#WPFD2017: Wake-up call to Europe's journalists

by Jane Whyatt

A wake-up call is going out to Europe's journalists and press freedom campaigners. Frans Timmermans, the European Commission's first Vice President, marked World Press Freedom Day in Brussels by denouncing fake news and urging the media to re-connect with the wider public.

WPFD2017 900X600 Frans Timmermans, Dunja Mijatovic and others were speaking at the EURACTIV World Press Freedom Day event in Brussels on 3 May. (Photo: ECPMF)

At the EURACTIV event on 3 May, he also commented on the rising popularity of right-wing nationalist parties in 2017, when elections are being held in the UK, France, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany.

Citing a woman who voted for far-right candidate Geert Wilders at Brabant in his native Netherlands, Timmermans said he had challenged Wilders's election promises, insisting they were not true.

"I know that," was the reply, "But I want to believe him."

According to Timmermans, this tendency to believe what we want to believe spells danger for journalists, who rely on the trustworthiness of their output:

We have a huge, huge collective task, the public sector and the journalists, to re-educate the public. Because the illiteracy of the future is not being able to read and write. The illiteracy of the future is not to be able to distinguish and criticise and select and discard."

Without such a partnership of media and educators, he predicted a future in which politicians would be able to "sell any nonsense" to a gullible public.

Timmermans urged journalists to go after facts first, put them in order and in context, and only then write a commentary or blog based on the facts, noting that it is easier and cheaper for media houses to employ commentators than reporters. He applauded a new initiative by the Brussels-based Future Media Lab, which aims to bring together technology startups and traditional media companies to find technical tools to counter fake news and improve the efficiency of journalistic fact-checking.

Setting out the importance of press freedom in the current political situation, the Vice President went on: "Look at Turkey, Russia, even EU Mmber states such as Hungary and Poland. It's not by accident that the media are the first target when the illiberal ideology takes over. (...) That blue and gold EU flag represents the values of openness and honesty and truth. Those values can ony be carried to society if they are underpinned by journalism."

Dunja Mijatovic, former High Representative on Freedom of the Media at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), appealed to the media freedom community not to forget the journalists who have been killed for doing their work. She meant especially those whose murders remain unsolved and unpunished, like the Russian investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya.

She reminded the audience too of the hundreds of journalists in jail in Turkey and elsewhere, those under house arrest and those in hiding.

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Follow the latest World Press Freedom Day developments and join the discussion under the hashtag #WPFD2017.