Speech Foreign Minister Stef Blok Free Press Live 2018

Speech by the Minister of Foreign Affairs Stef Blok, at the Free Press Unlimited ‘Free Press Live 2018’ event, 2 November 2018, The Hague.

This speech is only available in English.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Imagine a society without an independent media. Everything you hear on the radio, see on TV, read in the papers is controlled by the state. Imagine being ruled by fear, in a society where no one dares to be a journalist. Where the public is either misinformed or uninformed. Those in power would be able to do whatever they liked. People would be unable to address or discuss matters that affect their lives. Corruption would never be exposed. There would be no information from war zones. Government censorship and self-censorship would be the order of the day. It would be an awful world to live in. We can all agree that without a free press there can be no free society. Fortunately, this dystopian scenario is not the situation in the Netherlands, in Europe or in large parts of the world.

But that doesn’t mean all is well. It’s undeniable that independent journalism is essential to society, but it’s equally undeniable that the profession is not in a strong position. Journalism is the oxygen of democracy. But many journalists are vulnerable. And not only in practical – financial – terms but also in a more fundamental sense: in terms of their personal safety. They are being threatened, obstructed and imprisoned. And even murdered. Just for doing their job. A job that is of great importance to all of us.

A number of recent murders have made the world sit up and take notice. A little more than a year ago, investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed in Malta in a targeted car bombing. And in February journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée were murdered near Bratislava.

Today we have family, colleagues and friends of Daphne and Ján here with us. Thank you for coming – it’s a privilege and an honour to have you here.

And just recently, Jamal Khashoggi was killed in what appear to be horrific circumstances.

Daphne, Ján and Jamal all died for their words. For their use of a truly and fundamentally non-violent means of dissent: the pen. These killings have rightly prompted outrage all over the world. Among everyone who realises that a crime against a journalist is a crime against freedom of speech. In the case of Ján Kuciak, it led to an investigation and political accountability. With regard to Jamal Khashoggi, I would like to reiterate High Representative Mogherini’s call for a credible, transparent and prompt investigation.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Europe is still the region with the greatest degree of press freedom in the world. But at the same time, that freedom has deteriorated more on our continent than anywhere else. In the Netherlands, too, journalists were recently forced to go into hiding for investigating organised crime. Research by former National Ombudsman Alex Brenninkmeijer has revealed an alarming trend: threats against journalists are on the rise in this country. And in some cases reporters decide not to publish, due to intimidation and fear of repercussions. When it’s fear that does the talking, the right to unrestricted information and truth comes under threat.

Outside the EU there is even greater cause for concern. Journalists are at risk every day. In Syria. In Mexico. In the DRC. And in so many other places around the world. For doing their job and keeping the public informed. Because they report about corruption and crime, and about violence, chaos and war. Worldwide, more than sixty journalists have been murdered this year alone. And while murder is dreadful in any circumstances, there is an extra dimension when the victim is a journalist. It is an attack on the very essence of democracy.

When a journalist is silenced, all of society is silenced. And nine times out of ten, the culprit is never brought to justice.

Last year, more than 260 journalists were silenced in another way: they were imprisoned by government authorities for doing their job. Unfortunately, arrests, intimidation and abuses happen on a large scale all over the world. And on top of all this, journalists are often threatened with legal action.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Today is the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists. It is important to recognise that we can never take press freedom for granted. We must be mindful that imprimatur, government control of information and censorship (still fresh in the collective memory of some countries) have not been banished forever and could return at any time. When government authorities control media content, only one voice is heard: the voice of power. But power is by definition asymmetrical and must be kept in check by countervailing forces.

It’s true that those in power and authority don’t always appreciate that. On the contrary.

Civil servants don’t jump for joy every time they receive a request under freedom of information law. But it is a good thing. Power must be kept in check, and parliaments can’t do it alone. Good investigative journalism has a galvanising function and prompts parliamentary debate. After all, knowing your work is being scrutinised inspires you to do better. Otherwise hubris can take hold and the inclination to withhold information can gain the upper hand. Good journalism is part of good governance.

Despite these concerns, I see no reason for despair. This might surprise you, given what I’ve said. But let me explain why I’m optimistic.

There is plenty we can do to protect press freedom in general. And there are plenty of things we need to keep doing:

UNESCO publishes a regular overview of the status of judicial enquiries into the killings of journalists. Over the years, many more countries cooperated and reported information to UNESCO. In the battle against impunity for violence against journalists, UNESCO remains an important ally.

The Netherlands actively pursues prevention, protection and prosecution. How do we do that? We provide cybersecurity training, help improve legislation and offer temporary accommodation where at-risk journalists can work in safety. We also help prosecute those who physically threaten journalists.
The Shelter City project provides safe, temporary places to work in 11 cities in the Netherlands, but also in other cities around the world, like San José, Dar es Salaam and Tbilisi.

The Netherlands is working with like-minded countries to develop standards to bolster freedom of expression online and resist stricter laws that limit this freedom.

We are active within the Freedom Online Coalition, which promotes human rights on the internet. And finally, we apply political pressure in countries that put human rights defenders and journalists in jail.

Working with civil society is a big part of all this. Free Press Unlimited launched its Safety for Media Professionals programme. This is a programme my government actively supports: to provide journalists with affordable legal services and insurance. Journalists need to be able to defend themselves against false accusations and insure themselves – especially when they work in conflict zones.

In addition, the Netherlands supports other practical initiatives, like Breaking the Impasse: Protecting Journalists and Social Communicators and Where There is Political Will: Stopping Impunity and Violence Against Journalists.

The final point I’d like to make is that it’s important to reward courage. So that public authorities and society can send a clear message: let journalists do their job. A good journalist is critical, independent, steadfast and creative. But above all, undaunted, in spite of the risks. Without good journalists, we wouldn’t know what was going on in Syria, Yemen and South Sudan. Or in troubled parts of Mexico, Central America and Venezuela. Without good journalists, abuses of power would remain hidden and go unpunished. We would know little, if anything, about misuse of EU funds, ties between legitimate society and the criminal underworld, mafia activity and outlaw motorcycle gangs. Democracy flourishes when there is debate. When opinions collide, the truth will arise. But this requires an independent, diverse media landscape, where minority voices are heard. Freedom of expressionSpee is the alpha and omega of human rights and democracy. A society that lives in fear will ultimately crumble.

And that is precisely why it’s so important to reward courage, and to continue highlighting the importance of good journalism.

And so it’s my privilege today to announce the winner of the Most Resilient Journalist Award. It honours professionals who continue to do their essential work, often at great personal risk. At the beginning of my remarks, I asked you to imagine a world without an independent media. It would be a dark and scary place. Without a free press, there can be no free society. And without courageous journalists there would be no free press. So I ask you to join me in honouring a person who has shown particular perseverance, courage and resilience in reporting the news. In investigating extrajudicial killings and the involvement of officials in deadly riots. And for her efforts, she has endured intense harassment. She is an example to us all.

Rana Ayyub – please come forward.

Ministry responsible