- Reset + PDFPrint

President Ilves at the Opening Ceremony of RFE/RL New Broadcasting Headquarters in Prague


I would like to thank the organisers and RFE today not just for inviting me here, but actually for everything RFE-RL has been doing for almost sixty years now to ensure that there is a free press – or air – where the free flow of ideas is restricted.

I shan’t dwell long on how much all has changed. But I can’t help but allow myself a few short personal observations.

Twenty-five years ago in April 1984 I came to Munich for an interview/trial writing exercise for the position of Baltic analyst. On the first day Jon Lodeesen took me to lunch in the Englischer Garten, where he said, and I quote verbatim, „You know, if they come, we will all be hanging from these trees“. It is an indicator of how deeply the Cold War was engrained in our psyches, that I knew immediately what he was saying. Say that to a thirty-year-old in the Englischer Garten today and he will wonder which asylum you have escaped from.

Twenty years ago, within the space of two years, the entire conception of life in the Post-War Europe collapsed. Those of us forty and older today grew up with an understanding of the world that was Manichean, bipolar, firmly ideological and militarised. Security ultimately rested on a theoretical construct, the appropriately named MAD, or Mutually Assured Destruction, the idea that we would not go to war since it would mean the death of us all.

And then, in a brief span from the autumn of 1989 to the winter of 1991, it all changed. The edifice of Soviet totalitarianism and its Eastern European glacis collapsed like a house of cards. A simple decision, to take down the barbed wire between Hungary and Austria led to a haemorrhaging of the DDR, followed by the collapse of Czechoslovakia. At the same time we saw a democratically elected government in Poland, a revolution in Romania and the spread of the demand for democracy to the Soviet Union. Two years later the Baltic States' independence was restored, and the Yugoslav federation and the Soviet Union were no more.

This was a fundamental re-ordering of the European and world order, no less significant than the changes after 1918 and the collapse of Empires or in retrospect, the creation of the untenable edifice of half a century of totalitarian control in the Eastern half of Europe.

A quarter of a century later I am exceedingly proud that my country, as rated just a week ago by Freedom House, was rated to have one of the freest presses in the European Union, and indeed with a freer press than even the U.S.

But for all of that good news, freedom of expression, freedom of the press as the foundation of an informed public and hence democracy, remains under threat. We believed that once communism fell, all the good things – democracy, rule of law and freedom of expression would automatically and naturally follow.

As you know all too well – for why would RFE-RL still be in business if it were otherwise – freedom of expression is not the norm in much of the world. Indeed, the lack of freedom of expression ranges far beyond the target audiences of RFE-RL, as the recent Freedom House report clearly shows.

Of the 28 countries in Eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union, only 8 are rated today as having a free press. Ten are „partly free“, and ten „not free“. Looking at populations is even gloomier, for in fact it is the smaller countries that seemed to have managed to establish a free media. Only 18% of the people living in Eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union, in other words, the countries we broadcast to in the Cold War enjoy a free press today: the remaining 82% do not. This is very depressing.

Far fewer nations than we naïvely hoped two decades ago have made a democratic choice, or allowed freedom of expression. We thought that it was only communism that stood in the way of freedom of speech, we thought that freedom of expression and free markets went hand in hand, that when you have private ownership you will be able to say what you want as well.

But the world turned out to be far more complex. We did not realise – although we should have, given the authoritarian regimes in Europe in the 1930s – that capitalism too can be authoritarian; indeed we couldn’t imagine that authoritarian capitalism, under dubious labels such as „managed“ or „sovereign“ democracy could effectively compete as an alternative model and that in many parts of the world is seen as superior to the messiness of free and fair elections and a free press. One doesn’t need an ideological edifice to defend tyranny, simple thuggery in defence of power suffices.

Indeed, and paradoxically, we could say that freed of the ideological constraints of Marxism-Leninism, ruling elites that have adopted the authoritarian capitalist model have been able to maintain control even more effectively - through sheer ruthlessness. In the old days, writing in samizdat about the doings of the nomenklatura, the communist elite, could get you sent to the Gulag or a psychiatric prison. But they still felt a need to go through pseudo-legal niceties. Today, the same act can and in the case of courageous journalists like Anna Politkovskaya, will get you shot or defenestrated, without even the pretence of a pseudo-legal Soviet-style „trial“. Or it can land you in prison as in the case of Zahra "Ziba" Kazemi-Ahmadabadi, beaten to death in Tehran in 2003. Mercifully another woman journalist, Roxana Saberi was released just yesterday in Tehran.

In other words, ideological communism required some kind of pretense of legality; de-ideologised authoritarian rule does not.

Should we be surprised? Probably not. After all, we knew it would be a hard road to make democracy work; we knew that it would not spring up overnight. This is one reason why the calls to shut down the radios, which began when I was a child, were a regular feature of my nine years at the Radios in the 80s and early 90s, remain naïve, short-sighted and misplaced.

Seepage into our own world

Perhaps even more pernicious than these developments is the gradual but steady seepage of corrupt authoritarian rule into our own open systems. Using the courts in the United Kingdom, a Ukrainian oligarch recently managed to shut down a Ukrainian language newspaper published in Ukraine that reported on his doings. Hiring the best British lawyers money can buy to sue NGOs, struggling newspapers in formerly communist countries, or even European academics living in the U.S. writing about corruption in authoritarian societies has a chilling effect on journalism and freedom of speech – an effect, I fear, that will become worse if we do nothing about it. A judgement against anyone with property in the EU will mean his going bankrupt. In one case, an academic has already withdrawn his book from publication.

I fear that the free movement of moneyed, corrupt and kleptocratic authoritarianism, irrespective of borders, to paraphrase the Helsinki Final Act and RFE-RL’s own motto, is a tendency that may in the future make the Radios even more relevant. For only public organisations, or öffentlich-rechtlich, to use the more precise German term may today have the ability to withstand this new dangerous trend.

Panem et Circenses and The Ruling Click (sic!)

I would be remiss if I did not mention a third threat to freedom of the press, a threat completely different in origin, in both free and autocratic societies, but the same in form: driving out and replacing quality reporting, analysis and genuine debate with entertainment.

In Rome in the second century B.C. the term Panem et Circenses or Bread and Circuses was used to describe how the populace was lulled to accept their condition. Today in autocratic, unfree societies we see vast sums spent on state television to do the same: highly professional and glitzy spectaculars broadcast 24/7. As for journalism, yes there is news reporting, but it is biased and better classified as sycophantic infomercials for the government, resembling more and more the entertainment broadcast on those same channels.

Competing with that on its own terms will lead to failure. RFE-RL, or any similar news organisation like the BBC will fail if it tries to out circus the circuses of well-financed media in authoritarian states.

Our problem in the free nations is that our free press and broadcast journalism is also under threat from entertainment.

The current economic downturn and the dire economic straits the press finds itself in virtually all of the West presents its own challenge to journalism today. The strict rules of the RFE-RL News Department – the two-source rule, clear identification of sources, clear separation of opinion and news reporting – that made the Radios a reliable and trustworthy source of information in the Cold War, are today under threat everywhere where the media is free.

The enemy of quality journalism and honest journalists is the "entertainmentalisation" of the media. With printed newspapers in Europe and the U.S. going out of business and the collapse of the financial model of newsprint journalism, journalism has moved to the virtual world of the net. In and of itself, this should be no problem except that the business model is now based not on sales and subscriptions but on how many times an individual story is looked at. Instead of basing ad revenue on newspaper sales and reader demographics, the metric is the anonymous. It is the mouse click. A newspaper for the elite such as the New York Times, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung or Le Monde could stay alive with a small readership relative to the Daily News, Bild or Aujourd’hui en France. But with the print media suffering huge losses and going over to the web, the elite readership is no longer a criterion. What counts is the click. The racier the headline, the punchier the lead, the more clicks you get. The more clicks, the higher the ad revenues.

With this journalistic business model, serious journalists and serious journalism are under increasing pressure to dumb-down, to go for fluff, to eschew serious analysis and investigative reporting.

The reasons for the turn toward Panem et Circenses in the free and unfree societies are quite different from what we observe in authoritarian societies with governments that want to divert attention from serious issues. But the effects are almost the same.

All of this makes serious journalism an ever more difficult activity, unprofitable in free societies, despised and thwarted in unfree societies. Yet without serious journalism, without a free press in printed, broadcast or web form, no society can long remain free or just. Or as Euripides wrote 2400 years ago, as translated by John Milton for the Aeropagitica, itself a defence of freedom of expression written 365 years ago:

This is true Liberty when free born men
Having to advise the public may speak free,
Which he who can, and will, deserv's high praise,
Who neither can nor will, may hold his peace;
What can be juster in a State then this?