Press Freedom Night – three uneasy questions

GroenLinks-Europarlementariër Judith Sargentini opende dinsdagavond de Avond van de Persvrijheid in Amsterdam. Ze hield de journalisten en uitgevers onder haar gehoor een spiegel voor: hoeveel is digitale vrijheid hun waard? We kregen de tekst (helaas in het Engels) toegestuurd en delen die graag met u.

Ladies and gentleman,
The internet is a dictator’s nightmare.
Ask Ben Ali. Ask Mubarak.
Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere helped bring them down.
The internet can be a powerful tool for democratic change.
But it might not be so forever.
Governments are unhappy with the free flow of bits and bytes.
They are putting in place gatekeepers and spies.
Technologies for filtering information and intercepting communications might turn the internet into yet another instrument of repression.
Will we let that happen?

I am very honoured by the invitation to open this Press Freedom Night, but I am not here to talk smoothly.
I want to raise three uneasy questions, inspired by my personal experiences.
I suppose many of you are journalists, editors or publishers.
My three questions relate to the way your professions defend internet freedom and media freedom – or fail to do so.

First question:
Are Dutch publishers pushing for the same kind of internet filters that we find so reprehensible in dictatorships?
Last month, the Dutch government proposed to outlaw downloading copyrighted text, music and images from illegal sources.
For the Dutch Publishers Association (NVU), which includes newspaper publishers, this proposal doesn’t go far enough.
They want criminal sanctions, even for limited downloading.
They want better enforcement, even if someone downloads a text from a legal source but then mails it to a friend (which, unbelievably, is already a crime).
But how is the government supposed to enforce such strict copyright laws?
By having internet providers check all our internet traffic and block access to websites that infringe copyrights, as the music industry demands?
We would be halfway to China, with its Great Firewall.
Different goals, same technology.
Wouldn’t we be offering a blueprint for censorship to governments less democratic than ours?

Second question:
Should the European Union safeguard media freedom in member states where it is under threat, such as Italy and Hungary?
Many of you will say yes.
But that was not the response I got when, last February, I brokered a motion in the European Parliament, urging commissioner Neelie Kroes to take a tougher stance against Hungary’s new media law, which muzzles both traditional and new media.
The European publishers’ associations, including the Dutch newspaper publishers (NDP), sent me e-mails asking me to vote against my own motion.
Why?
Because the motion included a call for a draft law on media freedom, pluralism and independent governance.
The European Union needs such a law if it is to take on the Hungarian media law or Berlusconi’s videocracy.
Without tools, we cannot labour for media freedom.
But many publishers, including the Dutch, don’t like the idea that the media concentration in their own countries might be called into question once we start discussing pluralism.
So much for solidarity with their Hungarian and Italian counterparts.
My motion carried anyway.
Commissioner Kroes now has to come up with an initiative.

Third question:
Is the Dutch government more concerned with global online freedom than the Dutch press?
I’m not a fan of our minister for the Economy, Maxime Verhagen.
But at least, he doesn’t turn a blind eye to the dark side of the internet, to its potential for oppressors.
He has repeatedly pointed out the danger of exporting internet filters to autocratic regimes.
Last March, I discovered that a big surveillance technology fair had just taken place in Dubai.
Companies which sell tools for internet censorship and telecoms interception had come together with their clients from Africa and the Middle East.
Mind you, the Arab Spring had just started, and there you had European companies offering help to the dictators on how to control the internet and identify the protestors.
Some of these companies were from The Netherlands.
I tabled parliamentary questions, and so did a green colleague of mine in the Dutch Parliament, Arjan El-Fassed.
Minister Verhagen responded by inviting the Dutch surveillance technology companies to his office.
He urged them to be more selective about their clients.
That’s not much of an action, you can say.
But it is more than anyone else did, including the Dutch press.
Journalists let these companies completely off the hook.
None of them, as far as I know, inquired what exactly these companies were selling to whom.
Is there no money left for even the simplest form of investigative journalism?
Or does no one really care about exporting tools for internet censorship?

Thank you for your attention.

  1. 1

    Terechte punten van Sargentini. Dit is een kwestie waar alleen GroenLinks en D66 aandacht voor lijken te hebben (nou vooruit, en Verhagen dan een beetje). Wie van de aanwezige dames en heren van de pers nam de handschoen op?

  2. 2

    Actually this weird behavior of mr. Verhagen kind of shows us that the internet will also become the démocrat’s nightmare. Besides, what has the internet got to do with democracy?

  3. 5

    @4 – Dan zul toch een link moeten geven naar het gewraakte stuk van Arjan El Fassed in plaats van naar andere mensen die hem óók zwart willen maken. Ik veronderstel dat Likoed Nederland zich hier binnenkort ook komt melden?

    Ik Duitsland noemen ze wat jij doet “Rufmord”.

  4. 7

    @6 – Alleen het het Duitse woord direct betrekking op de bedoeling om iemands goede naam aan te tasten. Maar het is de vertaling die er ongetwijfeld het dichtste bij komt

  5. 10

    Over nu het artikel, blij dat ze niet over digitale terrasverwarmers begon, maar alweer stelt ze de verkeerde vragen als eerste. Laat ze eens beginnen met stap 1: welke rechten en plichten hebben internetgebruikers en hoe anoniem mogen/kunnen ze zijn? Dan volgen de antwoorden op haar eigen vragen vanzelf.