Menue_phone
06.05.2019

Classical music, cartoons and courage - new ways to stand up for press freedom

by Jane Whyatt

Looking at the state of press freedom in Europe can be depressing. But the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom keeps finding new ways to motivate human rights defenders. On World Press Freedom Day in ECPMF’s home city of Leipzig, they shared some of their best ideas.

World Press Freedom Day 2019 World Press Freedom Day, 3. May 2019, LVZ Foyer in Leipzig. (Photo: Andreas Lamm / ECPMF)

Classical music can have a startling effect, as desk editor Anita Kecke told the crowd of about 50 people packed into the foyer of her newspaper office, the Leipziger Volkszeitung (LVZ), for the World Press Freedom Day event on 3. May.

"When the right-wing populists marched up to our forecourt, aggressively chanting 'Lying press', we stuck loudspeakers outside and blasted them with a loud recording of Beethoven’s 'Ode to Joy' to drown out the noise they were making," said Kecke, as she participated in the event's panel discussion. 'Ode to Joy' is the official anthem of the European Union, and the lyrics were written in Gohlis, Leipzig, in 1785 by world-famous poet Friedrich Schiller.

Reporting from the frontline of right-wing populist hatred against media workers, ECPMF’s Martin Hoffmann and Ine Dippmann, president of the Saxony DJV (Journalists' Union), described at the event the growing number of attacks and assaults on journalists in Germany. Dippmann also pointed out that only two days earlier, a journalist in Chemnitz had been prevented from doing his job and had his photos of a demonstration deleted by the police.

Martin Hoffmann went over the statistics from ECPMF’s four-year research project showing that the attacks on German media workers coincide with the rise and fall of right-wing populist and extreme right-wing activity. This refers especially to far-right demonstrations such as the ones in Chemnitz last autumn, which accounted for about a third of the 26 attacks on journalists reported for all of 2018.

World Press Freedom Day 2019 Discussion panel during World Press Freedom Day, 3. May 2019, LVZ Foyer in Leipzig. From left: Martin Hoffmann, Lutz Kinkel, Oliver Schenk, Anita Kecke, Ine Dippmann. (Photo: Andreas Lamm / ECPMF)

Saxony’s Europe Minister Oliver Schenk praised the engagement of the local journalists and of the ECPMF. He commented: "We need to think about how to support media diversity in future – through foundations or by other means."

Respect for the everyday heroines and heroes

Loud applause greeted Kecke when she spoke of her German colleagues under constant threat: "I have great respect for colleagues who endure these threats and still continue to do their jobs. They don’t say, 'I must switch to other topics in order to protect my family.' These are the people who defend press freedom in a small way, every single day, and they deserve respect."

Yet even with all the problems faced in Germany, it seems like paradise compared to neighbouring Czech Republic, according to freelance journalist Lucie Sykorova from Pilsen.

"Our Prime Minister Andrej Babis owns the biggest media group and our politicians call us 'shits, brainwashers, hyenas'; they’re warning that there are too many journalists and they will limit accreditations," Sykorova, who chairs the ECPMF Supervisory Board, told the audience and fellow panel discussants in the LVZ Foyer.

World Press Freedom Day 2019 Lucie Sykorova speaking at World Press Freedom Day, 3. May 2019, LVZ Foyer in Leipzig. (Photo: Andreas Lamm / ECPMF)

Czech media workers must be hoping for a political transformation like the one Ethiopia is experiencing.

Until recently, this African country ranked near the bottom of the global list for press freedom but has now soared up the scale - 40 places higher to number 110. There, almost 8,000 kilometers away in Leipzig’s twin city of Addis Ababa, journalists from all over the world were meeting to mark the official UNESCO World Press Freedom Day 2019.

In the Leipzig event, the audience got to experience a little taste of Ethiopia, with an authentic buffet from local restaurant Addis Café.

World Press Freedom Day 2019 Typical Ethiopian food at World Press Freedom Day, 3. May 2019, LVZ Foyer in Leipzig. (Photo: Andreas Lamm / ECPMF)

Germans and internationals in attendance, including at least one guest from Ethiopia, mingled over the food and press freedom-related topics. A few audience members engaged in the event discussion themselves, asking the panelists questions.

Joining the ECPMF event by video link from the UNESCO festivities, Mogens Blicher Bjerreagaard introduced Ethiopian caroonist Yemsrach Yetneberk. She freely admitted that she had only started drawing political cartoons in the last months, since the new government took over. While she can now even post them on social media, in the past she had feared being imprisoned or even losing her life over it. 

World Press Freedom Day 2019 The diverse audience at World Press Freedom Day, 3. May 2019, LVZ Foyer in Leipzig. (Photo: Andreas Lamm / ECPMF)

Bjeeregaard, a member of the ECPMF Executive Board, welcomed the political changes that have seen hundreds of Ethiopian bloggers and internet sites unblocked in a new spirit of openness.

And Katja Roloff, who leads the city partnership at the Leipzig City Hall, commented: "I was in Ethiopia in February and it’s true what your Executive Board member said – it’s markeldy different now under the new president."

World Press Freedom Day 2019 Ethiopian Yemsrach Yetneberk via video link, World Press Freedom Day, 3. May 2019, LVZ Foyer in Leipzig. (Photo: Andreas Lamm / ECPMF)

The good news from Addis Ababa gave an extra boost to ECPMF’s new democracy campaign #ivote4pressfreedom. Where Ethiopia leads, Europe can follow. Who’d have thought it, under the old government?

That's why our votes are so important.