Event highlight

Press freedom in crisis in Europe and the Arab world?

Panellists tell of personal experiences with violence and suppression of free speech.

The Turkish author Hatice Cengiz’s fiancé, Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, was brutally murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018; Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Matthew Caruana Galizia’s mother, Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was slain in a car-bombing in 2017; Lina Al-Hathloul is known for her advocacy to free her sister Loujain, detained in Saudi Arabia over her women’s rights activism. All three were on hand at the Hertie School on 27 November to discuss the state of press freedom in Europe and the Arab World.

Katja Gloger, spokesperson of the German division of Reporters without Borders and Hanan Badr, media and democracy expert and Professor at the Freie Universität Berlin also took part in the discussion, which centred on the rising threat to journalists – through both violence and political pressure – in many parts of the world. Participants discussed whether freedom of speech, as one of the foremost fundamental rights, is eroding. They cited risks and threats – in particular from the rise of authoritarian regimes around the world - to the free press. The talk, which also included German political talk show host Frank Plasberg, also touched on the threat to freedom of speech through disinformation spread over social media. 

But not only authoritarian regimes are threatening press freedom, the panellists said. They criticized the lack of compelling action to support press freedom in places where it is a cornerstone of democracy – such as the US and Europe. Caruana, an investigative journalist whose work on the Panama Papers at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists won him a Pulitzer Prize in 2017, said that when journalists are forced into the role of investigators it is evidence of institutional breakdown in democratic states. 

Jamal Khashoggi’s fiancée Cengiz expressed disappointment over the waning interest in the journalist’s brutal murder, in particular over the lack of strong action from the top echelons of government in both the US and Germany. Although at first heartened by the level of media attention brought to the case, and also support from members of the US Congress, though not from the US President, she said she was now disappointed in the lack of real action from the international community. Especially in light of the importance Germany places on press freedom, Cengiz said, “I am disappointed in the lack of support from Germany and I would have expected more from Chancellor Merkel”.

Pierre Thielbörger, Adjunct at the Hertie School and Professor of Law at Ruhr-University Bochum, moderated the discussion. The event was held in cooperation with the Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict, Ruhr University Bochum, where Thielbörger is Executive Director of the Institute of International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict (IFHV).