Berlin’s Re:publica festival focuses on media trust and fake news

Co-founder says attendees should not to take freedoms such as those of speech and the press for granted

Visitors at the Re:publica digital cultural festival in Berlin.

Visitors at the Re:publica digital cultural festival in Berlin.

 

Berlin’s lively annual digital culture festival Re:publica kicked off Monday with talks that repeatedly focused on the global problem of media trust, fake news, and state attempts to control information.

Launching the 11th year of the three-day event, Re:publica co-founder Andreas Gebhard argued that attendees should not to take freedoms such as those of speech and the press for granted.

Gebhard reminded the main stage audience that on the same day, May 8, in 1945, Germany was liberated from Nazi rule. “The freedoms that are there [now], are there because fascism was destroyed.” He encouraged the audience “to get active too. These are not rights that are there forever, but only if we fight for them.”

In the event’s main opening session, four journalists and human rights defenders presented powerful stories of media manipulation and state interference in public discourse.

Journalists and activists from Turkey, Hungary, Egypt and Poland told of threats, press shutdowns, arrests and imprisonment.

“It’s not a kind of problem for the eastern world – the western world is experiencing the same kind of problems we are,” warned Turkish journalist Can Dundar, who was imprisoned following the publication of a story he wrote about Turkish president Erdogan’s regime.

Turkey now leads the world in the number of journalists imprisoned, he said.

Dundar was eventually freed after a well known 80-year-old journalist brought a chair and sat outside the entrance to the prison, starting a growing protest.

He was released after a court said his article “was not an act of terrorism, but an act of journalism.”

Two of the judges who signed his release were then arrested and are now in prison, he said. His entire editorial team have been imprisoned for 190 days without seeing a judge, accused on “ridiculous” charges of “making fun of everyone and giving subliminal messages in their articles.”

Hungarian journalist Marton Gergely wrote for Hungary’s largest political daily until it was shut down seven months ago by its new owners, an Austrian business oligarch, he said.

He warned of “the pitfalls we did not notice in time”, such as the state’s day-to-day battle against the media. Eventually, news organisations turned on each other in bitter debates, instead of challenging politicians.

“An attack on the freedom of the press” came to mean one media company’s attack on a rival, he said.

Failing to focus on the state, “Hungarian journalists were like the frog in the pot of boiling water. There was no scandal big enough to unite the media centre.” Before long, “it was accepted that national broadcasters and major media outlets were controlled by government.” A generation of journalists have come to view this as normal, he said.

“A slice of Hungary’s free press has disappeared, and we huddle together like polar bears on the ever-shrinking iceberg”.

Egyptian activist Ramy Raoof, a technologist who trains other activists in digital security and who said he has been the target of an attempted kidnapping by police, called for journalists and organisations in Europe to use Freedom of Information requests to probe questionable interactions between their own national governments and Egypt.

When the Egyptian state shut down his mobile number after his phone was used as a protest information hotline, Raoof said “It made me realise the adversary is always obsessed with the control of information.”

“It’s important that we keep exposing” the actions of the state, making it more difficult for it to justify its actions to the world, he said.

“They feel very weak when we start exposing them. You can help by questioning your own governments” though FOIs and publishing the information online so that activists can access it.

Last year, FOI requests revealed both the Italian and British governments were allowing the export of surveillance technologies to Egypt. Under pressure, Italy blocked such exports this year.

Activist Katarzyna Szymielewicz of Polish digital rights organisation the

Panoptical Foundation said the group had been active for more than eight years “but somehow it seems like the ground underneath our feet is moving. What was once safe is becoming dangerous.”

Under the new government, the organisation is now refused entry to watch parliamentary debates.

“The national media are now controlled by one political party. We can still go to the courts, but the constitutional court now is controlled by the same party and decisions are unlikely to be in line with what we believe are human rights. Yes, discussing the laws is still possible but the government and the media machinery works hard to … question our legitimacy.”

She wondered if the group should continue to engage with the state, as perhaps doing so demanded effort that enabled the state to distract focus away from the issues themselves.

She said, “We somehow have to reach out to those people who support those governments. If we don’t do that, very soon countries like Poland -and others that right now seem very democratic -might move beyond that red line.”