18. Mai 2017 Opening of the World Congress of the International Press Institute

Grußwort des Ersten Bürgermeisters, Olaf Scholz.

Opening of the World Congress of the International Press Institute

Dear Mr. Yearwood,
Dear Prof. Eberle,
Dear Ms. Trionfi,
Dear Delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Welcome to Hamburg. It is a great pleasure for us to be hosting the IPI World Congress, which brings together publishers, editors-in-chief and seasoned journalists from all over the world. As a venue for discussing the role of the media in a modern democracy, Hamburg is an excellent choice.

The International Press Institute is the oldest organisation working to strengthen press freedom and to support persecuted journalists. As such, the annual conferences always also serve to recognise the achievements of brave journalists. Many of them put their lives at risk, are threatened or jailed, simply for doing their job.

As I see it, the fact that the International Press Institute is meeting in democratic Germany this time challenges us to support these brave people and not stand idly by while journalists in other countries are threatened. Journalists also face threats in countries where people vote. It goes without saying that a liberal democracy is defined not only by the principle of majority rule, but also by the extent to which it protects minorities and regards the right of journalists to criticize the government as self-evident.

The democratic principle of antagonistic cooperation is thus absolutely central. Politicians and journalists view one another critically, like people searching for the truth from differing perspectives, akin to conjectures and refutations in science.

The mutual acceptance of politicians and the media in their different roles is a cornerstone of democracy. Politicians and journalists—like, incidentally, many NGOs and artists — value criticism as a constructive force of checks and balances. To value the free press, one must internalise democracy.

In dictatorships, the press serves as an acclamation and propaganda machine. For autocrats, there are only two kinds of people: those who agree with them and enemies. Efforts to limit press freedom and impede the work of journalists therefore always indicate a turning-away from democratic modes of governing. Such states therefore always stand in the focus of the work of the IPI.

One of the countries in which the situation is currently escalating dramatically is Turkey. The news reports are alarming to say the least. Editorial offices are being shut down, journalists arrested; among them Deniz Yücel, a correspondent for the daily newspaper “Die Welt”. He has been in jail for the past three months. His ability to communicate with the outside world is extremely limited. The Federal President has clearly formulated Germany’s demand to the Turkish government: “Respect the rule of law and the freedom of the media and journalists! And release Deniz Yücel!” In the meantime, we have learned that yet another German citizen who works as a journalist, Mesale Tolu, has been arrested. And they are not alone. Currently 165 journalists are being held in Turkish prisons, more than in any other country in the world. Worldwide hundreds of journalists, media assistants, citizen journalists and online activitists are behind bars.

For most European states, the road to democracy and press freedom was arduous and marked by terrible setbacks. This is especially true for Germany. You will recall that one of the first steps taken by the Nazis was to systematically bring the media into line with National Socialist politics and ideology.

By international standards, Germany today is one of the countries in which the freedoms of opinion and of the press are most solidly protected. We have a journalistic and media culture that performs on the highest level. Within this landscape, Hamburg is not merely one of the most important media centres in Germany. The largest publishing houses of the free press are also located here. And it was here that the work of building a post-war German public broadcasting system modelled on the BBC began.

Hamburg was also the scene of a conflict that would leave a lasting impression on press freedom in Germany. In October 1962, then-Federal Defence Minister Franz Josef Strauss ordered that the offices of the Hamburg news magazine “Der Spiegel” be searched. The publisher Rudolf Augstein — whom you all know as the recipient of a “Hero of World Press Freedom” award in 2000 — was arrested together with the head of the publishing house, the editor-in-chief and other editors. The charges were betraying state secrets and collaborating with foreign powers.

This incident shows that conflicts over what journalists are allowed to do also take place in democratic states. Issues such as protecting sources, personality rights or dealing with secrets are regularly the topic of public debate. What is key is that in a democracy with civil liberties and the principle of freedom of opinion, the state of law provides a framework for these conflicts.

And so it was with “Der Spiegel”, which incidentally just celebrated its 70th anniversary a few months ago. The magazine took the case to the Federal Constitutional Court. While the court did not decide in its favour, the publication nevertheless succeeded in fundamentally strengthening journalism.

The highest German court, the Federal Constitutional Court, ruled that a critical press enjoys constitutional status, and that the state has a duty to ward off threats to a free press.

With the digitalisation of the media and the changed working conditions of journalists, the task of warding off threats to a free press is beset by new challenges. In Europe and North America, we observe the creeping erosion of an informed public.  Ignorance of the nature of democratic institutions is spreading; they are despised and their achievements are denied. Efforts at objectivity are systematically subverted. In many quarters—not only on the radical fringes of society, but also among intellectuals—the “truth” is regarded as the “invention of a liar”.

Both the ability and the will to distinguish between truth and falsehood is of central importance for the German public sphere. That is what makes the tendency of some governments to accuse serious news media outlets of purveying „fake news“ so disturbing.

We have experienced how false information is deployed by politicians and the tabloid media to bring about profound political change. Xenophobia and populism have percolated through to the highest offices of democratic states.

As social media and new technologies have played a big role in this process, they are bearing the brunt of the criticism. They appear to be responsible for encouraging the trend toward populism, antidemocratic views and a turning-away from facts.                                            

However, one must not forget that the traditional media are also capable of spreading hate speech and propaganda. One need only think of the low-cost Volksempfänger radios of Nazi Germany, or the role of the „Thousand Hills Radio and Television“ station in Ruanda.

And we mustn’t forget the positive achievements of the new forms of communication: Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have enabled a large section of the population to express their views in public, something which public-access radio and television stations failed to achieve. And many online discussions take place on a high level. Digitally the world of science has become even more interconnected, and new self-publishing tools such as blogs have emerged.

There are three central points of orientation: Any proposal for a sensible digital media policy must focus on the defence of civil liberties. Any such proposal must safeguard the impressive diversity and performance capacity of the traditional news media while at the same time taking advantage of the possibilities that digitalisation can bring to a democratic public. And there must be a market that supports the basic principle of media diversity and recognises the achievements of journalists.

Firstly: The services of search engines, social networks, platforms and news portals as intermediaries are indispensible.  How well they perform this function is evidenced by their millions of daily active users and by the great economic success they have enjoyed. However, the new digital intermediaries prioritisation of individual relevance stands in contradiction to the heretofore familiar and self-evident orientation of the media towards public relevance. With this great market power, we need mechanisms to create far more transparency. At the same time, we must respond to dangerous developments such as social bots, targeted disinformation campaigns and hate speech with appropriate regulations and without restricting freedom of opinion. 

Secondly: The democratic public must enable and safeguard the creation and distribution of creative and journalistic products. Among the changes that are being viewed with concern are the increasing economic challenges facing traditional media.  Over the past ten years we have witnessed newspapers in Western countries losing subscribers and advertisers. At the same time, aggregators have built a business model upon utilizing their content.

This is practical for the user but also problematic for the public sphere. For what is at stake is the aspirational aim of the media: the principle of mixing enlightenment with business.

Thirdly: We must therefore safeguard the journalistic production and editorial selection of content, and do so across the media spectrum. And at the same time, we must take advantage of the technical possibilities for ensuring maximum reach and relevance. To maintain this balance, the interests of copyright holders, users, producers, broadcasting companies and cultural institutions must be also be defended. 

A free society therefore needs media that it can trust. It needs media that check, summarise and present facts in a comprehensible manner. And it needs a culture in which truth matters. And not one in which objective reality is questioned.  

A welcome opposition movement has arisen to oppose the tendency to deny facts. “I can’t believe I’m marching for facts!” read one of the placards at the March for Science, an unprecedented movement in 600 cities that drew tens of thousands of demonstrators. A similar re-focussing on facts and objective reporting can also now been seen in journalism, for example in the editorial offices of the BBC, where new fact-checking teams are being assembled to debunk fake news stories. 

Fact-checking is expensive and hard. But therein lies the great achievement of journalists. That readers also increasingly appreciate this is testified to by the rising number of subscribers to, for example, the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times.

What is also indispensable is the preparation, representation and interpretation of data. Data journalism is becoming more and more important; here the large publishing houses need to take the lead.

Recently, a data analysis by the Süddeutsche Zeitung showed how widespread the use of German news media on the Internet is. An analysis of the “likes” of Facebook users revealed dense, spider-web-like connections between different milieus. Supporters of various parties refer to nearly the same traditional media sources. Only the right-wing populist scene has disengaged itself from them. Thus one cannot say that using social media creates echo chambers; rather, social media simply makes their existence more visible.

The task ahead of us—the democratic shaping of the public sphere on the Internet— is not a simple one. Perhaps it is some consolation that the history of the media has always been accompanied by enormous scepticism, and yet it has still been possible to harness its potential as a tool of enlightenment.

I am reminded of Bertold Brecht, who in 1927 stated that, as far as radio was concerned, he had “the horrible impression that it was an inconceivably old device”. “It was suddenly possible to say everything to everybody but, thinking about it, there was nothing to say.”

Or take Pierre Bourdieu, who characterised television as a great danger. The medium, he wrote, enjoys a “de facto monopoly on what goes into the heads of a significant part of the population and what they think,” effectively dividing them from “individuals in a position to read so-called ‘serious’ and international newspapers”. Bourdieu would eventually deliver this lecture on television so that his theses might be able to reach a wider audience.

Brecht incidentally advised the directors of radio broadcasting organisations to transform the medium from an apparatus of distribution to an apparatus of communication.  A medium that “knew how …to let the listener speak as well as hear, how to bring him into a relationship instead of isolating him” would be “the finest possible communication apparatus in public life.”

Today we have an apparatus of communication that also turns

listeners into broadcasters and links people together. That the initial euphoria should have been followed by a phase of sobriety is understandable. The immune system of the open society is under threat: More than ever before, the democratic public needs good journalism on a national and international level.

The answer to free users and opinions about fake news on the Internet must be an improvement in quality, in both the tabloid and serious news sectors. The press must make an effort to research information as thoroughly as possible and not simply pick and choose the facts that support their point of view.  That you can get for free on the Internet already!

Readers and consumers of media must not be given the feeling that they have do their own research in order to be fully informed. Let’s not forget: Most citizens can only afford to buy one newspaper.

To have media that report accurately is always indispensable and is as important as the ability to think sensibly.

I thank all journalists who pursue this task with courage and perseverance. Democracy needs you: And may the facts be with you!

Thank you!