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Rebecca Harms: ‘In democracy, opinion must be underpinned by an independent media’

The European elections are fast approaching. In Ukraine and Gaza, journalists are doing their job in the most perilous of conditions. Rarely has the question of press freedom and its protection been more important. Former MEP Rebecca Harms shares her take on the subject.

Rebecca Harms is a German politician who was a member of the European Parliament from 2004 to 2019, and chairwoman of the Greens/European Free Alliance (EFTA) group until 2016. 

She is currently Vice-president of the European Centre for Media and Press Freedom (ECPMF), the organisation behind Voices of Ukraine. This project, in which Voxeurop is a partner, aims to support Ukrainian journalists and media outlets.

Given your role in the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), how do you judge the current state of press freedom in Europe?

As an EU politician, I have worked with my colleagues in the European Parliamenton initiatives to defend journalists and their work. The parliament supported the founding of the ECPMF in 2015 because we wanted to push back against the growing political pressure on journalists. We saw how governments were bringing the media to heel in Hungary and Poland. In Malta and Slovakia there have been murders of journalists: Daphne Caruana Galizia and Ján Kuciak. Turkey – which was negotiating to join the EU – was turning into the world’s largest prison for journalists.

European Parliament initiatives have been taken up by the EU Commissioners responsible for this subject – first Viviane Reding and today Vera Jourova. And after more than a decade of political wrangling, the parliament recently passed the European Media Freedom Act. This is a major step to protect press freedom and journalists in all EU countries. The EMFA will even have an impact beyond the EU, since press freedom will be a priority in future accession negotiations with UkraineMoldova and Georgia.

Why is freedom of the press so important in democracies, including the European Union?

In democracy, opinions must be underpinned by a free media that is not influenced by the state. In representative democracies, journalism is a buttress for the knowledge and participation of citizens. It enables politicians to present their goals and decisions, and to discuss them with pushback. So good journalism promotes responsible opinion-forming. This makes it crucial that the media is itself democratic. There must be transparency and non-governmental oversight for both public and private media organisations. In the run-up to elections it becomes especially important to ensure quality, independence and fairness in coverage. After all, citizens elect parties and politicians who may make far-reaching decisions on their behalf.

What specific role might be played by European and pan-European newsrooms on the eve of EU-wide elections?

A proper pan-European media would certainly be good if we want a high-quality, genuinely European debate about what is discussed and decided in Brussels. Similarly, there is currently hardly any discussion about what happens in other EU member states, with their various political and social agendas. The fact that we speak more than 27 different languages does not make things any easier. I continue to believe that the EU needs its own public broadcaster, adapted to today’s financial constraints and technical opportunities.

For more than a decade we have known that social media is harming democratic processes. Today we see the consequences of an ideologically-driven refusal to attempt any kind of regulation of the internet. The web made possible today’s much-celebrated global village, but this has gone hand in hand with an almost unlimited potential for spreading propaganda and falsehoods. There are masses of lies and half-truths circulating about the EU institutions alone. These can be difficult for citizens to fact-check because Brussels is so far away or at least seems it. Given the sheer scale of both information and disinformation, I am often at a loss these days. 

Do pan-European outlets have a role to play with regards to the situation in Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries like Belarus, Moldova or Georgia? 

As the second chair of the ECPMF, I have tried to support journalists and media organisations in Eastern Europe. Incidentally, it is wrong to label all of these countries as post-Soviet. In fact the growing role played by professional media and journalism shows how far these societies have changed since independence. Through their work, journalists are also driving forces behind democratisation and EU integration.

In Belarus, journalists became the target of persecution after the rigged election and mass protests against the election fraudster Lukashenko. Those persecuted or imprisoned had to be supported, which was not easy. But their voices also needed to be heard in the West. Indeed, I took it for granted that Belarusian colleagues could publish their work in the Western media. Unfortunately, I could not help noticing that although there was solidarity in the West, there was little respect or curiosity for the work of these journalists.

To feature more voices from Eastern Europe in the European media is therefore an act of respect. And in such a hybrid war, it will also help the security of us all

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, my work at the ECPMF also changed. While many journalists left Belarus and Russia, most Ukrainian newsrooms and journalists continued their work under wartime conditions. As part of the Hannah Arendt Initiative, the “Voices of Ukraine” project became a focus of the ECPMF.

The Ukrainian media’s business model, in particular advertising, collapsed with the onset of  war. So the initial aim was to enable journalists to continue their work by providing them monthly support. Thanks to funding from the German foreign ministry, we have been able to do this for over 100 journalists and small newsrooms since autumn 2022, and this is secured until 2025. Together with various Ukrainian organisations and companies (for example, Public Interest Journalism Lab and The Fix Media), we also provide technical assistance and pay for insurance for frontline reporters. We are also now involved in the Lviv Media Forum.

For the journalists supported by Voices of Ukraine, I would also be delighted if their articles were picked up more in the European media. Of course we need our own experienced foreign correspondents. But in this war Ukrainian journalists are our eyes and ears on the ground: they see and hear more than their foreign colleagues.

Since Russia declared war on Ukraine, the victim country has been attracting more attention. Previously the West’s interest in Eastern Europe was focused on Russia. Unfortunately, our lack of interest in Central and Eastern European countries such as Ukraine was helpful to Russia in its information war and then in its invasion. To feature more voices from Eastern Europe in the European media is therefore an act of respect. And in such a hybrid war, it will also help the security of us all.

Gian-Paolo Accardo

Translated by Harry Bowden

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