As early as 1993 the General Assembly of the United Nations declared May 3rd World Press Freedom Day. It so happened that by that time, the first internet servers were deployed outside CERN; by the end of the year 1993, there were over 500 active. In the decades to come, the world wide web would expand to become the central nucleus of a global information and communication system. The development of this distributed, open-ended network came with the promise of freedom: everyone would be able to express their thoughts and opinions on the web leading to unseen levels of openness, diversity, freedom of expression and freedom of speech. No more gates to be kept. While the web continues to pose important challenges to media companies, many believe we might be witnessing a golden age of journalism, one where virtually everyone, everywhere can contribute to what Jay Rosen has aptly called ‘random acts of journalism’. Freedom of press is increasingly coined freedom of media, understood as increased freedom of expression for all.
But even today, more than 20 years later, we must admit that the internet failed to fully keep its promise of freedom. While the internet definitely enabled Saudi-Arabian blogger Raif Badawi, winner of the first Difference Day Honorary Title for the Freedom of Expression in 2015, to publish his writings on the separation between church and state, it did not prevent him from being sentenced to 10 years of prison and a 1000 whiplashes. Websites gave journalists the possibility to reach larger audiences than ever. But it did not prevent the fourth estate of being pressured, even in democratic countries, witness the recent showdown against the Zaman newspaper and Cihan news agency in Turkey and recent assaults on media freedom in Poland, Hungary, to name but a few .. Social media allow for everyone to speak up and for many different visions on the world to be voiced. But that did not prevent many of the lovely calls to defend press freedom after the attack on Charlie Hebdo to quickly deteriorate into simplistic antagonisms between press freedom and Islam, bluntly and unilaterally pressing Western values upon the rest of the world and Muslims in Europe. Moreover with the multiplication of channels and self-publication, also propaganda spreads easily and massively
This is why also this year, on May 3nd, the United Nations brings under attention the violations that still occur against the freedom of the press. With the organisation of Difference Day, the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Bozar, iMinds and Evens Foundation, together with many national and international partners including WAN-IFRA, want to join in this effort. Difference Day celebrates journalism and freedom of expression and especially those journalists and people all over the world that take risks every day to bring the news in a critical and sound way. Clearly, their continuing confrontation with economical and political pressures proves that freedom of expression and of the press can never nor nowhere be taken for granted. But Difference Day also celebrates diversity, and especially those persons who’s voices still tend to be neglected, derided or plainly supressed. As such, it calls for a contextual rather than an absolutist approach to press freedom, being open-minded and taking into account the sensitivities that other cultures may have about the plain speaking we hold so dear.
This is why on Difference Day, May 3rd at Bozar in Brussels, we want to talk about journalism, press and media freedom with an open mind. The day will be start with a keynote from Commissioner Oettinger fro m the European Commission emphasising that Europe is a strong supporter for freedom of speech. We will welcome a panel of women Turkish journalists to hear their views on the recent evolutions in Turkey in terms of freedom of the press and their role as journalists. Repression of the media must be condemned, but we should not be insensitive or pedantic in doing so. A second debate will focus on what a global framework for media ethics would look like, and how to reconcile a more engaged approach to journalism with the core value of impartiality and integrity. A third panel will tackle censorship and propaganda. During Difference Day, we want to take the opportunity to talk about journalism, but also to let journalists talk. We will host the second Belgian edition of Live Magazine, a live enactment of a magazine, where journalists take the stage to tell the story of freedom of media and expression through their own stories. Finally, Difference Day is also a cause for celebration. During the award ceremony, we will grant the second Difference Day Honorary Title for the Freedom of the Press to a person who made an outstanding contribution to this cause. On top of which the European Press Cartoon’s Prize will be awarded. We will welcome a previous winner of the World Association of Newspaper Golden Pen of Freedom to share his or her thoughts.
In doings so, we hope that Difference Day can contribute to necessary debate about freedom of the press and of expression and to the future of sound, creative and critical journalism in Belgium, Europe and the world.
Prof. Dr. Caroline Pauwels, iMinds – Digital Society SMIT
If you would like to support the Difference Day on May 3, please register on http://www.differenceday.com/event/registration/