GNRD-Valencia in Defence Of the Right Of Speech in the European Public Broadcasting System
Mr. John Barsby from the BBC, Mr. Babis Kokosis from the former Greek ERT and Dr. Haytham Manna among others, shared their views on the future of the public audiovisual system in Europe
On 8 May 2014, GNRD-Valencia organised a seminar where international media experts concluded that there was need of putting in place measures to preserve freedom of speech in public broadcasting services.
As well as exerting huge pressure on journalism, the economic crisis is producing dramatic consequences in it. Thus, even in democratic countries, disseminating information in an accurate and free manner is becoming increasingly difficult, which puts to peril the very foundations of those democratic systems.
GNRD-Valencia kick-off event was an unprecedented seminar attended by journalists, media experts and politicians, in order to analyse the issue of the severe effects of economic austerity; resulting in budget cuts, reduced rates of employment, inadequate investigative journalism, and even closure of TV channels as is the case with the Greek Government Television Channel and Valencia’s Television Channel, Canal 9- two unique cases in Europe that make us wonder if this is the end of public service television as we knew it.
Ms. Diana Zarzo, director of GNRD-Valencia, opened the sessions by reminding of the organisation’s commitment to defence of human rights and freedom.
All participants underlined the fact that without freedom of speech Western democracies cannot guarantee political and social freedom. Decreasing plurality is perplexing, especially that it is happening in the European Union, where the legal standards of protection of journalists were among the highest in the world.
Dr. Haytham Manna, director of the Scandinavian Human Rights Institute, opened the first panel by underlining the importance of serving audiences rather than particular interests: ”We must think about creating mass media whose importance does not lie in the fact of being public or private. The fundamental issue must be serving the welfare of populations”.
All public universities in the Valencia Region supported the GNRD initiative, and the vice president for culture of Valencia University, Antonio Ariño, announced academic support given to GNRD Spain for the organisation of the seminar. All professors and researchers engaged in a popular campaign to bring back Valencia’s public TV channel, attended the seminar held at Aula Magna, the historical building of Valencia University. Ariño said “modern societies need free information. Without freedom of expression there is not democracy”.
In a seminar conceived to defend public audiovisual systems, analysing the BBC experience was of utmost importance. BBC enjoys a worldwide prestige as a public service due to its reputation of being impartial, accurate and, most of all, trustworthy in reporting.
Despite the fact that BBC is world model for public broadcasting service, it is suffering pressure never known before. GNRD invited John Barsby, a journalist with BBC for more than thirty years, who now chairs the European Federation of Journalists’ broadcasting group. Barsby asked a question that energised the debate: Even in these times of economic crisis, why close public broadcasting services, why impose such drastic cuts in these media outlets as we are seeing in various European countries? For Barsby, in Greece and Valencia, Spain, “it is not necessarily economic problems that are being put forward, so much as the need to emasculate Public Service Broadcast”.
Barsby said that, at present, less than 0.5 per cent of Europe’s Budget is devoted to culture, and that the future of public broadcasting in Europe is not guaranteed: “I hope that politicians take notice, and take action to reverse these terrible decisions in Greece and Valencia. Public service broadcasting is in danger and we, civil society, must do our utmost to defend it, and promote it for the future. Do not lose it, it’s irreplaceable”.
Journalists were very active in the debate. For the first time since the closure of the two channels, journalists from Greece and Valencia sat together around a table. EPT, the Greek television was closed in June 2013, and five months later, RTVV had the same fate. Employees from both channels, then, started to build professional and personal relationships, but the invitation issued by GNRD facilitated the first meeting.
Vicent Mifsud and Vicent Garcia Devis, both journalists from the closed down RTVV, explained the parallelism of the two cases: “Both closures had the same script: marginalise good professionals and promote only those with political ideas endorsed by governments. With the decreasing of audiences, administration prepared justifications for their plans, creating a newsroom with journalists with less rights, lower salaries, who are totally unprotected. The process began in Greece, if Greeks don’t close television, politicians in Valencia would not have dared repeat it. In fact, Europe has never seen before closure of a public TV. In Europe, everything is connected and in Valencia, the power thought if it is ok to do this in a state, it even easier to do the same in a regional TV”.
Diana Zarzo, director of GNRD Spain, and Josep Lluis Gómez Mompart, chair of Journalism in the Faculty of Philology and Communication in Valencia, introduced the second session of the seminar in the afternoon. Between them, Rosa Maria Calaf, a renowned TV journalist in Spain explained that today, in modern democracies, journalists have less and less freedom: “Before it was possible to exercise personal ethic as a journalist, but nowadays, journalism is colonised by those who decide the news.”
She defended the importance of civil society in the fight for a public and free media. She said, journalists alone, are unprotected: “Defence of public service is everyone’s duty. Without public service there is not democracy”.
Gómez Mompart said that a democratic system is better or worst depending of the degree of independence of media: “Health is the first welfare in advanced societies. Education is the second, but the third is without doubt, the communication welfare, and it is not independence that is important, but equally important is quality”.
ACICOM, the main association representing citizenship and communication consumers, was also invited to participate. Its president, Jose Ignacio Pastor, said that “we must reclaim the right of expression of citizens. In the Spanish case, the closure of Valencian Television means losing the right to access to public media, which violates a right well embedded in our Constitution.”
The last debates of the seminar were reserved to explore new perspectives for preserving and recovering public broadcast services in Greece and Valencia, and protect other threatened media outlets. In fact, some days before the seminar, another Greek television began its emissions. Babis Kokosis was very critical of the new scenario: \”A public broadcasting like NERIT isn’t prepared to offer services that the ERT offered. The most important issue that I wanted to emphasize in the Congress held in Valencia is that Greece is going through a period of decline of essential democratic rights, among them the freedom of expression. Attacks have also been identified against essential concepts, such as free access to basic health and education services. But an information deficit may pave the way for infringing more basic rights, and therefore the freedom of expression was the first right to be attacked by closing the ERT, the Greek Public Broadcasting Organisation; the only voice that was able to guarantee pluralism in the Greek media scene.
The Greek government, trying to dissimulate this democratic deviation, has launched a new public broadcasting corporation (Nerit), but under no transparent procedures on the one hand, and on the other, without including in its programme essential aspects of the role of a public radio-television entity, such as production of documentaries, children’s programs, etc.
Hence, reopening of ERT, with all its functions, seems the only way for recovery, at least in part, of fundamental constitutional rights.”
In the last part of the seminar, GNRD Spain underlined its commitment to the defence of freedom of speech in international institutions, and at the venue Aula Magna of Valencia University, academics, experts and journalists reaffirmed the need to fight against the new attack against the freedom of speech that are escalating even in democratic countries.
As the German intellectual Jurgen Habermas said in his books, public broadcasting media is one of the tools that create public sphere, the intermediate space between the state and the private life of the citizens.
The seminar has targeted to create an atmosphere and enhance a conviction within experts and professionals that saving democracies essentially requires protecting common values, especially those tools that maintain and develop public conscience such as public broadcasting service.