Netherlands to focus on press freedom at the Summit for Democracy 2023
By Pearl Matibe
Some of the Presidents co-hosting the program include Rodrigo Chaves Robles (Costa Rica), Hakainde Hichilema (Zambia), Yoon Suk Yeol (South Korea), and Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
The Summit’s dates are 29-30 March and will coincide with U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris’ official visit to Southern Africa (Tanzania and Zambia).
But why does a high-level Summit matter to Africa, to its news editors, and to journalists?
Promoting press freedom and protecting journalists as they conduct their work has long been an acute and pressing concern for many reporters and media outlets across the continent of Africa.
This has been widely reported with a plethora of publicly available data from sources of substance such as Reporters Without Borders, as just one example.
Over the last few decades, the mass communications discipline, and the media environment in which indigenous African editors, journalists, and media houses operate in—both domestically, and in the African diaspora—has experienced a tremendous transformation from Tripoli to Johannesburg, Conakry to Khartoum, and from Windhoek to Maputo.
This is true, be it in news gathering, production, or in the dissemination of the news. In this fast-shifting environment, reporters have experienced a myriad of difficult circumstances.
For local journalists like Nhamo [alias], year after year, work is undertaken, under a never relenting atmosphere of fear. Fear of arrest. Fear of reprisal. Fear for their lives. Yet, these journalists are leaders, in their own right. They are resilient.
They are experts on their local societies. They make a meager living out of crafting words and language and sharing information with the public.
In Zimbabwe, and other countries in Africa, such as in Eswatini, Cameroon, Uganda, and others, journalists need to be engaged, recognized, upskilled, and resourced and their capabilities need to be strengthened.
In Kampala, women journalists like Culton Scovia Nakamya, whose arrest and intimidation by armed men in soldiers’ uniforms still haunts long after the attack, an improved working environment is long overdue.
She is by no means the only woman journalist, living with ceaseless apprehension, dread, fright, and terror, including in Internet spaces.
After Zimbabwe’s 2018 Harmonised Elections, an election observer group—IRI/NDI Zimbabwe International Election Observation Mission—published their “IRI/NDI Zimbabwe International Election Observation Mission Final Report.”
It had at least two key recommendations to improve Zimbabwe’s media environment. Issues related to impeding journalists’ “constitutionally protected freedoms” and improving or being able to, “Foster a diverse, independent media environment” were suggested. The Summit for Democracy 2023 is at least one step in the democracy-strengthening direction. White House’s National Security Council senior director for Democracy and Human Rights, Rob Berschinski said on Wednesday, “First, I want to reiterate the reasons why we’re doing this.”
He reiterated that, “As President Biden has said, we are currently at an inflection point when it comes to the future of democracy, both within the United States and around the world. The defining question of this age is whether democracies will continue to deliver for their people in a rapidly changing world.”
“The United States launched the Summit for Democracy process in early 2021 to put new and high-level focus on the need to strengthen democratic institutions, protect human rights, and accelerate the fight against corruption” everywhere, said Berschinski.
He went on to say, “…democratic government grounded in the rule of law and the will of the governed remains, for all its messiness and challenges, the best tool humanity has to unleash human potential, maintain international peace and security, grow prosperity, and uphold human dignity.”
Mr. Berschinski articulated the U.S. hopes, “to shine a spotlight on the need to strengthen democratic resilience and the protection of human rights as a fundamental imperative of our time.”
Additionally, on Friday, 17 March, and prior to Berschinski confirming the event’s programing information, a government press official within the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who is familiar with the planning arrangements, articulated the Dutch co-host country’s handling of the freedom of expression elements in the Summit’s agenda.
The Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, spokesperson, Herbert Brinkman, described the meeting’s focus on aspects the Netherlands is the event planner. On the Summit’s programing and participation of African media professionals, Brinkman said, “The Summit has 3 core pillars:
- (1) strengthening democracy and defending it against authoritarianism.
- (2) tackling and combating corruption; and
- (3) promoting respect for human rights.
These main themes have been formulated by the co-hosts of the Summit, based on various discussions with stakeholders–among other journalists from various parts of the world.
Together with the US, which took the initiative for the Summit, and co-hosts South Korea, Zambia, and Costa Rica, we are inviting the broadest possible range of countries, including African countries, to take part in the Summit.”
With regards to how the Summit will be delivered, what (as co-hosts), the Netherlands is responsible for, and what participants from Africa can look forward to, he explained that “During the first day of the Summit for Democracy, the political leaders of the four co-host countries will each chair a session on the challenges democracies face and the potential ways we can respond. Prime Minister Rutte will chair a session on the theme ‘Democracy– Delivering Justice for All’.”
He clarified that, “On 30 March, the Netherlands, as co-host for the broader European region, will also hold an event on media freedom. The Netherlands is working around the world to protect and promote fundamental principles such as democracy, the rule of law and human rights.
‘’Freedom of expression is a precondition for a well-functioning democracy, and the media play a key role in this regard. The media have the platforms and resources to develop ideas and stimulate the public debate, so that people can make up their own minds.
‘’The Summit is aimed at highlighting the importance of a well-functioning democracy and a free society that has access to reliable, independent information, where the press is free, and the safety of journalists is guaranteed. The Dutch contribution on 30 March will focus on these last points, in particular. All sessions are digital.”
It is expected that African journalism professionals will feel they are a part of the Summit. How the Dutch are saying they hope to achieve this is that Brinkman expressed, “The Dutch government will [work], with civil society on processes of democratic renewal and on designing and implementing specific commitments and results for the Summit.
‘’The relevant civil society organisations have been involved in this partnership in a meaningful way geared towards collaboration.”
Brinkman mentioned that “The Netherlands is working around the world to protect and promote fundamental principles such as democracy, the rule of law and human rights. Freedom of expression is a precondition for a well-functioning democracy, and the media play a key role in this regard. The media have the platforms and resources to develop ideas and stimulate public debate so that people can make up their own minds. The Netherlands is active globally and also in Africa to promote media freedom. The media freedom event is part of the wider global activities by the Netherlands to promote this.”
Brinkman disclosed progress that the Netherlands has made on its stated objectives since the Summit for Democracy 2021: Year of Action. “The Dutch government supports the independent position of journalists and media organisations worldwide in a variety of ways, with a particular focus on prevention, protection, and prosecution. At international level, the Netherlands strengthens freedom of expression in various ways:
- The Netherlands ensures freedom of expression is a top priority at various international organisations, including the United Nations (UN), the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OCSE) and the European Union (EU).
- The Netherlands works with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that promote freedom of expression. These include Free Press Unlimited and RNW Media.
- Through its Human Rights Fund, the Netherlands also supports various projects relating to freedom of expression. For an up-to-date overview of projects, see the Human Rights Report which is submitted to Parliament each year.
- The Dutch Human Rights Ambassador raises the issue with journalists and representatives of governments, civil society organisations and businesses.
- Each year the Netherlands marks World Press Freedom Day on 3 May and the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists on 2 November.
It is expected that “Dutch embassies all over the world will be drawing attention via social media and other channels to the Media Freedom event. In some locations the possibility exists that (virtual) events and viewing parties will be organized,” Brinkman said. He encouraged that local Dutch Embassies can be contacted for more information in this regard.
For meaningful discourse to improve the working environment of journalists and press freedom in Africa, and its diaspora, what is certain is that tangible outcomes matter to editors, journalists, and media house owners—they all matter.
Pearl Matibe is a Washington, DC-based foreign correspondent, and media commentator with expertise on U.S. foreign policy and international security. You may follow her on Twitter: @PearlMatibe
Netherlands to focus on press freedom at the Summit for Democracy 2023