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Cilla Benkö talade på YLE:s 90-årsfirande
Cilla Benkö spoke about freedom of speech at YLE:s 90th anniversary in Helsinki Foto: Ilmari Fabritius/Yle

Cilla Benkö: Freedom of speech under considerable pressure

On September 9th Cilla Benkö, Director General of Swedish Radio, gave a key note speech in Helsinki at the celebrations of the Finnish public service broadcasting Company YLE's 90th anniversary.
  Here is her speech in English. 

Today, freedom of the press and freedom of speech are under considerable pressure and, as I see it, they are under threat at three levels:

  • On a global level
  • On a European level
  • And even here in the Nordic countries

I thought we'd start with the global Picture.
   Today, in my role at the head of a media organisation, I can see that in more and more countries it is becoming almost impossible to work as a journalist. Freedom of the press and freedom of speech are in no way guaranteed.

Take, for example, Syria and Afghanistan. Societies which do not operate on a democratic basis. Societies which do not have functioning institutions, and in particular which lack the necessary safeguards and protections of a legislative framework.
   In such countries today the reasonable pre-conditions for carrying out journalistic work are simply not in Place.

On 11 March 2014, the unthinkable happened. Nils Horner, one of our most experienced foreign correspondents, was in Kabul to cover the election. But Nils was murdered in a relatively safe street. Two men shot him, in the head, from behind, and to this today nobody has been arrested or convicted for the murder. 
   Swedish Radio has had foreign correspondents who have died in service before. It is a profession with inherent risks. But never before has a correspondent been so brutally murdered. In that respect 11 March 2014 was the worst day in the history of Swedish Radio. I hope that we never to have to live through a similar day again.

Last year, more than 100 journalists were killed across the world. But they were not primarily foreign correspondents – 95% of them were local journalists. Local journalists simply trying to do their job.They investigate and report on abuse of power, different types of violence, crime and corruption.
   More than 100 journalists killed during a single year is of course totally unacceptable.

Threats and violence against journalists are, in the end, attacks on an individual. To kill or injure a person is always unacceptable. But to attack a journalist entails so much more.  Because this is not only an attack on an entire profession, but also on freedom of expression. An attack on freedom of the press and freedom of speech – both crucial for a fully functioning democracy.
   The fundamental freedoms that we have gathered here today to celebrate.
   In countries which are currently classed as undemocratic or high-risk areas there have been major changes in the past few years when it comes to journalists' freedom to do their job.

In the digital world, there are now new opportunities to communicate. To get messages across. To engage and mobilise. These are equally available to forces who wish others harm – those who incite violence and who have total disregard for the principles of democracy.
   Previously, these people had no capacity of their own to reach out. What a journalist chose to report determined how an audience would perceive a situation. But that is no longer the case. Today, they can spread their propaganda with ease both digitally and socially.

A journalist who wants to provide an alternative perspective becomes instead a threat – which must be silenced. Because our task is precisely that, to investigate and provide other ways of seeing the world – images which these organisations and individuals are not interested in at all – quite the contrary.
   So the first lens through which I see threats to free speech is global - within undemocratic countries and high-risk areas. The second level where freedom of the press and freedom of speech are being restricted is closer to home, in parts of Europe. 

Here the problems are strongly linked to policies that are unfortunately being pursued in an increasing number of countries. Take Hungary, for example. My parents' homeland. A country they once left precisely because of the impossibility of enjoying free speech.

The hunger strike lasted several weeks. The seasoned foreign correspondent, Balázs Nagy Navarro, was unwilling just to sit back and watch while reality was twisted and manipulated in the media. In the end, he used his own body to protest. In December it will be five years since Navarro walked out of the Hungarian public service broadcaster MTV.
   The hunger strike was his way of drawing the world's attention to what was happening in his homeland.

In a short time the conditions for carrying out independent, critical investigative journalism had changed. Approximately 1000 journalists from Hungarian public service broadcasting were fired and a new media authority was appointed with board members loyal to the government.
   The consequences of today's Hungarian media policy have been extensive. Hungary has plummeted down the press freedom index of Reporters Without Borders. Today, it is in 67th place, just behind Georgia and Malawi.

Prime Minister Orbán's changes in Hungary have also inspired political leaders in countries like Poland, Croatia and the Czech Republic. The Law and Justice Party in Poland shocked Europe by essentially copying the policies being implemented in Hungary. For example, the Polish Minister of Finance now has the power to dismiss board members within Polish public service broadcasting. 

  • In one year, Poland has fallen 29 places on the press freedom index.
  • In Croatia, 70 journalists and the head of the public service broadcaster HRT were fired last summer after the National Conservative Party HDZ took power in the country.
  • And in June, we heard stories of how the Czech TV station Prima had communicated to its reporters and editors that refugees and Islam were to be described in news reports as threats.

Of course, it is also impossible to ignore the attempted coup that took place in Turkey. News sites were blocked, the broadcasting licences of about 20 radio and TV stations were revoked and hundreds of journalists from the Turkish Public service company TRT were suspended from their jobs. This overview of examples could go on and on.

So why, then, is the development in those eastern parts of Europe important for us here in Helsinki today? Well – because a free and independent media is a precondition for a functioning democracy. Threats to journalists can lead to self-censorship. But we can also see that there are a number of groups which benefit from concerns being stirred up by unreliable news providers.

As I see it, fundamental values in Europe are now at stake. It has been a long time since the communities we live in were as polarised as they are today. That is why the need for objective and impartial journalism is more important than ever. And why those of us who work within public service broadcasting have an even greater responsibility than before – and why we have a vital and extremely important role to play.
   Both in these countries, of course – but also as providers of impartial and independent investigative journalism here at home. 

Our mission is to be the open arena where thousands of different voices and opinions are heard. Our mission is also to prioritise investigative journalism and to cast light on issues that political or commercial interests may prefer to keep hidden. That is what genuine independent reporting is all about.
   Some people want to make public service broadcasting a mere stamp of quality. But public service broadcasting is fundamentally about so much more than that. Public service broadcasting is about independent media organisations that are separate from the state, which are financially independent and which have a clear remit with impartiality at its core.

Public service broadcasters in the Nordics stand for high quality. And this is not merely my opinion. It is highlighted by a number of independent studies from universities, colleges and even the European Commission. 
   We have a broad offer that serves audiences across the whole of society – and Nordic media as a whole enjoy greater trust from the public than the media in any other region across Europe. 

It is important to have strong public service broadcasting side by side with strong commercial media – what is generally called an effective dual system. It is a system that clearly promotes a well-functioning democratic society. 
   In the world of digital competition we now live in, where the public face an abundance of alternative media choices, the risk is that people's ability to distinguish trustworthy and factual news from pure propaganda quickly deteriorates – and that parallel groups develop in society, where the border between fact and fiction is blurred. 

It is increasingly difficult to understand the context of a story. What is really true.  What worries me is that societies without a functioning media are also a breeding ground for extremist political movements. Again – exactly as for journalism on a global level – in many European countries we risk having a national conversation in which far too few alternative perspectives are heard. Where there are too few people who dare to puncture the arrogance of Power.
   That is why the question we must all ask ourselves is this: How protected are we, in the Nordic countries, from the developments that we see unfolding across Europé?

I am concerned about the situation in the world and in Europe, but I am also worried about the future of the freedom of the press and freedom of speech here in the Nordic countries.
   This is the third level. The situation here in Finland is fantastic – but will that remain the case? The cause of my country’s drop down the press freedom index is the increase in hatred and threats targeted at journalists in Sweden.

In early summer, Swedish Radio presented a survey that we undertook with the Swedish Media Publishers' Association where we asked our employees if they had been threatened or harassed in the past year. The summary of the survey results made gloomy reading. 

Approximately one in three journalists have been threatened or harassed in the past year – a very high figure. And this is not just the odd occasion – many suffer from this several times a week. The most vulnerable are managers and editors.
   Those who make threats are mainly men, and they target their threats at both men and women – but women suffer more serious threats and even sexual harassment. That is why more women than men are now considering leaving the profession.

This is my home country of Sweden. The country that together with Finland has the oldest legislative safeguards for freedom of the press in the world. A law that goes back 250 years. What we must all confront is the fact that our media markets in the Nordic countries are no longer national. In turn, this affects our dialogue with the public, openness and the ability to mobilise the population around national and local issues.

The Finnish media market today – just like the Swedish one – is both global and digital. At Swedish Radio, like our colleagues in all of the media companies in our countries, we compete with major international and digital giants for the audience's time and attention. Companies that operate under different rules and have a different ethos to ours. And completely different economic conditions – these companies belong to a global multi-billion dollar industry.

We now know that about 90 percent of people in both Sweden and Finland use the internet and that about half of them use Facebook every day. And these are the figures for the whole population. Among young people, the figures are obviously considerably higher. Among 18-24 year olds, social media is a more important source of news than TV.
   Almost 90 percent of these young people also have their own smartphone and the messenger service Snapchat is one of the dominant communication channels.

The time that young people spend on social media must of course be taken from somewhere and this is often why traditional newspaper reading or TV watching falls as a result. 

We also know that some of these global giants such as Netflix and HBO are now beginning their own Nordic drama production. In other words original productions in the Nordic languages.
   Certainly, competition is good. There is ever more for the audience to choose from and we are forced to think in new ways and look ahead. But we compete on different terms. These companies don't always have the same obligation to pay taxes in the way that the domestic commercial players do, nor do they have the same obligations to contribute to European productions.

At the same time, these global players fight for both the audience's attention and for the domestic advertising revenues of commercial media. In this global and digital world it has never been so easy for anyone to make their voice heard or to publish. And never before has it been so easy to share or to learn about something someone else said or done.

And this is a good thing – it strengthens freedom of speech. I am a strong advocate of both digitisation and social media.
   But the other side of the development that we are now seeing is societies that have never been as polarised as today. It is easy to shut yourself in a filter bubble and just listen to people who think exactly like you do. To have your opinions reinforced.

Algorithms control more of both your and my media consumption. Algorithms and artificial intelligence are now establishing themselves in the media market.
   It is so easy today to shield yourself from those opinions that disagree, that question your thoughts and values – that provide an alternative picture.

Our remit as public service broadcasters is to do our utmost to break this pattern. To enter these bubbles – and invite as many people as possible to enter into open dialogue. By doing so, we contribute to effective democracies.
   That is precisely why we need to be where the audience is, with content that is relevant to everyone.

So – as you can hear. There are many threats to the freedoms of expression that most of us want to protect. I'll try to summarise the issues:

  • Freedom of the press and freedom of speech are severely threatened in parts of the world where the population may not and cannot speak freely and where journalists risk their lives on a daily basis as they try to do their jobs.
  • Freedom of the press and freedom of speech are also severely threatened in parts of Europe where political forces want citizens to fall into line and where journalists who dare to question that power lose their jobs.
  • Freedom of the press and freedom of speech are under threat in the Nordic region because of the hatred, intimidation and harassment that is also increasing here. Frightened journalists risk becoming weak journalists and a number of subjects or issues may go unreported or avoid investigation.

Another common factor is also that the commercial media are struggling to find new business models and that the existence and remit of public service broadcasters are constantly challenged.

An important role in the future will therefore be played by the democratic institutions in our countries and ultimately by our elected representatives:

  • Politicians make laws. They should do their utmost to safeguard freedom of the press and freedom of speech even if it, on occasion, compromises the absolute rights of the individual.
  • Politicians can put pressure on other politicians. I think that Swedish politicians – and this is also a challenge to Finnish politicians – that when you travel to other countries, you should ask – do freedom of the press and freedom of speech apply here? And if not – why not? Are there journalists in prison? If yes – you should request that they be immediately released.
  • Politicians also have an opportunity to control aid. Why should countries that today do not safeguard freedom of the press and freedom of speech, and which imprison journalists get millions of crowns in aid, entirely free of conditions? 
  • Politicians can protest. What is currently taking place in parts of Europe strongly affects the EU. There are strict requirements for membership in the EU. It is far from clear what should happen when those who are members no longer live up to the requirements for membership. 
  • Politicians must protect journalism and do everything they can so that our journalists here in the Nordic countries can do their jobs without being threatened and harassed. This involves reviewing legislation. It involves requiring the police to take threats to media companies seriously. It involves doing your utmost to ensure that effective public service broadcasting is not destroyed. But it also involves facilitating the commercial media in moving from an analogue to a digital world, for example by reviewing relevant regulations and taxes.

Because in fact it is only if we have the right opportunities and conditions that we as journalists can carry out our role. 

We are an important precondition for safeguarding freedom of expression; we are an important part of the freedom of the press and freedom of speech.
   Our role is ultimately to serve the public and in doing so to promote our democratic society.

Watch the speech at YLE (in Swedish)


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