Sun. May 29th, 2022

Prague, 10 May 2022

“Check against delivery”

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to participate in this year’s event, although I am sorry I cannot be with you in person.

History has yet again accelerated. After Covid we are faced with unprovoked aggression of Putin’s Russia on Ukraine. In times like this, I think the world really needs leaders like Havel. A big picture of Havel hangs in my office. And I consult him very often.

I appreciate that this year you suggest discussing truth and democracy.

Let me start from bringing one thought of Vaclav Havel from his first presidential address in 1990. He recalls there how on the plane to Bratislava he had time to look out of the window. And he said: “The view was enough for me to understand that for decades our statesmen and political leaders did not look or did not want to look out of the windows of their planes. “

This is, to me, a powerful reminder about the virtue of democratic politicians. It is our duty and obligation to look around, talk to people and understand their situation, their concerns and their problems. And most of all, to be honest. Not to paint the grass green, like authoritarian leaders like to do, but to tell the people the truth.

So, what do I see today, when I talk to people in the Czech Republic and other European countries?

First of all, I hear stories of a terrible war. I hear the story of Matev – an 8 year old shot by Russians, together with his mother Margerita, as they tried to escape the hell of Bucha.

I also hear about the troubles here at home. A family is trying to cope with an energy bill that doubled since last year. An older lady double-counting her change to make sure she can afford her usual groceries, as food prices are increasing.

All these are individual truths of the people facing challenges of every day.

And democracy, if we want people to have faith in it and support it, must find answers to these challenges.

I have expressed many times my conviction that the key ingredient of a democratic society is trust. Trust in one another; trust in the democratic institutions; trust that the state authorities are not there to oppress us, but to serve us.

This trust is eroded today. For many reasons. Both external and internal.

If we want to fix this, we must start by being honest about it and also accept responsibility for this state of affairs.

But I also see reasons for hope. Let me mention two of them:

First of all, Europe has a new impetus and is acting both on the European and national level. Unity for biting sanctions against Russia, cooperation on energy security, enabling compensations for gas prices and promoting tax reductions on basic products. Also national governments raising to the challenge, for instance Czech government providing military help to Ukraine and support to refugees.

And a strong international alliance with partners such as US but also G7 and beyond.

The second reason for hope is a less obvious one. We already have what Ukrainians are fighting for. We have free and fair elections. We have peaceful transition of power. We can criticise our politicians and not go to jail for this. We have anti-corruption bodies and courts we can turn to. We, the people, can decide who we put in charge and who we want to get rid of in the parliament.

This is the essence of democracy. Of course, not all those elements are perfect. And they will never be. Our annual rule of law report shows the positives and areas for improvements in every country.

Democracy is a journey. It will go – I have no doubts about it through stormy waters. The big question is if we use the calm weather to get ready for the storm.

And, in fact, this is the essence of my work in Brussels. In 2020 I have proposed a European Democracy Action Plan. A first of its kind plan to strengthen all elements of our democracies. It is about electoral resilience, support to the media, countering disinformation and promoting active civil society.

I would like to discuss with you one aspect of this plan, namely countering disinformation due to its strong relation with truth. In the wake of Russia’s war in Ukraine we see what disinformation can be used for. Putin uses it first to prepare the ground for the invasion and now to justify it. We hear about ‘denazification’, about ‘special military operation’, about ‘security risk’ to Russia from Ukraine.

And what we see now while in the pandemic the disinformation served as a poison; now in war, it is used as a weapon against us.

But we also see that digitalisation, the social media, has been massively used to spread and amplify disinformation. It is increasingly difficult to see who is saying what and why. Yet, new technologies should be tools for emancipation, not for manipulation.

When I say this, some people argue, or rather shout: ‘Jourová – you want to censor the Internet!’

So, let me repeat: Freedom of speech is the most cherished value of democracy. I said many times: ‘I don’t want to see a Ministry of Truth’. To bring in Vaclav Havel again: “Follow the man who seeks the truth; run from the man who has found it”.

This is why our actions don’t focus on assessing the content. It’s about ending the Wild West and bringing rules to the online world. Rights need to be respected online as they are offline. Online platforms will have obligations and accountability. And we are opening up their black-boxes. We have a new law, the Digital Services Act, and we are overhauling the anti-Disinformation code.

For instance, we are stopping platforms and websites from making money from disinformation. They must design and deliver better ways to deal with manipulation, bots and fake accounts.

We are also enhancing the EU’s and Member States’ capacity to address foreign disinformation, developing new instruments that will allow for imposing costs on perpetrators.

We must not stay idle when Russia’s state-sponsored outlets, not media, spread war propaganda. This is why we have taken the unprecedented decision to sanction Sputnik and RT – two outlets that are the information arm of Putin’s regime.

This brings me to the role of the media in democracy and in seeking the truth.

Media are an essential pillar of democracy. Why? Because they are very good in discovering the lies, hence they help us to judge what is true and what is false.

They are our eyes under Russian bombs and threats. They show us what Russia does not want us to see.

Which is the underlying goal in all the actions I have just laid out to you: that citizens have the power to make informed decisions.

And we will not leave the media without support. We are now preparing the Media Freedom Act that will enshrine, for the first time in EU law, common safeguards to protect media pluralism and the editorial independence of the media.

 

Ladies and gentlemen,

Both truth and democracy can be very philosophical concepts. No one holds a monopoly for the truth. Noone holds a monopoly for true democracy.

But I am absolutely certain that democracy cannot exist without truth. And democracy is the best place for truth to flourish.

I am also certain that for democracy to be successful, we need common values, like freedom of speech, independent courts and a free press. Without values democracy will be like an empty shell that crumbles under the pressure from those who seek to weaken us.

Therefore I want to end this speech with an appeal to all of you. Democracy is not strong with the strength of its leaders alone. Democracy is strong with the strength of its people. We all have a role to play to uphold democratic principles and values, and I don’t mean here only attending elections.

It is also about the respect we have for political opponents or for those who disagree with us, both online and offline.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Democracy is not given once and for all. It is on us to protect, to nourish, to change and adapt it. I count on you that we can do it in truly democratic way.

Source – EU Commission