Mon, 22 July 2024

Waving not drowning

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by Saia Tsaousidou, AEJ President

The future of Europe is an intensive industry these days. It creates usually harmless and absorbing jobs. But I have to say the European Policy Institutes Network makes my head swim.

’’A network of 34 think-tanks and policy institutes in 25 countries,’’ EPIN announces itself, ’’to further mutual understanding in the deliberations about Europe’s future, publishing expert analyses…commentaries…. national debates.’’ Good luck with that. There are no doubt lots more tanks that have escaped EPIN’s net. Have any of them pinned that stupid joke on the door?: THINK OR LEARN TO THWIM

Whither Europe? It reminds of those stomach-churning essay questions at school, like Whither Orthodoxy? Dear, battered Europe, with your dozen weary stars symbolising – remember? – unity, solidarity, and harmony, and your put-upon leaders, masked-up for the apparently endless pandemic, all facing an uncertain future when it does finally end.

Who are we, what should we do, we Europeans? And what is the role for journalists, cornered by the economic turmoil brought about by the brilliant, corrosive invention of the Internet? A large and important one, I believe.

I draw inspiration from the time when there were just Six members of the European Community. Brave, optimistic colleagues founded the Association of European Journalists 60 years ago ’’to take an active part in creating a sense of European awareness, deepen understanding of European affairs, and to inform public opinion about them.’’

I am proud to lead an association that has not lost sight of that simple, if far-from-straightforward aim. Europe is why we exist, and what we defend.

Not least thanks to Covid, and the cyber-onslaught from Russia and China, the European Institutions have at last woken up to the need to defend what we risk losing. Devoting serious resources to fighting fake news was a good start. More funds are coming on-stream with initiatives like the Media and Audiovisual Action Plan (MAAP) and let’s hope effective EU legislation to fight what is rightly termed Big Tech’s “surveillance capitalism”.

Untroubled by anything except making a profit, Big Tech has in 10 years become the perfect, apparently unstoppable conduit for data manipulation and disinformation, for Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Putin, and others, including ISIS. It has in short order derailed the democratic process and sidelined trustworthy news.

But it is hard to exaggerate the need for reliable information during a global pandemic. A huge proportion, almost a third, of medical “information” on the Web is false or misleading, according to a recent scientific study (WhatsApp is apparently the favourite conduit for fake news, followed by Instagram and Facebook).

In practical terms, that has to mean ensuring independent media survive, and encouraging and training young journalists of both sexes. That too is my central ambition as AEJ president.

Most of the old print institutions are dead or dying. A new generation needs support in learning not just new media, but what serious reporting looks like in whatever form. The next generation also needs to train in entirely new skills. Among these are identifying the tricks used to spread public confusion, and how to expose idiotic superstitions like QAnon. Almost as crucial is learning how to confronting the nationalist rabble-rousers encouraged by Russia Today and the nationalist psychoses they have provoked – in France, Germany, Austria, pretty well everywhere.

Thanks to the Internet, everything moves quickly. We need to do the same. A new near-invisible war is gathering pace, steadily and deliberately undermining what holds Western democracies together and makes them worth living in. Russia is becoming the model for despotic countries like Belarus – and, I fear, Poland and Hungary – closing in not just on its own journalists, but on all foreign media, targeted under Russia’s ever-changing 2012 “foreign agent” legislation with huge fines for not accepting so-called “labelling requirements”.

Only this week Moscow announced it would ban Twitter in a month’s time if it failed to remove “certain content”. Already suing Twitter over posts supporting street protests against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny,Russian regulators on March 10 throttled Twitter for supposedly encouraging child pornography, drug use, and (!) suicide.

Europeans have been sleep-walking into all this. There is a shocking acceptance, for example, of Cambridge Analytica’s blatant role in manipulating the Brexit referendum with Russia’s covert help, with ex-President Trump cheering it on. Was that debacle the beginning of a tacit acceptance of a pathetic, un-European sort of unfreedom, a surrender to the idea that Europe is “just a collection of unelected bureaucrats’’, as our enemies love to say?

The EU urgently needs tough, resilient, and credible media to defend it and its values. Back in 1962, that was part of the European idea. I insist that independence and freedom is still at the core of any Europe worth its name, and will only survive if we act and think like Europeans.

The six-year presidency of my predecessor Otmar Lahodynsky, long-time Austrian Brussels correspondent, was exemplary. He spoke and wrote about Europe, organised seminars and workshops, and invited Commissioners to speak at our congresses. Just before I took over from him, Otmar organised creative, practical Zoom conferences with Commission Vice-President Vera Jourova, and with the new OSCE head of Media Freedom, Teresa Ribeiro. Both meetings are bearing fruit.

In the not so distant past Jean-Claude Juncker would come – physically, in those days – to the Brussels press club every two weeks. That is as it should be. No, it is not a matter of cosying up to the powers, but of a common European understanding dear to the AEJ of who we are, what is at stake, and of how we can and must work together.

Almost as significant, I think, is the AEJ’s trans-national team-work I want to encourage. In Bulgaria, for example, (stubbornly bottom of the list for European media freedom) Irina Nedeva, our Disinformation specialist, is a tireless campaigner and organiser – including of classes for non-journalists in media literacy. She is a model for the kind of AEJ I am honoured to lead, swimming not drowning, as the poet said.

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