You are here
On May 3rd, World Press Freedom Day, Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) and a number of other partners hosted Difference Day, an annual event that stands up for free expression and a free press. A journalist who risks his life every day to bring the truth to light received a honorary doctorate at the event: renowned war correspondent Rudi Vranckx.
Watch or read the speech of Rudi Vranckx.
Let me take you to theatre in Palerma that I recently visited… It is sunny… all of a sudden, that touch of magic. A black, wiry young man takes his guitar and starts playing, he whistles nostalgically and starts singing, in Italian. Hesitant at first, but then with great vigour. ‘Non siamo pesci’. We are not fish in the sea, like that little boy in the water. Everyone stops and listens. Chris Obeni, the singer, becomes someone with a voice and a story. He is from Nigeria. Like his fellow countrymen, he came to Europe in a little row boat. En route, he experienced all sorts of atrocities. A small child fell overboard and drowned. He turned his experiences into songs. Non siamo pesci, siamo umani. We are humans.
It is a statement that touches our souls. Who can claim that protest music is dead? Just like journalism, or even the truth. The young man arrived on Lampedusa. And then the name of Dr Pietro Bartolo comes to mind immediately. He received an honorary doctorate here two years ago in the name of everyone on Lampedusa. Because kindness is more important than hate. Last year the accolade went to a journalist from Malta who was killed because of her work. For that reason, I am proud and grateful for this accolade from VUB, an institution that prepares young people for the future. We live in a world where life expectancy is getting longer, people get more opportunities, and thus could be happier, but at the same time, also, a world where refugees arrive every 2 seconds. Tens of millions across the world, more than ever since the Second World War.
We live in a world where life expectancy is getting longer, people get more opportunities, and thus could be happier, but at the same time, also, a world where refugees arrive every 2 seconds. Tens of millions across the world, more than ever since the Second World War. In this new world, I see ghosts of the past reappearing. Fear and hatred towards others. It is like a wheel that keeps on turning only to reach the same point. Some refer to the 1930s, but history is not repeating itself. This is about the mechanism of exclusion, human behaviour in times of fear and hatred that remains the same.
We live in a polarised world: us against them. The ‘others’ are back and dominate every debate, every election. The plight of war refugees – seen as taking advance of us – is less important than our discomfort; they are fortune seekers… dismissively, these words reverberate in tweets… Admittedly, there are fortune seekers amongst refugees… running from war, drought due to the climate, away from poverty. But are we allowed to make a distinction? Identifying the issues and trying to find a humane solution? If you help a drowning person, do you automatically become an accomplice to a human trafficker? Those who want to respect international law, are seen as a judge who is unfamiliar with the ways of the world. Journalists are intimidated. Every nuance disappears. Sowing fear of the ‘others’ is the bestselling product in the 21st century political supermarket. Facts and solutions are on sale.
As a historian and war correspondent, I know that every war is fought with 2 weapons: hatred and fear. We are threatened, surrounded and flooded. The ‘others’ are at fault, they become lesser humans, even inhuman, and finally to become….what? Without hate and fear, there will be no war. Those who disseminate fear and sow hatred create a hotbed for war crimes of the future. Islam hate preachers, alt right prophets of doom, anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists, they are drink from the same well.
Truth is the first victim of war. This is the motto of many war correspondents, but only one aspect of reality. Also, human rights, the rights of all humans are buried. It is easy to report on a war if you are not involved yourself, if it happens far from your life. But what if the threat comes closer. The more we become involved, the thicker the mist of war encroaching upon us. Over the last two decades, boundaries have shifted. Admittedly, this has been in the making for a while. The world is becoming more chaotic by the minute, and the war mongers at the front line, the enemy, do not respect rules.
Chemical weapons, the horrors of IS being disseminated via the Internet, war propaganda in the form of fake news, blind terror in our own country, Islamophobia … the threats and challenges are great and as such also the seduction of choosing an easy solution. This would not only challenge international humanitarian law but also our rule of law in Western democracies. Choosing the path of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leads to dehumanisation.
Is the ghost of the past haunting us yet again? Some believe pushing human rights is not without liability. NIe wieder!!! Was the motto of those who helped to create peace resulting in the rule of law in Europe. We are tired of fighting. New generations, also politicians who have no idea of what war entails are shouting the loudest. But if you feed the beast with testosterone-filled tweets, you will never lure it back into its cage. History teaches us one lesson: populism, whether right or left, never ends well. These are simple remedies for complex issues.
What gives me the right to speak about this? Thirty years of being a war correspondent is engraved in my soul. I saw how it all started, how it grew and the type of monster it turned out to be.. Rwanda, Congo, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Gaza, Afghanistan, Yemen,… it’s a long list. Conflict brings out the best and the worst in people. Hindsight is easy but what is the right choice to make in the thick of things or in the world right now? What does our moral compass tell us? Every word and every conversation have consequences, the French philosopher, Sartre concluded, but so does silence. We have a choice. Therefore, not speaking up is Not an option. I hope the younger generation will fight for their future.
So, what IS our role then? An old Dutch saying goes, that although lies can run, the truth will catch up soon enough. In other words, a lie will come back to haunt you. But does this ring true or not? When I started out in journalism, I truly believed in the power of the word. If we show reality, address problems and unmask lies and abuses, honorable leaders would make the world a better place. After all, I grew up listening to stories about Watergate. The US President Nixon had to retire, as brave journalists and an anti-war organization uncovered irregularities, leading to the end of the Vietnam war. So, where do we stand now? The man running the White House is not necessarily associated with the concept of integrity. Truth, lies and deception are interchangeable concepts for Donald Trump. We have all become fake news. And in Syria, the Vietnam of my generation, dictator Assad proves every day that violence and war crimes pay. Dictators in the Middle East and even closer to home are so called illiberal democrats. Which freedoms are at stake? Is truth peddled in Salvini’s Italy or Orban’s Hungary? Or is that also at stake in Europe?
Truth against power. Is that the key? We should be wary of thinking that an idea is the one and only truth. It is precious and sometimes extremely good, so we should strive towards truth and cherish it. However, we are living in a world where truth is increasingly becoming an option of reality. Every day, I see war propaganda and dehumanizing of others on social media and in every debate. Spreading doubt and lies; these are the same techniques with the same intentions. Ultimately, the search for truth is discredited. We are called lie media, activists or whatever swear word. We have reached the end. Every discussion about content or truth has disappeared. No need for it, apparently. Climate, migration, identity, security, nothing has been spared.
Journalism and science are both fighting to be understood and finding the truth. When I look at the fate of scientists discussing climate or any other relevant theme today, I can’t but think of Galileo. Before the Enlightenment and Rational thinking, people were prosecuted by the Inquisition or the Pope. In the world today, Galileo would have been condemned by an army of trolls, using algorithms of social media.
What role should politics play then? Systematically discrediting others make politicians – and the rest of us too – equally responsible for creating a world where power replaces truth. In their latest book, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, President Nixon’s downfall, interviewed Donald Trump. They asked him: What is real power? He answered: Real power is fear.
Some leaders know this all too well. We have that in Europe too. They play with a cocktail of nationalism and religion. Islamic extremists and alt right are mirror images of each other. Both need the other and feed the other. Social media such as twitter and Facebook are perfect and direct megaphones; name calling is their lingua franca. To whitewash the issue, it is sometimes called a cultural war. But, in fact, it is a fight for power. What is the aim? A better world? Both journalism and science have a goal, but it is not power. The only power which I strive for is freedom: freedom to investigate, understand and report. I call this our own small war.