stand alongside the state, which should safeguard their rights. They have to examine whether the three actual branches of state authority really are carrying out their tasks in conformity with the constitution. They should ensure that citizens are able to judge whether the institutions which actually exercise state authority, which of course is derived solely from the people, really are up to the job. However, journalists need time and resources for this. Of course, they also need time and resources to gather information, to research and to get a good training. For that they need the support of their publishing houses and media organisations.

I know that publishing houses and media organisations are businesses which have to be profitable. Nevertheless, without training, without a readiness to give people time to become journalists – journalists like the ones we have seen here today – none of this will be possible. That’s what distinguishes quality journalism from the host of information which is not put into a context, which is not verified and which we find on social media today. If quality journalism didn’t exist, then we would have to invent it. Thank goodness it does exist. However, we have to protect it.

For we all sense that the language used in politics is changing. Or as Andreas Wirsching said: “The boundaries with regard to what is acceptable to say in public have shifted.” They’ve become open at the fringes for nationalist rhetoric, for verbal comments of all kinds aimed at excluding or marginalising – as well as for harsh criticism of the media.

More and more people seem to be giving in to this very temptation to berate representatives of the established media – and, it goes without saying, politicians – and, at the same time, to become cocooned in their own world-view.

Kurt Tucholsky, himself a brilliant and critical journalist in very unstable times, once said that readers were lucky because they could choose their own authors.

I want to change this sentence a little. Would it not be more accurate to say today that journalists aren’t so lucky because they cannot choose their readers?

For me, the key question is:

Who does quality journalism reach today? How can the alternative echo chambers in which people are often entrenched be broken up again?

When I read that in a survey conducted early this year 42% of those questioned said they believed the information supplied by the German media wasn’t reliable, then I believe we have to take urgent action to win back those who have turned their backs on these media. To win back those who believe that “alternative facts” are more reliable than reality.

I’ve no qualms about stating that both politicians and the media have to take responsibility for this. The knee-jerk reaction of some will be to say: there we have it – the political establishment and the traditional media are hand in glove with one another.

We have to take this responsibility seriously. However, each of us has to do so in their own sphere, and on their own.

There was an anchorman in the US who ended every broadcast with the words “And that’s the way it is.” What I don’t want to see is a truth sanctioned by the state or the media.

Rather we need lively discussions – in politics as well as between politicians and those who report and comment on politics.

However, when such a diversity of opinions threatens to turn into an “anything goes” situation where every verified fact can be called into question and indeed is, then we have quite a lot to do.

But when I see the creativity which young media professionals in particular employ not only to make use of today’s world of communication but also to reflect and comment on it, when I see the range of projects for which prizes were awarded here today, then I am hopeful that we will make progress.

We want to make this progress by having heated discussions about the issue at hand while, at the same time, accepting the facts. We want to achieve this by being tolerant and accepting the opinions and views of others, and by not shouting these opinions down – either by raising our voices or by posting loutish remarks online.

For a vibrant democracy needs a debating culture which is lively and inclusive – and not one which uses friend-or-foe propaganda that stamps out any chance of reaching an understanding.

As committed journalists and also as publishing houses and media organisations, your contribution to this is vital.

It would thus be fitting if as many media outlets as possible support the concert in support of Deniz Yücel in Berlin on 3 May, World Press Freedom Day, thus underscoring our responsibility for him and the many other journalists in prison. I believe you deserve thanks for that and for your tremendous commitment to a vibrant democracy.

Thank you very much!

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