Game Changer conference impressions: "As long as we have electricity we have hope"

Journalists, academics, and media freedom activists gathered in Leipzig, Germany, to debate the impact of digital technologies on press freedom, for good and for bad. For two days they discussed the Daphne Project, citizen journalism, surveillance, blockchain, Facebook and the right to be forgotten. They also joined a hands-on workshop to learn digital self-defence.

Game Changer Conference ECPMF Managing Director Lutz Kinkel and Facebook representative Marie-Teresa Weber at ECPM'S Game Changer conference in Leipzig (photo: ECPMF)

"Welcome to the age of collaboration," said Lutz Kinkel, Managing Director of the ECPMF, in his welcome note to ECPMF'S Game Changer conference on digital developments and media freedom. What followed was a celebration of togetherness. In bad times solidarity becomes crucial. And times are pretty bad.

We started with Jules Giraudat from Forbidden Stories presenting The Daphne Project, where forty-five journalists in different countries continue to work on and publish the investigations of murdered Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. "You are not alone," said Giraudat. If journalists cannot go on with their work because they and their families are threatened in life and limb, because they are thrown into jail, because they are assassinated, "there is a network of international journalists ready to help."

"Hopefully, this message will be a protective shield - and it was created by solidarity and collaboration," said Kinkel.

Blanka Zöldi from the investigative news outlet Direkt 36 in Hungary also spoke about how digital technology enables her to do her work with the help of others, for example in one case the offshore leaks database of the anti-corruption movement OCCRP. The stamina and bravery of this little group of journalists in a country where the Prime Minister has declared war on journalism, needs all our solidarity and support.

Just as impressive was Gürkan Özturan presenting the citizen-journalist platform dokuz8NEWS in Turkey. He stood in at the last minute for his colleague Gökhan Biçici who couldn't make it because of passport issues. It's hard to believe but conditions for journalistic work in Turkey are still getting even worse. "Until recently I would have said 'As long as we have electricity we have hope'," Özturan said. But now that the Erdogan administration announced that it would shut down publications that share so-called abnormal news, he and his colleagues face even tougher working condition. 

It feels more scary not to say certain things

"It was after the Gezi Park protests in 2013 that we realised that the media doesn't show reality," Özturan said. But fear is not an option: "The threshold of fear has been crossed. It feels more scary not to say certain things."

Jillian C. York from the Electronic Frontier Foundation spoke about the new technology of mass surveillance, by governments and corporations. "This is an era of unprecedented surveillance," said York. "They are sharing methods and a whole lot of data. Mass surveillance is not going away! Three years after Snowden came forward it is even getting more". Journalists need to know what and who they want to protect. Vigilance is crucial, was the message. Sometimes the best advice is: if you travel leave your digital devices at home. 

Journalism is not a crime

Day 1 ended with Pieter Haasnot's presentation on blockchain based news. He said that our traditional way of thinking about centralised authorities 'as a must' would damage the sustainability of media freedom in the future.

Winding down after a hot day of intense debates, ECPMF screened Tom Heinemann's inspiring documentary "Courage - Journalism is not a crime".

Day 2 started with Nani Jansen Reventlow from the Digital Freedom Fund's keynot. "The same rights that people have offline, must also be protected online," was her credo. That sounds self-evident but obviously still isn't.

Prof Dirk Voorhoof from the Legal Human Academy talked about the liabilities of intermediaries, saying that an automated process of 'notice and take down' online would be a huge threat to freedom of expression. "We need to reinstall human rights in the internet!" The recommendation by the EU Committee of Ministers to Member States on the roles and responsibilities of internet intermediaries can be found here. "Reality is much more diverse than specific rules," Voorhoof said. "We need to work with principles and liabilities."

A heated discussion followed Blanca Tapia's presentation of the FRAbot, an experimental beta version of a social bot. It is being developed by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights and aims to respond to hate speech in the social networks. "It's to raise awareness, as incitement to hate keeps growing and growing," said Tapia. FRAbot can reply to tweets of hate-filled content - answering them with legal articles and explanations of why they are wrong. "Will they ignore it? At least it’s there in their echo chamber," Tapia said.

Next up was Marie-Teresa Weber from internet intermediary Facebook, defending Facebook's role. "We are not a media company," she kept stressing. "We are a tech company. We don’t want to curate content. But we have rules." According to Weber, there is a still ongoing discussion at Facebook how to be more transparent. "We know that we haven't done enough to explain ourselves." But Facebook will not publish its algorithms because "it wouldn’t be useful to you".

Last panel of the day was Michael Oghia on the Right to be Forgotten stating that the Right to be Forgotten is becoming the new rationale for censorship". And he showed a map with an alarming number of countries  that are bringing in this law for questionable reasons.  

Game Changer conference was intense and massively informative, right up to the very last minute. After the wrap-up, participants could add a hands-on workshop on digital self-defence. Wael Nagi from the Tactical Technology Collective gave practical insights in how to keep your data safe when crossing borders or when confronted by the state authorities. It included how to protect your text messages, contacts, correspondence, documents, browser history and even credit card info! Because all of this may be extracted from our private phones, tablets and laptops. In short: encryption and a proper password manager is the key. And: security is an ongoing conversation.

Thanks for being with us! Thanks for all the amazing talks! See you soon!

Creative Commons LicenseThis article is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.
Source information: This article was originally published by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom –