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Speech on the World press freedom day - 3 May 2018

Human Rights

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Freedom of expression is a fundamental right, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19 states: "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."

This freedom is at the very heart of democracy. A country can call itself democratic only if journalists and media can work in a free and independent environment, acting as guardians for the respect of the rule of law.

Today we celebrate the World press freedom day. As President of the European Parliament and as journalist this day is particularly close to my heart.

I take this opportunity to pay a tribute to journalists, and to their essential role in enriching our democracy and society.

From smaller desks to big media rooms; from beginner free-lancers to opinion-leading journalists; from traditional media to online channels: my whole-hearted thanks to these sentinels at the forefront of the defense of our freedom working to establishing the truth.

This search of the truth is based on professionalism, accuracy, reliability and verification of fact, but also on courage and personal commitment. Sometimes, unfortunately, at the highest prize: according to Reporters without borders in the past 15 years, 1035 professional journalists were killed worldwide.

Too many media representatives - also in Europe - are still suffering from hostility, censorship, violence, physical and financial threats.

The 2018 World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters without Borders (RSF), measures the level of media freedom in 180 countries and launches alarming signals. ´´Hostility towards the media - it says - openly encouraged by political leaders, and the efforts of authoritarian regimes to export their vision of journalism pose a threat to democracies´´.

The Index shows that Europe is still the region where press freedom is the safest; but there is no room for complacency. It is at the same time the area where the regional indicator has worsened most in 2018.

Malta, Czech Republic, Serbia and Slovakia have registered a sudden worsening of their press freedom indicators. Two cases, in particular, call for our immediate concerns and action: the hideous murders of Daphne Caruana Galizia and Ján Kuciak, who have lost their lives because of their heroic quest for truth.

They were courageous people and fine journalists and were not afraid to do whatever was needed to fulfil their duty and to defend our values.

To honor and remember their commitment for media freedom we should introduce a European Parliament annual prize for investigative journalist named after both of them. Daphne and Jan: we have not forgotten you. We will not forget you. The European Parliament will continue to echo the strong voice of 500 million citizens looking for justice.  We do not want just the name of the killers. We want the name of the instigators.

For this, I call on the Maltese and the Slovak authorities to spare no effort in shading full light on what happened, also through the necessary international cooperation among law enforcement authorities.

Unfortunately, Daphne and Jan are not the only recent victims of the hatred against free press. According to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), 28 other media representatives were killed so far in 2018 - nine of which only in the hideous recent terrorist attack on 30 April in Kabul.

Let me remember and praise all of them:

Jefferson Pureza; Paul Rivas; Javier Ortega; Vijay Singh; Navin Mischal; Sandeep Sharma; Carlos Dominguez Rodriguez; Angel Gahona; Zeeshan Ashraf Butt; Ahmed Abou Hussein; Yaser Mutaja; Abdullah Al Qadri; Mohamed Al Qadesi; Pamika Montenegro; Bashar al Attar; Abdullah Rahaman al Yacine; Efrain Segarra; Khaled Hamo; Oussama Salem; Salimi Ali; Talash Salim; Fezi Shah Marai; Rajabi Noroz Ali; Rasoli Ghazi; Darani Maharam; Kakeker Sabvon; Hananzavi Ebadollah; Tokhi yar Mohammad.

My thoughts are with them and their families.

On top of these figures, other worrying signals remind us the urgency to protect free press. According to the IFJ, 317 journalists are still detained worldwide as we speak, with China and Turkey being the worst countries.

These murders, these unfair arrests and detentions, these kidnappings, are wounds to the democratic fabric of our society. We must not limit ourselves to admiring the courage of those who fight for the truth. We must continue to support them, to stand by them.

We know that this is not easy, but the European parliament is taking on this mission. We do this at every plenary with debates on human rights and freedom of press in the world.

We are doing it with a resolution on media pluralism and media freedom in the European Union adopted today by the plenary.

We do it with the Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought awarded to recognise the struggle of those who, through self-sacrifice, have advanced Human Rights and free speech around the world.

Between the laureates, we count many media representatives, including the Algerian journalist Salima Gezhali, the Bosnian newspaper OSLOBODENJE, the Syrian journalist Ali Ferzat, and the young Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi.

We do this also as legislators and in our approval of the EU budget where we want to link our assistance to a commitment to Human Rights and respect of fundamental freedoms, including freedom of speech and of information.


Situation in Turkey

This seminar is focusing on the situation in Turkey.

The reason for this is that Turkey is among the countries where press freedom has deteriorated the most. In the last 10 year - despite the start of accession negotiations - Turkey has lost 55 positions in the Free Press Index. It is now among the worst performers worldwide.

In 2017, 73 journalists were arrested in the country. According to a report from Die Zeit 155 journalists, arrested after the failed coup d’état, are still in prison. Amnesty International reports that 180 media outlets have been shut down after July.

This unacceptable situation makes it clear that Turkey is turning its shoulders to our core values. It will be hypocritical not to acknowledge this fact and not to draw the inevitable conclusions.

Turkish authorities still have the possibility to reverse this trend. Our door remains open to Turkish people who should continue to be given an EU perspective.

However, without an immediate radical change, there is no place for this Turkey in our Union.

Freedom to inform

The theme of this year’s world free press day is: ‘Keeping power in check: media, justice and the rule of law’’. It highlights the importance of an enabling legal environment for press freedom.

The European Parliament has adopted in April a resolution for greater protection and financial support for investigative journalists. We also propose a new EU system to avoid intimidation through unjustified financial retaliation. We will ensure that these initiatives are implemented as soon as possible in Member States.

Fake news and disinformation campaign

At the same time, this year’s Free Press Day addresses the role of the media as a watchdog, especially during elections, to fostering transparency, accountability and the rule of law.

This brings me to the risks of disinformation and to the circulation of fake news on online platforms also with the aim to influence elections.

The fundamental freedom to inform and to hold opinions has to be accompanied by responsibility for those pieces of information and opinions. Unfortunately, this is not always the case with Digital platforms.

Too often, web giants pretend not to be accountable for the content they publish, even in case of fake news and disinformation strategies.

This represents a serious threat to our democracy, since such strategies are, in many cases, aimed at manipulating public opinion. This is again our right to receive correct and reliable information, which is essential for the democratic process.

This is why we have to govern the digital revolution and make sure that web giants take full responsibility for their action.

In Europe, some 250 million people use the internet every day. We have a duty to protect them and all those who are affected by their actions, even if they do not actually use the internet themselves.

Ninety-nine per cent of EU citizens have come across fake news items disseminated by platforms. Eighty-three per cent of people in Europe regard fake news as a threat to democracy.

Given that the platforms behave like publishers, lining their pockets with the revenue from advertising, and taking off these resources from other media, they must also be accountable for the content they publish.

They cannot be allowed to turn a blind eye to dissemination of child pornography, illegal sale of weapons, messages preaching radicalization and racial hatred, terrorist propaganda, selling of counterfeit goods or blatantly fake news items.

I welcome the recent initiative of Commissioner Gabriel on fake news that requires platform to take responsibility and action against disinformation. Web giant have the unique chance to self-regulate through a code of conduct and an internal control structure. The Commission has the duty to verify the effectiveness of these codes and if needed, propose legislative measures.

It also important to invest more in media literacy, in particular among young people and to introduce a European network of fact checker. Moreover, Member State are asked to provide financial support to reliable and diversified quality information sources.

The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal is a wake-up call, a reminder that politicians have a duty to prevent abuses. We must investigate the claims that EU citizens’ personal data has been used to manipulate elections and other votes, starting with the Brexit referendum.

For that reason, I have invited Mark Zuckerberg to appear in person before the European Parliament to address the concerns of 500 million EU citizens. I hope that he will do everything he can to help us win back our citizens’ trust.

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