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EVENT REPORT | Difference Day 2020

8 May 2020

This year for the first time, Difference Day went online because of the Covid-19 pandemic. On May 3rd, EED collaborated with VUB, UNESCO, BOZAR, ULB, VUB and others to celebrate the UN World Press Freedom Day. The aim of the event was to honour journalists who have committed their lives to protecting and promoting freedom of expression and of the press. Freedom of expression implies the respect for others’ opinions and viewpoints, hence the name ‘Difference Day’.

As VUB Rector Caroline Pauwels stated, the theme of Difference Day 2020, ‘Journalism without fear nor favour’ should remind the audience of the difficulties journalists are exposed to both in war and peace. Journalists are threatened, tortured and killed every day, and Europe is not immune to this plague. She noted that during these times of lockdown and confinement, the media play an even more crucial role as we rely on them for our safety. 
She pointed out that the situation has worsened compared to previous years. There is a crisis at the geopolitical level: polarization is threatening the state of democracy and there is a massive wave of digital disinformation. “Today more than ever, information can save lives,” she declared.

Věra Jourová, European Commission Vice-president for Values and Transparency, stressed the importance of free and independent media.
She noted that Journalists are playing a key role in the cornavirus crisis, and the crisis has served to amplify existing challenges. Journalists are in the front line, putting their life in danger. “We all have to do our best to help their job,” she said. Journalists should be able to access the information they need, to ask questions and to work in safe conditions. Their safety is a priority to the Commission, which co-funds many projects supporting media freedom and investigative journalism, and providing legal assistance to journalists who are being prosecuted.
Member states can help the media sector to recover after the crisis that they are facing now.

UNESCO Chief of Section for Freedom of Expression Guilherme Canela argued that press freedom is an essential element for democracy, and when it is missing all of society suffers.
“We have reliable information but also a huge wave of disinformation,” he noted. The number of countries where journalists are attacked, imprisoned and killed is increasing. Journalists working for local newspapers and media outlets are the most at risk. Governmental actors should focus on crime prevention, the protection of journalists and fighting impunity. Autocratic authorities typically misuse the legal system against journalists and do not take enough measures to prevent these crimes. The processes must comply with international human rights standards.
In these times of crisis, a lot of disinformation is transmitted; Facebook alone has identified 40 million of problematic posts since the Covid-19 outburst
Journalists are also considered enemies of the people in some countries. Press freedom is essential for democracy, and we need to regain the trust of the public in the media.
Journalism can save lives as much as disinformation can create problems. Now more than ever, we need a free press based on real facts. We need to make a global call to public figures to highlight the importance of this profession. They are professional workers fighting the pandemic, and an ’infodemic’ of fake news and disinformation is one of the principal enemies in this time of crisis.

Caoilfhionn Gallagher, Media Law and Human Rights Barrister, gave the keynote speech.
She reminded the audience that while in 2019 there was a drop in the number of journalists killed in conflict zones, internationally over 150 journalists were killed in peace zones, close to their homes. Journalists are targeted more and more for exposing crime and corruption by both governmental and non-governmental actors. This is happening in countries where democracy and free speech is a tradition, such as Australia and Pakistan. The case of Daphne Caruana Galizia, an investigative Maltese journalist assassinated in Malta in 2017, shows how the media environment is disintegrating in Europe as well. 
A major plague is the culture of impunity – the vast majority of offenders are going unpunished and the international community is not addressing this issue. 
She noted that Caruana Galizia’s death was not suprising after all the threats, the online and offline attacks that she received, and the freezing of her assets. Her murder was just a logical extension of years of persecution. She questioned if her death was preventable, and if the state allowed it to happen and asked where was the international community at this time? She noted that Malta has strong regional accountability mechanisms and is a member of the Council of Europe and the European Union. 
Preventing such crimes and ending the culture of impunity depends on individual states. According to Ms Gallagher, sanctions are underused. Another major problem is the culture of impunity – a vast majority of offenders are going unpunished and the international community is not addressing this issue. 
Gallagher herself receives regular threats for the work she does – “This gives me a tiny insight of what is faced by my clients every day. I remind myself that it is crucial to speak up for them,” she stressed.

Turkish journalists and authors Ahmet Altan & Elif Shafak, received the Honorary Title for the 2020 Different Day edition. The aim of this award is to remind the public of the violence and danger that journalists face while doing their jobs.
Ahmet Altan has been in prison since 2016. He is defended in court by EED partner P24, an independent journalism platform, which provides pro bono legal defence for journalists who are targeted for exercising freedom of expression.
During her acceptance speech Elif Shafak underlined how Turkey is the worst country for journalists’ rights. Politics in Turkey is male dominated, conservative and authoritarian. However, young people, minorities and women are becoming more and more resilient – this is a positive element, she noted. 
She argued that elections are not enough to sustain a democracy: there must be rule of law, checks and balances and pluralist media and she acknowledged that all those components have been broken in Turkey, but that the Turkish example is not unique. ”We are living in liquid times, democracy is fragile and to survive we all need to become more engaged in fighting for minorities’ rights,” she concluded

You can watch the video of Difference Day 2020 here.

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