BIRN Network Meeting 2019

BIRN Conference Probes Democracy’s Pressure Points

The stakes are high as experts debate cross-border issues shaping the future of democracy in Europe.

Experts discuss threats to democracy in Budapest on May 31, 2019. Photo: BIRN

Democracy is on a knife edge in Central and Southeast Europe as authoritarian alternatives enter the mainstream and populists erode vital checks and balances on power — not least free media.

That was the conclusion of a meeting of experts convened in Budapest by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network and ERSTE Foundation just days after EU elections that highlighted competing visions of democracy in Europe.

“The problem we are seeing right now in Europe is the decline of press freedom, but also something which goes hand in hand with politics – increasing authoritarianism,” said Pauline Adès-Mével, head of the European Union and Balkan desk at Reporters Without Borders. “These two are linked and that is a problem.”

Around 100 journalists, academics and activists gathered for the May 31 Reporting Democracy Conference, held to mark the launch of a new cross-border journalism platform covering the state of democracy in Visegrad Four countries and the Balkans.

BIRN and ERSTE teamed up to launch the Reporting Democracy platform in recognition of the fact that many of the issues undermining confidence in liberal democratic norms are cross-border in nature.

For that reason, the initiative provides grants for journalists across the region to do in-depth reporting on political, social and economic trends shaping the future of democracy.

Many of those trends came into focus during panel debates in Budapest designed to probe democracy’s pressure points as well as the state of media freedom and the power of civic protest to affect change.

The sessions were streamed live and catch-up recordings are available below. Click here for the full agenda of the conference.

War of attrition

Political analysts explored the factors eroding democracy in the Europe Union and beyond as the continent faces up to a more fragmented European Parliament with populists and far-right nationalists threatening to upset the balance of power long held by centrist parties.

They agreed that democracy could not be taken for granted, especially in vulnerable regions such as the Balkans. At the same time, they called for a more positive vision of inclusive, liberal democracy to counteract nationalism, euroscepticism and populism.

“I think what we need is a bit more enthusiastic pro-EU commitment and confidence, because after years of Brexit, of migration crisis, of terrorist attacks, this big shift and change of party systems in Europe has not happened,” Peter Kreko, director of Political Capital Institute, told BIRN in an interview after the panel.

Lydia Gall, a researcher for Eastern Europe and Western Balkans with Human Rights Watch, also struck an upbeat note.

“I think there are many reasons to feel negative about the future of democracy, but there are more reasons to feel optimistic about it,” she told BIRN.

“After all, we have a huge mass of people actually caring enough about democracy to take to the streets when they feel their rights are being violated, and I think that bodes well for the future of changing some of these authoritarian institutions in some of the countries here in Europe.”

Watch the debate:

Shooting the messenger

In a second panel, journalists and media experts pondered threats to media freedom across Central and Southeast Europe and discussed strategies for helping news outlets survive and even thrive.

“Journalists need to do far more, not just in solidarity, but in forming strong ties and doing more in joint work and coalitions, because at the end of the day we are going to be talking about sustainability,” Ana Petruseva, BIRN director for North Macedonia, told the conference.

“But journalists have not been fast and successful enough in forging these coalitions and overcoming small differences, and in developing ways how to promote and sell or spread their stories and investigations.”

Watch the discussion:

Here come the people

In the final debate, activists from across the region shared tips and compared notes on the power of civic protest in resisting rising authoritarianism.

“Dealing with an oppressive regime is the easy bit,” said Steve Crawshaw, author of Small Acts of Resistance: How Courage, Tenacity, and a Bit of Ingenuity Can Change the World. “What is much, much harder is when a government gets elected and they do not care what anyone says.”

Watch the full discussion:

For more information on Reporting Democracy, see about the project.