Media and Development Conference III:The Importance of Free Media



By Thijs Berman

 

The global future might look gloomy and good journalism is subject to many threats, but Thijs Berman is “too depressed to be a pessimist”. This European politician, formerly a first rate journalist, analyses the Internet revolution and its consequences for the role of journalists and the plight of politicians.

 

Let’s look at the future as a space divided along three axes: solidarity, open society and innovation. Are we to share with each other or struggle, each for him - or herself? Are we to have a society controlled by authoritarian forces or a democratic and open one? Are we to innovate or come to a standstill? Democracy in the European Union is extremely diverse, but at least there is democracy. It is uncertain that 50 years from now the rest of the world will look like this and there is no cause for over-optimism. However, I am an optimist because I’m a politician and because I’m too depressed to be a pessimist.

 

 Thijs Berman: “The time of handing out press cards to a selected elite is over.”

 

Free media fit very well into this picture of three axes. They are crucial to innovation. Without the free flow of information people can’t make informed choices about what to try and do with their creativity, what to research and where to invest. Innovation can only prosper when there are free minds in an open society. Emerging economies without an open society develop thanks to innovation and the free flow of information in other countries only.

 

In this process, the Internet is totally revolutionary. There are no geographical borders any longer, they are things of the past. The access to information has been democratised irreversibly, it can’t be stopped. Every consumer is a potential producer and this changes the role of journalists.

 

Journalism as we know it is a product of enlightenment. Journalists from the nineteenth century up to the nineties of the twentieth century were an elite, although not always appreciated. My grandfather was a politician and used to say: “Journalists only come when it stinks, they are just like flies.” Despised by politicians, journalists were in fact part of the same elite, always in a complicated relationship.

 

The journalist of the 21st century can no longer be part of this elite. Just like before he is a witness, a critical analyst and a gatekeeper providing access for people who have something to say. What is new is that journalists today more and more function as explorers, guides in structuring this enormous and ever-growing flow of information, a flow absolutely unprecedented in world history. Journalists can offer guidance, analysis, structure, questioning, not as part of the elite but as a part of all those very surprised and embarrassed citizens who do not really know what to think of this overwhelming flow and what to choose. This question is far from easy.

 

 Now I talked about innovation and open society, let’s look at the question whether we should share wealth and opportunities or whether we should struggle each for our own salvation. One of the first Internet providers in the Netherlands was called xs4all and I think this is a modern translation of solidarity. Offering access is the key word today, access for all to energy, education, health and information. Sharing at least a minimum of these is essential if you think human capital should get the chance to develop itself. And if you want to survive the next century, you need to develop every single bit of human capital you can find. Not oil, but human capital is the only source of added value nowadays.

 

 The global future might look gloomy and good journalism is subject to many threats, but Thijs Berman is “too depressed to be a pessimist”. This European politician, formerly a first rate journalist, analyses the Internet revolution and its consequences for the role of journalists and the plight of politicians. This new role of guidance requires journalists to be of extremely high quality. You cannot be a guide in an unknown world if you don’t know what anchors you have. So we need very thorough training of journalists. Boards of editors should allow themselves to take the time to analyse, to think and to hesitate. Because there are many threats to quality. Not only commerce or financial interestsare threats to good journalism, also vertical media concentration from production to distribution of inform ation.

 

And what about the Internet, is that a threat? I am not afraid of the Internet at all, I think it will only improve quality because it offers and supplies. I would not have survived the last decade as a journalist without mobile phones or the Internet, it’s really a salvation. But you do have to redefine what makes a journalist, taking into account the profession has been democratized. The time of handing out press cards to a selected elite is over.

 

More than ever we need very active support for free media, for training, for funding, for advocacy, for protection. It is the duty of politicians to use their modest influence to support journalists. That’s why I organised an event for the Algerian cartoonist Ali Dilem, who was threatened with up to 6 years imprisonment because of some interesting cartoons he made about the president. Fifty members of the European Parliament signed a long letter of protest and it worked, Dilem stayed out of prison. It did not work for Anna Politkovskaya, we were only able to bring flowers to her grave. And still we don’t do enough, we never do enough.

 

Some Dutch politicians say Muslim countries have no democracy. That makes me very angry, because I do not think that we in our arrogant West have ever invested in democrats in Muslim countries, we were just not interested. Our political stands and actions were driven by gas, oil and geostrategic interests. We supported the Muslim Brothers in Egypt to oust Nasser, to give just one example. A lot of our investments and support had nothing to do with democracy, all the more with power play. The arrogance that is shown by lamenting the amount of democracy is shameful, embarrassing and ignorant and we have to get rid of it as soon as possible. Instead of complaining, those people should support democrats in Muslim countries. I think the European Parliament can play a key role here, as European politicians are often more broadminded and willing to reach out across party lines.

 

 Thijs Berman worked as a correspondent in Moscow and Paris for a number of leading Dutch newspapers and magazines and for Dutch public radio. He is a Member of the European Parliament for the Dutch Labour Party, which elected him in December 2008 to lead the party in the upcoming European elections. Thijs Berman is vice-chairman of the European Development Committee. He’s the living proof that there is life after journalism.