MDI in Perugia: Journalism Can Fight Far Right

Date: 13 April 2018

Country: Italy, Perugia

Screen_Shot_2018-04-22_at_13.03.46Panelists of the Media Diversity Institute (MDI) panel at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia agreed that journalism can answer to the challenge of far right and extremism.  Focusing on fascism and its rise in Europe and elsewhere, panelists explored if the media can counter it. British journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Austrian journalist Bettina Figl, Jean-Paul Marthoz of the Belgium Le Soir and Jovanka Matic of the Institute of Social Sciences Belgrade talked about the rise of fascism and whether journalism is part of that problem or it can be a solution. That was the main theme of the panel moderated by MDI Executive Director Milica Pesic at the International Festival in Perugia.*

Semantics was one of the topics discussed. Giving the Francophone perspective, Jean-Paul Marthoz explained how a legal battle took place in order for journalists to be allowed to use the term ‘extreme right’. According to him though, journalists must focus on who these parties and their followers are, and what they do and not to get too caught up in semantics.

“Nobody wants to be a fascist. No one wants to say apartheid was a good thing. We don’t need that word anymore, we don’t need to recoil from it anymore. Because almost every tenet of fascist theology has been absorbed into mainstream politics,” says Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. Following this line of thinking, the idea that fascism is back is perhaps too timid, because fascism has been imbedded into politics and society for a while now. On the other hand, Figl was clear for her preference to use the term ‘far right’ instead of ‘fascist’.

Screen_Shot_2018-04-22_at_13.03.32Freedom of speech and freedom of expression were terms brought up several times during the MDI panel in Perugia. “I think there is always a limit to freedom of expression,” said Alibhai-Brown bringing up example of Charlie Hebdo, and how there were several cases that in her opinion were not freedom of speech, but hate speech. There seems to be a thin line between the two. Marthoz added on to this discussion, and mentioned that the far right has been able to hijack free speech, hiding behind the term in order to say whatever they please. According to him, this is extremely worrisome. This goes hand-in-hand with political correctness, which he mentioned has been used as an attack on the left. In the Balkans, shared Jovanka Matic, hate speech is less masked. “In fact, hate speech is happening everywhere,” warned Matic.

She was describing the situation in the Balkans, particularly in Serbia saying that “independent media are on the edge of survival”. This is a problem because often independent media platforms are the only ones speaking out against the far-right. Responding to an audience question regarding the future of independent media, and what they should do,Matic answered: “What independent media should do: they should survive. Without independent media, we would go into pure fascism.”

Perugia_2018Besides the independent media, another key player in the fight against fascism is youth, according to the MDI panelists. According to Alibhai-Brown, “young people are the future”. They are becoming more engaged in politics, and by used tools such as social media, they are getting involved. Bettina Figl believes that the role of journalists should be to interact with the youth and engage them in this conversation.

When exploring the role of journalism is fighting fascism, there were several ideas raised. Jean-Paul Marthoz thinks that “journalism is not about neutrality”. Working for Le Soir, he explained how his publication does not give space to the far-right, and instead focuses on the left. On this topic, he did mention the importance of pluralism, and how this is a rule in broadcast journalism. Leaders such as Marine le Pen have to be invited on broadcast journalism platforms, and this is only right. After all, as Marthoz conveyed, “knowledge is key”. Society has to be aware of far right ideologies and parties, and be given the correct information about them.

Bringing the British perspective, Alibhai-Brown said that journalists have to improve in their reporting in order to tackle the far right. “We have to change, and not be too protective. Tell the stories in a fair way, so the right can’t tell that you are hiding stuff”. She mentioned the example of rape gangs in the United Kingdom, some of which have been made up of largely Pakistani men. Of course, these stories have to be reported, said Yasmin, but the fact must also be raised that the majority of rapists in the United Kingdom are white men. This goes back to a basic journalistic principle of fair reporting.

Jovanka Matic shared how in the Balkans, the government controls most of the media, and thus also the public sphere. There, “the media are taking a very bad role in destroying any political alternative, and in that sense, it is a very dangerous situation. Social media are the only really free part of the public sphere, and even there their actions are limited because the ruling parties organise armies of bots which interfere in this free public discussion”. Social media was a subject brought up several times throughout the panel. Bettina Figl focused on Austria, where social media played a massive role in the recent elections.

When asked about the role of the media in times of rising fascism, Bettina closed off the panel with the following remarks: “People ask for a strong leader when they are afraid, and I think the role of the media is to take the fear out of society.” The media no doubt plays a key role in providing a solution for fascism, and while some players have used the media to spread fascist ideologies, there is no doubt that the media can inspire positive change in this realm.

Watch the MDI panel at the International Journalism Festival 2018 here.

*Photos by Diego Figone #ijf18