Minutes of General Assembly, Association of European Journalists 

Jean Monnet house, Bazoches sur Guyonne, Houjarray, Dec 7 2019

 

  1. Opening remarks by Otmar Lahodynsky, AEJ President

Lahodynsky said he felt proud and honoured to find himself and the GA in the country home of Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of the European Union. In 1950, Monnet had – here in Houjarray – conceived and typed out the idea of a lasting peace agreement with Germany. It was taken up by the French foreign minister Robert Schuman, leading in the same year to the Coal and Steel Community. That in turn formed the basis of the European Community, founded in 1957 with the Treaties of Rome and ultimately the present European Union. 

The President noted there had been critical remarks” in the minutes of the 2018 GA in Vonitsa, Greece about the late arrival of documents. The same problem had arisen this time. But there was no good reason to be excessively bureaucratic about such problems: We will try to avoid this in future.” Minutes for 2019 would not be sent out until there had been a short debate at board level to avoid misunderstandings.”

He welcomed the AEJ’s old friends”, Llewellyn King, creator and host of the weekly American PBS political show White House Chronicle, and his co-host Linda Gasparello, who follow our activities very closely,” and also Yaser Al Sayegh (originally from Bahrain) from London, general-secretary of the Geneva-based Journalist Support Committee, who has sought informal cooperation with the AEJ. The representative of the new Albanian Section, Arbër Hitaj, was also welcomed by delegates.

Yaser Al Sayegh (yaser@journalistsupport.net) said the JSC, founded in 2016, shared the AEJ’s principles, and sought to spread these same values among Arabic-speakers. He wanted to build close relations with the AEJ. He pointed out that since the beginning of the ‘Arab Spring’ in 2010, 950 journalists had lost their lives in the Middle East. JSC peace missions” had visited China, Iran, Russia, and held high-level meetings in Washington with the State Department and Freedom House. There were also plans to visit India and Nepal. He explained that he had established two satellite broadcasting companies in London. 

Questioned by the president he said the JSC, with a membership of 2000 in the Middle East paying membership fees of 15 dollars annually, refused to take money from any state, even from Switzerland or from the National Endowment for Democracy in the US : Our idea is that we can fund ourselves.” He hoped to organised exchange missions” with the AEJ in Morocco and Tunisia.”There are always wars in the Middle East. We can contribute to making peace,” he said. Europe is very close to us. But we don’t have the same freedoms you have”.

William Horsley, AEJ Media Freedom Representative, UK Chairman and Vice-President, commented that if AEJ members participated (as Tibor and Saia had) it would be good to have reports on international missions and accompanying documents to post on the AEJ website. Al Sayegh said invitations to the AEJ two years ago went unanswered, possibly landing in junk mail. Answering a point from the Greek Section that the Committee represented countries on the border of dictatorship” (President Lahodynsky: Over the bridge, in the cases of China and Russia”), Al Sayegh argued that 1000-year-old Western democratic ideas still had to be learned in the Middle East,  and said the Committee had held a session in Athens with colleagues from Syria and Iraq about this: They need only to know how to manage their lives.”                                                                                                                                                                                                 

  1. Minutes of General Assembly 2018; approval by GA 

These were unopposed, said the President. William Horsley said he wanted minutes and associated documents to be posted on the AEJ website.

 

 

  1. AEJ annual report 2019. Activities of President and Secretary-General

The President’s activities were available in written form, but Otmar Lahodynsky added there had been a press seminar in the European Parliament in spring to talk, notably, about Brexit and its implications. In November he had been invited, as a member of a small group of about 12, to hear all the political groups present themselves, including Identity and Democracy (ID) a new right-wing faction led by Italy’s Lega Nord member Marco Zanni which included the German AfD, the French Rassemblement National (National Rally), and the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ).

 The President said a further press seminar, Greening the EU Budget over the next seven years”, with a second panel discussing security issues, was planned at the European Parliament in February or March 2020. Sections should now propose two or three names; these could be changed later, if necessary. In all 30 people could take part. The EP would refund 180 € per diem, but he warned that delegates needed to return home promptly, otherwise they risked losing 50% of this, or even all of it. The President added that it would be a good idea to have the new Austrian Budget Commissioner Johannes Hahn at the seminar, or we can walk over to his office in the Commission.”

William Horsley commented that the timeframe was short for finding interesting participants.

Secretary-General’s report: Tibor noted the death in February of the prominent Italian journalist and AEJ Section President Guido Farolfi, who covered the notorious Aldo Moro affair in 1978. It was a sad loss for Italy and for the whole journalistic profession, Tibor said.

William Horsley asked to be reminded about what Tibor Macak had done byway of newsletters etc. The SG said his work was described in his report, which had been distributed. He had been especially active in his home country of Slovakia in connection with the gunning down of the investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová in February 2018, an outrage which had provoked international attention. 

There had also been celebrations marking the fall of Communism in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and the AEJ had been invited to various discussions, including in the Czech parliament. All sections had their own dynamic, he said, making different contributions to World Press Freedom Day on May 3. We keep in touch with all the national sections,” he said.

 

4/5 Financial report and Audit Committee report 

This was presented by the SG in the absence of Treasurer Luigi Cobisi; Tibor invited delegates to study this if they wanted more detail. The AEJ was 13 098 € in the black, which the SG said might be used to support other activities. There was some confusion about the Audit Committee report, which the SG said had approved the financial report but which William Horsley said he had not seen. Eileen Dunne (Irish Section) read out an email from Tim Ryan (Member of the Audit committee) who said he had read and was happy to endorse the report) A question was raised about ideas for spending the remaining funds, something which the President said had been done before. He noted in passing that there had been close to zero” left when he took over.

The membership charge would remain at 15€ per annum, the SG said. 

William Horsley suggested there might now be funds available for selected, relevant” press freedom missions. The President approved in principle, but said Luigi (the Treasurer) is very tough. If they are the right missions we may be able to persuade him.” Greek Section President Saia Tsaousidou, noting that her Section was very active, said it was necessary to involve more young people. In Greece there were numerous student journalists, for which the Section tried to organise seminars. It was possible to hold these in the EP office in Athens. She suggested competitions to describe the kind of Europe they (the young people) wanted to live in”. Organised trips to Brussels were very useful, she said, as was the question what can I do for Europe?” Saia spoke about the considerable cost, about 40 000€, involved in organising the 2018 Congress in Agrinio, and referred to the help given by regional councils and mayors. No money changed hands,” she said, but meals and other expenses were covered.

She recommended this approach to other Sections, and also that Sections cooperate with each other and  take part in European programmes as soon as these were announced. It was necessary to bring journalists from everywhere together to take part in meetings about press freedom: We must fight for it.” Journalism had changed over the last 35 years. Anyone could start a blog, and many young people got their information from social media. Real reportage” was essential. Saia went on to say governments invariably tried to limit independence. The Greek Section had managed to remain free. But it was vital to keep up the pressure, to take part in congresses, and to speak about the AEJ at universities.

Firdevs Robinson (British section) raised a point about journalistic objectivity and warned against a blurring of the lines between journalism and activism

 

Further general discussion

Romanian member Brindusa Armanca commented that the western model of free media had failed in Eastern Europe. A discussion was needed. What was the board’s big project? she asked. Saia said there should be more initiatives from Brussels to get us involved”. Lieven Taillie, Special Representative for Brussels and chairman of the Belgian Section, said he was under great pressure: Don’t expect wonders… There will be battles.” He said because of the volume of paperwork sections were often better off applying for funding from their own countries. He also noted that AEJ members often failed to make contact with the Belgian Section when they were in Brussels.

Yaser Al Sayegh said the AEJ had not been very visible in the celebration of World Press Freedom Day in May, but was quickly shot down… The president said all national Sections had been involved: We could do more, but it is not true that we are not present”. 

Media Freedom rep William Horsley said he had himself chaired the panel at UNESCO

+ Teodora Stanciu, (President of the Romanian Section, congratulated the meeting for the discussion, and suggested perhaps something utopian” to make the AEJ more visible – We should project a more daring association with the European bodies”, with a new law on radio and TV she suggested. The President said laws varied greatly; he doubted the Commission would concur with such a proposal.

William Horsley said he had argued for this at the Council of Europe for 10 years. Other organisations had begged for our support”. He said. We are really pushing for coordinated action in areas agreed by the Council of Europe.” Krzysztof Bobinski (Polish Section) had written to all Sections asking for views about public broadcasting. Irina Nedeva, board member from Bulgaria and special representative for Disinformation/fake news said submissions had been made at a high-level panel, and she was coordinating with other Sections. We do have a framework”, Horsley said. 

The Belgian and the French Sections were congratulated for organising the visit to the Jean Monnet house where the board meeting took place, and for arranging the previous days’ meetings at UNESCO hq. 

Véronique Auger, President of the French Section, said she had concerns about Russia and Turkey: How can we speak about freedom of information with either of them?” William Horsley described the conflicts within the Council of Europe, with Russia threatening to leave, and both Turkey and Russia withdrawing funds. But a compromise had been reached. A media law was being discussed in Cyprus next May, despite the Russians throwing rocks and spanners in the way” and Turkey mobilising an enormous lobbying operation, including buying up” MEPs. Pressure was being put on ministers, he said. If countries left there would be no access to the European Court of Human Rights, where a ruling on imprisoned journalists in Turkey was imminent. It was better they were in that, Horsley said.

Oana Enachescu, Vice-President, Romania said the AEJ had a very strong mission”, and needed a code of ethics and of professional conduct: We need something written”. This would give the profession more confidence. She indicated that the Romanian Section would circulate such a proposal in English and French. 

William Horsley said his own report should be useful for this. London was now an enormous centre of everything to do with press freedom”, and the AEJ was on the inside with advocacy groups working on Turkey and Malta. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat of Malta was due in London soon, and it was planned to put pressure on him (following the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017, and continuing  popular outrage about this in Malta and internationally).

Horsley said hopes for establishing a European Parliament intergroup on press freedom had been disappointed: it had not received enough votes. But the Council of Europe’s 2016/4 Ministers’ Recommendation on media freedom and the safety of journalists (See: www.coe.int/en/web/freedom-expression/committee-of-ministers-adopted-texts/ ) was a key text. He was still waiting for the OSCE guidebook on press freedom. 

UN Peace Ambassador Dr Enzo Farinella from Sicily (but a member of the Irish Section) presented his book on Irish monks in Europe, Über Berge und durch Täler (www.enzofarinella.com/).

 

7/8. Annual Reports 2019 

These have been sent out by email/or are on the AEJ website. 

Lieven Taillie (President, Belgian Section, and Special Representative in Brussels) noted that lobbying of European parliamentarians was essential, but impossible without more resources. He was spending one to two days a week on AEJ business. We have to professionalise”, he said. MEPs often forget about us. It’s an everyday battle against professional lobbyists.” He again urged members travelling to Brussels to contact the Belgian Section.

Bi-communal Cyprus section: Hasan Kahvecioglu (Turkish north) acknowledged the Section had been sleeping. He described a court decision in Northern Cyprus on May 16. Two journalists, Afrika editor Şener Levent and chief reporter Ali Osman Tabak, had been accused of insulting Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan, and faced up to five years in prison; both had been acquitted of inciting hatred against a foreign head of state. However veteran editor Levent still faces further charges. (His daily Afrika’s offence had been to re-publish a caricature of the head of the Turkish president being urinated on by a Greek statue. 

Last year Afrika’s offices were besieged by a mob of 100s of stone-throwing protesters after Erdogan urged Cypriots to give the necessary response”, after Levent likened Turkeys incursion into northern Syria to the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. 

The second Cypriot delegate, Kyriakos Pierides, working at the Cyprus Broadcasting Corporation (in the southern, Greek, part of Nicosia), said there had been a huge challenge” over the reporting of the golden passports” scandal. These had in effect been sold to thousands of foreigners by the Cypriot government, one of them to the head of the Cambodian police. Instead of encouraging an upgrading of Cypriot democracy, membership of the European Union has rather been about extracting advantages for their (politicians’) own benefit,” Pierides said. There is corruption everywhere – journalists have a lot of work to do.” 

William Horsley said Sections should watch out for a CoE meeting of ministers responsible for media and information society in Cyprus on May 30. (Three draft resolutions, on the impacts of AI-powered technologies on freedom of expression, on the safety of journalists, and on the changing paradigm of the media environment, are to be adopted. See www.coe.int/en/web/freedom-expression/-/meeting-of-the-drafting-group-ahead-of-2020-ministerial-conference-in-cyprus )

Inactive Sections (+ formerly draft agenda no. 10): the President said Serbia had withdrawn its application without giving a reason. Ukraine had not communicated any activity at all, and now said it only wanted to be an associate, not a full member. SG Tibor Macak said he had contact with a Radio Free Europe colleague based in Kiev and would see if she could revive the Section. The President said he had also made inquiries, including of the Ukrainian embassy in Vienna. William Horsley said the leader of the Bosnian Section had also left, and things had gone quiet” there. The President said he had been in contact with the (former) German Section, and there appeared to be interest in mutual invitations. There was some hope” he said. The statutes should be checked to see if the German could have associate status. William Horsley suggested honorary membership as a possibility. 

 

  1. Welcome of new AEJ-section in Albania- report by Arbër Hitaj

Albanian Section President Arbër Hitaj said that as an NGO, the AEJ in Albania had to pay 120€ a month to the state. The government was determined to restrict journalistic work: They want to transform us from watchdogs to domestic dogs”. Nonetheless, the AEJ in Tirana, which opened in January, had already attracted members among well-known journalists.” He also described widespread panic, driving half a million people into the streets, after an earthquake alert in September. It turned out a news agency had used Google Translate of a warning from Greece of another earthquake at 10pm. This was fake news not originating in Russia.” The Albanian colleagues were confirmed as a new Section by a show of hands.

Presentation by Klaus Welle, EP General-Secretary: Welle explained that Jean Monnet’s house, now owned by the EP, would soon have a 30-room guest house for a Jean Monnet Academy, a neutral ground, neither Luxembourg nor Brussels” for students and staff who would spend three days there after a three-month course. 1000 people had visited the house this year. The Academy would also be used for high-level meetings, such as over disarming Ukraine. Welle said history was very important for us”. The House of Europe in Brussels had had 200 000 visitors in 2019. This was about identity building”, beyond issues such as the Single Market. He gave an upbeat account of the European Parliament’s development whose composition had been dramatically changed by the May European elections, in which there had been a 20% rise in voter participation. This reflected greater understanding that major issue such as climate, immigration, social policy, and trade agreements, were European issues, he said. Three rather than two political groups, as in the past, now had to cooperate to run the parliament. (See https://europarl.europa.eu/election-results-2019/en). Party politics were the organising principle of the EP, and would now play a major role in its development. He thought technological advances, especially in automatic translation, would become a game-changer.”  One effect of greater public interest in Europe was that the  Commission was now elected for its political content, with its new President Ursula von der Leyen committed to supporting any EP proposal backed by a majority of MEPs. We now have two chambers,” Welle said. The EP and the Council of Member States.” He noted that, contrary to many expectations, centrists had a solid majority in the EP, and there were 39 more women MEPs. (www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/headlines/society/20190226STO28804/women-in-the-european-parliament-infographics )

Welle announced that a room at the EP would be named in honour of the murdered Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, and of the rule of law – for which there was a clear majority in the EP.

The EP SG then answered questions on Brexit and other current topics under Chatham House rules. Welle’s clear and open presentation was warmly welcomed by delegates.  


Edward Gamper Steen