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Journalists in Vienna Defend Press Freedom

Vienna, Austria – UPF-Austria, together with the United Nations Correspondents Association Vienna (UNCAV), hosted a breakfast meeting with media representatives to mark World Press Freedom Day on May 4th 2024. The topic was “Traditional and Social Media in Times of Digitalization, Fake News and Artificial Intelligence.”

Mr. Peter Haider, president of UPF-Austria, welcomed the approximately 60 participants to the conference after a delicious breakfast buffet.

Dato Abdalla Sharief, president of the UN Correspondents Association Vienna, spoke about the history and significance of World Press Freedom Day, reminding everyone that journalists' voices must not be silenced and their rights must not be violated.

After a performance of “Eli, Eli” by pianist Ms. Lora Bocheva, Mr. John Herzog, member of the board of the Austrian Journalists' Club, recounted that when Press Freedom Day had been mentioned during an event the previous day at St. Marx cemetery, a singer-songwriter caught everyone’s attention with the statement that the press should rise from their graves.

Mr. Herzog illustrated the importance of press freedom with visual aids – a wooden box with an “imprisoned” newspaper inside, and a shattered pane of glass to illustrate that the loss of press freedom is not easily restored.

Mr. Hubert Huber, who trains young journalists, explained that in the past readers, including political leaders, were dependent on the flow of news from journalists. But today, he said, everyone is bombarded with information, and the profession of a journalist has changed from a “gatekeeper” to a “gate watcher,” or sorter of news. Social media defines topicality and makes exclusivity almost impossible.

Ms. Tanya Kayhan, president of Oxus TV, spoke about the effects of propaganda and fake news on social media, about her experience working in the Iranian diaspora community, and the challenge of sending news from her new homeland of Austria back to her country of origin.

Dr. Jakob Staubmann, founder of MENA Editors Network, spoke about the advantages and disadvantages of artificial intelligence (AI), of replicating human intelligence in machines that are programmed to think and learn like humans. As computers become more autonomous and intelligent, and AI takes over many tasks, people may grow lazy, he warned. Also, questions of ethics and responsibility remain. AI is already being used in journalism, in the creation, and detection, of fake news and fake images.

Dr. Leo Gabriel, television journalist and filmmaker, said that striving for objectivity in journalism can lead to dehumanization. He said that journalists are not mere observers, but participants who bring people to life by talking to those affected by a situation and giving them a voice. Journalists must not take sides, however, he said.

Mr. Sebastian Zhurkov, from the Austrian Youth Press, which supports young media professionals, said that press freedom is more than a pragmatic ideal; it is an essential foundation of a democratic, civilized society. Austria has been downgraded from 29th to 32nd place in the global index of press freedom, he pointed out, after having been in the top 10 for a long time. He stressed that young journalists must exercise independent and critical thinking, and be willing to address sensitive topics, even if this provokes resistance.

A few questions to the speakers and comments from the audience rounded off the event. A musical finale, coordinated by Mrs. Saschka Zhurkov of UNCAV, featured soprano Ms. Ruriko Nakano, accompanied by pianist Ms. Kaori Saeki, performing an aria composed by Franz Lehar and a Japanese folk song, as a final treat for the audience.

By Peter Haider, President, UPF-Austria May 4, 2024


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