Investigative journalism in focus at World Press Freedom Day in Brussels

The day, also called Difference Day, was celebrated last Friday at Bozar, Brussels, for the 5th time in row. The day was proclaimed by UN General Assembly in 1993 following a recommendation by its Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

“3 May acts as a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom and is also a day of reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics,” says UNESCO in a statement.

Just as importantly, World Press Freedom Day is also a day of support for media which are targets for the restraint, or abolition, of press freedom and a day of remembrance for those journalists who lost their lives in the pursuit of a story.

According to the UNESCO Observatory, 99 journalists and media workers were killed worldwide in 2018, and a total of 1,307 journalists have been killed between 1994 and 2018.

Louise Haxthausen, director at UNESCO, described the event in Brussels as the major annual celebration of press freedom in Europe. “Without access to transparent and reliable information, democracy is incomplete.”

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini referred in a statement on Press Freedom Day to the recent EU Action Plan against Disinformation. “Healthy democracy relies on open, free and fair public debate. It’s is our duty to protect this space and not allow anybody to spread disinformation that fuels hatred, division, and mistrust in democracy.”

Awards to investigative journalists

At the Press Freedom Day, Belgian war correspondent Rudi Vranckx and Russian investigative journalist Elena Milashina received honorary doctorates from VUB and ULB, the universities in Brussels that together with media and other partners hosted the event.

An honorary title for freedom of expression was awarded to Marcela Turati, a Mexican freelance journalist who reports on the violation of human rights and the consequences of the Mexican drugs war.

This year’s focus was on the role of investigative journalism in the age of internet. Investigative journalism helps to empower citizens and hold power into account. But it also faces almost unsurmountable difficulties such as political oppression, defamation lawsuits and lack of funding.

A panel debate on “Speaking Truths to Power” gathered journalists from the UK, the Netherlands, Latvia, Turkey and Sweden. Alan Rusbridger, former chief editor of the Guardian, spoke about this latest book “Breaking News”, the threats to independent media and the need to develop new business models for investigative journalism.

“The printing press has been replaced by the mobile phone. Citizens’ trust in media is low and most people cannot tell the difference between good and bad sources,” he said.

The Guardian became known for its many investigations of public scandals, that could go on for years and often resulted in defamation lawsuits in the UK. After some difficult years, it has developed a new business model based on contributions and paying readers while being available to all.

Minor investigative media outlets, such as those in the Netherlands, Latvia and Turkey, are struggling to remain financially independent, surviving on a mix of revenues from paying readers, donations and advertisements.

In Turkey, the media situation can hardly be more precarious for journalists. The editor of one of the few remaining news portals in Turkey has to consult lawyers in his daily work. The Turkish government controls 95 % of the media in the country, has closed hundreds of media outlets and has reportedly put 160 journalists behind bars.

The Swedish model

The only investigative media in the panel without any financial worries was “Mission investigation” (Uppdrag granskning), a Swedish TV program for investigative journalism run by a public service company. The program started in 2001 and employs 35 people.

It transmits about 40 programmes each year, besides several on-line publications, and has a following of 10 % of the population. Last February it disclosed a vast money laundering scheme by Swedbank during almost 10 years, involving about € 4 billion and banks in the Baltic countries. The bank management was forced to resign. Recently two opposition parties demanded a public enquiry.

Nils Hanson, former publisher of the program, told the Brussels Times that the program receives each year about 10 000 tip-offs from the public on suspected frauds and irregularities but that most investigations are initiated by its own journalists.

“The selection of facts is done in the news room. Usually, our stories should have relevance on national level. Because of the huge impact of our programs, we are expected to meet all requirements. We have developed an internal quality assurance process for that.”

Sweden is known for its fundamental right of access to public records and information. How is your work facilitated by this law? “There are always new rules on exceptions from the principle because of secrecy for different reasons,” replies Nils Hanson.

“If a public authority refuses to disclose information, we can ask the court to intervene but often we receive the information from public servants who are protected by a right to communicate information,” he adds.

He underlines the importance of self-examination and is critical against media that demonizes people in power and do not give them a chance to respond to allegations. “We don’t want to be accused of fake news. Even bad guys have human qualities. We need to be both fair and true.”

As publisher and legally responsible for “Mission Investigation”, he is proud that he has never been prosecuted for defamation in his programs.

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