22nd Sep 2023


Lessons learned by an EUobserver editor-in-chief

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Before I joined the EUobserver, I worked in politics and advocacy, in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Being editor-in-chief of EUobserver was, for me, a first opportunity to look at the world from the "other side", media.

Now that I am going back to advocacy in the Middle East, I'd like to share what I have learned from two-and-a-half years of journalism.

Journalists are mavericks

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I always loved to hang out with journalists. Most of them drink and smoke, or at least used to, and none get enough sleep.

As my habits are rather similar, it's no surprise that many of my friends are journalists.

Now I suddenly had journalists as colleagues, and I had to work with them during long days every day.

I learned that journalists cannot be cynics. They are inveterate critics, that's for sure. Sometimes too critical, as I found when I still worked in politics.

It's this critical instinct that makes most journalists to go that extra mile to find the truth, or get that story that explains just better what's really going on.

It must be said, you don't become a journalist for the money. You do it because you believe freedom and democracy are impossible without critical journalism.

Covid is bad for democracy

The Covid pandemic has been tough for almost everyone in the world.

Journalists have in many cases adapted their practices. Even so, important gaps in coverage have emerged that negatively impact democracy.

First of all, parliamentary scrutiny has often disappeared as plenaries and committees were unable to gather.

Secondly, press conferences were often scrapped - for example, the ones that were usually held after European summits.

When these summits were held online, there were often no doorstep comments, fewer leaks and far less opportunities to ask question at the summit's conclusion.

This meant that journalists, and thus the public, were frequently in the dark about the decisions taken and whether the leaders actually agreed with each other or had deep differences.

The EU's reputation as a bloodless bureaucracy was in some instances further entrenched.

The risk is that way European policy starts to look ever more like a series of imperial decrees.

The third way in which democracy suffered became clear in-between lockdowns, when some - but not all - journalists were invited to join press briefings.

During the last few European summits, some newspapers were invited by the office of EU Council president Charles Michel to the press room, and others not.

Without claiming bad faith of those who took these decisions, it remains a very uneasy situation in which the European Council decides who the 'good' journalists are and who the 'bad' ones are.

When dictators go after you

While the pandemic is hopefully going to be a temporary problem, there is another trend that is threatening journalism even more in my opinion: vexatious litigation.

The SLAPPs (or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) are lawsuits brought by people or organisations intended to frighten journalists and making their work impossible by distracting them from their day jobs.

Journalists and newspapers, certainly the smaller ones, don't have the budgets to pay for lawyers nor do they have the time and resources to oversee lawsuits.

The powerful and the rich know this. That's why some now routinely threaten to sue journalists from the moment they are mentioned in anything less than a favourable way.

During the two-and-a-half years of being editor-in-chief, I had to deal with several of these SLAPPs.

The most notable one is without doubt a lawsuit from a firm which took us to court after we reported on evidence of its ties to the Lukashenko regime.

Luckily, journalism organisations are supporting us in this case. But the burden of these cases is growing.

Without new legislation that seeks to stop these kind of lawsuits before they wind up consuming the time and money of newspapers and journalists, independent and investigative journalism will face ever stronger headwinds.

It is a worldwide problem and it needs to be tackled urgently.

The danger of paid-content

Covid, lack of political transparency and SLAPPs are major challenges in and of themselves. But the media itself also has important questions to answer.

Too many European media outlets are actually hidden money machines. They write content on demand, and are paid for it.

The result is that a part of the news, and sometimes even all the news in some media follow the agendas of enterprises, lobbyists or governments.

I am not talking about advertisements, and not about content that is clearly labelled as sponsored, even though that too is sometimes problematic.

This paid-content is, of course, detrimental for trust in media. It is also discrediting those newspapers that do everything to remain independent and objective.

This is not the place to mention names, but the scale of these bad practices is something that shocked me in the last few years.

However, it is also true that these practices often point to a deeper problem: how can independent journalism be guaranteed in the future?

How will EU journalism survive?

News is massively and endlessly available on the web. Some newspapers can be read for free, while the paywalls of others are often easily circumvented.

That's why most people don't see why they should pay for news.

However, subscriptions are essential to keep journalism independent and of high quality.

I would have loved to see European institutions to take their responsibility and take group subscriptions for independent newspapers.

The European Parliament does, but most others hardly seem to care.

For clarity, I am not talking about sponsoring or advertising. I am talking about our major institutions leading by example and simply paying for news.

If the institutions would take out subscriptions for those EU outlets that do take the ethics of journalism seriously, then that would be an important boost for independent news.

No farewell to Europe

There are many reasons to be critical or even complain of the European Union. Often it reacts too slowly or too timidly.

But if we look at the evolution of the EU of the last 20 years, one cannot but be in awe of what has been achieved.

In just two decades the European Union introduced the euro, kept its internal borders open despite many challenges, created a common border control agency, abolished roaming, enlarged the bloc to 27 states (but lost one), and so forth.

One can look at the European Union through what it lacks, or through the lens of what it has created.

In my opinion, the European project is the most successful project for peace, prosperity and democracy in human history.

This project moves forward not despite criticism, but thanks to critical voices pushing for more cooperation, and more democratic transparency.

That is why European journalism is essential to the European project. That's also why I am proud that I have been part of it.

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