By Helge Schwitters, President, European Students’ Union
Today is the World Press Freedom Day, and we celebrate all the brave reporters and writers who work everyday to inform the public about the world around them and hold decision-makers accountable. Having a free press is paramount for liberal democracies, in which the public can voice their concern, be protected against exploitation and be able to trust the ruling elites. Since the end of the Cold War, most Europeans were told that they lived in these free societies, and we covered ourselves in optimism for a time with stable and open societies. Francis Fukuyama, the famous American political scientist, bravely proclaimed “the end of history”, history is seen as the clash of political regimes. Hegemony was given to the liberal democracy, and never would we deter into oppression and totalitarian rule.
Media, justice and the Rule of Law are the tagged institutions of UNESCO’s campaign, and ESU joins the message wholeheartedly! But next to this we also need education, the other building block of the enlightenment, according to Stephen Pinker’s new book “Enlightenment Now!” -un through of human development since the dawn of modernity. Pillars that have led to the flourishing of our species’ conditions can be summed up in science, humanism, international agreements and democratic institutions. Less starvation, longer lives, less war, and human thriving measured by virtually all indicators, result from these values and arrangements.
Freedom of the press and academic freedom share the same creed. Both institutions are essential if we want to keep developing our communities, thrive as individuals, and collectively making sure that others also enjoy the protection and necessities as we do. Politics is the exercise of distributing resources within a group and assigning the power to decide on how it is done. Having this done in a fair and just way requires transparency. We cannot just assume that everyone will have our best interests in mind, and even more so, we need to find solutions we can agree upon as a group. Independent reporting is required on every step down the chain, to ensure that trust is being upheld, that distributions come out the way we as a group want it to be, and to make sure that we learn from our mistakes.
Some European countries are putting these fundamental values aside. Hungary and Poland are sombre examples of how draconian laws are eroding the pillars on which freedom and justice are constructed. But these are only extremes that we keep mentioning because many of us are in shock that this happens in 21st century Europe. It is far too easy to hide one’s own shortcomings and challenges by pointing towards more serious cases. Whataboutisms flourish in an environment of extremes and makes citizens in Europe tending to show less concern about the conditions in other countries.
Malta and Slovakia have seen heinous killings of journalists that in the eyes of powerful people, formal an informal, came a bit too close to exposing truths they wanted to suppress. Daphne Caruana Galizia was assassinated when her car got blown up. She was a Maltese investigative journalist, involved in disclosing the Panama Papers. Jan Kuciak from Slovakia is said to have been close to unveiling a massive corruption scandal between political officials and the mafia. He never succeeded as he got killed along the way.
We are in this together. Without the proper scrutiny of our political arrangements, conducts and how our societies work. Telling the true stories on how our public services function. Holding our magnifying glasses at the needs of communities, lending a microphone to the people, challenging beliefs. This is the heavy duty that we set our press to carry out for us, but also what we as students should pursue. Opening for other interests to meddle with the truth and to repress fact and avoid scrutiny is poison to a healthy democracy, and it does not serve our interests as people or as citizens.
ESU stands in solidarity with the independent press and all the brave reporters that risk their wellbeing, reputations, privileges, human rights, and sometimes even their rights. Because when the independent media is under attack, so is academia, when journalists are being silenced we can be sure that the students will be too.