Speech Foreign Minister Bert Koenders at conference on freedom of press

English speech by Foreign Minister Bert Koenders at the Conference 'Future of independent Russian-language media', in Amsterdam on 29 April 2016.

Check against delivery. This speech is only available in English.

Ladies and gentlemen, colleagues, friends,

Today is just a few days before World Press Freedom Day. An important day for you, for me, for all of us. I’d like to make some remarks about the importance of access to information in democratic societies, about the free press, about risks and opportunities. About the modern media industry. About individual courage, and about the need to support courageous individuals.

Thank you for inviting me to speak here today. I am glad to see so many young faces: students who will forge our future and uphold journalism’s vital role in society.

No news is good news. Or, as the expression goes in its original English form, attributed to King James I in 1616: No newis is bettir then evill newis.

Four hundred years later similar expressions still exist, in many languages. Keine Nachrichten, gute Nachrichten. Pas de nouvelles, bonnes nouvelles. Geen nieuws, goed nieuws, in my own tongue. In Russian, too, there is such a saying:

Лучшая новость - отсутствие всякой новости.

(‘The best news is the absence thereof’’).

Apparently, our languages agree. But is it always true?

When it comes to journalism, you might prefer a slight variation: ‘good news is no news.’ I imagine that the media and journalism students present here today have their own ideas about this.

But today I want to talk about the other side of the coin. Because, unfortunately, in a growing number of places around the world, ‘no news’ is very bad news indeed.

There’s a well-known play by Tom Stoppard about the dilemmas that journalists face. It’s called Night and Day, and although it dates from 1970 it is, in many respects, still relevant today. At one point, one of the journalists says:

‘People do awful things to each other. But it’s worse in places where everybody is kept in the dark.’

This is still true today, over 40 years after the play was written. In our digital age, this age of apparently easy access to information through the internet and social media, there are still many black spots on our map. Places where the world has no clue what’s going on.

Remember the town of Tabit, in Darfur, Sudan? In 2014, 200 women and girls were brutally raped by locally garrisoned government soldiers.

Among the victims were Khatera (a 40-year-old mother) and her three young daughters. They knew there was little chance of justice for them: a culture of impunity in Sudan often ensures soldiers go free from accusation of rape. An effective silencing mechanism of violence and intimidation was put in place to prevent the world from knowing.

And if it hadn’t been for a local radio station, the world would never have known.

Radio Dabanga broke the story, which was immediately denied by the Sudanese authorities as ‘all lies’. The veracity of the reports was questioned by the international community at large, but it marked the beginning of something powerful. Based on Radio Dabanga’s reporting, Human Rights Watch launched its own investigation. It filed its findings to the International Criminal Court: chilling evidence for future cases.

Radio Dabanga’s information made the difference. As the journalist in Night and Day somewhat biblically remarks: ‘Information is light. Information, about anything, is light.’

I would like to add: it is oxygen. Oxygen for any democracy, and for any society based on the rule of law. Without it there can be no democracy. No rule of law, no accountability.  

Paradoxically, as the most recent report by Freedom House indicates, in our day and age the number of ‘black spots’ is increasing. In a time of seemingly unlimited access to information and new channels of content, more and more parts of the world are becoming virtually inaccessible to journalists.

The Freedom House report gives a startling overview of this negative trend. In 2015 the share of the world’s population that enjoyed a free press stood at only 14 per cent – one in seven people. Global press freedom has declined to its lowest point in 10 years. Two factors are at play. First: harsh laws – an increase in the use of restrictive legislation against the press. And second: chaotic violence – more and more areas of the world are becoming physically inaccessible to journalists. 

Some of you may have seen the images last night of the barbaric bombardment of Aleppo. It’s only because of one journalist’s reporting that we were able to see what happened there.

There can be no doubt that journalism is becoming more dangerous. I’ve witnessed at first hand the increasing risks that international journalists face. In 2013 in Mali I saw the impact of the murder of French journalists Claude Verlon and Ghislaine Dupont. A Dutch cameraman, Stan Storimans, was killed in Georgia.

Press freedom is under threat not only in crisis zones but also in more stable countries, as the report by Freedom House shows.

You’ve all heard about the recent arrest of Dutch journalist Ebru Umar, in Turkey. Right now my first priority is to assist the process in order for Ms Umar to return to the Netherlands as soon as possible. You’ll understand that I can’t go into too much detail at this time. But let me say this: the fundamental principles of press freedom and freedom of speech are not negotiable. The behaviour of the Turkish authorities is unfitting for a country that wishes to be part of the European Union.

Those most at risk are often local journalists. Afghan reporters, Mexican journalists, bloggers from Bangladesh. People like Anna Politkovskaya in Russia. And Georgiy Gongadze in Ukraine.

Their silence is a loss to us all. We must do what we can to ensure their voices are heard.

I commend organisations like the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and Free Press Unlimited, for the work they do in this respect. In Syria and Darfur. In Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Indonesia and many other places.

I am proud that my country is home to an organisation like Free Press Unlimited, which is a partner through my ministry’s ‘Dialogue and Dissent’ programme. In 2015 it was awarded the Geuzen Medal for its important work on human rights.

But we as governments have to do our part, and we have to do more.

Take the battle against impunity for crimes against reporters. Threatening journalists has become too easy to get away with. We need governments to tackle this problem much more seriously. At the moment, only one in ten murder cases is solved when the victim is a journalist. That needs to change. There are many ways, but there are no easy ways.

One way of tackling impunity is through UNESCO, the UN’s coordinating organisation when it comes to the safety of journalists. UNESCO asks countries to report on the status of judicial inquiries conducted when journalists are killed. As of 2015, more than half of the world’s countries were still ignoring this request. That’s why – in cooperation with Free Press Unlimited – I am urging the countries concerned to start reporting, as a first step towards ending impunity.

Because impunity only leads to one thing: more violence.

Syria, as the Freedom House report describes in chilling detail, is a case in point. In 2015 it remained by far the deadliest place in the world for journalists.

After five years of brutal civil war, the country is suffering from many things, one of which is a huge information void. A void currently being filled by propaganda from the Assad regime and from extremists such as ISIS.

It’s hardly necessary to explain why it’s more important than ever that we support voices in Syria that can offer alternatives. Alternatives to the campaigns of extremist groups like Islamic State, alternatives to the Assad regime’s narrative of events on the ground. Amplifying Syria’s moderate voices will help make the consumption of extremist materials unacceptable. Civil society actors, particularly journalists, have an essential role to play in this regard. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) they act as ‘instances of verification, providing context and perspective’. We need to support them.

The voice of civil society in Syria is increasingly the voice of Syrian women. They are emerging as significant community leaders and as critical advocates for peace and stability. They also exert a strong influence in their households, and can reduce their families’ susceptibility to radicalisation. They are in dire need of support and safe spaces for learning and sharing experiences with others.

That’s why I’m proud to be able to announce today that the Netherlands is contributing 2.4 million euros to a vital project by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting: Alternative Voices - Syria.

The project will train journalists and spotlight how some sectors of society – in particular women and women’s groups – are challenging and rejecting the violent, exclusionary narrative of the Assad regime and of extremist groups. By doing so, it aims to demonstrate that violent, extremist narratives do not represent the views of Syrian people.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In a healthy democracy political journalism is essential. It helps prevent abuse of power and exposes failures in the system. In the Netherlands, parliamentary inquiries have been triggered by the findings of investigative journalists. Take the investigation by TV programmes into large-scale fraud by construction companies. And consider the revelations the Panama papers are bringing to light thanks to investigative journalism.

Is this kind of attention always welcome for governments?

As an active government minister, I can tell you quite frankly:

Yes, it is!

Why? Speaking personally, I love debate.  And speaking professionally: we can’t do without it. Debate is the lifeblood of democracy.

Is it always easy? No. Nor should it be. Asking tough questions keeps us sharp. We need it as part of our system of checks and balances. It forces us to always think about what we’re doing and why. If we can’t explain it, there’s probably something wrong – with the decision, with the narrative, or both.   

Of course, the key role political journalism plays in a vital democracy also requires a certain sense of noblesse oblige on the part of the press. The public needs information it can trust. For this trust to exist, reporters must abide by the basic principles of quality journalism and adhere to the highest standards.

Good reporting is not an easy trade. A journalist needs to be rigorous: always keep checking the facts.

In our digital age, with traditional and new media reinforcing each other in new and exciting ways, this is even more important. In a world where news needs only a few seconds to travel the globe and reach millions; where, thanks to social media, the lines between news consumers and news makers are blurring; and where the news business has become faster than ever before and its penetration much deeper – the need for rigour has only grown more vital.  

So check and double check. Don’t just assume.

Or as the Chicago city news bureau once put it, ‘If your mother says she loves you, check it out.’

And perhaps most important of all: we need independent news. At the heart of any trusted media source we need to have editorial and financial independence – quite the issue these days.

Only then can the free press empower people with different points of view and play its vital democratic role.

This brings me to the focus of today’s conference: the situation of the media in the Russian-speaking world.

The Russian language is one of the richest in the world. It is the lingua franca of more than 260 million people across the globe. Writers like Poesjkin, Tolstoj and Dostojevski, Nobel Prize winners Alexander Solsjenitzin and Svetlana Alexievich have enriched our literature and our lives.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this beautiful language. But there is a problem with the present Russian-language media landscape.

Russian-speaking audiences have an equal right to a free and independent media. It’s a basic human right, as article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights makes clear:

‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’

However, in Russian-speaking countries, this right is under pressure. As the 2015 report by the European Endowment for Democracy indicates: there are various asymmetries in the Russian-language media environment which prevent the press from playing the vital role that is expected from it in a healthy democracy. This is worrisome for many reasons. But above all because the breakdown of trust in journalism prevents society from developing in a more democratic direction.

You have discussed this matter extensively here today. So let me confine my own remarks to the following.

If there is one thing lacking in the Russian-language media environment it is independence and plurality. The ‘one size fits all’ government narrative, packaged in a smart mix of entertainment and information, has truly shaken trust in the Russian-language media landscape.

At the same time, that narrative – broadcast on television and reinforced via social media – is highly effective as a propaganda tool. It may seem like a paradox, but unfortunately these attractively packaged government messages are finding their way into viewers’ hearts and minds.

This lack of pluralism brings me to another variation of the expression I used at the outset: ‘just one kind of news is also bad news.’

Very bad news. Some would call it propaganda.

But let’s not dwell too much on what we’re up against. Let’s focus instead on the ideas we want to support. Because we believe in them.

In this respect, the Netherlands is very pleased with the recommendations contained in the EED report and the follow up it has received so far. Last September’s conference in Warsaw clearly indicated that the conclusions were shared widely – both inside and outside the EU.

Firstly, this initiative is not about countering propaganda. It is about supporting and strengthening independent, quality media in the Russian language.

Secondly, we need to support a variety of voices.

Thirdly, there is a gap in local news which we could help to fill.

And fourthly, there is so much talent available in the countries of the Eastern Partnership.

In September in Warsaw we took an important first step. I am glad that today we can take the next step. The Netherlands is making available 1.3 million euros for a regional Russian-language news hub that will build on a network of existing partners throughout the countries of the Eastern Partnership. The hub will enable journalists and independent media to share news items and articles in the Russian language. In Free Press Unlimited we have found a trusted partner to set this up – a lot of important work has already been done.

I am grateful that other countries are doing their share as well. In November last year, the Baltic Centre of Media Excellence opened in Riga (you have just heard from its Executive Director, Rita Rudusa). The Centre is a partnership between various media organisations, producing alternative content for Russian-speaking audiences in the region and providing training in media excellence.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me close by stressing that, in the future, our societies’ conflicts must be fought by three means only: words, words and words.

Let’s empower ourselves and our friends abroad to do just that.

Let’s make sure that people everywhere have access to more than just one kind of news.

But let’s also make sure that we don’t just accept any kind of news - by striving for rigour, independence and quality.

And finally, let’s set our sights on helping to create societies in which no news, indeed, is good news.

Thank you.